Traveling to Cambodia? Please do! This is one of my favorite places in the world to travel. From its tropical beaches to Ancient temples it truly is a paradise. However, if you have never been there it can take you for a ride, and not in a good way. People often have stories of unfortunate events that occurred while they were visiting Cambodia. I have been so blessed to have traveled there with natives and been able to see the “real” Cambodia, as my husband is 1st generation Cambodian.
After my last trip to Cambodia I compiled this list of essential tips to know before go. Most of these tips you may already know but I have some interesting ones as well.
DON’T EXCHANGE DOLLARS INTO RIEL: Cambodians use and prefer the US dollar. If you exchange your money into Riel you will more than likely get a bad exchange rate and lose even more when trying to make purchases. If you spend any time in the bigger cities like Phnom Penh, Battambang or Siem Reap they take almost exclusively dollar bills. Also make sure to get CRISP bills. If you are not Cambodian then they may take your wrinkled bills with no problem. Even I ran into vendors in the markets that would not accept my money because it had been folded. Picky picky!
NEVER TOUCH ANYONES HEAD: Cambodians consider the head to be a sacred part of the body. It is very disrespectful and considered “Bap” or a sin to touch anyones head, especially an elder.
NEVER USE A PILLOW TO SIT ON OR REST YOUR FEET ON: Again this stems back to the no touching of someones head. This is where your head lays, so no feet or butt on it!
DON’T EATING ANYTHING LABELED “Happy,” UNLESS YOU WANTED TO: In many of the tourist areas you will see many restaurants that say Happy pizza or Happy cafe and so on. Happy means Marijuana. They will make your food “Happy” if thats what you want. Also some hotels, hostels and tuk tuk drivers will offer it to you when you check in or use their service.
DO NOT TAKE PICTURES OF MONKS, NUNS OR ANYONE WITHOUT ASKING: Cambodian people as a whole are amazing. They will offer you what little they have just to make sure you are feeling comfortable. When visiting the temple complex at Angkor it is very tempting to snap photos of Monks praying or children playing in the moat. You need to remember that this is a sacred temple for them and they are worshiping. Cambodian government has now posted signs asking foreigners to refrain from taking pictures of monks and nuns without their permission. Also it is good to note that Cambodians are a super smiley bunch. That doesn’t mean that they want their picture taken. Ask first. They will also not want to take a picture in groups of three as it is considered bad luck for the middle person.
NEVER TOUCH A MONK: Touching a monk if you are a female is completely off-limits. In the mornings when the monks came around with their donation urns I would always go out and put some money in, taking care to not touch them.
DON’T TRUST PHARMACEUTICALS: Cambodia is still a developing country, therefore it has a lot of third world problems. My husband and I bring the whole medicine cabinet when we visit. His family that lives both in Phnom Penh and up north in the Banteay Meanchey province have made it very clear not to buy any meds in Cambodia. You may hear different, but his family has high-ranking military officials, government officials, Doctors and lab owners so I believe them. They rely on the medication that our family brings and sends to them from America.
NEVER BUY ANYTHING FROM KID’S: This may sound a little harsh but in Cambodia most of the children you see selling things are essentially being pimped out by an adult. They are forced to sell goods and then hand over the profits to their pimp or “May.” Heart breaking to say the least.
DON’T LET PEOPLE WORKING INSIDE THE TEMPLES TAKE YOUR PICTURE: Letting anyone take your picture in the temple complex means you will have to pay them. Workers will say ” Take a picture over here its famous or beautiful,” if you follow them over it’s a guarantee that you will have to give them a dollar or two for their suggestion. Often times young men will approach you talking about the temples and then demand a tip from you. Truly annoying, but I understand why they do it. The average Cambodians daily income is $1-$2 US dollars.
IF YOU WANT TO VISIT A CHARITY OR ORPHANAGE DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE YOU GO: Cambodia as I said is a developing country with a vast majority of the people still living in poverty. Many corrupt government officials and con artists have set up fake charities and orphanages to prey on kind-hearted people. Contact these entities before you arrive and set up a time to visit. It will be worth while.
