Difference between revisions of "Cambodia"
Revision as of 04:45, 26 March 2007
The Kingdom of Cambodia  (sometimes transliterated more accurately as Kampuchea) 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 neighbors, plus colonial France as well. 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 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.
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 displaced people died from execution or enforced hardships. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and touched off 13 years of fighting. 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 non-existent in 1978, so the country had to be built up from nothing. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy, as did the rapid diminishment 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 two pillars of Cambodia's newly-stable economy are textiles and garments, and tourism. The latter has grown rapidly with 1 million visitors arriving in 2005. The long-term development of the economy after decades of war remains a daunting challenge, as the population (more than half under 20 years of age) lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. 75% of the population still gets by on subsistence farming. On the brighter side, the government is addressing these issues - plus government corruption - with assistance from bilateral and multilateral donors.
All visitors, except (as of May 2006) citizens of Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Laos, need a visa to enter Cambodia. As usual the visa can be obtained at any Cambodia Embassy or General Consulate overseas. Visa is available on arrival at Pochentong International Airport (Phnom Penh), Siem Reap International Airport, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos. You will need one or two (depending on where you apply) passport-size photo(s) (Although the fee for not having one is only about $2), a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, passport photocopies if applying at an embassy/consulate (not needed if applying on arrival), and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee (expect to pay a substantially higher price if paying in a local currency). The official price for a tourist visa is US$20, and US$25 for a business visa. When applied for in advance, the tourist visa is valid for 90 days (ie must be used within 3 months), and good for a 30 day entry permit stamp which can be extended for another 30 days in Phnom Penh (or elsewhere via agencies) at a cost of US$15. Beware of the scams mentioned in the Scam alert warning, below.
The Cambodian government now offers an e-Visa service that allows citizens of some nations to apply online. The e-Visa costs $25 instead of the normal $20 and is valid if you are entering the country through Phnom Penh or Siem Reap and exiting at a variety of border crossings. The service is excellent and you get the visa by email in less than a working day. However, it is cheaper to buy your visa at either airport, so the main advantage of the e-Visa is that you get to skip two lines at the airport: the line to get your visa, and the line at the cashier to pay. Of course, if you checked luggage, you'll probably have to spend the saved time waiting for your bag. Consult the website for more details.
Visitors planing a longer stay in Cambodia can get the more expensive business visa (25 $ instead of 20 $). Only business visas can (as of 2007) be extended into a multiple entry visa (approx 140 $ for 6 more months).
Direct flights connect Phnom Penh with China (Guangzhou | Hong Kong | Shanghai), Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, Taiwan (Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok) and Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh City).
Other airlines operating flights to/from Cambodia include Asiana Airlines, Bangkok Airways, China Southern Airlines, Dragonair, Eva Airways, Lao Airlines, Malaysia Airlines (MAS), Shanghai Airlines, Siem Reap Airways (a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways), SilkAir, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways International, and Vietnam Airlines.
This route is in better shape than it once was but still a bit of a hassle, particularly when entering Cambodia. On this route, tourist bus employees often take kickbacks from restaurants and guesthouses they suggest, and tourist buses will stay at rest stops for 2-3 hours or feign mechanical problems, extending the travel to 12 or more hours, which usually makes tourists too tired to argue when arriving at an overpriced guesthouse.
Starting in Bangkok, catch a bus to Trat, and from there a minibus to the border. After crossing into Cambodia there are two possibilities - the once-daily boat to Sihanoukville (can be unpleasant in adverse weather), or else a minibus or taxi to either Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh (note that most of the road is not sealed and conditions vary considerably, depending on time of year and maintenance).
It can be interesting to go by tour (3 days) on the Mekong delta, ending up in Phnom Penh. The cost is about US$35 in total for three days from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh (2002). Bus tickets can also be bought for between $4 and $10 for a bus to Moc Bai on the Vietnam side of the border and then another bus from Bavet on the Cambodian side to Phnom Penh. Travellers must walk to an exit station on the Vietnam side where they cancel your visa and check your bags. Then they must walk through no-man's land to the Cambodian entrance station. Travellers must provide two passport photos for the Cambodian visa. The bus on the Vietnamese sdie is generally comfortable and air-con; the Cambodian buses are hot, uncomfortable, and likely to break down (2004).
Mai Linh taxi company in Ho Chi Minh City provides bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap directly from begining of 2007. The price is US18. Visit here for more details. http://www.mailinh.vn/?l=1
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 Thailand - There are no ferry services between Cambodia and Thailand. However it is possible to cross the border from Thailand to Koh Kong on foot, take a 15 minute share taxi or motodop (motorbike taxi) ride, and then proceed to Sihanoukville by ferry from there (or vice-versa).
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 most reliable operator by far is Siem Reap Airways , a subsidiary of Bangkok Airways, which currently flies ATR-72 turboprops between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (55 min, around US$60 one-way, 4-6 flights daily).
