Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Cambodia

I recently had the opportunity to visit Cambodia, an easy flight on Dragonair from Hong Kong. Before even leaving Cambodia though, I knew that there were several details I wanted to share. Tidbits of information that could have helped me during my own stay in Siem Reap and tips that I hope will help you as you plan your own trip to this beautiful country. I have a lot more to say about my remarkable experiences in Cambodia, but I wanted to start with this more practical post.

1. Visas and cash – For U.S. residents, you do not need to apply for a visa in advance. You can get one upon arrival but you will need a passport sized photo and $20. Yes, that’s right you need to have a U.S. $20 bill in order to process the visa. It’s easy and only takes a few minutes, but make sure you have everything you need before you get there.

That gets me to something I really wish I knew. In Cambodia the currency is the riel. However, the Cambodian economy being what it is, locals prefer getting paid in dollars since they get more value from it than from their own currency. I made the mistake of exchanging a bunch of cash, losing money in the process, which I didn’t really need to do. Local restaurants and shops will accept riels, but it’s easier and ultimately cheaper for you to just use American currency. Do bring lower value bills though, lots of $1, $5 and $10 bills will serve you well. American coinage is not used, so try to have even transactions or you’ll be stuck with a lot of nearly useless riels.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

2. Visiting temples – The most popular tourism spot in Cambodia is Siem Reap; home to the legendary Angkor Wat along with a host of other temples. It’s an impressive place and after a few days there I quickly understood the draw. There are though a few things you should know. While you can certainly tour the temples on your own, I strongly recommend hiring a driver and guide for the day, which your hotel can help arrange. The price is very reasonable and the guides are licensed and provide a lot of great information. It will also be hot and having an air conditioned car to take you from one site to the next instead of tuk-tuk is a nice perk. I think it’s also nice to pump money back into the local economy by hiring a guide, most of whom come from some pretty humble backgrounds. Regardless of whether you go solo or not though you will need a temple pass. For $20 for one day (prices vary if more days are purchased) you will have access to most of the area temples, including Angkor Wat. Each temple complex has guards checking the passes so don’t think you can sneak by without one. Your guide will take you to the ticket area where you need to once again have American currency with you as they process your pass.

It’s Southeast Asia so it will most likely be hot and humid when you go. Be sure to pack a small day bag with plenty of water, hats, sunscreen and even a clean shirt to change into after a long (and sweaty) day of sightseeing.

3. Rainy season isn’t that bad – I’d always avoided Asia during the rainy season, which is why I was a little concerned before my recent trip. But I quickly learned that there is a sharp difference between rainy season and monsoon season. Rainy season is just that, periods of rain every other day or so. While I visited it rained everyday, in the afternoon for no longer than 20 minutes or so. Of course this will vary, but it wasn’t the day-long downpour I had feared.

4. No need to excessively plan in advance – I’m a planner and am especially obsessive about it when I know I will be somewhere where I will need a lot of tours. I had planned all of my Siem Reaps tours from home, but as soon as I got there I saw that it wasn’t necessary. Perhaps this doesn’t hold true in the high season, but when I visited the hotel merely arranged the tour the day before I needed it done. There are many guides in the area and most are trained in the same sites and activities, so it’s easy to hire someone last minute. Not only that, but from my own experience traveling it’s much easier to see what there is to see and do after you arrive than in advance when you’re dependent on whatever information you can find online. Cambodia also enjoys a somewhat slower pace of life so you may feel the need to acclimate and relax a little more, something you can’t do if you over plan.

5. Spend more time – My three days spent in Siem Reap is actually the typical amount of time most tourists spend in this popular city. It’s enough time to see the temples, explore town and maybe even relax a little. But as with most places, more time always means a better experience. Luckily I managed to leave town one afternoon for a trip out to Tonle Sap, the famous and impressive UNESCO recognized lake and river system. Along the way though I passed through villages and met some of the local residents, each of whom greeted me with a broad smile. It was good for me to get out into the country and to see not how those involved with the tourist trade live, but how the average Cambodian lives and the experience was humbling. It’s for that and other experiences like it that make staying in Cambodia and exploring longer not only a nice thing to do, but an important one.

