Difference between revisions of "Cambodia"
Revision as of 09:40, 28 September 2012
The Kingdom of Cambodia (ព្រះរាជាណាចក្រកម្ពុជា ឬ ប្រទេសកម្ពុជា)  (sometimes transliterated as Kampuchea to more closely represent the Khmer pronunciation) is a Southeast Asian nation bordered by Vietnam to the east, Laos to the north, Thailand to the northwest, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
Cambodia has had a pretty bad run of luck for the last half-millennium or so. Ever since the fall of Angkor in 1431, the once mighty Khmer Empire has been plundered by all its neighbours. It was colonized by the French in the 19th century, and during the 1970s suffered heavy carpet bombing by the USA. After a false dawn of independence in 1953, Cambodia promptly plunged back into the horrors of civil war in 1970 to suffer the Khmer Rouge's incredibly brutal reign of terror, and only after UN-sponsored elections in 1993 did the country begin to totter back onto its feet.
Much of the population still subsists on less than the equivalent of US$1 a day, the provision of even basic services remains spotty, and political intrigue remains as complex and opaque as ever; but the security situation has improved immeasurably, and increasing numbers of visitors are rediscovering Cambodia's temples and beaches. Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, now sports luxury hotels, chic nightspots, ATMs, and an airport fielding flights from all over the region, while Sihanoukville is getting good press as an up-and-coming beach destination. However travel beyond the most popular tourist destinations is still an adventure.
It is important to remember that Cambodian history did not begin with the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's incredibly harsh regime has garnered most attention, but the Cambodians have enjoyed a long and often triumphant history. Anybody who witnesses the magnificent temples at Angkor can attest to the fact that the Khmer Empire was once wealthy, militarized, and a major force in the region. Its zenith came under Jayavarman VII (1181-ca. 1218), where the Empire made significant territorial gains from the Vietnamese and Cham. The Khmer Empire stretched to encompass parts of modern day Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam.
The period following the fall of the Khmer Empire has been described as Cambodia's dark ages. Climatic factors precipitated this fall, where the Ankorian civilization harnessed Cambodia's water for agriculture through elaborate systems of canals and dams. The Khmer Empire never recovered from the sacking by its neighbours, based in Ayutthaya (in modern day Thailand), and Cambodia spent much of the next 400 years until French colonization squeezed and threatened by the rivalries of the expanding Siamese and Vietnamese Empires to the West and East. Indeed, on the eve of French colonization it was claimed that Cambodia was likely set to cease to exist as an independent kingdom entirely, with the historian John Tully claiming “there can be little doubt that their [the French] intervention prevented the political disappearance of the kingdom”.
The French came to dominate Cambodia as a protectorate from the 1860s, part of a wider ambition to control the area then termed Indochina (modern day Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos). The French were always more concerned with their possessions in Vietnam. Education of Cambodians was neglected for all but the established elite. It was from this elite that many "Red Khmers" would emerge. Japan's hold on Southeast Asia during the Second world War undermined French prestige and following the Allied victory Prince Sihanouk soon declared independence. This was a relatively peaceful transition; France was too absorbed with its struggle in Vietnam, which it saw as more important to its conception of L'Indochine Francaise.
Prince Sihanouk was the main power figure in the country after this. He was noted for making very strange movies in which he starred, wrote and directed. His rule was characterized at this point with a Buddhist revival and an emphasis on education. This was a mixed blessing, however. He succeeded in helping create an educated elite who became increasingly disenchanted with the lack of jobs available. As the economic situation in Cambodia deteriorated, many of these young people were attracted to the Indochinese Communist Party, and later the Khmer Rouge.
As the Second Indochina War spread to Cambodia's border (an important part of the "Ho Chi Minh trail"), the USA became increasingly concerned with events in the country. The US Air Force bombed Cambodia from 1964 to 1973, with the period from March 1969 to May 1970 being particularly intense. During this campaign, which was codenamed Operation Menu, 540,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped. Estimates of the civilian death toll range from 150,000 to 500,000. In total, from 1964 to 1973 the US dropped 2.7 million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia: more than the combined amount dropped by all the Alllies in all theatres during World War II.
In March 1970, whilist overseas to visit Moscow and Beijing, Sihanouk was overthrown by Lon Nol and other generals who were looked upon favorably by the United States. Sihanouk then put his support behind the Khmer Rouge. This change influenced many to follow suit; he was after all considered a Boddhisatva. Meanwhile the Khmer Rouge followed the Vietnamese example and began to engender themselves to the rural poor.
Following a five-year struggle, Communist Khmer Rouge forces captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns. Over 1 million people (and possibly many more) died from execution or enforced hardships. Those from the cities were known as "new" people and suffered worst at first. The rural peasantry were regarded as "base" people and fared better. However, the Khmer Rouge's cruelty was enacted on both groups. It also depended much upon where you were from. For example, people in the East generally got it worse. It is debated whether or not the Khmer Rouge began "crimes against humanity" or a protracted "genocide". There are claims there was a disproportionate number of ethnic Chams killed, and the ethnically Vietnamese also suffered persecution. Nonetheless, the Khmer also suffered often indescriminate mass killings. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and ended 13 years of fighting (but the fighting would continue for some time in border areas). Cold War politics meant that despite the horrendous crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge they were the recognized government long after the liberation of the country by the Vietnamese, indeed they continued to receive covert support and financing by the USA. As a result of the devastating politics of the Khmer Rouge regime, there was virtually no infrastructure left. Institutions of higher education, money, and all forms of commerce industries were destroyed in 1978, so the country had to be built up from scratch. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy, as did the rapid diminution of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1990s. A coalition government, formed after national elections in 1998, brought renewed political stability and the surrender of remaining Khmer Rouge forces.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is currently putting Ieng Sary, Pol Pot's brother in law, on trial for 'crimes against humanity'.
The two pillars of Cambodia's newly-stable economy are textiles and tourism. The tourism industry has grown rapidly with over 1.7 million visitors arriving in 2006 and 2.0 million in 2007. The long-term development of the economy after decades of war remains a daunting challenge, as the population lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. More than 60% of the population still gets by on subsistence farming. The government is addressing these issues with assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors. New construction of roads, irrigation, and agriculture are invested to bring up the rural areas.
Visas can be obtained at Cambodian embassies or consulates. Visas are also available "on arrival" at both international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos.
To apply for a visa, you will need one or two (depending on where you apply) passport-size photo(s), a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, passport photocopies when applying at some embassies/consulates (not needed if applying on arrival), and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee (expect to pay a substantially higher price if paying in a local currency). If you don't have a passport photo at visa on arrival in Phnom Penh airport (and possibly other entry points), they will scan in the one on your passport for an extra $2.
At Phnom Penh airport head to the Visa on Arrival desk, join the queue to the left, where your application form is reviewed (you should have been given the form on the plane). Then move to the right and wait for your name to be called. You then pay and receive your passport with the visa. Officials have difficulties pronouncing Western names so stay alert and listen out for any of your names in your passport, any of your given names or surname may be called. Once reunited with your passport, join the Immigration queue.
In Poipet, several scams abound. A favourite is the Cambodian custom officers ask tourists to pay 1000 Baht (about US$30) for a visa on arrival, instead of US$20. Stand firm but stay friendly and keep smiling, they rarely insist it. The penalty for having no photo is usually only US$1-2, but the price is also negotiable.
Citizens of most nations can apply for an e-Visa  online on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website, through a service provided by a private Cambodian company (CINet ). This is a normal Tourist Visa but costs US$25 instead of the normal US$20. The visa arrives as a PDF file by e-mail within 3 business days. The application requires a digital photograph of yourself (in .jpg format). You can scan your passport photo or have a passport sized photograph taken with a digital camera. There are other websites pretending to make a Cambodian e-visa - at best, these are just online travel agencies which will charge you more ($30-$45) and get the same $25 visa for you; at worst, you may end up with a fake e-visa.
You need to print two copies (one for entry and one for exit) of the PDF visa, cut out the visa parts and keep them with your passport.
Visas in advance (either online or from an embassy/consulate) save time at the border but are more expensive. However, you do get to skip the queues of people applying for the visas arrival, although sometimes you may simply spend the saved time waiting at the airport luggage belt for your suitcase.
E-Visas are only valid for entry by air or at the three border main land crossings only: Bavet (on the Ho Chi Minh City-Phnom Penh road); Koh Kong (near Trat in Eastern Thailand); and Poipet (on the Bangkok-Siem Reap road). You may exit the country with e-visa via any border crossing, however. Given the general reduction in visa scams at the major land borders, paying the extra $5 to guarantee the price may (more likely if entering from Thailand) or may not worth it. Getting a tourist visa on arrival for US$20 is more likely than being overcharged. Plus it keeps the option open of the enjoyable Phnom Penh-Chau Doc boat trip (and the use of other minor border crossings)!
Direct flights connect Phnom Penh International Airport  (previously Pochentong International Airport) with mainland China (Beijing, Guangzhou), France (Paris), Hong Kong, Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon), Taiwan (Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City).
Direct flights connect Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport  with Laos (Pakse, Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, South Korea (Incheon, Busan), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City).
Travellers going specifically to visit the Angkor temple ruins may prefer to use Siem Reap as it's only a few minutes away from the main sites; however as Bangkok Airways has a monopoly on direct flights between Bangkok and Siem Reap, it's a lot cheaper to fly to Phnom Penh and to take the bus (or cross overland from Bangkok).
Low-cost carrier Air Asia  has introduced flights from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur to Siem Reap, while Jetstar Asia  has begun flying from Singapore to Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
Other airlines operating flights to/from Cambodia include Asiana Airlines , Bangkok Airways , China Southern Airlines , Dragonair , Eva Airways , Korean Air , Lao Airlines , Malaysia Airlines (MAS) , Shanghai Airlines , Siem Reap Airways  (a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways), SilkAir , Singapore Airlines , Thai Airways International , and Vietnam Airlines .
All six border crossings with Thailand are open 7 AM to 8 PM, each offers Cambodian visas on arrival. All the crossings are served by paved roads in both countries, except the Cambodian side of the Daun Lem crossing, which is being paved as of March 2012.
Thai buses run to but not across each of the crossings: even Chong Sa-Ngam, the last to achieve Thai connections has now gained minibuses that bring gamblers to the new casino in Choam.
In Cambodia, four of the six border towns (Poipet, Koh Kong, Daun Lem and O'Smach) are directly served by buses. Pailin, Anlong Veng and Samraong (each less than 20 km from a border) are each served by buses; motorbikes and shared taxis connect each of the towns with their respective border crossings.
Cambodia's busiest land crossing is at Aranyaprathet/Poipet on the Bangkok - Siem Reap road in North-western Cambodia. Long the stuff of nightmares, the roads are now paved all the way from Poipet to Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh.
Coastal Cambodia and the southern part of the Cardamom and Elephant Mountains region is served by the Hat Lek/Koh Kong border. The road goes all the way to Sihanoukville. From Trat in Thailand, there a minibuses to the border. In Cambodia, minibuses or taxis connect the border to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh. The Koh Kong - Sihanoukville boat service no longer runs.
Eastern Thailand is connected to Battambang and Siem Reap by the Ban Pakard (in Chanthaburi Province)/ Phra Prom (near Pailin) crossing, which offers a less stressful and more scenic alternitive to the more northly major crossing at Poipet.
The geographically closest crossing to Battambang is that at Ban Leam (in Chanthaburi Province)/Daun Lem. Paramount Angkor run buses to Battambang though as of March 2012 the road on the Cambodian side is not yet fully paved.
The main crossing is the Moc Bai/Bavet crossing on the Ho Chi Minh City - Phnom Penh road. Buses between the two cities cost US8-12 and take around 6 hrs. Passengers vacate the vehicle at both countries' checkpoints. Only one passport photo is required for a Cambodian visa on arrival. Tours of the Mekong Delta (US$25-35, 2-3 days) can provide a more insightful journey between the two cities.
Coastal areas are also served by the Tinh Bien/Phnom Den border near Chau Doc in Vietnam
Stung Treng in Cambodia is connected to Pakse and the Four Thousand Islands region of Laos by the Voeung Kam/Dom Kralor border. Onward transportation is not regularly available. Cambodian and Lao visas available, but require a $1 to $2 fee (read bribes) on both sides of the border. Travel agencies on both sides offer border crossing packages.
To/from Laos - There is one border crossing for tourists on the Mekong, a 90 minute speedboat ride north of Stung Treng. The border guards have few opportunities for "alternative" income, and will usually try to make a few extra dollars from scamming tourists.
To/from Vietnam - It's possible to travel between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh by boat, or by combination of road and boat. Fast boats leave daily from Chau Doc in Vietnam's Mekong Delta and take 5 hours to reach Phnom Penh. Chau Doc is a four hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. A popular overland route is to make a three day trip, stopping at Can Tho and Chau Doc before taking the boat to Phnom Penh.
The only airports currently operating scheduled passenger flights are Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The third major airport, Sihanoukville, will be receiving scheduled flights again in late 2011. The other 25 airports will be reopened .
The main operator is Cambodia Angkor Air, a joint venture between the government and Vietnam Airlines, which flies between Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam).
The other operator is Aero Cambodia  Starting service late 2011. Will be operating from Phnom Penh to Ratanakiri, Koh Kong, Sihanukville, And most other airports . Charter and scheduled service using twin engine 10 to 70 seat aircraft.
Helistar Cambodia , a VIP helicopter charter and scenic flights company, operate to virtually anywhere in Cambodia. Helicopters can be chartered to fly from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap for one-way or return journeys. The basic hourly charter rate is US$1700 per flight hour plus 10% VAT and 10% SPT. They operate modern, air-conditioned French-built Eurocopter Ecureuils with luxury leather seating for up to 6 passengers. They also have licenced Australian and foreign pilots. A pick-up and set-down transfer service is also available at both international airports.
