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For many travellers the allure of an unspoilt and little-explored country is irresistible. Emerging from a violent past of human rights atrocities, war and political instability, Cambodia is recovering from its past and slowly becoming a top destination on the South East Asian travel map. The magnificent temples of the 'Lost City' of Angkor are an irresistible attraction that, despite the dangers of unexploded landmines and the threat of rural banditry, is a must-see for any determined traveller.
Modern day Cambodia is the successor kingdom of the powerful Khmer Empire which ruled most of what is today Vietnam, Laos and Thailand from the 9th to 14th centuries. Although the country does not have the same volume of attractions as some of its neighbours, the Cambodian people are incredibly friendly, providing a welcoming embrace for travellers.
This fact in itself is amazing given the suffering that Cambodians had to endure during the three-and-a-half year reign of Pol Pot, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million people. The Khmer Rouge period under Pol Pot's leadership, altered the face of the country. Overnight cities were emptied and property destroyed, the economy was left in shatters and so were the lives of countless families. This period between 1975 and 1979 represents a particularly dark one in the nation's history.
Travellers to Cambodia can now enjoy many wonderful aspects of this country. Pleasurable moments can be had in the snatches of friendly conversations, in the tranquillity ushered in by Buddhist prayer or in the sounds of workers in the rice paddies. One can also search for the charms of the French-era capital city Phnom Penh, visit the tragic horrors of the Killing Fields or drift past sleepy riverside locations on a boat.
The scenery is beautiful and abundant, shaped by landscapes of lush green forests and jungles, banana plantations, agricultural fields and mighty rivers. People here live modest and simple lifestyles and the populace are largely rural. It is not a place of fast and efficient transport or luxurious hotels and resort living. Infrastructure is basic (much of it having been destroyed) and travelling between destinations can be quite an experience - fun for some and frustrating for others. The country's world-class attractions and less-explored reaches, golden beaches and islands beckon the enterprising traveller, and make this unique destination the equivalent of a pearl in an unopened oyster.
Cambodian attractions are unique to its culture and history making things to do in Cambodia a real Khmer experience. Most people to Cambodia are lured in by the impressive ancient temple city of Angkor in Siem Riep. Once hooked, Cambodia strings tourists through more recent history of the Khmer Rouge. The sombre Phnom Phen attractions such as the killing fields and Tuel Sleng prison museum are in contrast to the vibrant Central Market and to the relaxation of the river front and lake side.
For even more relaxation travellers may slide down to the beach towns of Kep and Sihanoukville on the Cambodian coast. Others enjoy the unique Irrawaddy river dolphins of the north east. Bus is the most common mode of transport between attractions and is muddy travel in monsoon season June to October and dusty the rest of the year.
Developing a personal relationship in Cambodia is important before any business can be discussed, which might include long dinners and plenty of socialising. Never cause a Khmer to 'lose face', but use tact and an indirect approach to business. On introductions, the most senior in the group will be introduced first, and visitors are advised to do likewise so that the hosts understand the hierarchy of the group; the highest-ranking person on both sides should greet each other first and perform the introductions. A light handshake is appropriate on introduction, after which business cards can be exchanged using both hands; it is considered impolite to put the card away without making a show of studying it for a short while. In Cambodia people are addressed with the honorific title 'Lok' for a man and 'Lok Srey' for a woman followed with the first name or both the first and surname. Dress is conservative, but formal business suits will be out of place in the tropical heat; lightweight suits can be worn for formal meetings. Business hours are generally 8am to 5pm Monday to Friday, with a long lunch from about 12pm till 2pm.
Cambodia's climate can generally be described as tropical with seasonal monsoons. There are two distinct seasons, the rainy and dry. Temperatures during the rainy season, between June and October, average 81-95°F (27-35°C). The dry season is characterised by cool months, November to February, with temperatures averaging 63-81°F (17-27°C) and hot months, from March till May, which sees temperature range between 84-100°F (29-38°C).