Is there anything you would like to know about traveling in Siem Reap, Cambodia?

 

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By: Mike

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer. Also follow Matt on , and

39 Responses

  1. Heather

    The riels are useful for buying small things, but the biggest bill is only worth $5. ATM’s that spit out US dollars can be found everywhere in the country pretty much from what I found.

    Reply
  2. Hardik Ramani

    An insightful article Matt…looking forward to read more from you.

    Reply
  3. Anna @ It Started in Asia

    Agree the rainy season is more like a welcome relief in Cambodia for settling the often dusty streets and roads. Great advice for people visiting this area for the first time.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan Look, Jr.

    Good advice. Especially about hiring a driver and a guide. They will take you places off of the tourist circuit and it could change your life. I lived in Siem Reap for nine months and still never got to see everything that Cambodia offers. Yes the temples are spectacular and the other sights are amazing but the best part about Cambodia is the people.

    Reply
  5. Lisa - Wee Wanders

    Thanks for the tips Matt! I’m heading to Southeast Asia in a few weeks for the first time and currently swatting up on Cambodia so the advice is much appreciated – particularly using dollars and hiring a guide.

    Reply
  6. [email protected]_pour

    The dollar thing is one of the most “important” you actually have to know when coming to Cambodia. I have met a lot of tourists who were desperate with thousands and thousands of Riels in their pockets. You sure won’t loose them cause you will always be able to pay with them, but what a mess with the counting, not mentioning the huge amount of bills you will have to carry on you !
    Just a little note regarding the rainy season : we are having a really really late raining season this years, it has been raining maybe 5 or 6 times only so far in Phnom Penh. But should you plan a trip in September, be prepared of a real rainy season with floods and everything.
    Happy to hear you enjoyed the Kingdom !

    Reply
  7. bobby

    hey, nice reminder concerning currency i was very surprise to redraw money at ATM and receive USD. I got a blast visiting Cambodia and i will be back for more soon i hope!

    Reply
  8. Jane

    When you arrive at the airport, it is worth investing in one of the prepaid SIM cards for your phone (if your handset isn’t locked). They are so reasonable, whether for phone and data, or just data. I paid USD$20 for an incredible 3Gb of data and a ridiculous amount of calls (Beeline). The whole country (well, Battambang to Siem Reap all the way to Phnom Penh and down the coast and to the border) is online. Middle of nowhere and you have 5 bars and 3G. The same applies next door in Vietnam (Mobiphone). Worth the investment if you love your data (to constantly Instagram and Facebook), and the odd call.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Yes if you have an unlocked phone then getting SIM cards in each country is the way to go.

      Reply
  9. LG

    I heard that the price of the visa is 30$ since october 2014. 20$ fee no longer exist.

    Reply
  10. Lucy Smith

    Great advice! I’m heading to Cambodia in November so will definitely have to get myself some US dollars. So odd that they prefer that than their own currency.

    Reply
    • Emilie G

      Many countries that have gone through political or economic strife end up using the dollar… it doesn’t fluctuate like local currencies do!

      Reply
  11. Taz Chham

    Great Advice, I’m heading for the first time in Nov. My family is originally from there however I never step foot out side of USA… I bit excited and worried…..

    Reply
  12. raul

    Hi Matt. I am planing my trip to Cambodia. Could you please share more information about transportation, infrastructure, … to go to Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, etc. I can stay only 9 days in the Country, what could you suggest?. Thank you and regards from Mexico.

    Reply
    • Mike

      Sorry I can’t help, I was only in Siem Reap.

      Reply
  13. jeremy

    Set you said something about a visa. I can get one at the air port ? And ill still need my passport too or is that the same thing? Sorry I’m trying to gather all info cause I’ve never left USA and I just hope I dont get tied up cause I missed something.

    Reply
    • Mike

      When I went it was visa at airport, but rules change all the time so please check the website for the Cambodian embassy in the US.

