Cambodia – 7 Days of Khmer History

Welcome to the Kingdom of Cambodia!

The 7 days I spent in Cambodia were among the most intense and aw inspiring of my time on the road. From day one, I had emotional highs and lows: Anger, stress and terror to amazement, wonder and heartache. Looking back all these months later I still get emotional thinking about this beautiful country filled with rich ancient history. The kind smiles of the local villagers and playful children. And morosely I will never forget the darkness of unspeakable horrors from a chapter of the cold war era.

If you are interested in visiting Cambodia, I seriously recommend watching a few documentaries or picking up a book on amazon.com. Fair warning, the content can be horrific and gruesome on the subject of the Khmer Rouge. While the Angkor documentaries are stunning and among my all time favorites!

Time for a Little Research!

You will enjoy backpacking Cambodia ten times more with a little historic and culture context! Cambodia is truly a destination for the history geek and political enthusiast, therefore I will include a few resources to check out on top of the standard what you need to know before you get there.

Documentaries:
Books

Quick Look at Costs

Over 7 long days of sobering reflection in Phnom Penh and marvelous discovery in Angkor, I spent under $250 USD!  Imagine a once in a lifetime adventure to ancient temples and modern age museums for less than the price of a flat screen TV. There is so much to enjoy even on a small budget. Most noteworthy is Cambodia’s fairly extensive selection of Beer thanks to some new micro craft breweries and a partnership with Carlsberg. As a result, Draft Beer can be found for as low as 0.70 to 1.25 per beer.  Above all else, the food isn’t expensive and delicious! Truly one of my favorite parts of exploring a new culture and country!

Of note, the buses between cities range from $5 to as high as $19 depending on the end destination (within Cambodia or across borders). While all day Tuk-Tuk Taxis start at $13/day  or $1-$3 for a short trip. However, my favorite method of getting around is by bike for $1-$3/day with a helmet included. Expect to pay $10-$12 on off-days and $15-$30 on party and excursion days.

Fixed Costs USD
Cambodian Visa $35
Day Angkor Pass (1&3 day) $20 $40
Tickets to Tuol Sleng & Killing Fields (With Audio) $6  $6
Variable Costs Low High
Accommodation/Night (6 Person Dorm & Private Room) $2 $15
Food & Drinks/Meal $2 $6
Bus/Trip $5 $20
Tuk-Tuk Tour/Day $13 $25
Budget/Day $12 $25

The Geography – North Plains & South Beaches

Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia bordered by Vietnam, Loas and Thailand. The landscape is characterized by fertile rolling plains and extensive waterways that serge in the monsoon season flowing down from the mountains to the North. Knowing when to visit Cambodia is especially important, the dry season from November to April being your safest bet. No need to pack much rain gear! However the flora springs to life at the end of the monsoon season in October offering the most colorful and picturesque sceneryTonle Sap Lake is the primary feature of central  Cambodia while islands and beaches define the coastal region.

The two most popular points of entry by land into Cambodia are from Bangkok to the West and from Saigon to the East.Border checkpoints are always a point of unease for me as my passport and entry are out of my hands.  Honestly, it doesn’t hurt to look as dirty and poor as possible. If you are on the road a while this doesn’t take much effort, chances are you already need a shower. It is a good way to avoid being extorted for bribes or given higher quotes for Visa Applications. I’ve never had any trouble at a border crossing either from the guards, the government clerks or the bus companies. But, its just one of those things to be wary of when on the road. Therefore, this remains my first concern and point of anxiety.

Take a look at the map for some of the more popular travel destinations for your next trip!

Transportation

Cambodia can be awkward in terms of moving between the North and South. Its almost impossible not to double back through Phnom Penh, so don’t be too upset if you miss something on your first pass through the capital city.  I took an overnight bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap in February 2016, unfortunately the seats only reclined as it wasn’t a sleeper but i didn’t care as they had a big TV at the front playing the newest James Bond Movie!! Bus tickets can be booked online or purchased at your hotel or at an agency. Pleasantly, a free mini van ride is usually included from the hotel to the bus terminal… except sometimes they don’t show up and the hotel is forced to improvise.  In fondness, I remember hoping on the back of a motorbike with my stuffed pack and holding on tightly to this tiny little Cambodian Woman around 20 years old. My favorite resource for everything transportation is a great website called Seat61.com, check it out! Otherwise, here is a quick summary of transportation options in Cambodia:

  • Bus $5-$25: Mekong Express – Capitol Bus – Giant Ibis – Phnom Penh Sorya
  • Speed Boat $35:  Available between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh – Caution to water levels!!
  • Train $6-$7: Phnom Penh to Kampot, to Sihanoukville – New in 2016!

In 2016 Cambodia has revived train transportation! Currently,  only the southern lines from Phnom Penh to Kampot and Sihanoukville are open. Apparently its a pleasant experience and very affordable from $6-$7/trip! I know a lot of travelers prefer the trains in Asia, so I encourage checking it out if you plan on venturing down to the south coast.

The Currency – Cambodian Riel (KHR)

Money in Cambodia is one of the finest examples of foreign influence and the lasting effect of a most tumultuous modern history! Oddly, the Cambodian ‘Riel’ is kind of hard to find.  If you stick to the major cities and tourist destinations you’ll find ATMs pumping out US Dollar Bills! Gone are the days of Fee-Free ATM withdrawals, so you can expect a minimum $5 charge anytime you take out cash. Anyways, the locals prefer US Dollars and only use the smaller Riel bills (500, 1,000 & 2,000) to break $1 Dollar bills into change. 4,000 Riel is roughly equivalent to $1 USD. For an exact conversion check out the calculator at the bottom of the page. Keep in mind, it is common for small businesses to round down to 4,000 Riels.

Historic Note: Incredibly, the Riel was actually re-established in 1980 thanks to the Communist Vietnamese Army that liberated Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. From 1975 to 1980, The KR completely abolished the use of money in Cambodia!!! Imagine that, no money!! The new Cambodian government of 1980 had to give away the money to the common people in order to reintroduce a currency to the economy. This is wild stuff! Okay, maybe i’m a little too excited here, but you get the idea that this is never happens!

Tourist Visa

Entry into Cambodia requires a Tourist Visa for citizens of most countries outside of Southeast Asia. A Single entry 30 day Visa will do for most visitors. If you’re planning on a longer stay, consider either a 1 year multiple entry Business visa ($150-$180) or getting an extension for another month. Most travel agencies once inside Cambodia will offer a quick and easy Visa extension service. The Visa can be obtained one of three ways:

  1. Apply in person or by mail ($30-35 USD) at the Cambodian Embassy in your home country. The Visa is valid for 3 months from the date of issue for 30 days in Cambodia.
  2. Apply Online for an eVisa ($37 USD) through the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,. Valid for 3 months from the date of issue for 30 days in Cambodia. This is similar to the Pre-Approval Letter for Vietnam, except it seems way more legitimate.
  3. Visa on Arrival (VOA) is obtainable at the following border checkpoints in addition to the Phnom  Penh and Siem Reap International Airports.  Good for 30 days, single entry in Cambodia.  Double check you have packed your Visa on Arrival Application Requirements:
    1. A completed visa application form – (Pick up at the Border Station)
    2. A Passport with at least 6 months validity
    3. One recent photograph (2 inches x 2 inches) – *Travel with multiple copies
    4. Appropriate visa fee (US$35)

**Note: Only the 30 days single entry visa is available for VOA and eVisa Applications. The eVisa is only accepted at the checkpoints listed below and may present a problem if you plan on entering from Loas.

Visa Border Checkpoints

Airports VOA eVisa
Phnom Penh Yes Yes
Siem Reap Yes Yes
Thailand VOA Evisa
O’smach Yes Yes
Poipet Yes Yes
Prom Yes No
Duang Yes No
Chorm Yes No
Cham  Yeam Yes Yes
Vietnam VOA Evisa
Bavet Yes Yes
Koam Yes No
Phnom Den Yes No
Trapaing Yes No
Tropaing Yes No
Loas VOA Evisa
Dong Kralor Yes No

Congrats, you’ve learned what you need to know before going to Cambodia! Check out the documentaries and books, everything you learn today will amplify your experience tomorrow! Travel on!

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