Why Travel to Cambodia?
Despite some safety concerns you
have to see the sublime temples of Angkor, among the world's
greatest man-made wonders.
Apart from temples you should also visit the French-built
capital, Phnom Penh, for fine food and museums; Sihanoukville
for sun and sand; Ban Lung for nature and ethnic people.
Generally people - even the infamous motorbikers - are charming
and friendly while local cuisine is superb and good value while
Angkor beer is divine!
Covering an area of 181,035 square
kilometres Cambodia is about half the size of Germany. In
the West the country is bordered by Thailand, in the North by
Laos and in the East by Vietnam.
By far the most important river
of Cambodia is the Mekong, which passes through the
country for about 500 kilometres in a northsoutherly direction.
The Mekong is passable for ships from its delta in Vietnam until
Southeast Asia's largest lake, Tonle Sap, is in Cambodia
and is connected to the Mekong by a short river, also called
Tonle Sap. For most of the time this river flows from lake Tonle
Sap into the Mekong. However, during the Southeast Asian rainy
season from June to October when the Mekong drains large areas
of Southeast Asia, the Tonle Sap river flows from the Mekong
back into lake Tonle Sap thus causing enormous floods in the
area surrounding the lake. During this time, lake Tonle Sap can
swell to more than twice its regular size.
Central Cambodia is a
fertile plain. Mountain ranges in the shape of a semicircle
form a natural boundary with Thailand. In the West are the
Cardamon Mountains (designated after the spice of the same
name), in the Southwest the Elephant Mountains and in the
North the Dankret Mountain Range. The highest mountain in
Cambodia is Phnom Aural in the Cardamon range, at a
height of 1,813 metres.
To date these mountain ranges are comparatively densely
covered with forest and are only sparsely populated. All
three are still operating areas of the Khmer Rouge
The southern coastal strip has never been of importance
for the Cambodian economy. It is separated from the central
plain by difficult terrain. The Mekong has always been the
economical conduit of Cambodia.
Climate and Seasons
As a tropical country, Cambodia
is bathed in almost all year sunshine and has a high average
temperature. There are two distinct seasons, the dry and the
monsoon. The monsoon lasts from May to October with
southwesterly winds ushering in the clouds that bring seventy
five to eighty percent of the annual rainfall often in
spectacular intense bursts for an hour at a time with fantastic
lightning displays. The dry season runs from November to April
averaging temperatures from 27 to 40 degrees Celsius. The
coolest and most comfortable period for those from cooler
climates is from October to January.
Cambodia's main attractions:
People travel to Cambodia for Angkor, but this bustling capital
is well worth a couple of days or more. It has some impressive
sights, an interesting street life and the riverfront is laid
back with trendy shops, restaurants and cafes.
The prime sights are:
The Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda - the residence of King
Tuol Sleng Museum, the former high school turned prison for the
Khmer Rouge victims - more than 14,000 met their death there - a
shocking must see.
Wat Phnom, a hilltop pagoda, was the foundation of the city and
is one of the most important spiritual places in the country.
The National Museum of Arts, an imposing Khmer style building in
red brick, built by French, shows extensive Angkorian crafts
[picture top left].
The Central Market [also known as New Market] and the Russian
Market [Psah Toul Tom Poung] are worth visiting.
The Killing Fields [Choeung Ek], were the final destination for
the Khmer Rouge victims, 17 km from the city centre.
Angkor [Siem Reap].
Beaches: Sihanoukville [Kampong Som].
Not quite up to neighboring Thailand's pristine resorts, but
these uncrowded white sandy beaches are Asia's best-kept secret.
Really rewarding after temple travel burn-out, you can go island
hopping, snorkelling and diving. There is also Ream National
Park nearby for nature and wildlife activities such as jungle
trekking and boat trips with rangers.
The best among four beaches is Ochheuteal, with some grand
hotels and restaurants, about 230km [143m] from Phnom Penh, 3.5
hours by regular bus.
Ban Lung [Rattanakiri], a small town used as a
base to explore Cambodia's largest park, Virachey, containing
rainforest, mountains, waterfalls and mountain tribes.
Battanmbang, an enchanting town, with
well-preserved colonial architecture.
Also there are some little-known but superb Angkorian temples
out in the countryside, including Wat Ek Phnom, Wat Banan and
A 45 minutes flight from the capital.
Since ancient times, the Khmers
had accepted the two great religions from India, i.e. Hinduism
and Buddhism. The former one was more popular. Hinduism had
played an important role in Khmer civilization as the Angkor
monarchs adopted its concept of deva-raja, or "god-king", by
which the king was revered as an incarnation of the god Shiva, a
supreme Hindu deity who was regarded as a protector.
Most temples in the Angkor Empire
were dedicated to either god Shiva or god Vishnu. Believed to be
the holy house of the supreme gods, the temples were carefully
built with fine arts, and the materials used are those of
everlasting stones. Many impressive sculptures of great
craftsmanship were enshrined.
The second religion being revered
by the Khmers was the Buddhism of Mahayana sect which came into
the region at same time as Hinduism though less prominent.
Both Hinduism and Mahayana
Buddhism played an important role as the political, religious
and philosophical pillars of Khmer Civilization by which the
king was revered as the god-king or deva-raja. This ideology
enabled the king to rule over the country as an absolute monarch
with sovereign spirituality over his people, and thus enhanced
the unity of the kingdom. Successive kings were able to mobilize
large manpower to serve the army, to maintain an extensive
irrigation system and to build numerous massive temples.
In the 13th century, Theravada
Buddhism was introduced to the Khmer from Sri Lanka and became
more prominent in the royal court as well as with the local
people. The teaching of Theravada Buddhism directly clashed with
the original belief of the Khmer people as it taught the people
to seek self enlightenment and abandon worldly things. With this
teaching, the attitudes of the people towards its Hindu Gods as
well as the God-king changed, and thus led to the gradual
weakening of the empire which eventually collapsed in the first
half of the15th century.
The Khmer people seem to be the
obedient students, as they did not raise doubts about the
religious teaching of the original doctrines. We can see in
Khmer history that the religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism
were not divided into the different sub-sects in the land of
Khmer, as they were in some other civilizations.
In addition to Hinduism and
Buddhism, the Khmer people also had their own indigenous beliefs
such as the local deities, ancestral spirits, as well as the
evil spirits. There are no inscriptions or manuscripts to
describe these beliefs, however, it can be found to be prevalent
in modern Cambodia, especially in the remote villages. These
beliefs are passed on from one generation to another by word of
The earliest written language to
have been found in the region is Sanskrit, an Indian sacred
language. The writings were carved in stones which could be
dated back to 5th and 6th Century, which show a strong influence
of the Indian culture over the indigenous people.
Sometimes later, the Khmer
Language seems to appear with many of its characters and words
derived from Sanskrit. One of the oldest stone inscriptions
written in Khmer language were found to be carved in 612 A.D. as
its text said.
The contents of these stone
inscriptions which were housed in the temples were mostly
concerned with religion, its ritual and philosophy, Indian epics
of Ramayana and Mahabharata, Kings' salutations and some poetic
verses. Some of these stone inscriptions also list the assets
which were owned by the temples and by the dignitaries as well
as the different objects needed for ritual ceremonies. Although
these assets and objects haave long ago disappeared, these
listings served as another jigsaw in our quest for knowledge of
the Angkor. Little things have been recorded about the ordinary
life of the local people, however, these stone inscriptions have
helped us to retrace the history of Khmer and to understand its
political and cultural structure.
Around 1,200 stone inscriptions
written in Sanskrit and Khmer had been discovered.
