How to Plan a Cambodia First-time Trip

About Cambodia Tourism

Modern Cambodia is the natural successor of the ancient Khmer Kingdom, which originally ruled much of Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia. The remains of the Khmer Empire can be seen in the fabled temples of Angkor, and are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country.

But just as Angkor is more than just Angkor Wat (temple), Cambodia is much more than just the temples and ancient Khmer Empire. The charismatic and chaotic capital, Phnom Penh, is a city of life and revitalization, with a gorgeous riverside location and a French-renaissance culture and architecture. Similarly, Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, is a city of diverse nightlife and cosmopolitan cafes, and is just as much a tourist destination as the nearby temple complex.

In a more rural setting, the south coast of Cambodia is edged with small tropical islands and the occasional fishing village, while the vast wilderness of the Cardamom Mountains is the home to hundreds of species of elusive wildlife and the gateway to a new emergence of ecotourism adventures. And with the Mekong River cutting through the country and being the home of Asia’s last remaining freshwater dolphins, Cambodia is a country of diversity as well as history.

After half a millennia of war and destruction, Cambodia is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia, and the tourist industry in the country is growing year on year. Now one of the two pillars of Cambodian economic growth, along with the textile industry, more than five million tourists now visit the country every year.

Weather and When To Go

Cambodia is reputed to have one of the simplest weather systems in Asia, with just two simple seasons, and very little differences when moving between regions of the country. The dry season in Cambodia runs from October to late April, while the wet season, which includes the tropical monsoon, normally starts around the beginning of May, and runs through until late September.

Temperatures are similarly set into two distinct ranges, which are pretty much constant around the country. The coolest period is normally between October and December, with an average high temperature of around 28 degrees Celsius. While not exactly cool, it can be considered to be “balmy”. The hottest period in Cambodia is often from February to June, and the average highest temperatures during the “summer” range from around 32 to 35 degrees Celsius.

Peak season in Cambodia runs from November to March, when there is little to no rain, and the temperatures are at their best. The climate is often compared to the Mediterranean countries during peak season, and accommodation should really be booked well in advance.

Sunny days bring in the crowds, and if you want to go when it is less busy, the best time is in the low season, from May to early October, when prices are also lower. While many people prefer not to go in the wet season, the period from May to October is normally marked by a good downpour in the afternoon, which rarely affects travel plans. Days still include many hours of sunshine, or at least just warm cloudy days, with very slight showers, and is a great season to see the countryside come to life with plenty of lush greenery. Discounts on accommodation are also sometimes available, and the cloud cover makes it a better time to visit the temples, which is a baking trip in the height of the dry season.

Top Destinations

Angkor Wat

In Siem Reap, lies the ancient temple of Angkor Wat. Probably the most famous of all places in the country, people show up in their thousands to watch the sunrise at 5:30am. While many people crowd the walkways, jostling for the best shot, if you get off the main walkway and sit on the steps of the outpost buildings, you are almost guaranteed a better view, with less people. Built over the course of more than thirty years, Angkor Wat was the 12th century home of King Suryavarman II, even after he died.

Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

Completely buried by jungle until it was discovered by French colonists in the 1800’s, what they uncovered is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The well-preserved temple has numerous bas-relief walls that depict the many levels of heaven and hell, some of which are quite gruesome, as well as more than 1,800 seductive Dancing Maidens carvings. The temple is surrounded by a huge rectangular lake, and rises up on three terraces to the central shrine and tower. The temple reflects the traditional Khmer design of the “temple mountain” which is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hinduism.

Tonlé Sap

Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Cambodia and South East Asia, and is of major importance to the country. The lake is subject to the changes of the seasons, and shrinks or expands depending on the monsoon rains. Dry season in Cambodia is from November to May, and the lake drains into the Mekong River at Phnom Penh. In the monsoon season, the lake changes direction, and fills with water to make an enormous lake that is the home to numerous Vietnamese and Cham communities that live in floating villages around the lake.

Tonle Sap
Tonle Sap

Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear is a striking Khmer temple, dramatically set on a 1,722-foot cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains. The views from the top expand over lowland Cambodia, with the peak of Phnom Kulen watching silently in the distance. Spread over more than 2,000 feet, the temple’s five Gopuras are comprised of four levels and four courtyards, all of which are decorated with intricate carvings. Constructed mainly between the 11th and 12th centuries, the temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Set on the border between Cambodia and Thailand, ongoing territorial disputes between the two countries have closed access to the temple from the Thai entrance.

