7 Cambodia Travel Tips: Things to Know Before Travelling to Cambodia
Here are some Cambodia travel tips and things to know before travelling to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Cambodia may be one of the poorest countries in South East Asia with a tragic past. However, it has a massive, spectacular cluster of Angkor temples that crept its way to my heart. What astonished me the most was the vibrant nightlife in Siem Reap, which was out of my expectation, and some other places of interests.
A visit to Phnom Penh a few years ago left me an impression that the city was somewhat monotonous. I probably had expected the same feeling for Siem Reap, but hell no. I was absolutely in love with Siem Reap despite the killing weather. The vibe was completely different from Phnom Penh because the travel to Siem was during their Khmer New Year – Songkran Cambodia. I’m really excited to share with you the travel journeys in both the Cambodian cities, especially the recent visit to Siem Reap.
I went with three family members to Siem Reap, Cambodia for 6 days 5 nights short vacation in April. The cheap flights to Siem Reap International Airport (REP) with Jetstar from Singapore had such a low airfare that it was irresistible not to choose Siem Reap as our travel destination. My brother booked his flight with Jetstar 4 weeks before the departure date and paid SGD120 (€78 | US$87).
When we confirmed our booking 2 weeks later, the price had already increased to SGD166. The first time I went to Phnom Penh was in February some times ago, the airfare with Tiger Airways was SGD137 back then. Generally, it is not expensive to travel to Cambodia from Singapore.
There are currently 25 – 30 airlines serving Siem Reap Airport which all are Asia-based companies. In other words, there is no airline from other continents flying directly to Siem Reap. So, you have to stopover in one of the Asian countries and proceed with your travel to Siem Reap from there or from Phnom Penh.
However, the situation is no matter in Phnom Penh except non-Asia based flights from Dubai and Doha operated by Emirates and Qatar can land in Phnom Penh International Airport (PHN). You can get a more economical airfare to travel to other parts of Asia if you book with one of the low-cost airlines in Singapore or other cities. Always book as early as possible to secure the best rate when you book from the budget airlines because they are more time-sensitive than the regular airlines.
Currently, passport holders from these 9 countries have Cambodia visa exemption for 14, 21 or 30 days – Brunei, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Seychelles, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam. Visitors from all other nationalities have to apply for a Cambodia Visa. Hence, you could be one of them. There are 3 ways to get your Cambodia visa before coming. Your passport must have at least 6-months validity. You also have to give a recent passport-sized photograph for the visa, or a digital copy for eVisa application.
Most visitors can get their ‘Cambodia Visa on Arrival’ on a single entry visit when they arrive at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap International Airport for US$30. If they enter through the border of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, they can also get ‘Cambodia Visa on Arrival’ from the International Check Point. However, during high peak season, the waiting time can be longer than usual, considering that most of the nationalities would need to apply for a visa before going to Cambodia. As such, the queue can be crazily long.
So, to expedite your travel plan and not waste precious time waiting for the visa at the counter, it is better to apply for the Cambodia Visa online with an extra handling fee of US$6. The Cambodian eVisa takes 3 business days to approve, but it is also possible to receive the approval in your mail within 24 hours. The Cambodia eVisa is valid for 3 months with a 30-days stay which can be extended once for another month in the Consular Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
You can also download the Cambodia eVisa app via the Apple App Store or Google Play Store store and apply from there. The government portal does not process visa based on urgent requests. Therefore, if you need a confirmed quick turnover time, you can pay double the amount to get it done in 5 or 24 hours on a commercial website.
If you prefer to apply for the Cambodian visa in person, you can visit the Royal Embassy of Cambodia in your country. Nationalities from Afghanistan, Algeria, Arab Saudi, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Nigeria must first obtain a visa at the Cambodian Embassy in their country first before going travelling. For more information regarding Cambodia Visa or Business Visa, please refer to one of the official websites – Tourism of Cambodia.
Currently, there are 6 mobile carriers in Cambodia – Metfone, Smart Axiata, CellCard, Seatel, qb and CooTel (CDMA network) as of 2019. The first three companies listed are the largest mobile operators in Cambodia. Like most tourists, we wanted to get abundant internet volume data than anything else that would be valid for at least 7 days of travel. We saw Metfone, Smart Axiata and Seatel just outside Siem Reap Airport when we stepped out.
I was aiming to buy our Cambodia Tourist SIM card from Cellcard after some online research. However, I did not see any CellCard counter after exiting the airport, but I read that some people bought it successfully at Siem Reap. The booth was actually at the far end of the airport. Cellcard Tourist SIM Pack costs US$6, valid for 7-days of use. You get 5GB data and US$50 of call time daily, which is their marketing approach on data and calls. To add the cherry on the cake, Cellcard has been awarded as the ‘Fastest Mobile Network in Cambodia’ at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain for four consecutive years since 2016.
Nonetheless, between Metfone and Smart, we selected the Smart Traveller SIM valid for 7 days at US$3 for 20GB data and US$1.50 worth of call time. As you can see from the photo, the Smart shop at Siem Reap Airport also offered 5 more packages from US$6 to US$20. One advantage of Smart outsmarting its competitors was to be the first telco in 2017 to roll out the 4.5G LTE network in Cambodia! Unfortunately, the detail shown on the photos differed from that on its current website, which displays a better offer of more data volume. I think the official site is not the updated version since it still states the 4G network.
Even though Metfone was offering more internet data volume at 33GB at US$3 for 7-day validity, the downside was that I didn’t see it offering free call time nor SMS with their tourist sim package. Since I was travelling with my family members, having the option to call and send SMS would be better. Metfone’s strength of marketing was that they offered Unlimited Data Internet for 7 days in Thailand, Laos and Malaysia. Definitely a good bargain if you are hopping over to one of the three countries anytime soon.
The smaller mobile operator, Seatel has a different but simple approach. Seatel Travel SIM offers unlimited data and calls for 3 days (US$3), 5 days (US$5) and 10 days (US$10). As for qb, it is the only mobile service provider out of the five not running on 4G (LTE) yet and still on 3G network. On top of that, their US$2 Tourist SIM plan has only 1.5GB data, but the US$5 package has 4GB internet data which should be substantial for many travellers. The validity of the qb Tourist SIM card is 7 and 14 days respectively.
Here is a summary table on a glance of what you can get with this amount. The information displayed for Smart is according to the photo I had taken in Siem Reap Airport as the website is likely not updated as it still states 4G network.
|Metfone (4G LTE)||Smart (4.5G LTE)||Cellcard (4G LTE)||Seatel (4G LTE)||Qb (3G network)|
|$2||1.5GB, 20 mins, 200 SMS, 7 days|
|$3||33GB, 7 days||20GB, $1.50 Free Calls, 7 days||Unlimited, Unlimited, Unlimited, 3 days|
|$5||Unlimited, Unlimited, Unlimited, 5 days||4GB, 60 mins, 500 SMS, 14 days|
|$6||20GB, $4.50 Free Calls, 7 days||5GB/day, $50/day for call & SMS, 7 days|
|$8||20GB, $6.50 Free Calls, 7 days|
|$10||40GB, $1.50 Free Calls, 7 days||Unlimited, Unlimited, Unlimited, 10 days|
|$15||40GB, $6.50 Free Calls, 7 days|
|$20||40GB, $11.50 Free Calls, 7 days|
Our Smart Tourist SIM cards worked very well in the city, fast and had strong signals. However, there was no signal in the Angkor area for all our four mobile phones. My tuk-tuk driver told me to use Cellcard instead, as it is the most preferred network used here. Moreover, he said that he was using Cellcard and had no problem with his mobile signal. On the other hand, some who bought Cellcard and also claimed that they did not have connections around the Angkor temples too. The problem does not lie with the mobile phone operators. No matter which SIM you buy, there are feedbacks of patchy connection or completely no mobile signal due to the dead zone in Angkor temple areas.
You can also buy the Tourist SIM cards from smaller shops in the city, but they may receive some commission from selling them, which means you have to pay more. A passport is usually required to register for the SIM cards in the authorised mobile shops. On the contrary, many smaller shops do not care about it. That said, if you lose your SIM card, you cannot get a replacement with the same numbers since there is no registration inside the system. Therefore, it is advisable to get your Cambodia tourist SIM from a reputable source.
Though the currency used in Cambodia is Riel, the most commonly used is the US Dollars. Almost all the tourism-related industries in Cambodia use that. You will mostly see the prices in USD of most travel tour package price, transportation, restaurant menu. Even the products sold in the supermarket and street hawkers are not spared of from using the US Dollars.
