“…now you can go where people are one
Now you can go where they get things done
What you need my son:
Is a holiday in Cambodia
Where people dress in black
A holiday in Cambodia
Where you’ll kiss ass or crack…”
This is an excerpt from the song “Holiday in Cambodia” by the US band “The Dead Kennedys”. Being a punk band, the lyrics are meant to grate on you in their very cynical way; and as a matter of fact, Cambodia has always been a synonym for murder and destruction and by no means a holiday destination; apart from Angkor, Asia’s most important sanctuary, that has been a World Heritage Cultural site since 1992.
Only when my friend Philippe told me about his plans of travelling to Cambodia, I took into consideration that it might be an interesting destination and a country worth exploring. I decided following his example.
Cambodia has a population of about 16 million people and a size of 181.000 sq km which equals approximately 69,884 sq mi. In general, Cambodia has a Monsoon climate with December being the coolest month.
Until 1953, the country was – together with Laos and Vietnam – part of the French colony Indochina which certainly triggered the political development in the 20th century and lead to the seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge in 1975:
In 1953, Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. During the Vietnam war, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality. However, over the Ho-Chi-Minh-Trail and the eastern support bases, the war finally spread into Cambodia. First, only the eastern region was bombed by the US army. Since according to the US government, Sihanouk did not oppose enough to the Việt cộng, in 1970, Cambodia’s government was disempowered and replaced by General Lon Nol.
He became president in 1972, supported by South Vietnamese and American troops. This lead to a civil war – comparable to the one in Vietnam.
Initially, many people were relieved, believing in a peaceful tomorrow with no foreign hegemony when the Red Khmer conquered Phnom Penh in 1975.
Well, this relief didn’t last since the Red Khmer under guidance of Pol Pot immediately started their reign of horror: People were chased from the cities to the countryside where they had to do forced labor in the fields – with next to nothing to eat since the major part of the crop was shipped to China in exchange for weapons and ammunition.
Everybody who was considered middle or upper class or educated was killed – e. g. for speaking a foreign language or for wearing glasses.
Over time, Pol Pot became more and more paranoid which more and more people paid with their life. During the four years of the Red Khmer terror, almost one-third of Cambodia’s population was murdered or starved.
Finally, in 1979, Cambodia was liberated by the Vietnamese army.
Today Cambodia is a Constitutional Monarchy, King is Norodom Sihamoni and Prime Minister Hun Sen, the world’s longest-serving prime minister; not judging, just sayin’.
How to Get There And Around
Only if you are coming from one of Cambodia’s neighboring countries such as Thailand or Vietnam, you’ll enter the country by bus. The border posts are at Poi Pet on the Cambodian side respectively Aranyaprathet in Thailand and Bavet in Cambodia when crossing to Moc Bai in Vietnam. You read many nerve-wracking stories about crossing these borders, scams included. I believe them all. To be at least a bit prepared, check on my World’s Most Complete Travel Info-Page which visa regulations apply for your nationality.
However, coming from other countries, you’ll probably fly into Cambodia, and international airports are in Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and, of course, at the capital Phnom Penh.
The Phnom Penh International Airport – probably the world’s only airport that isn’t named after some meritorious national hero – has a really good website where you find all the options on how to get downtown – from the public bus to a fancy rental car.
I try to be very reasonable or even cheap when travelling, however, after a long, exhausting flight, I avoided venturing around and had my hotel sending a driver. I probably paid far too much – as very often in Cambodia, though – but got to my room safe and secure.
Where to Stay
There is a wide range of good, clean hotels all over Cambodia. However, accommodation is more expensive than in Thailand or Vietnam. According to my experience, it doesn’t make a big difference if you book through a portal or just walk in.
Here you can have a look at what booking has in store – they mostly have the best prices*
Where to Eat
Easy answer: At one of the many good, relatively reasonably priced restaurants. Especially in more touristy places such as Sihanoukville and Siem Reap, there are also options to take a break from Asian cuisine and have some Western food at one of an ex-pat’s restaurant.
Anyway, I’d love to recommend some places where, by eating some of the most amazing, inventive dishes, you are also charitable: The TREE Alliance restaurants are places where students – often from underprivileged families – do their professional training in gastronomy and hospitality.
At the affiliated restaurants, they serve you excellent, artistic cuisine – and they treat you like a Royal – they have to learn perfect hospitality, after all. So you are a – very lucky – guinea pig for the cooks’n’waiters – and your money is reinvested into the training as well as partner NGOs. Feasting for a good cause – what’s not to like?!
Do yourself and those kids a favor and have at least one meal there.
Cash And Cards
Although there is a national currency, the Riel (KHR), mostly prices are quoted in US Dollars. At the ATMs, one can choose between Dollars and Riel, but actually it doesn’t make really sense to get Riel since everything is priced in US Dollars – only if you pay let’s say 4,50, they give you change for the 50 cents in Riel (2000 KHR).
The current rate – as per January 2020 – is 1 USD = 4,05 KHR, but everybody converts 1:4. You can check the current rate on this page.
Cambodian people speak Khmer, many pretty basic English. All relevant signs are written in Latin letters.
There is a decent internet connection in most places.
Places to See
Route to Travel
After all this information, here are the rather entertaining and inspiring stories behind every destination I’ve visited
1st chapter: Commotion in Phnom Penh
2nd chapter: Confusion in Sihanoukville
3rd chapter: Calmness in Koh Rong
4th chapter: Complete Chaos in Koh Rong Samloem
5th chapter: Connecting in Kep
6th chapter: Charming Kampot
7th chapter: Couth on Thansur Bokor
8th chapter: Conclusion in Siem Reap
If you choose to pin this post for later, please use one of these pictures: