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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.  Sihanouk abdicated and supported 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.
 
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.  Sihanouk abdicated and supported 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 an 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".  What is clear, as Ben Kiernan argues, there was a disproportionate number of ethnic Chams killed, and the ethnically Vietnamese also suffered persecution.  Nonetheless, being Khmer did not save one from these indescriminate mass killings. These unrealistic cruel policies led to severe tensions with other communist countries, most noticeably Vietnam, and was immediately obstracised from the worldwide Communist movement. A 1979 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and ended 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 destroyed in 1978, so the country had to be built up from scratch, often with Vietnamese funding and very strong ties with that country. 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.
+
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 an 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".  What is clear, as Ben Kiernan argues, there was a disproportionate number of ethnic Chams killed, and the ethnically Vietnamese also suffered persecution.  Nonetheless, being Khmer did not save you from the often indescriminate mass killings. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and ended 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 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 International Criminal Court is currently putting Ieng sary, Pol Pot's brother in law, on trial for 'crimes against humanity'.
 
The International Criminal Court is currently putting Ieng sary, Pol Pot's brother in law, on trial for 'crimes against humanity'.

Revision as of 19:11, 2 April 2008

[[File:noframe|250px|frameless|Cambodia]]
Location
[[File:noframe|250px|frameless]]
Flag
[[File:Cb-flag.png|108px|frameless]]
Quick Facts
Capital Phnom Penh
Government multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy established in September 1993
Currency Riel (KHR)
Area 181,040 km2
Population 13,995,904 (July 2007 est.)
Language Khmer (official) 95%, French, English,Thai
Religion Theravada Buddhist 95%, other 5%
Electricity 230V/50 Hz; both British and European plugs are common
Country code 855
Internet TLD .kh
Time Zone UTC +7

The Kingdom of Cambodia [1] (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.

Contents

Understand

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.

History

Is 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 enjoy a long and often triumphant history. Anybody who witnesses the magnificence of the temples at Ankor will be able to see that the Khmer Empire was once wealthy, and a major force in the region. It's zenith came under Jayavarman VII (1181-ca. 1218), where the Empire made significant territorial gains from the Vietnamese and Cham.

The period following the demise of the Khmer Empire has been described as Cambodia's dark ages.

French colonial expansion in the area known then as Indochina included coming to dominate Cambodia as a protectorate under French political control. However, 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 eite 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 Francais.

Prince Sihanouk was the main power figutre 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 making 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. Sihanouk abdicated and supported 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 an 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". What is clear, as Ben Kiernan argues, there was a disproportionate number of ethnic Chams killed, and the ethnically Vietnamese also suffered persecution. Nonetheless, being Khmer did not save you from the often indescriminate mass killings. A 1978 Vietnamese invasion drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside and ended 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 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 International Criminal Court is currently putting Ieng sary, Pol Pot's brother in law, on trial for 'crimes against humanity'.

Economy

The two pillars of Cambodia's newly-stable economy are textiles and garments, and tourism. The latter has grown rapidly with over 1.7 million visitors arriving in 2006. The long-term development of the economy after decades of war remains a daunting challenge, as the population (more than half under 27 years of age) lacks education and productive skills, particularly in the poverty-ridden countryside, which suffers from an almost total lack of basic infrastructure. 80% 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.

Regions

Map of Cambodia

Cities

  • Banlung - far northeastern provincial capital located near some great waterfalls and national parks
  • Battambang - the second biggest town, after the capital
  • Kep - A Resort town not to be missed
  • Koh Kong - small town border crossing town on the Thai border
  • Kratie - relaxed river town in the north-east on the Mekong, and an excellent place to get close look at endangered river dolphins
  • Poipet - the busiest border crossing town on the Thai border
  • Siem Reap - the access point for Angkor
  • Sihanoukville - seaside town in the south, also known as Kompong Som

Other destinations

Get in

Visas

All visitors, except (as of May 2006) citizens of Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, and Laos, need a visa to enter Cambodia. The official price for a tourist visa is US$20, and US$25 for a business visa - but expect much higher prices (US$30 or more for the tourist visa) to be demanded at land border crossings.

Visas can be obtained at any Cambodian embassy or consulate overseas. 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.

  • Tourist visa: when applied for in advance, these are valid for 90 days (ie must be used within 3 months), and good for a 30 day entry permit stamp which can be extended once only for a further 30 days in Phnom Penh (or elsewhere via agencies) at a cost of US$15.
  • Business visa: the best choice for stays over two months and/or multiple entries, as they can be extended indefinitely (approx US$140 per 6 month extension) and have multiple entry status when extended. Most Phnom Penh travel agencies process the extensions.

