Just as India is more than the Taj Mahal, so is Cambodia more than Angkor. If you were to ask me what stays with me the most about my visit to this beautiful South East Asian country, it is not the ruins of Angkor or the hell that is Toul Sleng (S21 Prison). Rather, it is the people – their smiling faces disguise an indomitable spirit that refused to be broken over centuries of war, poverty, enslavement, religious deprivation, corruption, genocide and much, much worse. I came away with a deep admiration for this once mighty empire – everything from the temples of Angkor to the now cosmopolitan streets of Phnom Penh and the old colonial reminiscences in Battambang charmed me.
How long do you need to visit Cambodia:
I do know people who visit Cambodia in 2-3 days, but in my opinion, this would be a gross injustice to everything this country has to offer. 8-10 days is ideal to truly experience this country but if you are pressed for time, here is what you can do:
2-3 days: Only Angkor and its temples.
3-5 days: Angkor, with a day trip to slightly far-off temples like Beng Melea, Koh Ker, Preah Vihear and a visit to the Kampong Khleang floating village.
5-7 days: Add Phnom Penh
7-9 days: Add Battambang/Kampot/Sihanoukville depending on where your fancy flies.
How to dress:
Cambodia is a conservative country and the temples are religious monuments to the people. So, it is important to dress conservatively at the temples and even at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Shoulders and knees need to be covered and although this is the general rule, it is strictly implemented only in Angkor Wat, Bayon and some other temples of central Angkor. It is also strictly implemented in the Royal Palace. I will follow-up with many more interesting dressing suggestions, but as a general rule, pants, maxi dresses, long knee-covering skirts would easily carry you through your entire trip. If your blouses are sleeveless, carry a jacket or shrug of some kind. Covering up bare shoulders with a scarf is not allowed and you definitely do not want to be inside Angkor only to discover that you cannot enter the main sanctuary.
US dollars are widely accepted everywhere, as are Cambodian Riels. Just carry USD with you and you will be fine. But do make sure that your currency notes are not even minorly damaged in some way. Cambodians are paranoid about bad notes (apparently because even small tears mean they will be short-changed at exchange sites), and we ended up being unable to use 40 dollars because of minor damage on the notes. Carry cash – withdrawals are insanely expensive.
Indians do need a Visa to visit Cambodia, as do people belonging to most other nationalities (except ASEAN countries). You can get a visa on arrival (which will cost you USD 35), get a Visa from the Royal Embassy of Cambodia or apply for and obtain an e-visa. We went the e-visa route because we had heard from a friend that the queues to obtain on-arrival visas could be very long.
To get your e-visa, you need a passport that is valid for more than six months, a recent passport-sized digital photo in JPEG or PNG format, a completed visa application form and a visa fee of USD 37 (USD 30+Processing fee), which you will pay with a valid credit card. The process itself is quite simple and anyone that has applied for a Schengen Visa or a US Visa will find this a complete breeze. Once you submit your application, you will receive your visa in a day or two. Interestingly, I got the visa almost instantaneously after application. You need to print a copy of your e-visa and keep this with you.
This Visa is valid for a period of three months, and a single stay can be no longer than 30 days. Do note that it is 30 days, not one month. I know people who left after 31 days and had to pay a fine of USD 5 per day of over-stay. A tourist visa can be extended only once and only for one month, and does not allow re-entry.
An interesting side-note is that while the immigration process at the Siem Reap airport was very simple, the official who processed our visa asked us for “Bakshish”. I am not sure why he chose us- he wasn’t asking everybody. When we said we didn’t have any change on us, he refused to relinquish our passports. We ended up giving up about INR 500 , which he did not even look at before putting it away. I have to admit it left a sour taste in my mouth, but we decided not to let that affect our trip.
I did, of course read about bag snatching from tuk-tuks or remorks (their autos, which are carriages attached to motorbikes) and the like in Cambodia, and having once been robbed in Italy, the husband and I were overly cautious in the first few days. However, this didn’t seem truly necessary after a while in Siem Reap and Battambang. Theft might be prevalent in Phnom Penh, because we saw tuk-tuks with wire meshes in the back seats, so perhaps some caution in the capital city might be prudent. Overall, though, theft did not seem as prevalent here as we had been led to believe.
Again, contrary to popular belief, Cambodia is still not crowded to the point of suffocation. We went during high season, and while there were crowds, of course, you can still manage to get pictures without people in the background. Contrast this with Italy (we went during the off-season), where it was standing room only in most places. You will know you have hit upon a destination at the exact right time; just enough tourism to ensure good rooms and restaurants everywhere, but not enough to have you gritting your teeth about crowds.
Tuk-tuks seem to be the major method of transportation for travel within the cities. You can also hire a car to go to the slightly far-off places and inter-city transfers. Phnom Penh has local bus transport used by students, but not by too many visitors. Tuk-tuks are the way to go here as well. Buses ply regularly between cities – Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville are all very well-connected to each other. Your hotel should be able to help you make all these arrangements.
Just as you exit the airport, on your right, you will find various Sim card providers. There are data only packages, call packages and many more to choose from. WhatsApp calls are not prohibited in Cambodia (unlike Egypt and some other countries), so we chose a 15-day unlimited data only package. It cost us USD 5. I think this is ideal for any traveller (you can go up or down on the number of days), but if not for some reason, you need calling enabled, you can purchase that as well.
Best time to go:
High season is between January to March, this is because it is dry and your plan will not be ruined by the heavy but mostly short bursts (1-2 hours) of rainfall that are common during the monsoon months. You will also tend to see beautiful sun-rises and sun sets during these months. December is shoulder season and could still have sporadic rainfall, but it is quiet, and the country-side is still verdant from the rains, and is a great time to visit.
Between July to September, it could rain every day, and I would think that although it will be a welcome relief from the heat, your sight-seeing plans could be thrown off. It is always warm to hot in Cambodia, because it has tropical weather; you will need sun-screen, umbrellas and hats. I would use the hat sparingly, apart from giving you hat head, which is a real menace, your head will sweat a lot, and I caught a really bad head cold that I am still suffering from. 🙂