Planning your first trip to Cambodia? Well, my friend, you are in for a real treat. Cambodia is an absolutely beautiful country, home to stunning scenery, beautiful beaches, incredible history and some of the most lovely locals you could hope to meet anywhere. If this is your first time, there are a few essential pieces of information you need to know. Luckily, I’ve pulled them together for you into one super-convenient blog post. Woohoo! So, here are 28 things you absolutely, most definitely, really need to know before you visit Cambodia.
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1. Don’t buy from local children or give them money or food
With their beautiful little faces, it can be very hard to resist buying trinkets from local children. You’ll find them begging in the streets or selling goods outside temples. Please, don’t give them money or food and don’t buy from them. It may sound harsh, but hear me out. When they get food or money from you, it devalues an education. Rather than going to school, they and their parents may see it as more viable for them to continue working over tourists. The Cambodian Government agrees and openly and actively encourages tourists who want to do good to donate to local schools and charity organisations instead.
2. You’ll need a mix of currencies
It’s time to get Riel. No, that’s not a type-o, Riel is the official currency of Cambodia. That said, the currency you’ll want to take with you is US Dollars. For anything that costs more than $1, you’ll be paying in US Dollars. For any change less than $1, you’ll be given Riel. When you withdraw money from a local ATM in Cambodia, it’ll come out in US Dollars or, in some cases, give you the option to choose US or Riel. Always choose US Dollars, it’s widely accepted and easier to understand when you’re converting things. Also, you’ll have FAR fewer notes in your wallet, much easier all around.
3. They’re funny about the bills though…
If you get a note with a rip or tear in it, they won’t accept it. Like, flat-out, hardcore no. It’s actually kinda shocking when it first happens to you. They also don’t like ‘old’ bills. I bought a book at the airport and the guy refused to take my USD$5 bill because it was ‘an old bill’. Mostly though, if you dig in and are calm but confident and state you have no other bills to offer, they will take it. Save yourself the hassle though, make sure all your bills are pristine.
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4. A little Khmer goes a long way
Khmer is the name of the Cambodian language. It goes a long way to learn a few basic phrases, so please do! Here are a few that are super easy to learn and you can use them every day:
- Hello – Sou sdey (Remember it: sounds like ‘Sewer Snake’)
- Thank you – Ah Kun (Remember it: sounds like ‘All Good’)
- Sorry – Sohm tou (Remember it: sounds like ‘Soz dude’)
5. Don’t ride the elephants
You will see elephant rides being offered, with huge swarms of tourists gathered around waiting their turn. Don’t do it, no matter how much you want to, don’t do it. Those animals suffer unbelievably and contributing to the demand is unacceptable. Young elephants are torn away from their mothers, kept in confinement and tortured to break their spirit and make them appropriate to be ridden. It is disgusting. The way elephants are ‘broken in’ for tourists to ride is truly horrific. I cannot convey this strongly enough, please, do not ride them. Education is the key here, so learn about why it’s not okay and then share it with others so they can learn the truth about this horrible industry for themselves. Want to see what really goes on? Watch this.
6. Tuk-Tuk is the way to get around
The easiest and most enjoyable way to get yourself around town is in the back of a Tuk-Tuk! As soon as you step on the street you’ll have local guys yelling out to you, offering you a lift. I found it to be safe, fun and easy to get around this way. Be sure to negotiate the price before you get in though. It should cost around USD$1 per person for a trip that takes around 5 minutes. The price goes up from there. I found Tuk Tuks more expensive in Phnom Penh than they are in Siem Reap. Don’t be afraid to barter with the guy.
? Pro tip: Always carry the business card for your hotel on you so you can show your Tuk-Tuk driver the exact address.
7. You can’t drink the tap water
Unless, of course, you want to have a very very upset stomach, be able to poop through the eye of a needle and potentially die. But, it’s your call. Instead, buy big bottles of water from the supermarket or mini-mart and carry them around with you. I suggest the big bottles because it’s a better choice environmentally to purchase fewer bottles (i.e. buying a small bottle every hour is bad).