The Cambodian government has been frantically upgrading roads throughout the country since about 2008. While great for the country, it does make travel advice quickly obselete! Finding an unsealed road is actually quite a challenge and most travellers will not have any horror stories of car-swallowing ruts or wet-season quagmires. For the time being (March 2012), notable unpaved roads that would be of use to travellers are: Battambang-Koh Kong (currently a great dirt bike adventure across the mountains or a long detour by bus via Phnom Penh), access to the Banteay Chhmar temples (a high-quality unsealed road, as good as a sealed road during the dry season) and the road between Sen Monorom and Banlung (if there's any remote jungle left in Cambodia, it'll be here). The borders, coast and major cities are all well connected with good roads.
Longer journeys in Cambodia can be taken by bus, pickup truck or shared taxi. In many towns, whichever of these are available will be found at the local market square. Larger towns and cities will have bus stations. Buses may also serve their companies' offices, which may be more convenient than the bus station: this is particularly true in Siem Reap. Mekong Express has the best reputation for comfort and speed and consequently charges a premium. Sorya (formerly Ho Wah Genting) and GST offer a slightly cheaper no-frills service. Capitol runs between its centrally located offices, making for city centre-to-city centre travel. Ramshackled peasant mover Paramount Angkore Transport is great for accessing more remote places but low on comfort and safety.
Indeed bus safety is a big problem in Cambodia. On Highway 5, between Phnom Penh and Battambang, there are dozens of bus crashes annually, many of them horrendous, with multiple fatalities. There are even bus-on-bus crashes. Drivers are untrained, impatient, and (according to those working in roadside gas stations) sometimes drunk. Most of these accidents go unreported, but frequent travellers on Highway 5 can typically observe half a dozen bus crashes in a month.
Generally bus travel is cheap, with journeys from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville costing around US$5. Bring along something warm if you don't like freezing air-conditioning and earplugs if you don't like Khmer karaoke. There are a few night-time services but most buses leave in the morning and the last ones leave in the afternoon.
Some believe taxis are safer for inter-city travel, but taxis also often go way too fast, and so are involved in numerous fatal accidents. The front seat in a taxi from Phnom Penh to Battambang should cost you about $25.
In cities, motorcycle taxis are ubiquitous. For quick trips across town, just stand on a corner for a moment and someone will offer you a lift - for a small, usually standard, fee of US$1 or less.
Motorcycle rentals are available in many towns, with the notable exception of Siem Reap. Be careful if driving or riding yourself: driving practices are vastly different from developed countries. Local road 'rules' will also differ from city to city.
Ferries operate seasonally along many of the major rivers. Major routes include Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and Siem Reap to Battambang. The Sihanoukville to Koh Kong ferry no longer runs. Boats are slower than road transport, charge higher prices for foreigners, and are sometimes overcrowded and unsafe. Then again, Cambodia's highways are also dangerous, and boats are probably the safer of the two options. The high speed boat from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap costs US$33 and takes about 6 hours, departing at 7.30am, and offers a spectacular view of rural life along the Tonle Sap river.
There is also a few luxury boats operating between Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Saigon. For something around 150$/day including accommodation, food and excursions, it's a good alternative to regular boat service.
The boat trip between Siem Reap and Battambang takes longer (especially in the dry season), and is less comfortable and more expensive than taking a seat in a share taxi, but is favoured by some travellers for its up-close view of subsistence farming (and hundreds of waving children) along the river. Taking the boat late in the dry season (April and May) is not advisable as low water levels mean that you must transfer to smaller vessels in mid-river.
Passenger trains ceased in 2009  as the state of the rail infrastructure was dire. The entire network is undergoing an agonizingly slow restoration and it may be possible to hitch a ride on the daily cargo train that may still run for 111 km between Phnom Penh and Touk Meas (near Kampot), if you enjoy that kind of thing. The service was reinstated in October 2010 but was reported to have possibly stopped when Toll, an Australian company, pulled out of the Cambodian rail venture in April 2012. There are plans to link the network with the Thai and Vietnamese railway networks. However, don't hold your breath!
By bamboo train
While it has been possible to travel considerate distances (Battambang to Phnom Penh) on the existing railway tracks by bamboo train (makeshift lorries run by 40HP engines) this is no longer possible. Because of the improved road infrastructure locals no longer use these and in consequence the tracks are overgrown and sometimes crossed by irrigation canals. In addition parts of the stretch are already under reconstruction and thus blocked. The bamboo train is now merely a tourist attraction on an 8km stretch of tracks near Battambang.
