With its untouched natural beauty presenting everything from lofty mountain peaks to virginal white sand beaches and green coastlines, Cambodia is truly unrivaled in its splendor. Its cities and towns boast multitude of tourist-attracting wonders: ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples, historic colonial French architecture, riverside promenades, and speedy boat rides across rivers and lakes.
Cambodian people are known throughout the world for their smiling and generous optimism, even in the face of hardships and years of conflict, bloodshed, and genocide. Its cuisine and culture are distinct and vibrant, making all your senses tingle with exotic and original smells, tastes, sounds, and sights. Whether you are planning a big adventure throughout Southeast Asia or just curious to find out more about an intriguing and breathtaking nation, you should never fail to step foot and visit this captivating country. Here’s a comprehensive guide to planning your trip to Cambodia:
Getting to and Around Cambodia
Before you even proceed with figuring out your itinerary, you should get all your travel documents, like your passport and visa, in order. Australian, Canadian, American, British, and other European nationals do not need to show proof of a return ticket, but will need to have a passport and a valid visa. Make sure that your passport is valid for at least 6 months. Most people wanting to enter Cambodia will need to obtain a single-entry, one-month tourist visa that costs 30 USD. This visa can be obtained upon arriving, regardless of whether you arrive by air at the airport or by land at a border crossing. Remember to have at least one passport-sized photo with you. Also, for 36 USD, you can apply for an electronic e-Visa online at least two weeks before you plan on arriving in Cambodia. The government agency that takes care of this matter is the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation.
If you get to Cambodia and decide that you need more time to explore, you can renew your tourist visa and give yourself an extra month. This way, you’ll avoid running the risk of overstaying your visa and having to pay the pricey fine of 10 USD per overstayed day. It costs about 30 to 50 USD to renew your visa, and you can do it by visiting the immigration office located across the Phnom Penh International Airport.
Cambodia’s largest airport, Phnom Penh International Airport, is located a mere 7 km outside of the bustling capital. The second busiest airport is Siem Reap International Airport, which is an ideal place to fly into as well because of its proximity to Angkor Wat. Both airports serve international as well as domestic flights. Budget airline Air Asia offers flights to Phnom Penh from Bangkok, Thailand and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Buying tickets online or through ticketing agencies in Phnom Penh may be your best bet for saving money. For domestic flights, Siem Reap Airways is an excellent choice.
As far as border crossings are concerned, Cambodia shares six with Thailand, eight with Vietnam, and one with Laos. If you’re looking to enter Cambodia by land, you can ride the buses that enter from Vietnam and Thailand. If you’re a water-travel enthusiast, you can hop on one of the regular passenger boats in Chau Doc, Vietnam and cross the river border straight into Phnom Penh. If coming in by water from Thailand, you can also ride a speedy boat that travels between Sihanoukville and Krong Koh Kong.
Once you find yourself in Cambodia, you have several options when it comes to how you want to get around. Since the country boasts 1900 km of navigable waterways, there are many swift boat and passenger services available as a means of transportation. These include 5-hour express services that run between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap by crossing Tonlé Sap Lake. There is also a longer, but much more scenic, boat service between Siem Reap and Battambang.
For land travel, you can choose between buses, minivans, shared taxis, minibuses, cars, motorcycles, and pick-up trucks. Native vehicles include the pedicab named cyclo or samlor, small motorcycle taxis called motos, and outboards which are local river bus/taxis. Another Cambodian favorite is the lorry. A lorry is a little wooden train that’s hooked up to a motorcycle, and it is known as the “bamboo train” in the Battambag region.
The Best Time to Visit Cambodia
The relatively mild climate of Cambodia allows you to comfortably visit the country all year round. However, the high seasons for tourists are around Christmas time and between July and August. During these times, prices for airfare and accommodations are higher than normal. Weather-wise, December and January are the best months for a Cambodian vacation because of the low humidity, scant rainfall, and cool breezes. Temperatures rise until they peak in April, which is when the heat often reaches higher than 40 degrees Celsius. The high humidity monsoon season starts in May or June, and the wet season lasts until October.
If you prefer, you can choose to coordinate your trip with some of Cambodia’s major holiday celebrations. Bon Om Tuk, the Cambodian Water Festival, is a 3-day long celebration in November. It is celebrated nationally but the biggest celebrations are in Phnom Penh. Bon Om Tuk honors the reversing of the flow of water in the Tonle Sap River with boat races, concerts, and a special rice dish called Ak Ambok, which is a scrumptious mix of rice, coconut, and banana prepared specially for this holiday. The Khmer New Year is another major celebration that takes place on the second week of April and lasts for 3 days. It is the celebration of the Cambodian New Year and marks the end of the harvesting season. During the celebrations, Buddha statues are cleansed with perfumed water, special games are played, and specific cakes and dishes are prepared. Both events are very festive and colorful celebrations, and planning your trip so that you can catch at least one of them will give you a unique taste of Cambodian traditions, culture, and history.
