Cambodia Travel Guide
🗝️ Key Facts
🏛️Capital: Phnom Penh
💶Currency: Riel (KHR) (USD accepted)
🕙Time Zone: +7 GMT
📞Phone Code: +855
✈️Best time to visit: December to February
🍴Eat: Bai chha fried rice
🍷Drink: Coconut Juice/ Cambodian Beer
🗺️Don't miss: Angkor Wat historical site
🗺 Menu of Contents:
Cambodia is one of the most authentic and unspoiled destinations in Southeast Asia, it attracts adventurous travellers with remarkable ancient temples, unique cultural experiences, and picturesque rural landscapes. Even the historical horrors of the Khmer Rouge draw tourists, with attractions like the notorious Killing Fields serving as horrific reminders of Cambodia's most turbulent and tragic chapter.
Nestled along the tropical waters of the Gulf of Thailand, sharing borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, Cambodia has a lot to offer. Travelling by tuk-tuk along the chaotic streets of French-flavoured Phnom Penh is a must. Cambodia also promises idyllic beaches, usually less crowded than those of its neighbouring countries. However, by far the most popular attraction in the country is the ancient temple complex of Angkor, a magnificent 'Lost City' which is undoubtedly one of the most magical tourist attractions in the world and a bucket-list destination for many.
Although Cambodia is still most popular with backpackers and budget travellers, luxury accommodation and amenities are on the rise, catering to the increasingly diverse crowds wanting to explore this beautiful country!
The country has no direct routes from overseas, meaning that one transit is mandatory if you are coming from Europe or America. Popular airlines to fly into Cambodia with easy connections are Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air China amongst others. For low cost airlines, Air Asia and Bangkok Airways are popular options as many travelers come from Thailand or Malaysia visiting Cambodia.
Local airlines are Cambodia Airways and Cambodia Angkor Air with selected routes in Southeast Asia. It's also possible to get to Cambodia by bus from Ho Chi Minh City with frequent bus connections by many companies.
Once in Cambodia, local transportation is predominantly by bus. There are also train lines, but they are often slow, don't have a good infrastructure and with infrequent timetables. Travelling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus takes around 6 hours for around $15 each way.
For more information regarding the local transport in the cities, please refer to the individual travel guides below.
Cambodia is moderately easy to arrive to and visa on arrival is possible for most foreigners. But always check the official pages for your nationality, incase there are any exceptions. As a general rule, all visitors must have sufficient funds to cover their stay and onward travel tickets. A visa can be issued on arrival for 30 days. To apply you need to fill out the yellow tourist immigration card on arrival, present your passport with at least one empty page and have 6 months validity on it. Pay $30 (USD). (You can pay in other major currency but the change will be in USD with a bad exchange rate). E-visas can be obtained also before departure at Evisa.gov.kh if you don't want to wait, but it costs $36. Extensions of visas are usually possible.
Over all, Cambodia is a safe country to visit with low crime activity. However, it remains still one of the poorest countries in the Southeast Asia region. Also, Cambodia remains one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. When hiking or visiting rural areas, travel with a local guide and never stray off the main paths. It is not advisable to travel in rural areas at night.
Some caution should be taken in the capital, Phnom Penh, especially at night, as street crime can be a problem, and popular tourist night spots may be targeted. After dark there is also a risk of crime in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
Visitors should be aware that bag snatching is becoming an increasing problem on tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis, and while walking in the main towns. Due to the large numbers of tourists involved in road accidents on motorcycles, police in Siem Reap and other tourist centres may stop tourists from riding the bikes and impose fines, though there is not a prohibition from renting.
Travellers are also advised to avoid the Cambodian-Thai border areas because of ongoing border disputes; the Preah Vihear temple area has become particularly dangerous.
Cambodia's climate is tropical with seasonal monsoons. There are two distinct seasons, the rainy and dry seasons. Temperatures during the rainy season, between May and October, 27°C to 35°C. The dry season can be divided into cool months, from November till February, with temperatures averaging 22°C to 32°C; and hot months, from March till May, with temperatures averaging 30°C to 39°C. The cooler, dry months of November to February are a pleasant time to visit Cambodia.
