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5 Things to Know Before Visiting Cambodia

Published 30 March 2016

Jim Cheney

Jim Cheney

Cambodia may seem like an exotic destination, and it is. However, the land that was home to a  ruthless regime and a protracted civil war well into the 1990s has finally started to attract tourists to its amazing sites.

With nearly 3 million foreign tourists in 2012, Cambodia is quickly changing from a forgotten third world country to an exciting travel destination.

However, before you go, there are a few things you should know before visiting Cambodia.

More to see than Angkor Wat

There’s no denying that Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most amazing sites, and its popularity is quickly increasing. However, if you think Angkor Wat is the only temple worth seeing, you’re in for a surprise.

Tree trunks growing over the ancient Ta Prohm

First off, Angkor Wat is just one of the many temple complexes that comprise the Angkor Historical Site. Have you ever watched a movie where they show a giant stone face? It’s taken from nearby Angkor Thom, the only major temple in the world with giant faces. Or what about a temple with a tree growing through it? That’s the insanely beautiful Ta Prohm (which was featured in the movie Tomb Raider).

Further afield, you can get away from the tourists and the heavy restoration by visiting beautiful temples like Beng Mealea, Koh Ker and Preah Vihear.

See the Irrawaddy Dolphins

A rather unexpected creature lurks in the waters of the Mekong River in northern Cambodia: dolphins. While we normally think of dolphins as ocean animals, the Mekong River is home to one of the last remnants of Irrawaddy river dolphins in the world, a critically endangered species.

While Irrawaddy dolphins may not jump like their oceanic cousins, watching them breaking the water all around you is a beautiful sight.

What just a few decades ago was a thriving population of thousands has now been reduced to less than 100, most living in a stretch of river near the town of Kratie.

dolphin swimming in river

The local government has set up an ecotourism operation that allows visitors to see the dolphins from boats and encourages the local population to save this beautiful species.

While Irrawaddy dolphins may not jump like their oceanic cousins, watching them breaking the water all around you is a beautiful sight. Where else can you see such a great concentration of a critically endangered animal?

Cambodia might have your dream island

When travellers come to Southeast Asia, many dream of relaxing on a secluded island. Unfortunately, though, this dream is becoming less and less of a reality as development changes many islands from peaceful sanctuaries to tourist meccas.

However, thanks to significantly lower tourism numbers, Cambodia is home to several islands that can offer you the escape you dream about.

Palm trees and huts lining a beach on Koh Tornsay

For those looking for a Robinson Crusoe-type island, but with a touch of civilization, head to Koh Tonsay, also known as Rabbit Island. Located a short boat ride from the town of Kep, Koh Tonsay is the perfect destination for anyone who doesn’t mind roughing it. While your accommodation might just be a hard bed, a hammock, and a squat toilet, the secluded beach, cheap massages and fantastic food more than make up for it.

Cambodia uses US dollars

Yes, Cambodia does have its own currency, the Riel, but for day to day use, the US dollar rules the roost. Commonly fixed at 4,000 to 1 against the Riel, you’ll have to get used to thinking in two different currencies during your time in Cambodia. If the price is listed as $1.50, and you pay with $2, you’ll get 2,000 Riel back as change (of course, you could also pay with $1 and 2,000 Riel or simply 6,000 Riel).

Fortunately, getting US dollars is easy, as they are the currency dispensed to foreigners in the local ATM machines. Unfortunately, though, you’re likely to get $50 or $100 bills. Try and exchange these at your hotel, as most street vendors won’t have the change.

You can dine with North Koreans

Being one of the few communist countries left in the world, Cambodia has a special relationship with North Korea, and in the capital of Phnom Penh, you have the chance to do something you certainly can’t do at home: eat at a North Korean restaurant.

While Pyongyang Restaurant might not serve the best Korean food you’ve ever had, the experience itself is well-worth the price.

A sign for Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh

Located along a dark, residential street, with an entrance on the side of the seemingly closed exterior, the inside of Pyongyang Restaurant is set up to portray North Korea in the best possible light.

Beautiful waitresses with perfect manners serve food and, on special nights, perform songs as the images of North Korea’s leaders peer down from the wall.

While it might not be the most humanitarian place to eat in the city, it certainly will provide you with a unique dining experience.

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