If you are wondering whether you should exchange some money in Cambodian Riel, the answer is “no”, and don’t even bother with that especially if you are travelling there for only a few days. I have been to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, not a time I need to exchange them to riel.
Don’t be surprised when you give the establishments such as the supermarket in US Dollars, you would get the change back in Cambodian Riel, or a combination of US Dollars and riel. The actual exchange rate is approximately 1 USD = 4,043 Riel, but the Cambodians use 4,000 Riel = 1 USD for an easy calculation. So, if you buy an item which costs US$2.50, you can give them 2 USD + 2,000 Riel. That will help to reduce the amount of Cambodian Riel that you will carry during your travel. The leftover riels are always tips given away at the end of the day.
Later, we realised that the airfares bought earlier to Siem Reap were cheap because April is a low peak season to go to Cambodia. It is the hottest month which most tourists would try and avoid. The heat can escalate up to 40°C during this month. While we were there, the average temperature was hovering between 38°C to 40°C.
Even the nights were warm and uncomfortable while I opened the window and stood at the balcony. It was as if the air was coming out from an oven. The sweltering heat was so unbearable, that it was indeed a test of perseverance, to push myself to continue the Angkor temple tour without giving up.
With such oppressive weather and high humidity, therefore having too much perspiration, it was tough to stay and walk the whole day in Angkor Wat without that little bit of complaints. I had already overheard a few tourists lamenting on this subject. There was also much climbing of steps to be done which posed a real challenge in the heatwave.
We bought a 3-day entrance ticket to the temples, but my family members surrendered after 3 hours in the stifling heat on the first day to Angkor Wat. For the other two days, they decided to do other activities instead of visiting the temples. I was the exception and grit my teeth to resume my solo trip to visit the Angkor temples.
The best time to go to Siem Reap is in December and January. The average temperature ranges between 22°C to 32°C and dry. As the weather turns a bit more cooling and pleasant during this period, expect to see more tourists flooding during the high peak season to Angkor Archaeological Park and other Siem Reap attractions. Prices will inevitably increase too. If you dislike crowd, then the coldest months of the year may be what you are evading instead. The hot season in Cambodia begins from March to June.
Another period which is better to avoid is the rainy season from June to November. Consequently, carrying an umbrella while moving around and getting wet would dampen the fun of travel in Cambodia. Nevertheless, ponchos can be purchased from the shops. Additionally, you may also experience a flood in Siem Reap city.
Cambodia is a tropical country with intense heat coupled with high humidity most time of the year. Due to the long hours of relentless heat in Cambodia that cause the nights to be warm, hence, the thought of having a windbreaker or sweater to bring out in the evening is deemed unnecessary. Even when the air-conditioning or fans in some restaurants were switched on while dining, we were still sweating in the evening as the weather was simply too warm.
You have to pack light with loose-fitting cotton clothing and leave the clingy ones out. Due to severe perspiration, the clothes will stick to your body and then get damp and smelly. Airy garments like T-shirt will help to speed up the drying process. Long-sleeved tops will help to combat against the burning sensation on your delicate skin from the scorching sun, which is why I usually prefer long-sleeved tops over the shorter ones. Even the locals such as the tuk-tuk drivers wear long-sleeved clothes most of the time due to this reason.
On the other hand, Cambodia is also an ideal country for many to get some real tan. Wearing sleeveless or strappy tops is not a problem in many places except for the temple visits. One has to dress conservatively and cover the shoulder and knees. A shawl can do the job. As for shorts and pants, it is advisable to wear at least a knee-length bottom. Likewise, ladies should not wear a skirt for climbing as it constricts your leg movements, and that is dangerous.
The dress code is strict if you want to ascend to the top of Angkor Wat or other religious spots. The security officers can refuse your entry if your attire is not appropriate. Another reason for wearing jeans or cargo pants is to expect to climb many steps. Therefore, you may accidentally scratch yourself while climbing or brushing your skin against the rough rocks. Moreover, some stones are steep, large, and a long climb up the peak.
Wear a sturdy pair of sports shoes. Do not wear your favourite or expensive new sports shoes as the area around the Angkor temples can make your shoes dirty and sandy. Ditch your high heel at home as you won’t be able to use it here. Sandals and slippers are ideal when you walk around in the city. Wearing a hat or a cap will also shield against the heat.