Food in Cambodia has some similarities as neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam, with a noticeable quantity of fish consumed, as you might expect from a nation at the delta of the mighty Mekong River. Cambodian pepper and cardamoms join more familiar Southeast Asian ingredients such as curry pastes (kroeung in Khmer), lemongrass, chilli, kar lime leaves, Asian basil and galangal as flavourings for stir fries, stews and soups. Prahok, is a pungent seasoning made from fermented fish, and is another much-loved seasoning. The foundation of any Khmer meal is rice, either sticky rice, or the fragrant jasmine rice grown fields across the nation. Vietnamese influence manifests itself in the form of noodle soups such as kuy teav, while the French legacy is obvious from the popularity of coffee and the nom pang (baguette sandwiches with pork) served as snacks across the country.
Food specialities in Cambodia include: Balut, fertilised duck eggs, served as a snack; you’ll see them sold all over the country, but with a whole chick inside. It’s an acquired taste. Prahok, fermented fish paste, used as a seasoning for stir fries, but never for soups. Fried tarantula, a speciality of Skuon in North Cambodia, and a popular dining dare for travellers. Amok trey, fish in a thick coconut curry sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed. Babor, rice porridge with chicken broth often served with an omelette or dried small fry. Kuy teav, rice noodle soup with pork stock, thought to originate from China. It comes topped with all sorts of vegetables, garnishes and meat cuts, is a popular breakfast. Bai chha, Khmer fried rice with sausage, pork, garlic and herbs. Kralan, sticky rice flavoured with sugar, beans and grated coconut, steamed inside a bamboo pole. Lok Lak, stir-fried beef in a lime, salt and pepper sauce, often served with fried potatoes and an egg. Mee katang, cantonese-style wide rice noodles cooked with meat and vegetables in oyster sauce. Nom banh chok, curry-style noodles often served with shredded sh, turmeric root, lemongrass, citrus, mint, and chilli. Pleah sach ko, beef ceviche with peanuts and garlic, in a lime and palm sugar dressing.
As for drinks: Fresh coconut juice, a refreshing and popular beverage served in the actual coconut.. Green tea, China’s influence again. Rice wine, often served infused with spices as sombai. Cambodian Beer, Angkor and Anchor are the lagers to look out for. Golden muscle wine, made from herbs and deer antlers!
Cambodia might surprise many travellers, as it did to me. I was very impressed by the development which the cities offer, accommodating for a large number of tourists. There are all kind of services oriented to the tourist and transport is easy to understand plus being cheap to take taxis or tuk-tuk’s one can explore comfortably the cities.
On the other hand, I was rather disappointed that they accept the USD dollar, even more than their own currency, the Riel. This makes for expensive entrance fees to popular tourist attractions and meals tend to be also higher priced because of the dollar, with all the restaurants in the city centre priced in this currency.
Despite it being a country in development and still one of the poorest in the region, the city centres feel safe and locals welcome visitors. Having to walk on the roads is normal here, where pedestrians have little priority. Traffic in the big cities tend to be a problem and public busses, although cheap and climatised, are slow and not as popular as getting private taxis or tuk-tuks. Also note, that rubbish accumulates on the streets until its cleaned away, giving away a strong odour.
My visit to Phnom Penh in all was very interesting and a learning trip, on how the Cambodian people suffered from the past and now have recovered and are developing the cities, which once were deserted back in the mid 1970’s. The capital offers many cultural and historical sights, which are a must visit, as well as, many markets to buy cheap souvenirs and taste the local food, which is a blend between the Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai cuisine.
There are no trips out of Phnom Penh, apart from taking a boat tour to the Silk Island (which I plan to do on my next trip to Phnom Penh), and an evening cruise to see the city at night.
However the highlight for any visit to Cambodia, is the Angkor Wat, historical site, which is closer to Siem Reap. This will be part of my next visit to the country, which I hope will be in the next coming years. There is still lots more to discover!
