Cambodia is famed for its historical and cultural values. However, for the real travellers loving challenges this land has much more to offer: white-sand beaches and relaxed off-shore islands, forest-clad hills and impenetrable jungle...
Thanks to the stunning temples of Angkor, Cambodia is now firmly established on the Southeast Asian tourist trail. Many visitors head straight to the temples, staying in the country just a few days, but those who delve deeper find that Cambodia, with its balmy climate and laid back attitude to life has much more to offer: white-sand beaches and relaxed off-shore islands, forest-clad hills and impenetrable jungle, a dynamic, yet beguiling, capital and sleepy provincial towns, in many of which colonial houses and shophouse terraces are now slowly being restored.
For a small country, Cambodia encompasses a surprisingly diverse range of terrain and scenery. Rice fields may be the quintessential feature of this predominantly flat and agricultural land, but there are also significant highland areas and 440km of coastline, as well as the massive Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, which dominates the heart of the country. In the east, the mighty Mekong River forms a natural divide, beyond which rise the mountains of Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri, where the last of Cambodia’s jungle can be found. In the southwest, the heavily forested Cardamom Mountains run down to the sea, while parts of the southeast are regularly inundated, as the Mekong and its sister river, the Bassac, overflow their banks.
For all its natural beauty and rich heritage, Cambodia is still probably best known in the West for its suffering at the hands of the fanatical Khmer Rouge, who came to power in the 1970s with a programme of mass execution that resulted in the death of a fifth of the population. Their three-year terror was followed by a protracted guerrilla war that ended only in 1998 and left much of the country in ruins. Nowadays, however, Cambodia is at peace, and visitors will find it a safe place to travel.
A tropical country, Cambodia is warm all year round, though there are several distinct seasons. There is little rain between November and May, the so-called dry season, which itself divides into two distinct phases. The cool season (Nov–Feb) is the peak time for tourism, as it’s cool enough to explore the temples in comfort and yet warm enough to sunbathe by the coast. The hot season (typically March–May) is when humidity and temperatures soar, with Phnom Penh and Battambang seeing peak daytime temperatures of 33–35°C. At this time, it’s best to rise early to get out and about, returning for a snooze at midday and emerging again late in the afternoon. This is also when the dust thrown up from the country’s dirt roads is at its worst, the billowing clouds ensuring that everything and everyone is coated in a fine film of grit. At Angkor, the unrelenting sun, allied to the lack of any breeze, makes for a baking visit, though this is an excellent time to hit the coast.
The rainy season lasts roughly from June to October. River levels rise dramatically, and in September and October the country’s infrastructure is at its most stretched, with dirt roads reduced to deep slurry and a risk of flooding in provincial areas. Thankfully, the rains aren’t unrelenting and fall mainly in the afternoon, so provided you don’t want to get off the beaten track and don’t mind doing most of your sightseeing in the mornings (which are normally dry), this isn’t a bad time to visit. It’s also the quietest time for tourism (at Angkor, you’ll have the temples pretty much to yourself) and the countryside is at its lushest.
You will need to fill out a customs declaration
on arrival in Cambodia, although customs requirements are fairly loose and baggage checks are rare. On entry, you’re allowed four hundred cigarettes (or the equivalent in cigars or tobacco), one bottle of spirits and a “reasonable” amount of perfume. You cannot bring in more than US$10,000 in cash, or take out more than 100,000 riel.
The electrical supply is 220 volts AC, 50Hz. Cambodian sockets take two-pin, flat-pronged plugs. These days the electricity supply in towns is pretty reliable, although during the night some hotels do switch to generators which can be noisy. However, some areas, Banlung for example, still experience power cuts from time to time; in rural areas most villages still survive on a generator and batteries. Electricity is expensive (in Phnom Penh most of it is imported from Vietnam) and if you’re taking a room with air conditioning you will be charged more. Note that if you buy electrical goods in Cambodia, you might need a transformer or to adjust their voltage setting before use abroad.
ENTRY & EXIT REQUIREMENTS
Visas for Cambodia are required by everyone other than nationals of Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. These are issued on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap international airports, at Sihanoukville port, at all overland crossings from Thailand and Vietnam, and at Voen Kham from Laos. Arriving overland, make sure that the officials at the border put an entry stamp in your passport, as not having one is likely to cause hassle when you eventually leave the country. Single-entry, 30-day tourist e-visas
are available on line, but they are only supported if you enter through the airports at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, or overland at Koh Kong and Poipet (www.mfaic.gov.kh
; payment is by PayPal). They are valid for three months from the date of issue and there’s a $5 processing charge.
A single-entry tourist visa
obtained on arrival ($20; one passport photograph required) is valid for thirty days, including the day of issue, and can be extended once only, for one month. Note that at the Thai border Cambodian officials may ask for 1000 baht (around $25–30), though if you ask for a receipt this does usually get reduced to $20 (see Border scams). You can also buy a business visa
($25; one passport photo) on arrival. Like the tourist visa this is valid for thirty days, but can be extended in a variety of ways (ranging from one-month single-entry extension, three months’ single-entry, six months’ multiple-entry and twelve months’ multiple-entry; costs range from $42 to $270). Multiple entries are only available on a business visa.
Both tourist and business visas can only be extended
in Phnom Penh at the inconveniently located Department for Immigration (Mon–Fri 8–11am & 2–4pm; t
firstname.lastname@example.org), 8km out of town opposite Pochentong airport. A tourist visa extension ($40) takes 28 days to process and takes effect from the date you submit your passport – an absurd situation which means you’ll only get a few extra days’ use out of the extension. As few people can afford to be without their passport for that length of time, they are forced into taking the three-day service
at $45 for a one-month extension. Even then, applying for the extension is a time-consuming exercise involving at least two trips out to the airport. A far easier option is to use the visa-extension services
offered by travel agents and guesthouses in town, who will do all the running around for just a few dollars’ commission. If you overstay
your visa you’ll be charged $5 per day. From Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the departure tax is $25 for international flights and $6 for domestic departures (at Phnom Penh you can pay by credit card). There is no departure tax when leaving by land.
At the time of writing a temporary visa waiver had been introduced between Cambodia and Vietnam and Cambodia and Thailand, allowing nationals of the respective countries 14 days’ visa-free stay.