Cambodian Proverb: Negotiate a river by following its bends, enter a country by following its customs.
Hello from wherever you are in the world. If you’re reading this article, I suspect you are going, or thinking about travelling to Cambodia.
My first piece of advice is; You absolutely should visit.
Cambodia is a popular tourist destination because it really does have it all. Decadent drinking culture, affordable shopping, and worth-while historical sites. This mix of both free-spirit and class is hard to find in many places (Koh Samui anyone?).
Two: Choose your month wisely.
Cambodia doesn’t have four seasons. It has tropical with an additional element. Monsoon season is December through April, while dry season is most prominent in January and February. Whether you’re planning to come here to volunteer, or you’re here to walk around the temples, try and plan it so that the weather fits your itinerary. Wet season when it’s cooler and rains is probably better for sweaty volunteer work. December and January however, are hailed as the most temperate months, making them also the most popular for visitors. April, May, and June is when the heat is the worse…you’ve been warned.
Three: Know the customs.
Temples are a big part of tourism here in Cambodia. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t research beforehand that there are some rules to be followed. You need to cover your shoulders and your legs up to your mid-calf when going into the temple. If you are seen shirking this rule, you will not be allowed in some areas, or you will be forced to buy a shirt/ pants from a nearby stall. Woman are also not allowed to touch monks or be in close proximity. Of-course this doesn’t mean you’re not to talk to them or ask questions.
p.s. Scarves are not enough to cover shoulders at temples and shirts need to be a proper T-shirt and not a cap-sleeve.
Four: Language Barrier.
If you’re planning to stick around the tourist areas during your travel, then you honestly don’t need to know too much Khmer. Everyone who works/ lives around that area has picked up English over the years of tourism. However, if you’re planning to travel around the rural areas it would be better if you take a sheet of phrases that will help you out, as fluent English in the countryside is relatively rare.
Five: US Dollars reign supreme.
You needn’t change your money into Cambodian riel. Everybody covets and values the Benjamin Franklin. Smaller change in USD will help you the most in Cambodia, with $1 and $5 being the most useful in local restaurants and markets. The Cambodian riel is mainly used for small change, as it’s much easier than carrying around coins and paper. A good rule of thumb to follow is 4000 riels to one US dollar.
Sixth: Haggling is a life style.
You are allowed to haggle with the tuk tuk driver about how much it is to go somewhere, you are allowed to haggle with the tourist agency, and you are all but encouraged to haggle in the markets. Enough said.
Seven: Bathrooms in Certain Areas.
Remember that plumbing in third world countries are not exactly stellar. In some areas, especially around villages, toilet paper is not used as much as the bidet on the side of the stall. This is because toilet paper can block plumbing, and also needs to be bought. In some cases, toilet paper is rationed at the beginning of the bathroom to pick-up on your way in. Just remember to check before you enter the stall. In regards to flushing, some bathrooms request you to not put the toilet paper in the toiler, but rather use a bin provided to the side. This is most common in areas where flushing is done with a bucket of water.
The international traffic laws are meant to be followed in Cambodia. Meant. A lot of drivers in Cambodia do not have a license and it’s not uncommon to see a 10-year-old on a motor-bike in rural areas. Be aware of this before renting a motorbike yourself to drive around the streets as motorbikes cause around 90% of road accidents in Cambodia. Another aspect of transportation in Cambodia is the delightful tuk tuk. First things first, negotiate the price in advance. Foreigners can be viewed as ATMs and it’s important to negotiate a fair price so as not to continue the inflation of prices for future visitors. Also, some tuk tuk drivers will take you on board even if they themselves do not know where they’re going. So memorize a few of the pagodas and market names as they will understand the geography of that better than an address.
I would like to begin this section by being frank. If you don’t go into orphanages in your home country to sit children on your lap to take photos before leaving, then don’t do it here. The government has recently started on crack-downs on orphanages that use the children as a money-making scheme. If you would really like to help, volunteer and support charities such as The Halo Trust and CLMMRF whom dismantle land minds that still injure children playing in fields today. The same goes to elephant rides which thankfully, are losing popularity due to the increased awareness on the cruelty the endangered animal has to go through. If you would like to interact with this beautiful animal, volunteer or donate towards the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary instead, where you can bathe, and feed Asian elephants while allowing them to be free, wild, and most of all, happy.
Ten: The history of Cambodia.
¼ people were killed in the Civil war of Cambodia (officially ended 1975). It’s good to know and recognize the rich history of Cambodia before coming in order to understand the locals and area better. There is still a monumental impact left on the people of Cambodia, and apart from being an interesting piece of history, it will also open your eyes to a great many aspects of this country.