Preah Vihear
Preah Vihear


Mondulkiri is a wild, sparsely populated area of Cambodia, dotted with rolling hills, jungles, waterfalls, and valleys. The region is home to some of the country’s most rare and endangered wildlife, including leopards, water buffalo, and elephants. Almost half of Mondulkiri’s population belongs to the Bunong minority group, who hunt for most of their food. It’s a fantastic region for visiting traditional villages and interacting with elephants in their natural habitat. The cool climate, stunning scenery and wildlife-viewing opportunities make it a perfect area for trekking and hiking.

Phnom Penh

The largest city in Cambodia, Phnom Penh has been the country’s capital since the French colonial era. Once called the “Pearl of Asia”, it is considered to be one of the prettiest cities in Indo-China, though it is still recovering from wars and revolutions. Sitting on the Mekong River, the city dates back to the 15th century, and the French influence can still be seen in the architecture of the city. From the glittering Royal Palace and crowded night markets to the sophisticated restaurants and bars, Phnom Penh’s beauty is complex, and realized slowly by visitors as they tour the city.

Phnom Penh
Phnom Penh

How to Get to Cambodia

By Air

Cambodia has three major international airports, and all three have excellent facilities for international tourists. Phnom Penh International Airport is the gateway to the Cambodian Capital region, while visitors to the huge temple complex at Angkor mainly use the Siem Reap International Airport, in the north. On the coast, the Sihanoukville International Airport only has one international flight, which runs between there and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

However, while the airports are expanding and flights to Cambodia are increasing, there are no direct flights into the country from international destinations outside Asia. The main connections into Cambodia are from Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Philippines.


Getting into Cambodia from one of the neighboring countries is relatively easy. Visa-on-arrival (VOA) is available at all airports and land border crossings, and the requirements are minimal. However, staff at certain border crossings may try to charge more for the entry visa than the official price. There are currently six crossings with Thailand, four official crossing points from Vietnam, and one from Laos, and there are new rules in place, although only at some of the crossing points.

Immigration has recently announced fingerprinting of all foreign visitors on arrival and departure, except for children. This practice is only happening in some of the major crossing points, but is not available on the smaller border crossings where they do not have the hand scanning equipment.

By Sea

It is possible to travel by boat to Phnom Penh from Ho Chi Minh City, and fast boats leave daily from Chau Doc in the Vietnamese Mekong Delta. Thailand has no ferry ports that offer trips to Cambodia, but from Laos you can get the only tourist ferry across the Mekong, which is a 90-minute speedboat ride. Beware of scamming border guards at the riverside entry point, though, as they will try to cite the law of foreign nationals not being allowed to cross the Mekong River.

Visa Requirements

Visas for Cambodia can be obtained either from the Cambodian Embassy in the country of departure, or by VOA at both major airports and the majority of border crossings. The standard cost of the VOA is US$30, but on many of the border crossings, the officials will try to increase it to around US$45, by asking for the fee in Thai baht. It is not a hard-push scam, so by simply staying friendly, smiling, and insisting on only paying the official fee – which is advertized at every crossing point on a large sign-board – the officials will normally give way.

However, they will then charge you a 1-2 dollar “processing” fee, for the visa process, which is not really worth arguing over. Visas in advance make border crossing easier, but are more expensive, although they save a lot of time since you can just jump the queues.

E-visas can be obtained by citizens of most nations, and can be applied for online at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website. The visa does cost US$40 instead of thirty, due to the online transaction and card processing fee. If you get an e-visa, make sure you print multiple copies, as officials will keep the copy that you show them on entry. There are several websites that try to scam for e-visas, and will charge higher than the forty dollar price, or even charge and not send the visa. Be careful with online visa applications. E-visas can only be used at the airports and three of the border crossings, so they have both pros and cons, depending on your tour route through Cambodia.


The official currency of Cambodia is the riel (KHR), although the US dollar is also widely used, and the two currencies are interchangeable. Riel is normally more used for smaller transactions, while large payments tend to be in US dollars. Cambodia does not have the strict regulations of countries like Vietnam on currency and torn bills, although some vendors may refuse to accept them. Clear tape is the normal remedy for this, and is widely accepted, even in banks.

50 and 100 dollar bills are normally carefully checked before acceptance, as there are often large numbers of fake bills in circulation. Be wary of traders removing the bill from sight and then claiming they cannot change it, as this is a common scam to substitute a fake bill for your real one. It is useful to note that Cambodian riel have no value outside the country, and foreign banks will not exchange the bills. Try to spend all your local currency before you leave, or get it changed as you go out of the country.

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