PMT Air  also operates scheduled services on aging Soviet An-24 turboprops several times a week from Phnom Penh to Banlung, as well as from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville. One-way fares are around US$70.
The three main routes to Phnom Penh (from Siem Reap, Sisophon, and Sihanoukville) are all sealed and in good condition. National Route #7 from Stung Treng to Phnom Penh (Skuon) is in good condition, paved between Kratie and Phnom Penh, partly paved and partly gravel between Stung Treng and Kratie, but well maintained, even in the wet season. Most other roads are unpaved dirt; many are in abysmal condition, others are maintained fairly regularly (but fall apart with alarming speed in the wet season). On the unsealed routes, overloaded trucks do a good job of smashing poorly built bridges. In all, buffer your schedule and expect delays when travelling around the country, especially on the dirt roads, and doubly so in the wet season.
For longer journeys there is a system of buses and pickup trucks that usually operate from the local market square. Mekong Express has the best reputation for comfort and speed and consequently charges a premium, while Sorya (formerly Ho Wah Genting) and GST offer a slightly cheaper no-frills service. Travel remains cheap, with journeys from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap or Sihanoukville costing under $5, but bring along something warm if you don't like freezing aircon and earplugs if you don't like Khmer karaoke. Note that there are few if any nighttime services, so most buses leave in the early hours of the morning (6-7 AM) and the last ones leave in the afternoon.
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.
Motorcycle rentals are available in many towns, with the notable exception of Siem Reap.
Ferries operate seasonally along many of the major rivers. Major routes include Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Siem Reap to Battambang, and Sihanoukville to Koh Kong. 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 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. During the rainy season the boat between Sihanoukville and Koh Kong can also be dangerous due to high waves as well as due to the fact that these Malaysian river taxis were not built for the open sea.
As of January 2006, the only passenger train in Cambodia travels very slowly from Phnom Penh to Battambang every other day, and back again on the alternate days. There are no passenger services to Sihanoukville or Kampot anymore, but it may be possible to hitch a ride on a cargo train if you enjoy that kind of thing (likewise between Sisophon and Battambang, and between Battambang and Phnom Penh).
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. Some elder Khmers speak French from the colonial days, but partly because of the Khmer Rouge era (in which those speaking foreign languages were targeted for extermination), to actually encounter anyone fluent in French is rare in most parts of the country. 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.
Young Khmer prefer to learn English over other European languages and you will find people who speak anywhere from basic to fluent English in major towns and cities. In market situations, most Khmers 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.
Khmers are by and large not the hardcore hagglers that their Vietnamese neighbours are, so it's important to be respectful when haggling over something in the market or with your motodop. If you're staying at a Western owned hotel, or going to a Western owned bar, realize that the people you haggle with at the markets need your money a lot more than the people at the hotel or the bar that you aren't even bothering to haggle with. The bottom line is that you shouldn't take the attitude that every single transaction at a market must be bargained into the ground. If a vendor is asking 1,000 riel for a bottle of water, or US$1 for a T-shirt, don't haggle-- pay it. They need the extra 50 cents much more than you do. As with any developing country, however, straying far beyond the customary prices can lead to inflation and over-dependence on tourism.
The Cambodian riel is the official currency, but US dollars are widely accepted in Cambodia. The exchange rate is fairly stable at 4000 riel to the US$, and it's not uncommon to receive change in a mix of the two. Near the Thai border (especially Battambang, Koh Kong, and Poipet) Thai baht is also accepted; further east (including Siem Reap) baht can easily be exchanged, but cannot be spent - except at uncompetitive rates. Likewise Euro can easily be exchanged, but cannot be spent - except at uncompetitive rates. Although US notes are universally accepted in Cambodia, coins buy nothing but confused looks.
Instead of queueing up and filling endless paperwork at banks, you'll have better luck changing money at the nearest market - just look for the guys with a glass case full of cash. Torn foreign currency notes can be difficult to exchange. It's acceptable to check each note and ask to have them changed if you aren't happy with the quality, even in banks.
If you're planning on heading out off the beaten track, you need to take enough US dollars to get you back to a point where you can get more.
In many of the larger towns one or more of the local banks operate as Western Union Money Transfer agents.
ATMs can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville; both debit card withdrawls (Maestro) and cash advances on credit cards are possible. For the rest of the country it's best to stick to cash or traveller's checks (in USD).
VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards; MasterCard and American Express cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted.
Traveller's checks, 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 flavour. 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 traveler's checks is 2% and US$2 minimum.