Popular Cities and Tourist Attractions in Cambodia
Cambodia has a lot to offer to the curious tourist and the adventurous traveler. Whether you’re looking to spend a quiet afternoon lazing and sun-bathing on a scenic beach or itching to explore the historic ruins of an ancient kingdom complete with sky-high temples and gigantic vine-like trees, you can do it all in Cambodia. Blessed with everything from a bustling metropolitan capital to quiet remote villages and untouched nature, Cambodia’s got it all. Here are a few of the most popular cities and attractions to get you started in planning your trip throughout Cambodia:
A relatively new port city, Sihanoukyville, popularly known as Snooky, is a laid-back seaside getaway famous for its four white sand beaches. If you’re looking forward to lots of sun, fun, and sand, then Sihanoukyville is the best place to spend the day.
If you have your heart set on relaxing by the water’s edge, you absolutely must visit the exquisite riverside promenade of this charming and peaceful town. After taking some time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the tranquility, you can feast your eyes on the other attractions found in this town. Aside from its world-famous black pepper, Kampot is also known for its gorgeous French architecture. If you plan on visiting Bokor National Park, do make sure to drop by (or stay in) Kampot. The town makes for an excellent home base for excursions into the park.
Bokor National Park (Preah Monivong National Park)
Located in the south of the country, Bokor National Park is an evergreen rainforest known for the incessant singing of songbirds and insects. It is home to several endangered species, including the Indian elephant, Asiatic black bear, leopard, small Asian mongoose, and over 300 bird species. While you’re there, make sure to check out the Popokvil Falls, which is a two-tiered waterfall that is a perfect place to cool off on a warm day. You might also want to head to Bokor Hill Station, which is an abandoned French hill station that now has a hotel and casino attached to it.
The bustling capital is worth at least a couple days of your trip. It blends the old with the new perfectly and boasts recent modern developments alongside the preservation of its rich culture and traditional architecture. While there, you can stroll through the National Museum and the Tuol Sleng Museum to familiarize yourself with both ancient and modern Cambodian history. The city features intricate markets and boutiques, must-try street food, outstanding restaurants, and picturesque riverside views. With its interesting mix of the ancient and the modern, Phnom Penh shows off the many facets of Cambodian history.
As Cambodia’s second-largest city, Battambang is also located at the side of the river, much like the capital. The French architecture is still standing, and the scenic silhouettes of temples and villages dot the horizon. Try working in the boat ride between Battambang and Siem Reap into your itinerary; it is one of the most picturesque boat rides to be had in the country.
No visit to Cambodia is complete without a visit to Siem Reap. Although it serves as an ideal home base for excursions to the Angkor Wat in Angkor Archaeological Park, Siem Reap is also a must-see site in itself. With accommodations that range from guesthouses to hotels, a thriving restaurant scene, and refreshing spas, Siem Reap truly deserves a bit of your time. You can take pleasure in the slow-flowing river, temples, boulevards, and French architecture as you make your way to the more modern hotels and resorts.
Angkor Archaeological Park
Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s iconic Hindu temple located just 6 km outside of Siem Reap, is the country’s national symbol. The park itself is over 400 km long and includes the ruins of several of the capitals of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries. The most famous temples in the park are the Hindu temple Angkor Wat, the Buddhist temples of Angkor Thom, and the Bayon Temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is considered as the eighth wonder of the world. The water reservoirs that stretch around Angkor are also worth taking a look at as they have bewildered NASA scientists and historians alike. You can easily get in from Siem Reap by car or motorcycle on a quick 20-minute ride.
Pamper your taste buds with fresh seafood from Cambodia’s coastline. Is your mouth watering from thinking about a prime catch of crabs? You’ll find it in the areas around Kampot and Kep. Unlike Thailand and Laos’s fare, Cambodia’s cuisine is not big on the hot and spicy. Chilies are often replaced with black pepper. So put your phobia of chilies aside, and enjoy the fresh bounties of the sea alongside the Cambodian staples of rice or noodles.
Koh Kong Conservation Corridor
Located in southwestern Cambodia, the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor covers 20,000 sq km of land. This wide span of land also includes the majestic Cardamom Mountains, with their breathtaking high peaks and beautiful river valleys. The conservation is home to 59 endangered animals, including Siamese crocodiles, bears, Asian elephants, and eight different species of tortoises and turtles. As Southeast Asia’s second-largest untouched rainforest, the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor is a place you’ll never regret visiting.
Famous Travel Tours in Cambodia
If you’re looking to join a tour to explore Cambodia, you have many options open to you. Journeys Within Tour Company (now Wild Frontiers) includes various tour packages, which range from 9 to 14 days. Their Cambodia Conservation Tour is a popular one that gives you a chance to see the conservation efforts being made to preserve the natural beauty of Cambodia.
Hanuman Travel provides tours, floats, and “temple safaris” throughout the country. If luxurious private tours are your preference, then About Asia Travel is a good option. It offers an upscale style tour of everything from Cambodia’s beaches to its temples.
While Cambodia has been through a lot of conflicts, wars, and bloodsheds, the country remains cherished throughout the world for its warm, inviting culture and generous, smiling people. Whether you are looking for a quick visit of all the famous sites and attractions the country has to offer or clamoring to extend your stay to get to know the people and their traditions more intimately, you should definitely include Cambodia in your list of must-see places. A bit of planning is all it takes. Then, you’ll be ready to start your adventure to one of the world’s most magnificent countries.