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Cambodia & Laos Travel Guide
For many travellers the allure of an unspoilt and little-explored country is irresistible. Emerging from a violent past of human rights atrocities, war and political instability, Cambodia is recovering from its past and slowly becoming a top destination on the South East Asian travel map. The magnificent temples of the 'Lost City' of Angkor are an irresistible attraction that, despite the dangers of unexploded landmines and the threat of rural banditry, is a must-see for any determined traveller. Modern day Cambodia is the successor kingdom of the powerful Khmer Empire which ruled most of what is today Vietnam, Laos and Thailand from the 9th to 14th centuries. Although the country does not have the same volume of attractions as some of its neighbours, the Cambodian people are incredibly friendly, providing a warm welcome for travellers. This friendliness is amazing in itself given the suffering that Cambodians had to endure during the three-and-a-half year reign of Pol Pot, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated two million people. The Khmer Rouge period, under Pol Pot's leadership, altered the face of the country. Overnight cities were emptied and property destroyed, the economy was left in tatters, and so were the lives of countless families. This period between 1975 and 1979 represents a particularly dark one in the nation's history. Travellers to Cambodia can now enjoy many wonderful aspects of this country. Pleasurable moments can be had in the snatches of friendly conversations, in the tranquility ushered in by Buddhist prayer, or in the sounds of workers in the rice paddies. One can also search out the charms of the French-era capital city Phnom Penh, visit the tragic horrors of the Killing Fields, or drift past sleepy riverside locations on a boat. The scenery is beautiful and abundant, shaped by landscapes of lush green forests and jungles, banana plantations, agricultural fields and mighty rivers. People here live modest and simple lifestyles and the populace is largely rural. It is not a place of fast and efficient transport or luxurious hotels and resort living. Infrastructure is basic (much of it having been destroyed) and travelling between destinations can be quite an experience - fun for some and frustrating for others. The country's world-class attractions and less-explored reaches, golden beaches and islands beckon the enterprising traveller, and make this unique destination the equivalent of a pearl in an unopened oyster.
Local electrical current is 220 volts, 50Hz. The European round two-pin plug is standard. Travellers should be aware that power cuts are frequent and, outside the capital, electricity is generally only available in the evenings.
Riel (KHR) is the official currency and is divided into 100 sen. Foreign currency is difficult to exchange with the exception of US Dollars. Most transactions require cash. US dollars and Thai Baht are accepted, although smaller transactions are usually done in riel. A torn US dollar note renders it useless. Credit cards are only accepted in a limited number of tourist-orientated hotels and restaurants in Phnom Penh and larger towns. There are a few ATMs in Phnom Penh, but they shouldn't be relied upon as a source of money; travellers cheques in US dollars or sterling can be cashed at a limited number of banks and larger hotels, though travellers cheques are not recommended due to limited acceptance.
Khmer is the official language. French is also spoken, but English is fast becoming popular with the younger generation.
Tips are not expected, but are welcomed in restaurants and hotels. Hotels often add a 10% service charge to the bill, but small amounts for personal services are appreciated, as salaries in the country are low. Tour guides should be tipped.
Malaria is common in Cambodia and malaria prophylaxis is recommended for all areas except Phnom Penh and around Lake Tonle Sap. Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is also prevalent, especially in the heavily populated areas. Insect protection measures should be taken throughout the day. Travellers staying long-term, or for more than one month, and those who may engage in unprotected outdoor activities, should be vaccinated against japanese encephalitis. Vaccinations for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are recommended for all travelers. If you come from a yellow-fever-infected area then a yellow fever vaccination is required. Mains water is not suitable for drinking but bottled water is widely available. Avoid uncooked meat, unpeeled fruit, salads and food sold by street vendors, and don't drink beverages with ice. Medical facilities are poor, except for a few expensive private clinics in Phnom Penh. Treatment must be paid for with cash and health insurance is essential.
Cambodia remains one of the most heavily land-mined countries in the world. When hiking or visiting rural areas, travel with a local guide and never stray off the main paths. It is not advisable to travel anywhere at night. Caution should be taken in the capital, Phnom Penh, especially at night, as street crime is a problem, including around popular tourist nightspots in Phnom Penh. After dark there is also a risk of violent crime in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville. Visitors should be aware that bag snatching is becoming an increasing problem on tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis and while walking in the main towns. Due to the large numbers of tourists involved in road accidents on motorcycles, police in Siem Reap have banned rental outlets from hiring motorcycles to tourists. There is some risk from terrorism due to continuing terrorist activity in South East Asia, and travellers are advised to be vigilant in public places and areas frequented by foreigners. Travellers are also advised to avoid the Cambodian-Thai border areas because of ongoing border disputes; the Preah Vihear temple area has become particularly dangerous.
All visitors must have sufficient funds to cover their stay, documentation for onward travel and a ticket for onward travel. An e-Visa can be applied for online (single entry tourist visas) that allows for stays of up to 30 days. See www.mfaic.gov.kh for more information. Otherwise, a visa can be issued on arrival for 30 days. One passport photo is required along with US$20 for a tourist visa or US$25 for a business visa.
Permission should be sought before taking pictures of people, particularly monks. Avoid touching someone on the head as it is considered the most sacred part of a person's body. Women should wear modest clothing, preferably a long skirt or loose-fitting trousers. When visiting religious sites, shoes should be removed, and shorts avoided. A traditional greeting in Cambodia is a bow, bringing together the hands at chest level (similar to hand position for prayer). With foreigners Cambodians sometimes convert to the handshake. The simple rule is to respond with the same greeting you were given.