Phnom Penh Tourism Information Guide
According to legend, an old woman named Penh founded the city of Phnom Penh when she discovered four Buddha images on the Mekong River's banks. She placed the items on a nearby hill and a town grew up around them. The settlement became known as the Hill of Penh (Phnom Penh).
Later, came the French with their colonial style buildings and gave shape to a very different city. Phnom Penh had a claim to being the loveliest of Indochina's French-built cities.
However, a few decades after Cambodia gained its independence, (1953), started a turbulent time in Phnom Penh, when The Khmer Rouge took over and attempted to restore Cambodia to its ancient traditions and history. The Khmer Rouge was a a brutal regime that ruled Cambodia, under the leadership of Marxist dictator Pol Pot, from 1975 to 1979. Pol Pot’s attempted to eradicate all the intelectual race of the country which led ultimately to the deaths of more than 2 million people in the Southeast Asian country. Historically, this period, has come to be known as the Cambodian Genocide. You can learn about the troubled history in the killing fields and the Prison S-21 which remain a very popular tourist sight to visit and included in many of the tours.
Today, the city sprawls at the junction of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers. Its colonial charm contrasts with its heavy traffic and modern concrete buildings. Phnom Penh offers visitors the old French villas, street-side cafes, tree-lined boulevards and majestic Khmer buildings in Cambodia's capital.
Phnom Penh's wats (temple-monasteries) and museums also make for interesting visits. There are plenty to choose from and the possibility of making your own tours via tuk-tuk is unlimited! One of the magical things to do for many visitors is to join one of the sunset cruises on the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers or shopping at a bustling markets around the city.
In addition, the city's nightlife has a solid reputation for unlimited bars and night entertainment, as does its food and café culture. It can be both a city for relaxing or doing active tourism around its many sights of interest!
Phnom Penh's climate is very tropical, with hot weather all year round and seasonal monsoons. There are two distinct seasons: rainy and dry. Temperatures during the rainy season (June to October), range from 26°C and 35°C. The dry season (November to February) is characterised by slightly cooler months, with temperatures ranging between 22°C and 32°C.
The hottest months are March to May, which see temperatures reach easily beyond 35°C.
Winter (the dry season) is the best time to visit Phnom Penh, when the weather is cooler and activities will not be disrupted by rain showers. Roads are also better in the dry season, as they're not muddy.
When arriving to Phnom Penh main international airport, you have several options. Taking the public bus is the cheapest way, and takes you pretty much to the centre of the city close at the night market, where most hotels and nightlife is located. Bus number 3, departs regularly every 15 min from just outside the airport. To get to the stop, you need to border the parking and exit where the cars leave. The bus stop has a shelter where you can wait. The fare is only 1.500 Riel ($0.40) which is great value for money! (pay with exact change). Another option, is taking the train from the airport to the city's main railway. The train is opposite the arrivals exit, so you need to walk a few meters and wait inside a climatised room for the train. The ticket is $2.50 one way, and they depart every 30 min. However, when you arrive to the main railway, you might have to take a taxi/tuk/tuk to reach your final destination, as the railway station is 15 min walk from the centre.
Taking a tuk-tuk from the airport is common way of travelling here, even if you have luggage. The tuk-tuks wait outside for customers and cost $6 hired in person. Normal taxis will cost around $10-12 depending on your destination.
✔️Tip: Download the apps "GRAB" and "PASS APP TAXI" which give better online fares when travelling in Phnom Phen. Taking a tuk-tuk outside the airport perimeter will only cost then $3 booked via the apps.
Once in the city, Phnom Penh hasn't got a big public transport infrastructure. Only busses are the only way to moving around for the locals at a cost effective way. The are about 13 lines in operation which only cost 1.500 riel per ride. They are air-conditioned and operate frequently. Below you will find the map for the busses in Phnom Penh.
However, if you are staying in the city centre, close to the night market or the Royal Palace, you don't need much transport. The city is relatively small and is easy to negotiate on foot. Walking in the midday heat can be uncomfortable, though.