8. Beware of the food scam
Everyone’s got a hustle and you’ll find them alive and well on the streets of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. One popular scam involves a hot meal. I had a beautiful young-ish girl approach me in Siem Reap, a small, suspiciously sleepy baby in her arms. She told me she didn’t want money, that she was starving and needed a meal, she then pointed to a restaurant. Seems reasonable, right? Home-girl just needs a feed. NO, you fool! Wake up to yourself! It’s a trap! If you say yes, you’ll go to that restaurant and be hit with a massive bill at the end and, being in a foreign country, have no choice but to pay it out of fear. The restaurant and the girl split the profits.
9. Beware of the baby milk scam
Yeah, there’s another popular scam! You’ll be approached by a woman with a baby, she’ll tell you she doesn’t need money, just formula for her suspiciously docile baby. You’ll be taken to a suspiciously close mini-mart, pay USD$20-$30 for a tin of formula then leave feeling like you should be part of the UN, you’re such a humanitarian! What really happens is the girl returns the tin and the profits are split between the store owner and the girl. The very real danger with both these scams is they are both allegedly overseen by organised crime in Cambodia. Please, please, please be aware of scams. They do happen and you need to be prepared to say no and walk away calmly.
10. You’ll need a visa
To enter Cambodia, you’ll need a Visa. You can do that before you go or sort it out when you arrive, which costs USD$30 per person for a tourist visa and takes around 5-10 minutes to get sorted (if the queue is empty). If you do plan to get your Visa on arrival, make sure you have a spare passport photo with you, they’ll need it to issue your Visa. If all that sounds too hard, online services like Byevisa are a handy way to get things sorted without the headache. Some countries in ASEAN do not need a visa.
11. Prepare for some questionable toilets
Before your departure date, do some extra squats to build up the strength required to hover ya big white butt above a toilet seat. We visited some very questionable toilets in Cambodia, mostly so because they are public toilets used by thousands of tourists each day. Seriously, they’re gross. Closed-in shoes will go a long way.
12. You need to be mindful around Monks
In Cambodian culture, Monks are revered and respected. It’s essential you treat them with the same level of respect. Women, in particular, need to be mindful around Monks. Please do not touch them or sit too close to them. Also, you should always ask before taking a photo of a Monk.
13. English is widely spoken
If you don’t speak Khmer, don’t worry! English is widely spoken in Cambodia and, honestly, some of the locals speak English far better than I do. You’ll have no trouble getting around town, ordering food or communicating with local vendors.
14. Bag snatching in Phnom Penh is a very real thing
This is a very real danger, so pay close attention! Do not get around town with all your valuables in your backpack, hanging off ya shoulder like ya back in high school. Any valuables you cannot afford to lose, like a passport, need to be kept in the safe at your hotel. When you go out, put your backpack on and do up any straps you can around your middle. Make sure your zips are secure. In crowded places, put your backpack on the front of your body. There are a lot of instances where, even in the back of a Tuk-Tuk, a local thug runs up and rips your bag off you, jumps on the back of a scooter and is off before you can react.
I’m not trying to scare you, but if you take the right precautions, you minimise this risk significantly. Similarly, don’t stand on the side of the street with ya phone and wallet in your hand. Put these things out of sight. This threat is real enough that locals and Tuk-Tuk drivers all warned me several times, making me strap my day pack to myself and rolling down the shades in the Tuk-Tuk so I was less visible to would-be thieves. Be alert, not alarmed okay!
15. You may need sunglasses and a face mask
But only if you plan on attending a Michael Jackson costume party. Just Joking. But in all seriousness, you may need both items. When you’re whizzing through Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in the back of a Tuk Tuk, in the city areas, there’s a LOT of pollution, dust and grit. It tends to go in your eyes, nose and mouth. Embarrassing as it is, if you have allergies or asthma, you may need to use a face mask. The sunglasses will keep the grit out of your eyes.
16. It’s cheap and easy to get a SIM card
When you arrive at the airport, you’ll find a few vendors outside selling SIM cards. It should cost around USD$3 for 2GB of data, to be used over 7 days. It’s easy to get one, so you may as well. It means you can look up good restaurants while you’re out and about and use Google Maps if you get lost. Just remember, as above, don’t go waving your phone around on the streets of Phnom Penh.
17. You’ll need a few ‘temple’ outfits
When visiting Angkor Wat and the Grand Palace, for example, you’ll need to cover up. This means shoulders and knees are covered, no deep-plunging necklines, and no midriff tops. Cover it up, you guys, keep it respectful. It’s important to note, scarves won’t cut it. So your best bet is to pack two temple-appropriate outfits. Pants or a skirt that goes below the knees and a couple of t-shirts.