While not as spicy or as varied as food from Thailand or Vietnam, Khmer food is tasty and cheap and is invariably accompanied by rice (or occasionally noodles). Thai and Vietnamese characteristics can be found in Khmer food, although Cambodians love a stronger sour taste in their dishes, especially through the addition of prahok, the famous Khmer fish paste (although for most foreigners this is most definitely an acquired taste!). In addition to Khmer food, there are large number of Chinese restaurants, especially in Phnom Penh and large provincial centers.
Typical Khmer dishes which are palatable to westerners include:
Don't forget Khmer desserts - Pong Aime (sweets). These are avaliable 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 Teuk R'leuek, 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 are less palatable to westerners include pregnant eggs (duck eggs with the embryo still inside), Prahok (a fermented fish paste) and almost every variety of creepy or crawly animal (spiders, crickets, water beetles) as well as barbequed rats, frogs, snakes, bats and small birds.
Tap water is not potable. Bottled water is ubiquitous and cheap Khmer brands in blue plastic bottles sell for 1000 riels or less (although prices are often marked up for tourists).
Iced coffee is made Vietnamese style, freshly brewed and mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Iced tea made with lemon and sugar is also refreshing.
Fresh coconut can be found everwhere, 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 as hammered as possible as fast as possible. Know your limits if invited to join in!
The two domestic Cambodian beers are Anchor — best ordered "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. Many of the cheaper beers are not especially nice, such as Crown or Leo, and only drunk by the locals.
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. Bottled water is readily available at 500 riel for a cheap 1L bottle, or double that for a screw-cap. In Phnom Penh tap water is theoretically clean, though most travellers still buy bottles.
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 $2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting $3 for the "X.O." version, it's also 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, as low-grade cannabis (ganchaa) is fairly common in Cambodian cooking (for the flavor). That being said, it pays to use common sense.
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 an overpriced pie sprinkled 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.
Western-style accommodation is generally only available in the big tourist hotspots of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and (to a lesser extent) Sihanoukville. Basic guesthouses can go as low as $2/night in the countryside but prices in the cities are usually in the $5-10 range. At the budget end, expect to provide your own towels etc. If you want aircon and hot water, the price creeps up to close to $20, and you can easily pay over $100/night if you want to stay in a branded five-star hotel.
Cambodia has less 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.
There are many opportunities for volunteer work. Those in Phnom Penh include teaching English, health education, working with the homeless, and other development projects.
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.
Cambodia suffers from a legacy of millions of land mines left during the war years. To tourists, land mines do not present any threat as all areas near populated areas have been thoroughly demined. 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. However, travel beyond well established paths is still not recommended. In remote areas such as Preah Vihear and Pailin, exercise caution and heed warning signs, and do not venture beyond well established roads and paths. Once more, with feel, no tourist should be concerned about mines in any way. Many tourists mistake electric or sewage warning signs along National Highway Six for land mine signs. Tourists will never see any mine warning signs, unless you get far off the beaten track, or visit a museum.
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 bar and clubs, however, do have taxi-girls wandering the premises, especially in Phnom Penh. 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. However, contrary to claims by the sensationalistic western media, pedophilia is not at all condoned by the majority of the country, and as such, won't be witnessed by your common traveler. If you see a western male in public with a Khmer child, than it is probably a perfectly innocent scenerio, as pedophiles are much more discreet than that. It is also the case that westerners often mistake of-age prostitutes for being much younger.
Most medical services in Cambodia are not up to Western standards, and the rest are few and far between and very expensive. Should you become seriously ill or injured while in Cambodia, evacuation to Thailand or Singapore will be the most likely result. Because this can be incredibly costly, adequate insurance coverage is an absolute must while in Cambodia.
There are presently no vaccination requirements to enter Cambodia, unless arriving directly from Africa. Border officials have from time to time operated scams whereby travellers were "fined" for not having proof of vaccinations, however this now appears to have stopped completely.
Before visiting Cambodia, be sure to discuss prevention with a qualified specialist / travel clinic. It's especially important to review the relevant vaccinations (hepatitis A, hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis, measles, rabies, tetanus-diphtheria, typhoid, etc) well in advance; in addition, both malaria and dengue fever are endemic in some parts of Cambodia, particularly in heavily forested areas for malaria, though dengue fever can be found throughout the country.
HIV/AIDS is widespread and on the increase, with some surveys showing as many as 40% of commercial sex workers being HIV positive. If you intend to engage in such activities, be sure use protection.
Tap water in Cambodia is not suitable for drinking. Phnom Penh municipality claims that its water is treated and cleaned, and this is probably true; however by the time it gets to your tap, it's been contaminated. Bottled water is the only thing you should ever drink or brush your teeth with.
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 a 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.
Country Code: +855
Internet cafes are cheap (US$0.5/hour) and especially popular in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. In Kampot, Kratie and Sihanoukville the rate is around US$1/hour. Elsewhere, Internet access can be scarce or non-existent; many cafes feature dated computers and slow dial-up connections.