Unmetered taxis can usually be arranged through hotels. Bicycle rickshaws (cylos) are widely used, but are best for short distances. Tuk-tuks (motorbikes with small cabins attached to the rear) are the best option for tourists. That is, English-speaking Tuk-tuk drivers can double as city guides as well. Passengers should negotiate fares beforehand. (if you book the tuk-tuk via the apps they will be cheaper than hiring one directly on the street).
Renting a car is not advised, given that roads and traffic are bad. Bikes are a common way to travel as well and many foreigners rent them. However, its compulsory to wear a helmet. Many locals don't do it, you will notice. The Police is not obvious to see but there are random checks and patrols work day and night.
Phnom Penh is very much a short stay city, with plenty to experience in a short time, but little to keep visitors for longer, unless you like to unwind and relax in the many massage places around the city and walks along the river. The Royal Palace and National Museum are worth a morning to get a sense of the country's rich heritage. As a counterpoint, a trip to the Tuol Sleng Museum and Killing Fields will reveal the terrible atrocities Pol Pot's reign of terror wreaked on the Khmer people.
In a lighter site, visitors can shop in the lively Central and Russian Markets, enjoy a fun nightlife, or simply watch the sunset over the river, while taking a sunset cruise. Phnom Penh lends itself to leisurely hours on the riverbanks, soaking up the cafe culture and watching the world go by. If you want to go a little further, you can take a tour to the Silk Island and learn about the history and see the making of the silk, together with one of the more remote areas, away from the busy tourist areas, where local life is best appreciated.
Below you fill find more details about the highlights when visiting Phnom Phen:
- The National Museum: It can be of the first stops on your visit. It's a striking and famous example of the Khmer architectural tradition and houses the country's most important collection of ancient Cambodian cultural material and Khmer art. It is made up of four galleries containing relics, sculpture, art, and tools covering history from the prehistoric, the pre-Angkorian, the Angkorian, and the post-Angkorian periods of Cambodian culture.
The museum was built in 1917 but has expanded over the years to include a beautiful central garden with fountains and greenery, a serene place to rest and relax after touring the exhibitions. be advised that photography is not allowed inside the building. The cost is $10.
- The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda: is one of the main attractions of Phnom Penh and contains the best examples of 20th-century Khmer architecture in the city. The palace has remained the official residence of the kings of Cambodia since 1860. Set among the perfectly maintained gardens you can find the exquisite Throne Hall, the Elephant Pavilion where the king's elephants were kept, the Royal Treasury, and the Chan Chhaya Pavilion which was made especially for performances of classical Cambodian dance.
Although much of the palace complex is off-limits to the public, the Silver Pagoda is open to visitors. This remarkable building is the highlight of the compound and takes its name from the floor of the temple, which is completely covered in silver tiles. The internal walls are decorated with frescoes depicting episodes of the Ramayana myth, painted in 1903 by 40 Khmer artists. Remember to dress conservatively and respectfully when visiting the Royal Palace; bare shoulders or legs are should be covered.
The entrance costs $10.
- Tuol Sleng Museum (Prison S21): When the Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975, they commandeered and converted a secondary school into a primitive prison where they detained and tortured anyone suspected of anti-revolutionary behaviour. Between 1975 and 1979, an estimated 20,000 victims were imprisoned in Security Prison 21, or S21, as it was known. The building appears almost exactly as the fleeing Khmer Rouge left it, and serves as a testimony to the crimes and atrocities of the organisation.
It is a tremendously moving experience. The photographs, instruments of torture, and bloodstained walls give a thorough idea of the extent of the pain and horror suffered by the Cambodian people. Thousands of victims were transported from here to the extermination camp outside the city, Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields), to be killed. There are some first person accounts on display at the museum, despite the fact that of the estimated 20,000 prisoners incarcerated in S21 there are only 12 known survivors. The museum costs $3 plus an optional $5 for an audio description, which can leave your with a more vivid history and description of the atrocities which happened here.
(not recommended for the sensitive).