      Reply
      • Carrie Brown

        What language do they speak in Cambodia? We’re going in a year with our 2 teenage sons?

  14. Divy

    Hi Matt,
    Great article. Did you know any khmer language when you visited Cambodia ? If not is it easy to survive without knowing any khmer ?

    Reply
    • Mike

      No and it’s very easy

      Reply
  15. francis

    Encontre esto referente a Cambodia, quizas algo sirva….

    Reply
  16. Lori

    Thanks so much for the article Matt. I’m an American living in Hong Kong and was wondering about the visa. I know we need one for our upcoming Cambodia tripbut are they still attainable at the airport and are they $30US now and not $20? Any help would be grateful! Thanks, Lori

    Reply
    • Mike

      I don’t know, you should check with the embassy

      Reply
  17. trip

    hi matt .
    what is the best way to plan your trip to vietnam & cambodia.
    1- with travels agents in vietnam ? or travel agents form canada
    2- or book your hotel & flights on line & than book your tours when you get to the citys or places you visit.planing a trip in nov/05/2016 to dec/02/2016

    thanks matt
    hussein

    Reply
    • Sopheap

      Hi Hussein,
      It is better booking hotel and flight on line when you reach hotel they will prepare tour for you. but in December is high season, you need to hotel ask them booking guide in advance

      Reply
  18. LAURA

    I leave for Vietnam then Cambodia in 4 days. We are going as a group and have plans to visit specific places. My concern is the availability of toilets.

    Reply
    • Sopheap

      How was your trip in Cambodia?

      Reply
      • Mike

        great!

  19. Sam

    75% of Cambodian they understand and speak a little English so, U guys don’t need to know any Khmer if u do that’s extra point. Plus they run US dollar currency all over the country.

    Reply
  20. Emma

    Hi Matt, do Cambodians eat snakes and dogs,? Something I’d prefer not to see in the markets./restaurants
    Also am I likely to see snakes visiting temples?

    Reply
  21. Monika

    Thanks dear for sharing this amazing and informative blog article. Actually, I am dreaming of traveling the amazing places in Cambodia. And I choose some places to visit:
    1. Angkor Wat temple
    2. Bayon Temple
    3.Banteay Srei
    4. Siem Reap and more

    Reply
  22. Anu @OneTeaspoonOfLife

    Thanks Matt for these tips. It helped us a lot, especially the one about the currency. I will be sharing this link on my blog.

    Reply
  23. Clint

    Any advice or knowledge on vaccines before traveling to Cambodia? Thanks for your article.

    Reply
  24. Bart

    Matt! Cool Info!
    I am going to Siem Reap in May for about 6 days. Can you recommend a hotel that has a tour agent. I would much rather do this than pay $1,200 for a tour agency to book a package. I suspect it is much cheaper to do it there. Thoughts? Cheers : ) Bart

    Reply
  25. Francis

    Hi matt it is gud to no about this country Cambodia. Pls I will like to no about d people live style, in Cambodia are they friendly people

    Reply
  26. Susie

    The idea of land mines really concerns me about Cambodia. I will be going to Siem Reap for about 3 days in March. What is your insite on the land mines?

    Reply
  27. Peter K

    My ‘far better half’ and I were in Phnom Penh in January, 2018.
    There is NO risk of land mines anywhere that a tourist is likely to go.
    My experience with ATMs up there is that they only dispense US100 bills – which can be a little difficult to transact.
    We organised our visas online about 2 months before we went which made it much quicker and easier to transit through the airport on arrival.
    I agree that it’s best to but a local SIM card on arrival.
    If anyone wants to ask any direct questions please feel free to email me at: pk(at)sabas(dot)net(dot)au
    Peter K.
    Adelaide, South Australia

    Reply
  28. Angella Copper

    Amazing Cambodia! I had a wonderful time in the north of Vietnam: Lan Ha Bay- Halong Bay by La Pinta cruise, Sapa by train and Hanoi with the free walking tour, I really satisfied with the service in La Pinta cruise. I also intend to visit Cambodia, so your post is really useful for me. Thanks

    Reply

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