No one can visit Cambodia and not be changed by it. As the temple hub of the world, tourists are arriving fast and furious, and not everyone saw it coming. But tourist dollars are doing some good in this charming country and the government is responding to it.
More land and more land crossings have opened up and while a couple of them have notorious reputations, stories of efficient and polite immigration officials are starting to emerge. Entry formalities at the country’s two international airports are brisk and painless and the journey into its ancient glorious past begins even then as the airports have gorgeous reproduction statues, painstakingly duplicated to the last detail.
Budget Backpacking to Unabashed Luxury
You can travel cheaply in Cambodia, sleep reasonably comfortably and eat well. Or you can sink into unabashed luxury and dine in restaurants to rival the best in other Asian capitals.. It is pretty easy to fly in and out but not so from province to province. Major infrastructure connecting the dots on the map is still deficient and some roads flood. During the wet season, travel by boat on the country’s 150kms of waterways is the way to go. Land lines for telephones are still lacking but a cell phone is pretty cheap. Internet cafes have sprouted up like little mushrooms, and are starting to appear in outlying areas.
Unspoiled mountainous forests, ornate stone temples more than 1000 years old, idyllic islands and unspoilt beaches – these are the makings of a dream vacation. And it is, but some common sense will prevent headaches later. Medical insurance is not only prudent but also crucial; check that the coverage extends to emergency evacuations.
Charming as Cambodia is, its hospitals are not up to international standards and critical cases have to be evacuated to Bangkok or Singapore. Arm yourself adequately with the appropriate medication or be pre-armed with vaccinations especially if you are going off the beaten track. Remember that land mines are still a problem in unexplored areas.
Carrying a stack of US dollar bills is necessary as that really is the currency of trade. Even the visa fees and departure taxes are paid in US dollars. The Cambodian currency, the riel, is relatively stable to the US dollar so the tourist does not have to worry about a rapidly inflating local currency.
Shopping is fun and there is a reasonable range of antiques. Just remember you cannot export pre-Angkor and Angkorian antiques as that is considered looting. However, local creativity is well at work here. In a revival of ancient techniques for stone sculpture, wood carvings and ceramics, you can now buy a beautifully reproduced Buddha head or stone carving, or a bust of the Angkor kingdom’s greatest king. Be tempted by the silver, but also be vigilant as to how pure it is, and whether it is really silver.
Support the local artists and artisans. Many of them would be jobless but for these vocational skills picked up at dedicated training centers. Shop Cambodian should be the mantra, as the tourist dollar really goes a very long way. Bargaining is a part of life but bear in mind that many of these people live on less than US$0.50 a day. Be part of the sport but be gentle.
If your luggage is bursting at the seams, ship the excess via UPS or Fedex, or wait until your next international destination. The post is unreliable. If you want to drive, make sure you have the appropriate papers with you and remember that the rule of the road is that bigger is better. Cambodian drivers drive on the right and do not seem to observe any rules. To move around, there are cell phone-carrying moto and tuk-tuk drivers, or you can hire a car with a driver,
Budding Art Scene
For a mix of Khmer culture outside of ancient ruins and the ubiquitous karaoke bar, a budding art scene is complemented by a fast growing number of art galleries. Attempts to fuse the traditional with the street culture are giving rise to interesting music and rock operas.
There is magic in Cambodia and as a tourist, you want to travel responsibly and make sure that there is more of the country to re-visit. Tipping is not part of their culture but the extra money is appreciated; good etiquette is probably just as well appreciated. Learning a few words of Cambodian might be useful in getting better prices at the stores. Relax and enjoy the ride through a magical country.