- Choeung Ek (The Killing Fields): The Cambodian genocide during the late 1970s ranks as one of the great horrors of modern history. Under Pol Pot's rule an estimated 2 million people (21 percent of the Cambodian population) were either ruthlessly slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge, or died of starvation in the communal fields. Choeung Ek was the extermination camp where the prisoners from S21 (now the Tuol Sleng Museum) were executed. Better known as the Killing Fields, after the movie of the same name, the area is that of a football field in size. It contains the mass graves of about 20,000 people, many of whom were tortured before being executed.A tall Memorial Stupa has been constructed to commemorate the dead with more than 8,000 human skulls are displayed behind the glass. At the entrance, a handwritten sign in Khmer and English summarises the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. As a reminder of the reality of this great tragedy, human bones are still frequently unearthed by heavy rains in the area, and many of the tour guides have personal stories to tell about their experiences during Pol Pot's reign. A visit to the Killing Fields is sad and harrowing (not suitable for young children), but it remains one of the most popular tourist attractions in Cambodia. The admission costs $5 plus an optional $5 for an audio description, which can leave your with a more vivid history and description of the atrocities which happened here. (not recommended for the sensitive).
- Central Market: After coming to terms with the terrifying history, now it's time to feel more positive and look at the brighter side of Phnom Penh. Visiting its central market, is both curious and interesting. The building it is housed in looks like a Star Wars post with its quirky architecture, being part of the appeal for tourists. This famous Art Deco building consists of a huge central dome with four wings opening out into large halls. When the market was first opened, in 1937, it was said to be the biggest market in Asia. It has recently undergone years of serious renovation with the newly improved Central Market reopening in 2011.
Merchandise comprises almost everything imaginable including souvenirs, clothes, fresh produce, books, flowers, postcards, antiques, and a lot of jewellery.
- Russian Market: Or by its official name, (Psar Toul Tom Poung) is located south of the city, in the Mao Tse Tuong Boulevard, and offers tourists a great range of bargains. The market is home to an impressive array of silk scarves, silk hammock, and motorbike parts. Apart from these treasures, it is easy to find souvenirs, jewellery, and almost anything else that may take your fancy. Like all sizeable markets in Cambodia it can get very crowded and a little overwhelming so it's best to go early or later in the evening. The market is undercover so it is ideal to miss the midday heat. The market got its name from the plentiful Russian tourists who shopped there when visiting Cambodia just after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and it remains the city's most popular market for tourists.To get you can take bus 1 and walk about 10 min or tuk tuk for $2-3.
- Wat Phnom: Set on top of a 27m-high tree-covered hill, this temple is on the only ‘hill’ in town. According to legend, the first pagoda on this site was erected in 1372 to house four statues of Buddha deposited here by the waters of the Mekong River and discovered by Lady Penh. Hence the city name Phnom Penh or 'hill of Penh'.
The main entrance to Wat Phnom is via the grand eastern staircase, which is guarded by lions and naga (mythical serpent) balustrades. Today, many people come here to pray for good luck and success in school exams or business affairs. When a wish is granted, the faithful should return to deliver on the offering promised, such as jasmine flowers or a bunch of bananas (of which the spirits are said to be especially fond).
Be aware that Wat Phnom can be a bit of a circus, with beggars, stands selling drinks and children selling birds in cages. (You pay to set the bird free, but the birds are trained to return to their cage afterwards). Also note that or tourists you need to pay a $1 admission fee.
Phnom Penh riverfront walk and evening cruise: Probably the most attractive, beautiful and pleasant activities to do in the city is taking a stroll along the riverfront overlooking the waters of the Tonle Sap, Bassac and Mekong rivers. The walk starts from the Night Market and ends at the Kampong Chamlong ferry, which is a 2.3 Km long pathed walk.
For a different outlook, you can spend the late afternoon admiring Phnom Penh’s fast changing skyline from the deck of a sunset boat trip. There are many options for doing this and while standards (and prices) vary, the experience is largely the same. You can take many boats departing from 17h to 19.30h, they all depart from along the riverside walk near to the Night Market or opposite to the Royal Palace. The most common boat to take departs from the Night Market costing $5, which includes a cold drink (water or soda), but you need to ask for it as you board,otherwise chances are you won't get it.