The inscriptions were careful
engraved on the stone with a great work of real art in order to
show high respect to the gods of the temples. This could lead us
to imagine that the Khmers were devout to their gods whom they
revered as their protector, and God's blessing would bring them
Many Angkor temples have been
found to contain the stone inscriptions in both languages -
Sanskrit and Khmer, however, their contents could be
differentiated into two distinct characteristics although both
of them served for a religious purpose. Those inscriptions
written in Sanskrit were addressed more or less directly to the
gods in term of religious prayers and rituals. Sanskrit is the
sacred language of India and was maintained in the original form
by the Khmers so that its value to their gods would not be
deviated by any form of translation.
Generally, the Khmer inscription
had its own distinct style and the content was mostly a listing
of assets, covering paddy fields, cattle, objects and
furniture, as well as the names of slaves which were owned by
the temples. In many instances, some of the stone inscriptions
were placed in the shrine by donors who could be the dignitaries
or the elites of the Khmer ruling class. These inscriptions
could be varied, ranging from the listing of assets to some
According to Zhou Daguan in the
Chinese annals, the ancient Khmers knew how to write on the
latina leaves as well as by chalk on animal skins.
Unfortunately, these materials seem to have decayed over the
past centuries due to damp weather and insects.
It is hard to believe that such a
high civilization of Khmer with a well-developed writing system
would barely have any literature. Only three Khmer literatures
are known since they were preserved in the stone inscription.
Many literatures and other Khmer manuscripts, being written on
unendurable materials other than on stone, are believed to have
been lost with time, and some may have survived until the
present day as local folklore.
There are a
number of health risks associated with travel to Cambodia and
travellers are advised to seek the latest medical advice on
vaccinations and precautions especially regarding typhoid,
cholera, malaria, hepatitis B and polio, at least three weeks
before travelling. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for all
areas except Phnom Penh, around Lake Tonle Sap and the Angkor
temple complex. Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is
prevalent especially in heavily populated areas. Travellers
staying long-term, or for more than 1 month and who may engage
in unprotected outdooor activities, should be vaccinated against
Japanese Encephalitis. There have been outbreaks of bird flu
with four deaths in Cambodia, and although the risk of
contracting the disease is slight, travellers should avoid
contact with domestic, wild and caged birds and ensure that all
poultry and egg dishes are well cooked. Diarrhoea is the number
one ailment afflicting travellers. Visitors should assume that
the water is not safe to drink; bottled water is widely
available. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, salads and food
sold by street vendors, and don't drink beverages with ice.
Medical facilities are poor, except for a few expensive private
hospitals in Phnom Penh. Treatment must be paid for with cash
and health insurance is essential.
Money: Riel (KHR)
is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign
currency is difficult to exchange with the exception of US
Dollars. Most transactions require cash. US dollars and Thai
Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually
done in riel. A torn US dollar note renders it useless. Credit
cards are only accepted in a limited number of
tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and
larger towns. There are a few ATMs in Phnom Penh, but they
shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money; travellers
cheques in US dollars or sterling can be cashed at a limited
number of banks and larger hotels, though travellers cheques are
not recommended due to limited acceptance.
Official rate: US$1 = 24.6 riels
Black Market US$1 = 60 riels
Equivalent to sterling
£1 = 69 / 144 riels
Note: These currency exchange
rates are not updated daily and should be used as a guideline
Air travelers enter Cambodia
through Phnom Penh’s Pochentong Airport or Siem Reap Angkor
International Airport. Both airports are quite modern. The
two-storey one in Phnom Penh even offers a First/Business Class
Lounge on the first floor at the International Terminal, near to
the main boarding gates. Inside is an assortment of services and
modern conveniences including wireless internet. Economy
passengers can use the lounge for a nominal fee.
Pochentong Airport offers plenty of other amenities including
lost luggage services in Arrivals at the International Terminal,
currency exchange, a post office and a smoking lounge.
Restaurants and bars include Caffé Ritazza and Angkor Pub in the
International Terminal; Café Select in the Domestic Departure
Lounge; and a food court outside the International Terminal.
Shopping is light but good, with a bookstore, two duty-free
outlets and a Khmer handicrafts shop.
The airport serves well over a million passengers annually with
a capacity for two million. There are 22 check-in counters and 6
gates, serving 10 international and 3 domestic destinations with
20 airlines. There are 380 parking spaces with parking available
for up to 4 hours.