With a guide book in the hand
Several publications are freely available in hotels, restaurants, bars ... All tourist guide books include information, maps and advertising about a certain area (Coast/Phnom Penh/Siem Reap).
Coastal -- A free 6-monthly publication promoting the Southern Cambodian Coastal Towns (www.coastal-cambodia.com) Sihanoukville Advertiser -- A free publication covering Sihanoukville and more coastal tourist towns. (www.sihanoukvilleadvertiser.com) Voucher Guide -- A 2-monthly booklet with 7 town maps, discount coupons, a calendar, note book, ... (www.discount-cambodia.com)
Cambodians primarily speak Khmer, which unlike most languages in the region is not tonal, but makes up for it with a large assortment of consonant and vowel clusters. Young Khmer prefer to learn English over other foreign languages and you will find people who speak anywhere from basic to fluent English in major towns and cities. In tourist market situations, most Khmer will know enough English to complete a basic transaction, though many vendors carry calculators into which they punch numbers and show you the screen to demonstrate the price.
Some elder Khmer speak French from the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period. French is still an official language in Cambodia, and used in government communications, but partly because of the Khmer Rouge era (in which those speaking foreign languages were targeted for extermination), actually encountering anyone fluent in French is rare outside of Phnom Penh. German and other European tongues can be found in the tourist centres (but are even rarer than French) and Japanese is also a popular language for tourist industry workers.
Chinese dialects, Thai and Vietnamese are spoken in Phnom Penh. Thai is more prevalent in northwestern provinces, whereas Vietnamese dominates southeastern provinces.
When shopping be sure to look for businesses that display the Heritage Friendly Business Logo. Heritage Watch has launched a campaign that aims to encourage support for Cambodia's arts, culture, heritage and development. Businesses that are giving back to the community are certified as Heritage Friendly by the independent organization and permitted to display either a gold or silver Heritage Friendly logo. Look for the logo to ensure that you are supporting socially responsible corporate citizens!
You can get away with pretty much haggling for anything in Cambodia. Restaurants, outdoor food stalls, even rates for guesthouses. The Khmer are notoriously quiet up to a point of no return. They do not lose face, they lose their temper. However, there are a few guidelines:
Siem Reap is the easiest place to bargain, Phnom Penh may be a little harder but still worth trying. Just be polite and persistent.
The Cambodian riel and US dollar are both official currencies, with riel only used for small transactions (i.e. below $5). US coins are not used in Cambodia. ATMs will generally only dispense US dollars though some are loaded with both currencies. They generally charge 3-5$ per withdrawal but Canadia Bank and Mekong Bank are fee free. ATMs are common throughout the country with a surprising penetration even into backwater towns, though if in doubt stock up before a trip into the wild. High denomination notes are easy to break. Even in the smelliest of provincial markets, traders will not flinch at the sight of a $100 bill, just look for traders with glass cabinets filled with money (they're advertizing a service rather than showing off).
The Cambodian Central Bank maintains the riel at around 3800-4200 to the dollar. In day-to-day commerce, 4000 riel per dollar is ubiquitous. So USD 1,50 is one dollar plus 2000 riel or 6000 riel. Riel notes go as high as 100,000 ($25) but 10,000 ($2.50) is the highest denomination that is commonly encountered. Riel only have value outside Cambodia as souvenirs, no-one will exchange them.
Near the Thai border (for example Battambang, Koh Kong, and Poipet) Thai baht is commonly used but the locals use a hopelessly unfavourable 40 Baht to the dollar as a rule of thumb. Try to change any baht rather than spend them as banks and money changers will give you $1 at a cost of about 30 Baht (as of March 2012). Baht and indeed euro can easily be exchanged in any city. Shop around if a good rate is important to you: sometimes the banks are best, sometimes the market traders.
Torn or old foreign currency notes may be difficult to exchange, except $1 bills which change hands often. Refusing imperfect notes is normal, traders may try to take advantage of tourists' naivete and try to palm off dud notes. Just smile and hand them back.
Banks sometimes operate as Western Union Money Transfer agents.
ATMs are spreading far beyond the main cities. They are generally compatible with Maestro, Cirrus, Plus, and VISA cards. Cash advances on credit cards may also be possible.
VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards; MasterCard and American Express cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted.
ATMs dispense US$ in varying denominations from 10 to 100. If you receive bills in poor condition (especially $50 or $100) from an ATM attached directly to a bank try to change them there immediately as they may be difficult to change later.
Cambodian ATMs only accept 4-digit PINs. If your PIN is more than 4 digits, best to take care of that at home before you need cash and find yourself out of luck.