18. The internet ain’t great
Before anyone gets their knickers in a knot and reminds me holidays are for holiday-ing, not wifi-ing, it’s important to remember I work online and when I travel I’m always working, so I am somewhat of an internet connoisseur. I found the wifi in Cambodia to be pretty poor and not the best for working. So, if you’re in the same boat as me, just prepare for that in advance. I had to take a week off from posting on the blog because I just couldn’t get good enough wifi for all my wheelings and dealings.
19. You may need an umbrella
Rain aside, the sun has got some serious bite to it. I’d recommend popping a small umbrella in your daypack, it’ll shade you from the scorching heat at places like Angkor Wat but also save you from those mid-afternoon storms in the rainy season.
20. If you visit Siem Reap, you’ll need a temple pass
You can’t just roll up to Angkor Wat and stroll on in, same with other temples around the place. You’ll need to get a temple pass sorted out, also known as an Angkor Pass. You can buy it from a processing centre, located on the road to Angkor Wat. They’re sold in one-day ($20), three-day ($40) and seven-day ($60) blocks that must be used on consecutive days. They’ll take your photo at the place then issue you with your pass. Keep it on you at ALL times and be careful with it because you’ll need to re-purchase if you lose it… booooo!
? Want some help seeing the best bits? Book a Sunrise Small-Group Tour of Angkor Wat from Siem Reap here.
21. The high season is from November to March
It sure is! This is when Cambodia’s weather is on fleek. It’s cooler than the rest of the year, slightly, but offers lots of gorgeous sunny days for you to explore, swim and sweat like a good tourist should. Given it’s the high season, you’ll want to make sure you pre-plan your accommodation so you don’t find yourself without a place to crash.
22. It gets very, very hot and humid
Like, really, really humid. There were some days when I felt like my face would melt off, join the puddle inside my t-shirt and form a waterfall. I come from a hot climate, but it’s the thick, dank humidity that’ll get you in Cambodia. So, make sure you get up and get exploring early to avoid the hottest part of the day. Drink lots of water, wear sunscreen, avoid the midday sun and wear very light breathable clothing.
23. It’s very safe in Siem Reap
I found Siem Reap to be a super nice, safe place. I’d say because it’s much smaller than Phnom Penh and there seemed to be more tourists, so it has a bit of a ‘tourist town’ thing going on. The locals depend on tourism to make money, so they look out for them a bit more I guess. Either way, it was very safe for us to get around on foot, even at night. Just be aware of scammers, but bag snatchers and pick-pockets didn’t appear to be an issue in Siem Reap.
24. Take tissues and hand sanitiser with you everywhere
When you use the toilet, there’s no guarantee of there being toilet paper or a basin with soap. Be prepared. Stay alive.
25. The mosquitos are very hungry
For real though, there are some insanely hungry mosquitos in Cambodia. While I didn’t get bitten once, my travel mates were absolutely ravaged. Pack some heavy duty bug spray and use it liberally and regularly. Dengue is the real deal! Avoid at all costs. #DoctorTalk
26. Visit temples early in the day
Avoid the crowds by visiting temples earlier in the day, this is particularly important for things like the Grand Palace. Go at opening time! In regards to Angkor Wat, it’s crowded all the time, more so at sunrise and sunset, so I guess you should just go there whenever you can.
? Want some help seeing the best bits? Book a Historical Phnom Penh Small Group Tour here.
27. They really do eat bugs and spiders
I thought this was just a tourist thing, but I asked my local guide about it and he said they really do eat all those weird things you see around town. Spiders, crickets, snakes. The works! Just be aware, if you try to take a photo of these things at Pub Street, you’ll need to pay the vendor.
28. You’ll fall in love with the people
Just be prepared… Cambodians are dang gorgeous. They’re a people who have suffered unspeakable amounts of horror and pain throughout their history and yet, when you meet them and see them on the street, they’ll greet you with love and respect. Little kids will wave and smile at you, their mums will welcome you warmly and their dads will treat you with nothing but the utmost respect. I LOVE the Cambodian people. They have the best smiles in Asia! So, be prepared to fall in love with them, because they’re amazing and they’re a huge part of what makes Cambodia so special.
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