Siem Reap Airport is equally impressive. It has capacity to
serve 1.5 million passengers and nearly meets this capacity
annually. Although tiny and with just one floor, the airport is
very pleasant and has a bookstore and a charming boutique
selling souvenirs and other goods. There are less than 200
parking spaces, most at the International Terminal.
There are plenty of ways to move around Cambodia and the best
choice for long distances is by air. There are good and frequent
connections between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on President Air
and Siem Reap Airways.
Local buses can also provide an exciting means of travel and are
good for those on a budget. The popular Mekong Express provides
a luxury bus ride for just US$6 between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap
every day. There are other companies offering the same route as
well. You can also get between the capital and Siem Reap via
boat in just 5 hours for about $US25.
The best way to see the country at your leisure is to hire a car
and driver. You could drive yourself but it probably wouldn’t be
as pleasant as having someone else drive you, especially through
heavy traffic. Hiring a motorbike is great for short distances
and to see rural areas, but be sure you know what you’re doing!
Getting around in cities is best done by motorbike or by hiring
a cyclo or a taxi. Walking can be fun if it’s not too hot and
you know the distances and where you are going. However, many of
the sights and attractions in Siem Reap are too far apart for
New Year's Day: just as in the rest
of the world, this is a day of rest after a night of
Tet Festival: taking place in either January or February
dependent on the Khmer lunar calendar, this is one of the
largest celebrations in Cambodia, with an array of fireworks and
Year: traditionally taking place at the end of the harvest, for
two days in mid-April, to mark the New Year according to the
Khmer lunar calendar. The event is celebrated with decorated
homes and shrines filled with food and beverages. Locals gather
together to visit temples and pagodas, and many people converge
upon Angkor Wat.
Royal Ploughing Ceremony (Bonn
Chroat Preah Nongkoal): kicks off the rainy season in Cambodia
in late May. During this time, farmers are preparing for the
ploughing of the fields. A good place to take part in
celebrations is the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where a series
of activities take place. Cows are offered a choice of crops,
and predictions are made for the coming harvest based upon the
Birthday of Buddha (Visa Bochea Day): is in late May. This
reverent day is a time for Buddhists to make merit by visiting
temples and making offerings to the monks.
in early June is a celebration of Cambodia’s young people. On
this day, children’s festivities and events are arranged
throughout the country. Most parents take time off work if they
can to spend the day with their children.
Queen’s Birthday: a day celebrated throughout the country, Her
Majesty the Queen Preah Akeak Mohesy Norodom Monineath
Sihanouk's birthday is on 18 June.
Bonn Phchum Ben:
is an annual festival falling in either September or October
depending on the lunar calendar. It covers 15 days honouring
Buddha's exhortation to remember the dead and during this time
offerings are presented to Buddhist monks.
Soul Day (Pchun Ben Day): is a
religious festival blessing the souls of ancestors, relatives
and friends alike who have passed away. On this day, people
usually visit temples to make merit for ancestors.
King’s Birthday: the birthday of His Majesty King Norodom
Sihanouk is so spectacular it takes place across three days from
30 October to 1 November. Visit the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
for a fireworks display.
Bonn Kathen: is a very visually appealing event as monks come
out of their rainy season retreats at the temples to receive new
robes and other offerings.
Water Festival (Bonn Om Touk): is
one of Cambodia’s most exciting events, marking the start of the
fishing season and the reversing of the flow of the Tonlé Sap
river. It takes place around the full moon. The main attraction
is the three days of boat races with more than 100 entrants; and
nightly fireworks along with lit flotillas sailing for good luck
along the Mekong in Phnom Penh. (December)
Visual Arts Open: is a biennial
event that takes place in December in Phnom Penh. The show
features new work by local artists and is a celebration of the
new future of Cambodia, rising from civil war and genocide.
International Half Marathon: is held annually in December at
Angkor Wat and draws in contestants and spectators from around