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Cambodia

By Dmitry Petrounin Dmitry Petrounin Section editor Profile

Located in the southern part of mainland Southeast Asia and bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, Cambodia is a haven of peace in the midst of nature. The locals are nothing but gracious and admirable. Despite their suffering during the immense political instability and mass genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s, their warmth will fill you with admiration and affection.

Travel guide

The Tonle Sap Lake

When studying a map of Cambodia it's difficult to miss the Tonle Sap Lake which spans 12,000 km squared in total. It even features in the list for Asia's biggest fresh water lakes. Tourists need to get there fast to fully appreciate the culture and witness the day to day lives of the fishermen who live up on the river banks before it becomes too over run with tourists and loses its traditional heritage. The river is home to an enormous amount of marine life and other wildlife that resides amongst the mangrove forests. For example, there are crocodiles, turtles, macaques, more than 100 varieties of water birds and over 200 species of fish. The lake is the source of just under half of the fish that's eaten in Cambodia.

Elephant and Cardamom Mountains

If you're a traveller who enjoys immersing yourself fully in the culture of a particular place, it's essential that you make the journey to the Elephant and Cardomom Mountains. The region is a three hour journey by car and a two hour boat from the capital Phnom Penh but definitely worth the wait. For a long while the area was considered unsafe to visit since Khmer Rouge rebels retreated here when the dictator Pol Pot's regime ended in 1979. Tensions for a long time ran high between the guerrillas and local villagers, often resulting in shootouts. When the feuds eventually ended in mid 1990s the locals were left with nothing and had to hunt and destroy forestland in order to make ends meet. However, a lot of the land is thankfully still intact and very much untouched, providing travellers with the most incredible hiking routes often accompanied free of charge by locals offering an insight into life in the mountains today. The mountains are home to an incredible array of endangered species including the pileated gibbon, tigers, Asian elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards and gaurs.

National Park of Preah Sihanouk 'Ream'

This is one out of the 7 national parks that Cambodia has to offer and was opened in 1993 in an attempt to sustain the natural resources of the country. It spans 15,000 hectares of land and 6,000 hectares of marine habitat and is located around 18km east of Sihanoukville. There are various tours offered at the park either by boat or walking as the area could be tricky to navigate on your own. The park is home to a large number of species, monkeys, dugongs, turtles, dolphins, deer and pelicans just to name a few. If you're keen to see the dolphins in action the best months for you to visit the park are between December and April.

Angkor Wat

Angkor is home to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. Since it's probably one of the most significant sites in South East Asia in terms of religion and history its unsurprising that its one of Cambodia's most popular tourist attractions. It's located in the North West of Cambodia closest to the province Siem Reap and UNESCO even has a programme in place in order to ensure that the site and its surroundings are fully protected. Angkor Wat is thought to have been built around the 12th century and originally dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu but then later on, around the 16th century, was transformed into a Buddhist monument. King Suryavarman II, ruler during the Khmer Empire, was thought to have built it to use as a funerary temple.

Our Editorial team's advice

In Phnom Penh, if you're travelling alone and you have generally quite a daring nature, you'll probably prefer moto cabs to tuk tuks, as they are a bit cheaper. This fun solution will also allow you to get around the city a bit quicker. When you're in the capital don't miss a trip to the Palais Royal, a classic but definitely worth it. Make sure you get yourself a visa in the embassy, so that you can avoid paying illegal additional costs that some areas borders have put in place.

If you're planning on visiting Angkor, give yourself at least three days to take in and enjoy the surroundings. Tuk-tuk drivers will no doubt try and suggest that they accompany you for a few days at a 'special price.' Visitor passes for three or seven days can be bought on the day. Around thirty kilometers to the north of the complex, don't miss the incredible Banteay Srei temple that is made of pink sandstone, where Malraux played the looter in the 20s. Be aware that the selling of ancient stones is strictly prohibited, due to the plundering that goes on in the temple sites.

Definitely try and bargain when you come to buy something, its part of their tradition but make sure not to be too extreme as that could cause offense. In some places like the central market Phnom Penh, it's not a problem. The shopkeepers are used to tourists and so they already inflate their prices. However, in the more restricted markets, take a bit more money as they need a bit more to make a living.

Don't give in to the paranoia over the insecurity in Cambodia. However, do not expect saintliness either: when you're travelling around, the best option is to ask the "locals" about the current security conditions and to postpone your trip if they advise against it.

If you want a change of scenery, you're guaranteed to get one in the eastern provinces of Mondolkiri and Rattanakiri. Since they are not very populated apart from some mountain communities, these regions have a very attractive "far west" aspect.

pros

  • +The temples of Angkor alone, an absolute marvel, are sufficient to justify taking a trip to Cambodia.
  • +A relatively new destination, which has not yet been profoundly transformed by mass tourism.

cons

  • -Nature is rapidly deteriorating, particularly due to intense deforestation (precious wood), in the hands of powerful economic interests.
  • -Certain regions are insufficiently secured (for example, the province of Battambang, controlled by old Khmers Rouges); thus, their accessibility remains problematic.
  • -Roads further afield are poorly managed so you are likely to be in for a bumpy ride.

Traditions

Cambodians have a very calm nature and don't get annoyed very easily, losing your temper can be considered as an insult or as a sign of weakness. Smiling is often the best response. When you're visiting tourist destinations around Cambodia for example temples it's important that you respect their rules. Before entering a pagoda it's important to take off your shoes or hat and cover your shoulders. Also it's always better to ask before taking any photographs.

Like most places in Asia it's not custom to touch a child's head (it is the noble part of the body), and you are not allowed to touch anything or anyone with your foot (it is the "base" part of the body). In Cambodia you do not shake hands; you greet people with a friendly prayer gesture by joining the palms of the hands at your chest or lower face, with your fingers upwards. You shouldn't greet people with a kiss either. Old people should always be treated with consideration and respect. Do not shock the modest Cambodians by revealing too much flesh (short skirts, low necks, etc.), even if it is very hot. When eating, do not use your finger; that's what chopsticks are for. Finally, bargaining is always welcomed; it is as much an element of socialisation as an instrument for commercial negotiation.

Food

Cambodian cuisine, which is quite similar to its Thai or Vietnamese neighbours, is simple, varied, and moderately spicy. Common dishes include: soups, salads (made up of raw vegetables) and dishes that include meat or fish, these are always accompanied by rice. A lot of preparation goes into fish brine (prahok), which often isn't the most pleasing to western palates. Don't miss the delicious shellfish by the seaside in the South. Fish that has been caught on the coast or in Tonle Sap Lake in the centre is also delicious; its other cooked in a sauce or grilled.

As for drinks, you're spoilt for choice when it comes to tea and local beers; a classic example of Cambodian beer is Angkor Beer, which is light and pleasant.

Souvenirs

Of course you have to bring back the kramas, the traditional Cambodian scarf with squares that you can find in any market (you should allow for 2.5 to 4 pounds sterling for models in cotton, and a little more for raw silk). All articles made from textiles are often at very attractive prices. For gold jewellery, there are various stalls in the middle of the large central market of Phnom Penh. Regarding craftwork, crockery and items made of silver, the "Russian market", which is very well stocked, is a good address. Be careful; due to considerable pillaging of the Angkor temples, any trade in old stones and antiquities is strictly prohibited. Shops are open from Monday to Friday from 8:00 AM to around 6:00 PM.