Monday, August 15, 2011

Preparing for Visiting in Cambodia

Living in Cambodia: Tips and Tricks for Staying Sane in Cambodia is nicely ... Keep in mind that the rules in Cambodia change frequently, and are often ...


November to February is the "cool season", which is dry and not too hot (up to about 30C or 85F). In April it gets really hot (40/100 daily, 30/85 at night), but not rainy. Starting around June it gets rainy--and still hot. It rains off and on all the time, so roads are muddy and some areas are impassable, and it stays like that until November, when cool & dry comes--gloriously--back. Here's today's forecast for Phnom Penh.


Keep in mind that shorts are frowned on in temples (such as at Angkor Wat). In fact, few men in Cambodia wear shorts unless they have particular sweaty jobs, so there is a class element to this. But since foreigners are seen as completely strange anyway, they can get away with odd behavior and dress to an extent. Certainly lighter dress is fine during exercise (you can go running or biking in the morning along the river in Phnom Penh). Good walking/hiking shoes are a plus for a visit to the temples. Sandals (not leather) are good for rainy season in the city--the mud and fecal matter just rinses right off! Smile: You'll do this anyway, but always act respectful, don't raise your voice or your eyebrows, and smile at everybody. Works wonders.
A Nice Place to Visit, BUT...

In 1997, Phnom Penh was ranked as one of the worst cities to live in by the Corporate Resources Group. Of 192 cities Vancouver, Toronto, and Auckland were rated tops in quality of life. Out of 40 cities in Asia, Cambodia's capital ranked 31st. (Source: Access Cambodia Bi-Monthly NEWS, Dec. 1 - 15, 1997, Vol 1)
And it hasn't moved up since then, at least for expats. In 2002, the Economist Intelligence Unit assessed the hardship level for expatriates in 130 cities around the world. Melbourne and Vancouver tied for best, while Phnom Penh came in a No. 126, beating only Dhaka, Lagos, Karachi and Port Moresby. Ouch. (Reuters, October 4, 2002)


Cash is best (aaah, cash!). Bring dollars if you already have them, or baht if you don't. Dollars (and to a lesser extent Thai baht) are accepted almost everywhere in Cambodia, intermingled freely with riel. You will get some riel as change when you spend dollars; just mix 'n' match. One dollar equals 4050 riel (as of January 2006); the riel has lost less than half its value since 1995 (those IMF policies keep inflation down, if nothing else). Coins have not been used for many, many years. There are a few places that will change travelers checks. Credit cards are useful only at a few ritzy places in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, although you can get a cash advance from a Visa or JCB card at the Cambodian Commercial Bank, among others, in Phnom Penh and a few banks in other main towns.
UPDATE: Residents used to hand off their (foreign) cash cards to friends visiting Bangkok so the friends can pull out money for them, but as of late 2005 there are a few cash machines in Cambodia at branches of the ANZ bank and at the Canadia Bank in Phnom Penh. These ATMs may or may not be compatible with your card.


As of 2003, Visas are available on arrival at the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports (see below), so if you are entering Cambodia at the airport, there's no need to get one beforehand. If you enter by land, you must get a your visa before you get there in most cases, and it must be marked for entry at that entry point. If it isn't, you are nearly certain to be sent back (Download visa application.) Find more and better visa info at Tales of Asia.
There is no other preparation needed that I can think of, except for a couple of shots, and for a short visit even those are probably not necessary. Havrix costs $60-100, but is thought to provide lifetime protection from hepatitis A, which is not a bad thing.


The vast majority of Cambodians speak Khmer, a language of the Mon-Khmer group. Its only close relative is the language of the Mon, a Burmese minority. Khmer is only distantly related to Thai and to some Indonesian languages, with some borrowed words from Vietnamese, Chinese, Pali, French and English. The script is related to Devanagari and looks a bit like Thai script at first glance. An increasing number of urban Cambodians speak English, especially young people, and some (mostly older) Cambodians can speak French. Though its grammar is quite straightforward, Khmer is a fairly difficult language for most English speakers to learn because of its pronunciation. If you want to go beyond the tourist phrasebooks, you can study online at Northern Illinois University's introduction to Khmer site. For home study, I especially like Frank Smith's Khmer Language Learning Materials.

Arriving at Pochentong airport

Bring two small photos and $25 US. You will get two forms to fill out on the airplane. On the form you must identify your visit as a tourist visit or a business visit. It's $20 for a one-month tourist visa, or $25 for a one-month working visa. The only difference is that the working visa can be renewed without leaving the country, so if you might stay more than a month, choose that one. There has been no requirement to prove you are working for anyone. Tell the truth about your job, especially if you are not a human rights worker or similar troublemaker. Actually they don't seem to care. (More on visas at Tales of Asia) After you land you will walk into the terminal, if you are prudent, and join a crowd of people at the visa counter. They will ask you for your passport and your forms. They will ask you for the photos as well, though I have never heard of anyone being turned away for not having them. Don't worry, just hand your passport over, and move down to the other end of the counter to pick it up and pay the fee. (It used to be that if you wanted to accelerate your progress, you could hand over a fiver to the guy who takes your passport and forms, motion meaningfully down the counter, and then move smartly along while honest people wait. But I heard one report in early 2002 that this no longer works.)
Keep in mind that if you overstay your visa, you will be charged $30 plus $5 for each day you overstayed. You pay when you leave; it's hassle-free.
If you get a job with an organization, they normally have a person who takes care of your visa extensions by paying (off) the appropriate somebodies. Once again, these rules can change at any time.

Getting into town

After you get the visa, make like a baby...and head out. You will pass a desk with a sign that says it's $7 for a taxi into town. If you're stretched for cash, say "five dollars" and keep walking. You might be able to get it for $4, but come on. Go with the first person who agrees, which might not be until you reach the sidewalk outside. Don't worry, you will not be stranded! After you get your luggage, you'll pass confidently by the guys who could demand to search your bags, but won't because they are charmed by your pleasant and friendly demeanor. You'll go through a small foyer. Take a look at the rate, but don't bother changing money there (see above).
You will emerge from the airport in a crowd of taxi-drivers vying for your patronage. The only difference between these and the ones who approached you inside is that the ones inside have paid someone off for the better position. If you don't have too much luggage, opt for a longer and less comfortable, but much more exciting moto-taxi ride ($2-3).
Try to buy a Phnom Penh Post as soon as you can, even at the airport sidewalk. It has a city map in the middle, with many useful locations marked. (The most comprehensive map and listings are in the 2003 Cambodia Yellow Pages on sale at various bookstores and Western-style markets. The Phnom Penh Visitors Guide is a very good free resource full of how-to information and listings. It's available all over town. There's an essential version for Sihanoukville too. Both are now on line.
If you to need to make any phone calls when you arrive, ask your taxi driver if you can use his phone. Offer him some money afterwards: at least 20-30 cents/minute. Local pay phones work on phone cards only; look for store signs advertising Telstra or Camintel cards.

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