Traveller's cheques, like credit cards, are accepted in major business establishments, such as large hotels, some restaurants, travel agencies and some souvenir shops; American Express (in US$) are the most widely accepted. However, competitive rates are only usually found in banks in Cambodia's larger cities (guesthouses in heavily touristed areas may offer similar services but at horrendous rates). The usual fee for cashing traveller's cheques is 2% and US$2 minimum.
While not the strongest link in Southeast Asia's chain of delightful cuisine, Khmer food is tasty and cheap and better than Burmese. Rice and occasionally noodles are the staples. Unlike in Thailand or Lao, spicy hot food in not the mainstay; black pepper is preferred over chilli peppers, though chillis are usually served on the side. Thai and Vietnamese influences can be noted in Khmer food, although Cambodians love strong sour tastes in their dishes. Prahok, a local fish paste, is common in Khmer cooking and may not please Western palates. Indian and Chinese restaurants have a healthy representation in Phnom Penh and the larger towns.
Typical Khmer dishes include:
Don't forget Khmer desserts - Pong Aime (sweets). These are available from stalls in most Khmer towns and can be excellent. Choose from a variety of sweetmeats and have them served with ice, condensed milk and sugar water. A must try is the Tuk-a-loc, a blended drink of fruits, raw egg, sweetened condensed milk and ice.
There is also a wide variety of fresh fruit available from markets. The prices vary according to which fruit is in season but mangoes (around Khmer New Year, with up to 9 varieties on sale) and mangosteen (May/June) are both superb.
Other popular Khmer foods which may be less palatable to foreigners include pregnant eggs (duck eggs with the embryo still inside), and almost every variety of creepy or crawly animal (spiders, crickets, water beetles) as well as barbecued rats, frogs, snakes, bats and small birds.
The tap water supply in Phnom Penh has undergone some serious changes at the hands of a "water revolutionary" in the government, Ek Sonn Chan. So in Phnom Penh you can drink the tap water without problem, although it is highly chlorinated and you may not like the taste. Also there is some concern about the bottle water vendors. The U.S. Embassy web site says that "In 2008, Cambodia's Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy reported that more than 100 bottled- water companies in Cambodia were being considered for closure for failing to meet minimum production quality standards. Only 24 of the 130 bottled-water companies are compliant with the ministry's Department of Industrial Standards." That page seems to be down on bottled water generally, so take it with a grain of salt.
Outside of Phnom Penh (and perhaps Siem Reap) you should assume that tap water is not potable. Khmer brand water in blue plastic bottles sell for 1000 riels or less (although prices are often marked up for tourists, to 50 cents or a dollar).
Iced coffee is ubiquitous in Cambodia. It is made Vietnamese style, freshly brewed and mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Walk past a local eatery any time of the day and you are bound to see at least a table of locals drinking them. One glass costs between 1500-2000riel. Iced tea made with lemon and sugar is also refreshing and ubiquitous.
Fresh coconut can be found everywhere, you could say it is ubiquitous, and is healthy and sanitary if drunk straight from the fruit.
In general, Khmers are not what could be described as casual drinkers: the main objective is to get hammered as quickly as possible. Know your limits if invited to join in!
The two most popular domestic Cambodian beers are Anchor — pronounced "an-CHOR" with a ch sound! — and Angkor. Beer Lao and Tiger are popular beers with foreigners. A plethora of other beers include ABC Stout, which is dark and not so bad, in addition to the standard Heineken and Carlsberg. Cheaper beers include Crown and Leo, whilst Kingdom Beer aims for the premium market with a pilsener and a dark lager.
Palm wine and rice wine are available in villages and can be OK at 500-1000 riel for 1 litre bottle. However, some safety concerns have been raised with regard to sanitation, so the local wines may be best avoided.
For a truly Khmer experience, hunt down a bottle of Golden Muscle Wine. Advertised on tuk-tuks everywhere, this pitch-black concoction made from deer antlers and assorted herbs packs a 35% punch and tastes vile when drunk straight, but can be made reasonably palatable (if not exactly tasty) by the addition of tonic water or cola. At US$2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting US$3 for the "X.O." version, it's the cheapest legitimate tipple around.
Drugs, including cannabis, are illegal in Cambodia, and penalties can be very severe. That said, enforcement tends to be on the lax side and many guesthouses are permanently shrouded in purple haze. Low-grade cannabis (ganchaa) is fairly common in Cambodian cooking (for the flavor), but the days when you could just walk up to the Central Market and buy a kilo are over.
Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are full of Happy Herb pizzerias, but the police crack down occasionally, so even if you ask for "extra happy" and try out your secret handshake, you may only end up with lawn clippings. Alternatively, if they do deliver, be warned that effect of eating Happy Pizza comes on only slowly and you may end off biting more than you can chew, so proceed with caution.