The international access code for Cambodia is +855. The outgoing code is 001 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 00144 for the United Kingdom). Phnom Penh's area code is (0)23; the code for Siem Reap is (0)63. Domestic and international calls can be made at post offices or telecom offices in most towns. Mobile phone operators cover Phnom Penh and other major cities. The country uses GSM networks, so US phones are not compatible. Mobile phones can be rented at Pochentong International Airport on arrival. Internet phones are available in some Internet cafes and provide a cheaper alternative for international calls. Internet cafes provide a fast and inexpensive service in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and other main towns.
Permission should be sought before taking pictures of people, particularly monks. Avoid touching someone on the head as it is considered the most sacred part of a person's body. Women should wear modest clothing, preferably a long skirt or loose-fitting trousers. When visiting religious sites, shoes should be removed, and shorts avoided. A traditional greeting in Cambodia is a bow, bringing together the hands at chest level (similar to hand position for prayer). With foreigners Cambodians sometimes convert to the handshake. The simple rule is to respond with the same greeting you were given.
Travellers to Cambodia are allowed to enter the country with a reasonable amount of tobacco products and spirits under control of custom agents. Cambodian customs authorities may enforce strict regulations on the import or export of drugs, firearms, antiquities and ivory.
220 volts, 50Hz. Travellers should be aware that power cuts are frequent and, outside the capital, electricity is generally only available in the evenings.
Malaria and dengue fever are common in Cambodia. Malaria prophylaxis is recommended for all areas and dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is prevalent especially in the heavily populated areas. Insect protection measures should be taken throughout the day. Travellers staying long-term, or for more than one month and who may engage in unprotected outdoor activities, should be vaccinated against Japanese Encephalitis. There have been outbreaks of bird flu with four deaths in Cambodia, and although the risk of contracting the disease is slight, travellers should avoid contact with domestic, wild and caged birds and ensure that all poultry and egg dishes are well cooked. Mains water is not suitable for drinking but bottled water is widely available. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, salads and food sold by street vendors, and don't drink beverages with ice. Medical facilities are poor, except for a few expensive private clinics in Phnom Penh. Treatment must be paid for with cash and health insurance is essential.
Khmer is the official language. French is also spoken, but English is fast becoming popular with the younger generation.
Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign currency is difficult to exchange with the exception of US Dollars. Most transactions require cash. US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done in riel. A torn US dollar note renders it useless. Credit cards are only accepted in a limited number of tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and larger towns. There are a few ATMs in Phnom Penh, but they shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money; travellers cheques in US dollars or sterling can be cashed at a limited number of banks and larger hotels, though travellers cheques are not recommended due to limited acceptance.
All visitors must have sufficient funds to cover their stay. An e-Visa can be applied for online (single entry tourist visas) that allows for stays of up to 30 days. See www.mfaic.gov.kh for more information. Otherwise, a visa can be issued on arrival for 30 days. One passport photo is required along with US$20 for a tourist visa or US%25 for a business visa.
Cambodia remains one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. When hiking or visiting rural areas, travel with a local guide and never stray off the main paths. It is not advisable to travel anywhere at night. Caution should be taken in the capital, Phnom Penh, especially at night, as street crime is a problem, including around popular tourist nightspots in Phnom Penh. After dark there is also a risk of violent crime in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Visitors should be aware that bag snatching is becoming an increasing problem on tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis and while walking in the main towns. Due to the large numbers of tourists involved in road accidents on motorcycles, police in Siem Reap have banned rental outlets from hiring motorcycles to tourists. There is some risk from terrorism due to continuing terrorist activity in South East Asia, and travellers are advised to be vigilant in public places and areas frequented by foreigners.
Tips are not expected, but are welcomed in restaurants and hotels. Hotels often add a 10% service charge to the bill, but small amounts for personal services are appreciated, as salaries in the country are low. Tour guides should be tipped.