Cambodia is nestled in Southeast Asia and is most famous for being home to ancient ruins, magnificent temples, dense jungles, and impressive waterfalls. Rice paddies and villages fill the countryside, while the modernity of Phnom Penh may surprise you with its energetic contrast to the quiet landscape.
Cambodia hasn’t always been idyllic, and the people have overcome a tumultuous past due to their optimism and everlasting spirit. With a population of 16.72 million (as of 2020), your journey through this overseas destination will be welcomed with kindness and smiles.
សូមស្វាគមន៍ – Welcome to Cambodia!
Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, and it rests at the junction of the mighty Mekong and Tonlé Sap rivers. The city has had a difficult history with the country’s wars and revolutions, however, it has since been rebuilt to be a hip enigma with cafes, cars, and appetizing dishes.
As a city of contrast, Phnom Penh blends the line between two worlds – ancient and modern. Travelers can relish the city’s exotic landscape, architecture, cuisine, and culture and get a feel of this up-and-coming Asian capital.
- Culture and Language
- Spending Budget
- How to Get Around
- Top Cities to Visit
- Points of Interest
Culture and Language
Cambodia is a unique country because it has cultural influences from other Asian countries like India and China. Once controlling parts of Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, the Khmer Empire is perhaps the most historically famous ruler of Cambodia, which peaked in the 12th century.
The country then faced several hundred years of decline until it became a French colony in the 20th century. However, the tranquility didn’t last, and they struggle during the Japanese occupation during World War II and an unstable government.
Then from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia was devastated by a guerrilla movement made of rural communists called the Khmer Rouge, which killed 1.5 million Cambodians. Since then, Cambodia has had help from Vietnam to overcome its dark history and re-establish a constitutional government.
Now, Cambodia is frequently listed as a must-see Southeast Asian destination that attracts tourists worldwide. The Cambodian people are very friendly and their cheery spirit helps the country thrive. The people’s resilience has helped reshape the country and helped them strive for a better future.
Similar to many other Asian cultures, religion and family are important parts of Cambodian culture. The gentle people are very close with their family, with multiple generations often living together and distant relatives visiting for the holidays.
Holding religion in high regard, the majority of people (97% of the population) follow Theravada Buddhism. A nation that values respect, particularly for elders, and prioritizes heritage and tradition, national pride is important in Cambodia.
Coming together to celebrate big holidays like Pchum Ben (Khmer New Year), visitors can immerse themselves in Cambodia’s inviting and fascinating culture.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia and is spoken by about 90% of the country’s population. It’s also the only official language of the country and is used in government, education, and media. Due to the country’s geological location, other regional languages like Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao may also be spoken.
The two most prominent foreign languages spoken in Cambodia are French, which was once the official language for all of Indochina, and English. From its days as a French colony, older Cambodians may still speak French, and younger generations may still learn because of French government programs.
English is an extremely important language for the country’s international relationships and has even become more popular than French. Taught in universities and gaining popularity, many street signs are even translated from Khmer to English.
No matter which language you speak, good manners and a smile can go a long way. Cambodian people are always smiling, and while you may not speak Khmer, the people are more than happy to invite you in with a warm gesture.
Cambodia is an extremely affordable country to travel to, and with the right planning, you can survive on a backpacker’s budget. The most important parts of your budget will be airfare, accommodation, food, drink, and transportation.
For travelers from the United States, Asia is a faraway continent, and that means that travel times and prices increase. Most flights will leave from the West Coast, and you may be able to find a direct flight to Cambodia.
If you live in another part of the US, the price will likely go up, and it will take longer to fly to the country. Most flights will cost over a thousand dollars for a round-trip ticket, though you may be able to find deals that lower the price.
The most popular times to visit Cambodia are October to March, which is when the monsoon season is not active. Airline ticket prices during this time will likely increase, compared to off-tourist months when they will decrease.
You can also save money by booking your ticket in advance and not waiting for a month before your planned departure date.
The good news is that while the airline ticket is pricey, you can save money by staying in cheap accommodation. Cambodia has plenty of affordable options that can help you stay on track with your budget. Hostels will be the most inexpensive, but often lack air conditioning and hot water.
Moreover, travelers looking to spend a little more can find plenty of hotels in major cities, including a few luxury options. If you’re looking to budget, be aware that luxury options will cost more and may make your spending capabilities tighter.
Airbnb is available in Cambodia, though you should really only expect good listings to be available in popular cities. In the countryside or outside of main cities, people may not have the ability to list their property.
The next most important considerations of your budget are food and drink. While Cambodian food may not be the most famous cuisine, their dishes are filled with tasty herbs and loaded with condiments.
Fresh ingredients are staples for the cuisine, and like many Asian cultures, rice is a central ingredient. Most Cambodian meals will serve several small dishes with a bowl of rice.
Fish amok is a fish served in creamy curry and perfectly balances flavors like lemongrass and coconut. Banana blossom salad is famous for its strong citrus flavor and is served throughout the country. Lap Khmer is a tasty dish of lime-marinated beef, which is tossed with herbs and chilis.
Khmer red curry is a milder cousin to Thailand’s curry dish, and it is typically made with chicken, beef, or fish. Finally, you may find interesting critters like octopuses or insects fried on a stick. Cambodians are bold eaters, and a few crunchy-fried tarantula legs make a tasty snack.
Similar to many Asian countries, Cambodian food is very affordable if you are willing to try street food and stay away from the big chains or tourist traps. Most dishes can be bought for a few dollars, and a nice sit-down meal at a decent restaurant will stay keep within a tighter budget. Any food at touristy spots or that’s not as local will likely have a higher prices.