Heroin is very high grade in SE Asia and foreigners requesting cocaine are sometimes provided with it instead, this regularly leads to deaths.
Western-style accommodation is available in most major towns the country over; even less-touristic places such as Kampong Chhnang have a number of affordable guesthouses or hotels. Basic guesthouses can go as low as US$2/night in the countryside but prices in the cities are usually in the US$5-10 range. At the budget end, expect to provide your own towels etc. If you want air-con and hot water, the price creeps up to close to US$10-20, and you can easily pay over US$100/night if you want to stay in a branded five-star hotel.
Cambodia has fewer opportunities for language and cultural studies for the short-term traveller, though there are many language schools and private teachers advertising for those who are hanging around a bit longer. There are also meditation groups which meet at some of the Buddhist Pagodas in Phnom Penh.
One of the most interesting ways to get to know a country, and which has become increasingly popular, is to volunteer.
Finding a paid job teaching English in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is easy for English speakers, even if you have no other qualifications. If you're interested, print out some resumes and start handing them out to various schools.
Cambodia is a safe and friendly country, with the usual exception for large cities late at night, particularly Phnom Penh, and unobserved luggage or wallets. Bag snatching, even from those on bicycles and motorcycles, is a problem in Phnom Penh. Be discreet with your possessions, especially cash and cameras, and as always, take extra care in all poorly lit or more remote areas.
Crime and corruption
Intending visitors should be aware that the rule of law in Cambodia is inconsistently applied. Crimes usually require bribes to be investigated, and if perpetrators are wealthy or connected to the government they will often be untouchable by police and courts. You should also be aware that the courts are corrupt, so contracts are hard to enforce without some political leverage. All this being said, the violent crime rate is fairly low, the police are generally friendly and non-threatening, and those with common sense have little to fear.
Cambodia suffers from a legacy of millions of land mines left during the war years. However, to tourists, land mines present a minimal to nonexistent threat, as most areas near touristed areas have been thoroughly de-mined. Many tourists mistake electric or sewage warning signs along national highways for land mine signs. HALO Trust, a leading mine removal organization in Cambodia asserts that you would have to drive through the jungle for at least an hour north of Angkor Wat to come across any mines. The threat is to locals in extremely rural areas who rely on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods.
All that said, in remote areas such as Preah Vihear (near the border) and Pailin (a former Khmer Rouge stronghold), exercise caution: ask for local advice and heed warning signs, red paint and red rope, which may indicate mined areas. Do not venture beyond well established roads and paths.
The age of consent in Cambodia is 15. Prostitution is theoretically illegal but widespread, although generally not overtly aimed at tourists (there are no go-go bars and such). Many bars and clubs, however, do have taxi-girls wandering the premises, especially in Phnom Penh. Bear in mind that Southeast Asia has a fast-growing HIV infection rate, so safe sex is a must in all cases. Cambodia has gained some notoriety as a destination for pedophiles, but under Cambodian law the penalty for sex with minors can be up to 30 years in prison, and such tourists may be prosecuted by their home countries as well.
Cambodia, one of the world's poorest countries, lacks reliable medical facilities, doctors, clinics, hospitals and medication, especially in rural areas. Any serious problem should be dealt with in Bangkok or Singapore, which boast first rate services (at least to those who can afford them). Repatriation is also more easily arranged from either of those cities. Make your insurance covers medical evacuation. The private and pricey Royal Rattanak Hospital in Phnom Penh can be trusted for emergency medical care and can treat most diseases and injuries common to the region. Naga Clinic has branches in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It is also clean, safe and useful for minor conditions.
Local hospitals and clinics vary from mediocre to frightening. Expect dirt, poor equipment, expired medicines and placebos of flour and sugar.
In local clinics don't let them put anything in your blood: treat dehydration orally and not with a drip, as there is a risk of septicemia (i.e. bacterial blood poisoning). The same goes for blood transfusions.
No health certificates or vaccinations are officially required for entry to Cambodia, unless arriving directly from Africa. However, consult a doctor a few weeks before leaving home for up-to-date advice on inoculations. Generally advised are shots against tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis B and meningitis, a polio booster and especially gamma globulin shots (against hepatitis A). Consider malaria tablets for trips to Cambodia of less than 30 days, though the most commonly visited places have minimal risk (see below). A mosquito net may also help. Mosquitoes swarm Siem Reap at dusk, imported (i.e. trusted) DEET based insect repellent is available in Cambodia.
