There are so many things to consider when planning a trip to Cambodia, from visas to currency, the weather and to what to pack. We share everything we learnt from research and experience all on one page to help you plan a stress-free visit to Cambodia.
How to plan your first visit to Cambodia
Cambodia is a country with an abundance of natural beauty, but it is also a place experiencing chaotic progress and all the problems that go with that.
This post will walk you through the answers to questions we had when we were planning our visit month-long visit to Cambodia. I figure if we wondered about these things you probably will too!
Planning to visit with kids? Check out our friends the Wyld Family’s guide to Angkor Wat with kids for some great advice.
While there are plenty of positives for not over planning your travels, Cambodia is one place that some planning will make your trip all the more enjoyable.
When is the best time to visit Cambodia?
The weather is the most significant consideration when choosing the best time to visit Cambodia. The country is at its most refreshing and least humid between December and February. However, even then it is still likely to be 30C (86F)!
After much consideration, we chose to visit from mid-November to early December. By visiting in November, we figured we would miss some of the high season crowds. This turned out to be a good idea as we did not experience overcrowding at all.
The humidity was more challenging than the heat, but apparently, this is one of the least humid times of the year. A good alternative would be late February.
March and April are the hottest months with temps rising to 40°C (104°F) and really only suitable for someone who loves the heat. For the rest of us, it is hideously hot and just generally unpleasant. If this is the only time you have available, then make sure you keep your days light because you will be done and ready for a rest by 11 am.
While the rain starts falling in May, the heaviest falls are in September and October. If your visit is confined to Siem Reap, then I am not sure this is a huge issue. The countryside is green, and the rains fall mainly in the beginning and end of the day. If you plan extensive travel, the heavy rail can cause issues with the roads.
Is Cambodia safe?
We felt safe the entire time and you will too if you use some common sense.
- Don’t flaunt your valuables, do you need to wear expensive jewellery on your holiday? If you do there is likely more chance you will be a victim of petty theft, which is common in a country with little support for those with no jobs. Just leave the designer goods at home, and you will be less of a target.
- Keep your bag close by when in a tuk-tuk so that it can’t be grabbed by a passing motorbike. Same applies when dining or in street markets.
- If your hotel has a safe use it, if not, don’t leave valuables in your room.
- If you are travelling alone be sensible walking at night, stick to busy well-lit streets or get in a tuk-tuk. We did not carry bags unless we had a camera and then it was a pretty ugly old backpack.
We also tend to dress in non-brand name clothing, so maybe we didn’t look like we were worth robbing 😉
You might like: What we loved about Hanoi
Which currency should I take to Cambodia?
Cambodia uses dual currencies the Cambodian Riel and the US dollar. For example, you pay for your goods with US$10, and your change sometimes returned in Riels. It can get confusing it if you are not expecting it. ATM’s dispense US dollars, and you will use them almost everywhere. It pays to use small notes because sometimes you get your change back in Riel. There are no coins in use. The exchange rate is 4000 Riel to $1USD.
We spoke to a Cambodian colleague and followed his suggestion in regards to what currency to take with us. At the time we travelled the US exchange rate was good for us, so we changed money before we left home. The rate in Cambodia was similar so you could stick to getting currency when you arrive if you prefer.
For our 3 week visit we took 20 x $5; 20 x $10 and 20 x $20 and 4x $50s. We also took $50 in $1 notes for tuk-tuks and drinks etc. and used these up in the first fortnight. We didn’t need an ATM until the end of our second week. We only used our credit card in hotels and upmarket restaurants.
Don’t bring $100 bills as there are problems with counterfeit bills and some places are reluctant to take them. To avoid this, we withdrew money from ATMs in amounts under $100 when possible. There was a $4 charge for ATM withdraws from the local bank. Our bank (Bankwest) does not charge any extra international fees, so we were comfortable paying $4. Check your bank before you travel to see how much this might cost you.
There were ATMs available in all the towns we visited (Phnom Penh, Kampot, Kep, Otres Beach 2, Siem Reap)
Tip: Keep your ATM withdrawals to $90 to avoid getting dodgy $100 bills.
If you do need to take a large sum, do it from a centre where you will be able to exchange it immediately to smaller bills. We did this at the main shopping mall in Phnom Penh quiet easily.
Prepaid internet plans
We picked up our prepaid sims from one of the carriers booths as we exited the airport in Phnom Penh. There were at least four different stalls all offering similar rates and plans. We went with Smart mobile at $8 for 6GB valid for one month.
There were a couple of slightly cheaper ones, but the lines were long, and we were not on a budget. All the staff spoke excellent English, and it was a straightforward process.
How much do things cost in Cambodia?
While you can travel around Cambodia on US$30 a day ($7 for a room $2-5 for a meal $8 for a bus), we stayed in 3-4 star hotels for around US$70-120 a night. Meals on average cost us US$20-30 a day, but again you can eat for much less.
- Beers are 50 cents to $3 depending on your surrounds
- Cocktails $1.5 to $5
- Massages $5-20 per hour
- Tuk Tuks $2 for a short local ride up to $15-25 for a full day.
- Bus ride Phnom Pehn to Siem Reap $12
- Backpacker day tour $10-15
- A car and driver between Phnom Penh and Kampot $40 Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh $50
You can also pay big dollars for 5-star resorts and luxury tours, but the average traveller can get by with under US$150 a day for two people in a nice hotel with meals and sightseeing. Backpackers can do it on US$50.
Do you need a visa to enter Cambodia?
It is easy to get your visa-on-arrival in Cambodia for US$30 at any airport or border crossing. If flying in your airline will give you an application before you land, or you can pick up one in the arrivals hall. You need one passport-sized photo but I forgot mine, and they will do this for you at the airport for an extra couple of dollars. This process was very smooth for us and took 15 minutes. I imagine it could take a while longer at peak times.
