Beginner’s A – Z Guide to Cambodia
I just finished a 12 day trip throughout Cambodia and while I know that this is really not enough time to explore a country properly, it did give me a nice, little overview. I experienced a bit of everything – food, temples, jungle, history, beach, city life – and can conclude that Cambodia is simply wonderful and definitely made its place on the must go back one day list. I put together some reasons why, some tips you won’t find in any travel guide, and some random facts that I thought interesting.
photo via Flickr
Whether to see Angkor Wat or not seems to be up for discussion for some travellers and I cannot understand that at all. Yes, it is a huge tourist attraction and regardless of the time of day usually quite crowded. However the temples are absolutely magical, architecturally grand, and overall just beautiful – definitely worth some shoulder rubbing!
In hindsight I wish I would have had three days to explore the whole area slowly, taking more time at each each temple and see a little bit each day, instead of rushing through in one. The question of whether to get up in the wee hours for a sunrise shot is hard to answer. I did, leaving Siem Reap at 5am which got me there with plenty of time to get in and find a spot. Unfortunately we had picked an overcast day and there was no proper sunrise. The iconic view of Angkor Wat’s reflection in the pond was much more enjoyable later in the morning when most masses had gone off for breakfast.
Cambodians love their pancakes and rightly so. You can either get them freshly made in front of your eyes from a street vendor, crepe like, filled with bananas, and rolled up as a late night snack or fluffy and thick for breakfast. Don’t be disappointed if you only get one, they are thick enough to feed a grown man especially when they are drenched in sweet milk.
My favorite and the best way to re-hydrate and here you get it served directly in the coconut, which I think is much more fun. I recommend drinking it in a restaurant because walking around with a full grown coconut gets tiring on the arms.
Do & Don’t
When in Sihanoukville do hire a boat to take you snorkeling and sunbathing on one of the surrounding small islands. Don’t get on a boat in the rainy season when it’s overcast or after a night out unless you have the stomach for it. The sea will be rough and so will be the ride.
Khmer food has its own set of tasty spices and flavours. Eat mild Khmer curry, Amok prepared with coconut milk, fried rice and noodles with marigold or try a b.b.q. barracuda by the coast. Snacks include fresh cut fruit, sticky coconut rice wrapped in banana leaf, and fruit shakes. And while I loved the local food, I also needed to eat a piece of home once in while and was grateful that most places offer some burgers, sandwiches, and pizza. Quality wise they obviously don’t match the local cuisine, but they will tide you over when you miss Mum’s cooking.
Fancy a little something out of the ordinary? Why not try some spider wine or a little piece of fried snake? Roadside snacks of roaches and spiders are available at any market and no, a spider leg is not hairy once it is fried and seasoned. If you can’t stomach it, try yourself at some new fruit like wintermelon, dragonfruit, and roasted lotus seeds.
Public busses are a great way to get around and the VIP versions come with assigned, reclining seats, subtitled Bollywood movies, and regular toilet stops. The roads can be quite bumpy and sometimes there is cow induced traffic jam, which most bus drivers try to dissolve by excessively hooting a very shrill horn.
Most Cambodians get around by motorbike, which are being piled up high with people or goods. Unless your insurance is okay with it, I’d recommend rather renting a bicycle to get around at a slower pace.
The Cambodian countryside is gearing up more and more for visitors. One way of experiencing real Khmer life is a homestay. I was in Cham bok, a picturesque village three hours away from Phnom Penh. The locals run an eco community centre close by in the jungle for locals and visitors and they have reforestation programme for the area. Tourists are becoming an important source of income for the centre and for families who offer the homestays.
If you are prepared to rough it up a bit and take a bucket shower, you will be rewarded with a real insight into their daily lives and a night to the sound of a 1001 crickets.
Wifi is available in most guest houses, restaurants, and even on the beach. It is usually free, albeit slow.
Take some proper shoes, find a local guide, and start walking. Trekking through the jungle was one of my highlights as due to the rain everything was incredibly green and lush. If you find a waterfall at the end of your trip even better! Take a plunge, if necessary with your clothes on – Cambodian style.
The horrible time of the Khmer Rouge who killed almost 2 million people from 1975 to 1979 and the following civil war still casts its shadows over the country today. Only recently cleared of landmines, the lack of doctors and teachers of an older generation is still evident, and many families have a sad history of relatives lost. Most people will appreciate an interest in this sad part of Cambodian history though. As our guide told us before we went to see the Killing Field and the Tuol Sleng Museum: you won’t like it, but you have to see it. Tell the world about it, so it can never happen again.
Khmer is the main language. In tourist places most people speak at least a little English or have some basics relating to their trade.
A few words to go by:
aw kohn – thank you
sua s’dei – hello
lia suhn hao-y – goodbye
If you get stuck try a smile.
At some point in their lives the majority of Cambodian men live as monks, especially when the family is poor as this is a way to obtain education.
Monks are usually happy to practise their English with foreigners, women must remember though to not ever touch a monk. Monks don’t wear underwear as I learned from various sources, who reckoned this information vital, and do drive motorbikes like everybody else.
Especially in Siem Reap the night market is an experience. Vendors are usually friendly and anything but aggressive which makes for a leisurely late night shopping stroll. From wooden buddhas to kroma scarves you can find any souvenir your tourist heart desires. Once you have walked enough find one of many roadside massages places where you can just sit down and watch the world go by while your feet are getting a makeover.
That seems to be the price for most things in Cambodia from a tuk tuk ride to a bag of fruit. US dollars are readily accepted, but the local currency is Riehl. Expect to get small change in Riehl and to often pay slightly more – one dollar! – when paying in dollars.
96% of Cambodia’s population are Khmers. The country has been through a lot with a recent history of genocide and civil war and is still one of the poorest countries in the world. However I found the people incredibly hospitable, hardworking, and friendly. Khmer are modest yet quite proud of their country and optimistic for the future. The kids were some of the most joyful I have met and even the grown-ups all radiate happiness and smiling is their way of life it seems.
Quintessentials to pack
I went in the rainy season and here is what I wish someone would have told me to pack:
- A rain jacket, because they are just much more sturdy than flimsy rain ponchos and when it rains here it pours.
- A dry bag for electronics and valuables.
- Some sort of sturdy shoe – I was happy to have my Birkenstocks and proper hiking boots in the jungle. Cambodian mud can be quite thick and slippery and you won’t get far in flipflops.
- Prepare for mosquitos: strong repellent, long sleeves, and something anti-itching for when you get bitten.
- Headlight or torch. Powercuts are frequent and rural areas usually rely on a generator which means lights off early.
I was told that the rain is usually heavy but comes in short intervals and only late in the afternoon and early evening. I have found that to be not true. It has rained mornings, afternoons, and nights. Sometimes in short outbursts and sometimes for hours. I have seen roads get flooded knee high and then dried completely within two hours. Just be mentally prepared to make a change of plan if necessary, to get your feet muddy, and to feel some beautiful warm rain on your face.
Traditional Khmer massage is Cambodia’s version of a Thai massage, but will sometimes include cupping and coining, techniques to heal illnesses and align the body internally. There are small spas all over most towns and walk-ins are always welcome.
When in Phnom Penh try a massage at the Seeing Hands. Here the massages are exclusively done by blind people who make a self-sufficient living with it.
My preferred mode of transport for short distances and what I call a carriage strapped onto a motorbike. Most rides are 1$ per person, which makes for an affordable and exciting way to get around. No need to hail one, they will hail you at any given corner with the words: tuk tuk? Most hotel business cards will show a little map you can give to the driver, however they know their way around to main attractions.
Utopia is a bar in Sihanoukville, which albeit being full of tourists, we spend a memorable night with lots of Angkor beer and fire dancers. Sometimes you just need a night out and end up in a pool in your underwear.
You will need a visa for Cambodia which can be easily obtained online, a quick and painless process I found. Go here for details.
I am one of these girls who gets stage fright upon looking at a squad toilet. In Asia that can be a problem. If you are anything like me you will be happy to know that most places these days do have Western style toilets for the girls as well. Take your own toilet paper as even the western toilets only offer a water hose.
Cambodia ticks all the boxes on my holiday wish list: amazing food, interesting history, stunning nature, and such friendly people. But then it also has a certain something, which cannot be described, it can only be experienced and that gives it the special touch.
As we Travelettes all love yoga, I was constantly on the lookout for places. Alas, I didn’t find any. However I had brought my own sticky towel, the Bikram sequence was on my iPad, and the temperatures – hot and humid – couldn’t have been any better for a little session in my room with the balcony door wide open.
TonléSap lake and the Mekong are home to over 700 bird species, cat fish, and crocodiles. Go to a national park for elephants, to spot the clouded leopard, and keep your eyes open for beautiful butterflies. Find your typical assortment of street dogs and cats and monkeys everywhere as well as buffalos and the most stubborn white cows, which preferably sit in the middle of the road.