IF YOU HEAR WHISTLING IT’S NOT BECAUSE THEY’RE HAPPY: Whistling is a way for prostitutes and “massage” parlors to get your attention. Siem Reap is rampant with these whistling ladies. Some tuk tuk drivers have arraignments with these establishments and will drive you by them purposely. Beware!
DON’T MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT ALL THE BUGS: Ha! Bugs are one of my least favorite things. In Cambodia they are massive and every where, even in the bathroom. Imagine a grasshopper the size of your hand right next to your head while using the restroom. Yup, that happened. There will be times when you find bugs in your food. Guess what, most Cambodian food is organic, so if there’s a bug don’t be a jerk. Ask the restaurant owner nicely and they will take care of it for you.
DON’T WEAR EXPENSIVE JEWELRY OR HOLD OUT YOUR PHONE: After witnessing this first hand a few times I hope you heed my warning. Apple iPhones are coveted in Cambodia and are often snatched out of the owners hands by tandem scooter riders. Also necklaces make easy targets for snatch and grabs. Watch your valuables and take good precautionary measures to ensure you and your items are safe.
AVOID GETTING ANGRY IN PUBLIC: Cambodians for the most part are very gentle people. Loosing your cool and yelling at them won’t get you very far. They will smile at you out of embarrassment and discomfort. As a whole they do not deal with confrontation well.
COVER UP: Cambodia is changing. This last visit I was shocked at all of the skin that the Khmer (Cambodian) people were showing. That being said it is still considered disrespectful to show a lot of skin and cleavage. If you go to Europe, especially Rome you will have to cover your shoulders and often your head to visit the churches. It’s the same thing for the Angkor complex. Yes it’s hot. Yes you’re sweaty. But if you want to be respectful cover up!
NO PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF AFFECTION: Cambodians do not kiss or hug in public. You will see many members of the same-sex holding hands or having their arms around each other. It is their custom to show that you are best friends in that way. No smooching in public but, you can sniff them on the cheek, that’s how they “kiss.”
TRY NOT TO POINT THE SOLES OF YOUR FEET AT ANYONE: Cambodians consider the soles of their feet to be the dirtiest part of their bodies. Take special care if you enter a Wat (temple) that you do not point your soles at Buddha.
DON’T FALL FOR THE MILK SCAM: In most of the major cities in Cambodia you will see beggars. Some have been maimed by mines others are mental handicap. There are however women with babies. A woman will approach you with her baby and ask that you buy some formula. She will take you to a store where you buy the formula and send you on your way. She then returns to the store and the owner gives her half of what you paid.
DON’T DRINK THE WATER: It seems like something everyone should already know, right? Wrong. Just don’t drink that tap water, even when brushing your teeth. After landing at the airport we make a b-line for the store to buy bottled water.
ALWAYS TAKE A PICTURE OF LARGE BILLS IN FRONT OF THE PERSON YOU ARE PAYING: Sounds kind of crazy I know. In Cambodian there is A LOT of corruption and dishonest people. One of the things that is happening more frequently is that they take your money and exchange it for a counterfeit bill and keep your money. You end up paying twice. If I am using a $50 or $100 dollar bill I will take a pic of it while the person is standing there. Usually they will come back with a receipt with the bill number written on it. They do this to prove that they are being honest with you.
BRING SOME FORM OF ELECTROLYTES WITH YOU: Hydration tablets are a cheap and effective way of replenishing your bodies vitamins and minerals you just sweated out. Both my husband and father in-law had sever muscle cramping the first few days we were there. If you can’t find the tablets or liquid before you go drink some fresh coconut water. Works wonders!
RENT A TUK TUK FOR THE DAY: Renting a tuk tuk is very easy as there are literally thousands of them in the bigger cities. If you choose to rent one I recommend doing it through your hotel. After telling the hotel staff where you would like to go ask them to call a tuk tuk for you. This way the hotel knows where you are going and who you went with. Just in case something doesn’t go as planned.
TIP, TIP AND TIP AGAIN: The average Cambodian household lives off of $1-$2 US dollars a day. Yes, that’s it! If a man helps you back out of a parking space tip him. When you land at the airport and some young fellas help you put your luggage in your care tip him. You see where I’m going with this. It doesn’t have to be a dollar every time. I tipped the security guard at our hotel $10 dollars. Why? Because we stayed there for 10 nights. I like to tip around $1 per person.