There is also an e-visa that you can apply for online, but it costs $10 more, and we decided it was not worth the hassle. If you prefer to arrange this before you go then make sure you use the official site. About three days after you apply you will get your visa via email which you must print and stick in your passport.
Tip: Make sure you have 6 months left on your passport to enter the country.
Do I need immunisations before I go to Cambodia?
Whether you decide to get vaccinated is a personal decision. I chose not to have any additional vaccines as I had a current tetanus shot and I am a relatively well person. My doctor said based on the areas we were visiting I was not at high risk.
Charles had several shots as he had a weird virus last year and took several months to get better so did not want to risk anything. He had Hepatitis A and B immunisations which are widely recommended for travel in Asia. Australians are also immunised against diphtheria in childhood, so this is not necessary for us. You should seek advice for your situation and decide accordingly.
We did not take any malaria meds but did use Deet/Areoguard most days to keep the mosquitoes at bay. You should seek advice from your doctor and make a decision based on your health.
How many days do you need to see Cambodia?
Ideally, you would have two weeks to see the country – we had almost three weeks and that was great for enjoying a slower pace which suits the heat here, but with two weeks you can see a few cities and different parts of the country.
If you have less than five days, I would stick to just the two main cities and fly between them. One full day in Phnom Penh to learn about the countries recent past and three full days in Siem Reap to see the temples and enjoy the food and culture. You will spend a day moving between the two cities.
If you have a week, then I would still stick to these two spots but add a day to each. In 10 days I would add Kampot or Kep for 2-3 days. With two weeks you could add Sihanoukville or Battambang.
Our 2 or 3-week itinerary for visiting Cambodia
- Four nights Phnom Penh / 2 nights for a 2-week itinerary
- Two nights in Kampot
- Three nights in Kep / omit this for a 2-week itinerary
- Four nights in Sihanoukville or nearby island / 3 nights for a 2-week itinerary
- Two nights in Battambang
- Five nights in Siem Reap
If we had a few more days, I would have stayed spent more time in Sihanoukville or visited one of the islands from there.
Tip: If possible fly into Phnom Penh and out of Siem Reap or vice versa. We decided to begin at Phnom Penh, and we were glad we did as it was a big bustling city and would not be my favourite way to finish a holiday. It was good to take in the history of the country and learn about the current political situation before we headed off to explore the rest of the country.
What do you need to take with you?
While you can find most things you need when you arrive you will most certainly need:
- a good hat
- a rain poncho or umbrella
- Deet or Areoguard
Tip: Women should consider taking tampons as they are tough to find outside of big cities. I checked almost every supermarket and chemist in Siem Reap before finally stumbling on one that had some.
What clothing is most suitable?
Cambodians are pretty modest although except when visiting the temples and Royal Palace you can wear whatever you want. Loose fitting natural fabrics are best. We found long shorts or ¾ pants were a good option for comfort and modesty.
A sarong is great for covering bare shoulders or turning into a skirt when required for temple visits.
Respect the cultural values of the local people for a more authentic experience.
Ideas for helping or volunteering in Cambodia?
While everyone approaches giving aid in developing countries with the best of intentions those who work in these areas often warn that help given in the wrong way can cause more harm than good.
Giving money or buying goods from children can mean that they continue to be sent to sell or beg instead of going to school. Visiting orphanages is also not recommended. Instead, try one of these ways of making a difference.
- Give blood at the Children’s hospital in Siem Reap
- Eat at one of the NGO hospitality cafes or restaurants. There are quite a few across the country. Friends International is the biggest one.
- We also loved the cakes at Epic Arts Cafe in Kampot that employs predominantly deaf staff
- Buy goods from local shops that support their communities. I got a great handbag made from recycled motorcycle tires from the Friends International shop in Phnom Penh and some lovely children’s toys from a shop run by mothers from a local school in Otres Beach.
Three things that make travelling to Cambodia challenging
Heat and Humidity One of the most challenging things about travelling in Cambodia are physical, facing the humidity 🙂 it averages at 70% every day, often higher. This is the main reason to try not to overfill your days and plan to be back at your hotel or in a swimming pool during the hottest part of the day. We napped most afternoons!
Rubbish, Another thing to prepare yourself for is the rubbish in the streets. There is rubbish everywhere, our private guide in Phnom Penh explained the system to us; rubbish collection is not free, so most locals burn their garbage, often as a group once every few days. In big cities rubbish collection only happens a couple of times a week and combined with the heat makes for some rather strong odours.
Tuk-Tuks Finally dealing with Tuk Tuk drivers is a challenge. You will be asked over and over if you want a tuk-tuk. Accept that these drivers are just trying to make a wage and politely decline or shake your head with a smile. It’s usually best to not say anything and shake your head. If you engage, they will try harder to convince you.
How to learn more about Cambodia before you visit
- The Killing Fields
- First, they Killed my Father
- Anything from this list of movies set in Cambodia by Culture Trip
Stay Alive My Son By Pin Yathay
The very first book I read on Cambodia, this book made me cry decades before Angelina Jolie’s film was made.
First, They Killed My Father by Loung Ung
Cambodia’s Curse by Joel Brinkley
Helps to explain the political and economic situation in Cambodia after Pol Pot – well written and easy to follow. We found many locals we met wanted to engage on the political and social problems of the country, and this was a great primer.
Blogs and Social Media
Our go-to website for Southeast Asia Travel info is Travelfish – it has the most current detailed info we have found online and includes lots of off the beaten track towns and villages across Cambodia.
Related: Should you visit Sihanoukville?
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