A good sunblock lotion with high SPF is essential to protect against the harsh sunray. Because I perspired so much, the sweat perpetually washed off everything that I had applied on my face. Nevertheless, I still lathered a thick layer of sunblock lotion before leaving the hotel. Some sensitive skin may also find relief with after sun care products such as aloe vera gel. Insect repellent is useful as bring as well, but so far, I had no problem with the mosquitoes.
Face masks are in dire need when one takes a tuk-tuk and goes to S21 Killing Field and Koh Dach Beach in Phnom Penh. On the way to both places in the past, there were long stretches of sandy roads with many big lorries driving at high speed. The velocity generated extremely thick sand whirling around the air resulting in nasty pollution to the surrounding. My friend and I went without face masks. We had to breathe in these disgusting sands for a long duration.
When we returned to our accommodation in You Khin House and took off our socks, the floor would be layered with a carpet of sand brought back from these two places. Thus, bring more pairs of socks with you to change. To make matter worse, the large amount of debris cut one of my contact lenses into two despite wearing a pair of sunglasses. I only knew that when I took them off. Amidst the whole journey in Koh Dach, my eyes were in sharp pain, but I had to tolerate it.
Khmer New Year also called Songkran or Choul Chnam Thmey (literally ‘Enter New Year’) falls on the 13th or 14th April every year. The joyous celebration lasts for three days in Cambodia. We arrived in Siem Reap on the 14th April 2019, coinciding with the first day of the Cambodian New Year. We didn’t plan for that and were in awe so that we could immerse in this blessed occasion together with the Khmers to celebrate their new year. I first knew Songkran when I travelled to Thailand 2 decades ago. The children were shooting me with their mini toy guns back then.
The small guns in the past have been upgraded to large toy guns in Cambodia. We stayed at Royal Crown Hotel & Spa in Siem Reap on the second level. From the balcony of my room in the opposite direction, I could see several children waiting along the main road for their victims, cars and motorists to pass by. Then, they start shooting them with water guns. It was very amusing watching their naughty acts.
In the evening, when we walked to Pub Street where the happening nightlife was, everywhere was a crazy sight of water warfare. Most of them armed themselves with a large gun, shooting non-stop at one another in groups. We tried, of course, to avoid as much as we could so as not to get wet. Even the process of evading water splash was a skill. Many of them did not seem to aim at tourists on purpose as they were rather sensitive, knowing that we may not like it. Furthermore, it was no fun attacking the defenceless tourists.
They let us walk past without shooting at us. Most of the time, we got splashed with water walking behind groups that were having warfares with another gang. There was so much water spraying that it was hard not to get yourself wet no matter how hard one tried to dodge. Those who shoot water at us roared in exuberance “Happy New Year!” It was tough to get angry with them despite trying our best to keep ourselves dry. After all, it was their new year. Both the children and adults were so high-spirited and enthusiastic over their water games.
On the third day, the spraying of water was the most intense as compared to the first two days. That was nonetheless the last day of their new year and towards the end of their fun. After the third day, people are not supposed to continue the water warfare since the new year is over, life has to carry on as usual. In the city, you would not see any more sight of water shooting.
Still, on the fourth day when we went to Angkor Archaeological Park, the children were still having fun with their water games, using buckets of water instead of the guns. Recapping from the first day to the third day, you could see more and more people gradually swapped from using water guns to the water hose, and then buckets of water scooped from a huge container on whatever they can find.
It was indeed a hilarious sight watching all of them screamed. We wanted so much to buy some toy guns and join them on the street. Maybe the next round when we have brought extra quick-drying clothes. The moral of the story is to choose a period of dates to go to Cambodia during their Khmer Songkran and also stay there till it ends.
Because when the water warfare is in action during Songkran, you cannot fully see and appreciate Pub Street, which is one of the places of interests to go at night in Siem Reap. When the Songkran was over, we went to Pub Street for the second time so we could entirely see the beauty of it.
Last but not least, the next Cambodian travel tips is how to get from Siem Reap Airport to the city centre, and also other means of transports and their estimated cost. It is a long article so I would prefer to cover the detail in a separate post about the taxi, tuk-tuk and motorcycle rental, specifically in Siem Reap city. So if you are travelling to Siem Reap soon and also finding out the costs of Angkor Wat Entrance Fees, check out the articles.
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