TAKE PEPTO BEFORE AND AFTER MEALS: Lets just say that this was a lesson learned the hard way. Taking Pepto will insure if you do get travelers diarrhea that it won’t be so bad.
GET YOUR IMMUNIZATIONS WELL IN ADVANCE: Don’t wait until a week before you go to get all your shots. Give your body time to react and recover before you go.
ALWAYS WEAR FLIP FLOPS IN THE SHOWER: It doesn’t matter how clean and upscale your hotel is. There is a darn good chance that they don’t use the proper chemicals to kill the foot fungus in the shower. Cambodians are a very clean people. They take upwards of 3 showers a day. But most of their houses have a lot of exposure to the out doors so dusty bathrooms and creepy crawlies are prevalent. I myself go to a western market and by disinfection wipes to clean the toilet and sink at every place we stay.
DO NEGOTIATE BUT BE RESPECTFUL: Yes purchasing goods in Cambodia is cheap. That doesn’t mean that you have to be rude or try to get products for nothing! They need to make money too. Ask them how much, counter offer within a few dollars. If they are unwilling then go to the next stand. More often than not they will follow you and accept your offer.
TAKE A TOUR AWAY FROM SIEM REAP: Unfortunately most tourist only go to Siem Reap and that’s it. You are missing out! Each province has something unique to offer. Do your research and find the hidden gems that Cambodia has to offer.
PUT MONEY IN YOUR PASSPORT: Okay, even I have to admit that this bothers me. In order to have the customs agents expedite your passports it’s customary to slip $5 in the picture page of your passport. Yes there are signs saying that you don’t have to. We still do.
GET A VISA BEFORE ENTERING CAMBODIA: Leave yourself plenty of time (about 3-4 weeks) to have the visa processed through the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, DC. Or you can do an e-visa online. Either one is a better option then waiting to get one in Cambodia. If you wait to do it there its super chaotic and stressful.
RAISE YOUR HANDS AND BOW SLIGHTLY: When greeting people in Cambodia it is traditional to raise your hands up to your nose in the “praying” position and bow your head down slightly. It is a sign of respect and should be treated like a hand shake.
BUY TOILET PAPER BEFORE YOU GO TO CAMBODIA: There is no easy way to explain this one. Cambodian toilet paper is like sandpaper when you have travelers diarrhea. There I said it. My husband and I were smart enough to pack Charmin ultra soft before we left… My butt thanked me for it. I had E coli the second week and in turn needed to use the restroom often. Trust me on this one!
IF YOU ARE GIFTED SOMETHING CRAZY; BE GRACIOUS: Svay Chek is a small district in northern Cambodia where my mother in-law is from. I believe it is home to maybe the most sweetest, hard-working and gentle people I have had the pleasure of meeting. We stayed in a traditional Cambodian house, ate their food and traveled country-style. My husband’s cousin took me to visit his mother in-law, way outside of the village. We spent a few hours there. When we were about to leave she wanted to gift me something. It was a chicken. I graciously declined but the next day she showed up to the house with my new chicken, which I named Salt n’ Pepper. Of course I didn’t know what to do with the old girl but to not accept it would have hurt her feelings. Cambodians are a deeply sentimental people and offer what little they have so you will remember them.
BRING APPROPRIATE SHOES: A real no brainer if you ask me but I’ve seen it first hand. Yes it’s hot and sandals seem like the way to go until you realize that you are walking in a rain storm with sewage. Bring plenty of socks and a couple of pairs of walking shoes.
JUST GO WITH THE FLOW: Sometimes this is easier said then done. Cambodia is still a developing country that comes with a lot of set backs. If it rains you may not be able to travel where you had planned. Just remember, be as flexible as you can and you will have a wonderful once in a lifetime vacation.
If you ever have the pleasure of visiting the kingdom of Cambodia I wish you a safe and amazing trip. Keep an eye out for my post on essential items you should take with you on your adventure to Cambodia.