To apply for a visa, you will need one or two (depending on where you apply) passport-size photo(s) (although when applying on arrival, the fee for not having one is usually only US$1-2), a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, passport photocopies when applying at some embassies/consulates (not needed if applying on arrival), and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee (expect to pay a substantially higher price if paying in a local currency).

Alternatively, citizens of most nations can now apply for an e-Visa online. The cost is US$25 (US$20 + US$5 processing charge) instead of the normal US$20. The service is excellent and you get the visa by e-mail in 3 business days. For the e-visa you will need one photograph of yourself. You can scan your passport photo (into .jpg format, please!) or take a passport photograph of yourself with a digital camera.

With the e-visa you will breeze through immigration. The e-visa will come back as a .pdf file. You will then need to print out TWO copies (one for the entry and one for the exit). After printing out your two copies, cut out the e-visa part and put both copies into your passport. If only other countries had this excellent service!

For those entering by air, the e-Visa is valid at both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports. It's cheaper to get your visa on arrival at either airport. However if you get a visa in advance (online or from an embassy/consulate) you do get to skip two lines at the airport: the line to apply for the visa, and the line at the cashier to pay the fee. Of course, if you checked luggage, you'll probably have to spend the saved time waiting for your bag.

For those entering overland, do note that overland e-Visa entries are restricted to just three border crossings: Bavet (Svay Rieng) from Moc Bai (Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam); Koh Kong (from Hat Lek / Trat, Thailand); and Poipet (from Aranyaprathet, Thailand). However getting a visa in advance (online or from an embassy/consulate) is definitely the way to go in order to avoid the common scam of visa overpricing at border crossings (see Scam alert).

By plane

International departure tax
From both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the surcharge is a steep US$25 for adults and US$13 for children 12 and under. The tax is not included in your flight ticket.


Cambodia has international airports at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

Direct flights connect Phnom Penh International Airport (previously Pochentong International Airport) with China (Guangzhou | Hong Kong | Shanghai), Laos (Vientiane), Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore, 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, Taiwan (Kaohsiung | Taipei), Thailand (Bangkok | U-Tapao (Sattahip/Pattaya)) 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 have introduced flights from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, while Jetstar Asia has begun flying between Singapore, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

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.

By road

Scam alert
Beware of scams when entering Cambodia overland. Most common is the inflation of the visa fee from the official US$20 to 1000 baht (US$30+) or more. To avoid this, get your visa in advance - either from a Cambodian embassy/consulate (via an agency if necessary) or from the e-Visa website. See the Visas section for full details.

Past scams have included fines for not presenting a vaccination certification (even though this is not mandatory), charging 50 baht for a (bogus) SARS health form, and enforcing an imaginary US$100 to Cambodian riel exchange requirement (at lousy rates).


From Thailand

All six international border crossings are open 07:00-20:00 and all have visa-on-arrival facilities at the Cambodian immigration checkpoints.

On the Thai side, there are good sealed roads to all 6 crossings. There are no direct bus services from Thailand that cross the border, but there are buses to all crossings except Chong Sa-Ngam.

On the Cambodian side, more basic and less frequent bus services are available from Poipet and Koh Kong.

The busiest land crossing into Cambodia, and the most convenient for onward travel to Siem Reap and the Angkor Archaeological Park. The road to Sisophon and on to Siem Reap is in better shape than it once was but still mainly unsealed; the road from Sisophon on to Battambang and Phnom Penh is sealed and in good condition.

Take a bus to Trat (transfer in Chanthaburi if necessary) 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.

Those with a yen for adventure can try out the four other international crossings:

From Vietnam

Through bus tickets cost US$4-10. Bus passengers must walk between the Cambodian and Vietnamese checkpoints and transfer between the two buses that travel the Cambodian and Vietnamese legs respectively. At this crossing only one passport photo is required for a Cambodian visa.

Alternatively, it can be interesting to join a Mekong Delta tour (2-3 days) that travels between the two cities; the total cost is about US$25-35 for three days.

Mai Linh Taxi Company [2] in Ho Chi Minh City provides bus from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap directly from beginning of 2007. The price is US$18.

It is possible to cross at the Trapeang Phlong - Xa Mat border but as of now you have to organise your own transport.

From Laos

Onward transportation not regularly available. Cambodian visas available, but expect 1$ to 2$ of transaction fees on both sides of the border. Travel agencies on both sides have border crossing packages.