The highlight of the sunset cruise is watching the sun set behind the city. While even just a decade ago Phnom Penh’s skyline was dominated by the spires of temples, today those are being drowned out by the skyscrapers that are soaring across the city. The cruise itself is actually rather slow and doesn't go very far, so the views are pretty much appreciated more within the first 20 minutes. If you have a clear day it will be better to see the sunset, as on cloudy days it might not be as interesting taking this tour.
Silk Island, known locally as Koh Dach, is an island in the Mekong River. North of the capital of Phnom Penh, it’s an easy day trip destination that offers insights into rural Cambodian life without having to travel too far from the busy city. Named because of its traditional silk-weaving communities, the island sees relatively few tourists. Those who do make the visit, will likely feel as though they’ve ventured far away from the commercial side of the city.
Tours to the island depart at 9.00am and 11am, from next to the Night Market. The trip takes 4 hours (2 hours at the island itself). Prices are generally $15 per person and includes the trip to the island plus a tuk-tuk guide to show you around.
The nightlife of Phnom Penh is concentrated along the riverside walk, where most restaurants, bars and sky roof terraces offer a great variety of entertainment options for visitors. Behind the riverside are many side streets which offer also nightlife entertainment, clubs and adult shows. This area can also be a bit seedy for some, but it attracts a big number of locals and foreigners.
Additionally, there are lots of late-night spots clustered around the intersection of Sts 51 and 172, appropriately nicknamed 'Area 51'. ‘Golden St’ (St 278) is also popular. St 308 and Bassac Lane have emerged as the hipster area of town.
Happy hours are a big thing in Phnom Penh, so it pays to get started early. Wednesday is 'Ladies' Night' at some of the smarter bars around town, with two-for-one deals all night or even free drinks. Most bars are open until at least midnight, which is about the time that Phnom Penh's clubs swing into action.
For shopping the best opportunities to find bargains and negotiate the price can be found at the local markets, both the Russian Market and Central Markets have souvenirs, clothes, handcraft and many items which can be of interest. Also at the riverside, you will find the Phnom Penh Night Market, which offers a good variety in accessories, clothes, jewelry and handicraft, plus some food stands.
If however you are looking for a more comfortable shopping experience, the malls of Aeon Mall or the Sorya Mall offer air conditioning facilities, food courts and cafes where to relax.
There is a big variety, in regards to accommodation types in Phnom Penh. Depending on your budget you can find luxurious hotels, 4 to 5 stars which are on the rise in the city. Most of the hotels and hostels are located around the riverside walk which is close to the night market and the Royal Palace. Between these locations you will find budget hostels from only $10 a night to more comfortable hotels with private rooms and bathrooms from only $20-25 a night.
Booking in person can be made without problem, because of the number of tourists that come in a spontaneous manner. However, during the high season, (December to February) it might be worth to book in advance and guarantee your reservation.
Another thing to consider is the location, away from the areas mentioned, there are many other hotels. But you will need to consider taking transport, every day, in order to see the sights or travel to the more touristic areas of the city.
At a first glance, Phnom Penh is more a city of relation and leisure than tourism and culture. However, one can not hide the facts, there are some very interesting historical sights around the city, like the Killing Fields or the S-21 Prison, although they are not the fun sights, they do offer a very open vision on how the city has developed and recovered since those events. This can be part of a tour or you can do it alone by tuk-tuk, some other visits might take a few hours as well, like the palace or the national museum. Other sites like the markets and visiting one or two temples can also form part of the tourism activities.
In all, staying 4 nights would be enough to see everything mentioned and take it most of the city. Because of the high temperatures, don’t try to do too many things at once, a lot of relaxing and taking it easy is recommend.
Because there is a lot of nightlife in Phnom Penh, it’s also a good idea to come here to chill and relax, go out and live the nightlife.
For a more comfortable stay up to 6/7 nights is also enough.