The contents of a basic medical kit-such as panadol, antihistamines, antibiotics, kaolin, oral rehydration solution, calamine lotion, bandages and band-aids, scissors and DEET insect repellent-can be acquired in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The particularly fastidious should put their kits together in Bangkok or Saigon before coming to Cambodia. There's no need to bother doing this before coming to Asia.
Phnom Penh is malaria free, and most major tourist attractions (including Siem Reap) are virtually malaria free. The biggest disease worry is mosquito-borne dengue fever which, although quite unpleasant, to say the least (it's called "break-bone fever" because of how it feels) generally isn't life-threatening for first-time victims.
The most common ailment for travelers is diarrhoea, which can deteriorate into dysentery, resulting in dehydration. Stay hydrated by trying to consume 2-3 litres of water per day and don't forget that dehydration can also be brought on by a lack of salt, soy sauce is your friend in this climate.
Avoid untreated water, ice made from untreated water and any raw fruit or vegetables that may have been washed in untreated water. Tap water is generally not drinkable, so avoid. The Phnom Penh supply is claimed to be potable but few people trust it. Only the seriously immuno-compromised will have problems brushing their teeth with it. Cheap bottled water is available in any town or village. Take water purification tablets or iodine to sterilize water if planning to visit more rural areas. Boiling water will also sterilize it without generating piles of waste plastic bottle waste or tainting the taste. The water in the jugs at cafes or restaurants will have been boiled, as obviously will have been the tea.
If you do get severe diarrhoea and become badly dehydrated, take an oral rehydration solution and drink plenty of treated water. However, a lot of blood or mucus in the stool can indicate dysentery, which requires a trip to a doctor for antibiotics.
April is the cruellest month: the weather is hottest (> 35 °C) in March and April, use sunscreen and wear a hat to avoid sunstroke.
Prostitutes of both sexes can carry many STDs. The official HIV rate among prostitutes is 34%.
Cambodia is a country at a crossroads. While the more heavily touristed places like Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are well adjusted to tourist behaviour, people in places such as Stung Treng or Banlung are less so. Always ask permission before you take somebody's picture, as many in the more remote areas do not like to be photographed, and some in the urban areas will ask for payment.
Dress for women is more conservative in Cambodia. While shorts are now acceptable in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it is more respectful to wear knee length shorts or trousers when outside of these areas.
Groups of young children can be found everywhere in Cambodia and many travellers feel 'pestered' by them to purchase their friendship bracelets and other wares. However, it's often the case that children enjoy the chance to practice their English on you- and by asking them their names and ages a conversation is likely to develop where the 'hard sell' is forgotten. Children and adults alike enjoy looking at photographs of your family and home country.
The Khmer Rouge issue is a very delicate one, and one which Cambodians generally prefer not to talk about. However, if you approach it with politeness, they'll gladly respond. People, in general, hold no qualms when talking about the Vietnamese; in fact, they have been widely perceived as liberators when they intervened in Cambodia in 1979 to overthrow the aforementioned brutal regime. The pro-Vietnamese regime gradually rebuilt all the infrastructure that was severely damaged by the Khmer Rouge's policy of de-urbanising the country leading to economic prosperity in the 1980s, with sporadic uprisings.
Cambodia uses the GSM mobile system and Mobitel  is the largest operator, although competition is stiff. Pre-paid SIM cards are widely available (from US$1), but require a passport to buy. A guest house or tuk-tuk driver may just buy one for you.
Internet cafes are cheap (US$0.50-US$1/hour) and common, even small towns will have at least one offering broadband. In Kampot, Kratie and Sihanoukville rates are around US$1/hour. WiFi is increasingly popular, with signals available in some unlikely places: not just in coffee shops but also fast food restaurants, bars, and even gas stations. Domestic broadband prices range from $29.95 to $89.00. Always remember vat is added to all prices, and even the locals pay vat.
Fast wireless 3G/4G internet (3.5G or 7.2MBpS 3G/4G Modem usb stick, unlocked 3G/4G modem costs 30$) is now available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville/Kampot/Kep with slower Edge coverage in almost all other areas. Tourists can add 3G/4G mobile internet to their SIM for as little as $3/month (0.8GB max, LT3 package)(Metfone) or 1c/MB with Qbmore or unlimited data package for $25/month (Metfone), equipping another 3G router can form a WiFi hotspot to share internet in your house/neighbourhood.
Khmer does not yet have a big presence in the electronic world as do Thai or Vietnamese. Phones and computers (and hence Cambodian text messages, emails, social network slobbering and web pages) tend to be in English.
Once a disaster, a trip to the post office in Cambodia no longer means a final good bye to your consignment. Intercontinental postcards should arrive in 2 weeks; within Asia, 1 week. Rates are cheap.