By boat

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.

Get around

By plane

Domestic departure tax
From both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the surcharge is US$6; from Banlung the fee is US$4.


The domestic aviation scene in Cambodia is in a permanent state of flux.

The most reliable operator by far is Siem Reap Airways [3], 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 [4] 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, but services are in doubt after a crash in June 2007 killed 22.

By road

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 US$5, but bring along something warm if you don't like freezing air-conditioning and earplugs if you don't like Khmer karaoke. There are few, if any, night-time 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 of US$1 or less.

Motorcycle rentals are available in many towns, with the notable exception of Siem Reap.

Display extreme caution if you decide to risk driving or riding yourself, as driving practices are vastly different from developed countries. Local road 'rules' will also differ from city to city. In any case, choosing one of the above options will be cheaper and easier for even the most experienced traveller.

By boat

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.

By train

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).

Talk

Good advice for learning the language
See also: Khmer phrasebook

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 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.

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.

Buy

Haggling

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.

Cash

The Cambodian riel is the official currency, but US dollars are universally accepted in Cambodia. Given that there are still few ATMs, bring a large quantity of US$1, $5, $10 and $20 bills, and bear in mind that notes in $50 and $100 denominations are hard to use or exchange. US dollar coins buy nothing but confused looks.

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. 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.

Plastic

ATMs can be found in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and Kampot; both debit card withdrawls (Maestro, Cirrus, Plus) 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 US$).

VISA and JCB are the most widely accepted credit cards; MasterCard and American Express cards are slowly becoming more widely accepted.

Traveller's checks

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.

Eat

Fried noodles, sour soup and a Khmer-style curry
One of the must-try local Cambodian pan cake

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:

  • Amok - The most popular Cambodian dish with travellers. A coconut milk curry dish less spicy than those found in Thailand. Amok is usually made with chicken, fish, or shrimp, plus some vegetables. It is sometimes served in a hollowed-out coconut with rice on the side. Quite delicious.
  • K'tieu (Kuytheav) - A noodle soup generally served for breakfast. Can be made with pork, beef or seafood. Flavorings are added to the customers taste in the form of lime juice, chili powder, sugar and fish sauce.
  • Somlah Machou Khmae - A sweet and sour soup made with pineapple, tomatoes and fish.
  • Bai Saik Ch'rouk - Another breakfast staple. Rice (bai) with pork meat (sec trouk) often barbequed. Very tasty and served with some pickled vegetables.
  • Saik Ch'rouk Cha Kn'yei - Pork fried with ginger. Ginger is relatively commonly used as a vegetable. This tasty dish is available just about everywhere.
  • Lok lak - Chopped up beefsteak cooked quickly. Probably a holdover from the days of French colonization. Served with lettuce and onion, and often with chips.
  • Mi / Bai Chaa - Fried noodles or rice. Never particularly inspiring, but a good traveller's staple.
  • Trey Ch'ien Chou 'Ayme - Trey (fish) fried with a sweet chili sauce and vegetables. Very tasty. Chou 'ayme is the phrase for "sweet and sour".
  • K'dam - Crab. Kampot in the south is famous for its crab cooked in pepper. A very tasty meal.

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 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 barbecued rats, frogs, snakes, bats and small birds.

Drink

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).

Soft drinks

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 everywhere, and is healthy and sanitary if drunk straight from the fruit.

Alcohol

Nightlife, Siem Reap

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 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 US$2 for a 350 ml flask of the original and a budget-busting US$3 for the "X.O." version, it's also the cheapest legitimate tipple around.

Drugs

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 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.

Sleep

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 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$20, and you can easily pay over US$100/night if you want to stay in a branded five-star hotel.

Learn

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.

Work

An excellent way to get to know and understand more of the country is to do some voluntary work. Travel to Teach runs a project with schoolchildren in Phnom Penh. [5]

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.

Stay safe

Land mine warning sign

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.

Land mines

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 all areas near populated 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.

Prostitution

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 made by the 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, then it is probably a perfectly innocent scenario, as pedophiles are much more discreet than that. It is also the case that Westerners often mistake of-age prostitutes for being much younger.

Stay healthy

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 to 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 most likely been contaminated anyway. Bottled water is the only thing you should ever drink or brush your teeth with. Be careful with ice in your drinks, as it has often also come from the tap out the back.

Respect

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. It's useful to carry pencils and other tokens to give to kids, particularly in more rural areas. 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 Rougue's policy of de-urbanising the country leading to economic prosperity in the 1980s, with sporadic uprisings.

Contact

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.


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