Once you’ve had your fill, you may be interested in drinking, which is also usually affordable. Most bars will sell drinks for relatively cheap and this includes a possible fee for the glass bottle that the drink is served inside.
Local beer is incredibly affordable and most other drinks will a few dollars if you stay away from tourist spots. Most drinking will be done in your accommodation and with your group or new travel friends. There is less bar culture in Cambodia, and most people are rather relaxed in their drinking activities.
How to Get Around
Cambodia is not massive, though that doesn’t mean that it can still be easily traveled on a time-sensitive vacation. The country is still big enough that reaching some destinations can be difficult if you are not taking buses or a domestic flight.
Most people will want to see as much as they can, which means it’s important to budget the cost of transportation.
If you don’t want to spend the money on a flight and are willing to spend the time to travel by bus, you can save money. Most buses will cost are cost efficient, even when traveling long distances. Local options, when staying within one area, will cost less than a tourist bus between cities.
For travelers who want to see everything and can’t take the time to travel by bus, domestic flights are your only option. Many domestic flights will get you between the cities quickly so that you can head off on your adventures and not sit on a bus for long hours.
There are a few discount airlines, and some sights may have better deals than others, so take the time to look around.
If you are traveling around one city, like Phnom Penh, motorcycle taxis or tuk-tuks and buses are the best way to go. Costing a few dollars, depending on the distance, it’s a great way to experience getting around the city like a local.
Tuk-tuks are also affordable are priced similarly to motorbike taxis. Finally, walking is a great way to explore a concentrated area – and it’s free.
Many cities and locations can be safely walked and explored, but you should always be aware of your surroundings and keep any belongings that you are carrying close.
Top Cities to Visit
While Phnom Penh is the most well-known city in Cambodia, there are plenty of other areas to visit. Whether you want to explore a UNESCO world heritage site, take a trip to the beach, or try a boat cruise, there are plenty of destination to choose from. Here are the top cities to visit in Cambodia.
As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh was at the forefront of the country’s past hardships. Within the city walls, memorials and museums remind people of the horrific past and actions of the Khmer Rouge, while just outside the city are the Killing Fields.
However, until you visit these historic and somber sites, you wouldn’t know because the city is full of smiles and there are many amazing treasures to explore in its streets.
Siem Reap is the world-famous location where Angkor Wat is located. The city is famous for its temple; however, it is fascinating in its own right too. A lively energic fills the streets, and tourists can relax and enjoy the night with a tasty meal and fun out on the town.
Sihanoukville is one of Cambodia’s top resort destinations, which was once a fishing village. Now, the city is bustling with tourists who flock to the white sand beach. Hotels, bars, and restaurants line the seaside, and while it is popular, it is still somewhat of a hidden destination.
As a smaller city, Battambang displays colonial history in its street through the crumbling architecture. The quiet streets are also home to ancient temples, and monks can be frequently seen walking in their robes.
As an up-and-coming destination, the historic preservation of the city is at risk, so it’s best to see it now before modernity catches up.
Located along the Mekong River, Kratie is where you go if you want to see the famous Irrawaddy dolphins. Besides the wildlife, you can tour the markets and experience the local lifestyle.
One of the most peaceful cities, Kampot is not as busy as Phnom Penh or even Sihanoukville. Instead, this is a city that is nestled in nature and filled with serenity. Many people have fallen in love with this destination, and you’ll find a strong ex-pat community that has begun to stay permanently and call it home.
A more remote destination, Banlung is near the borders with Vietnam and Laos and highlights Cambodia’s countryside. The area is still new to tourism because of previous logging activity, though off the beaten path, travelers will enjoy experiencing the Cambodian jungle.
Points of Interest
While cities are often the main destinations that are visited, you may find that there is a specific point of interest that you want to see too. Home to around 4000 temples, many individuals spend a large portion of their time traveling between some of the most famous locations. To help narrow your list, here are the best places to visit in Cambodia.
Located in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat or the City Temple in English is Cambodia’s most famous tourist attraction. The temples were built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II and are known for their balance and beauty.
The main shrine stands 669 feet tall and rises above the rectangular reservoir that is also on the grounds.
Bayon Temple is located within Angkor and is known for having hundreds of smiling faces that are positioned out in every direction. The faces have become another famous part of the Angkor temple complex and are a must-see attraction.
The Angkor complex is large. So large that one location, Banteay Srei, is considered its own attraction. While it is technically a part of Angkor, this temple sits 15 miles outside of the main Angkor Wat temples.
The temple is stunning because of its red sandstone construction, which has been painstakingly carved to have ornate details. The carvings are still visible today, which makes it another must-see in the Angkor complex.
Koh Ker used to be the capital of the Khmer Empire, which is where ornate buildings and sculptures were erected. The most famous is the 30-foot-tall Prasat Thom Tmple, which is hidden in the jungle.
As one of the last temple destinations open to the public because of its remote location, a new road has allowed visitors access to this incredible site.
The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is a large complex of buildings that were constructed for the country’s king. The impressive outline is striking against the blue sky, and you can see classic architecture with the Khmer roofs and gold gilding.
While not all of the complex is open to the public due to the current king residing on the grounds, the famous Silver Pagoda is open for visits.
“Land of Khmers”
While Cambodia is often overlooked as a tourist destination, this country is filled with hidden gems that will open your eyes to a rich and troubled history. The country has emerged victorious in its dark past and is now becoming a top tourist destination.
With locations like Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh, it is easy to see why people fall in love with this beautiful country.