China’s geographical diversity is stunning: bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea, the country offers a huge selection of worthwhile travel destinations.
These include Himalayan mountains, lush tropical forests, ancient ruins, space-age mega-cities with all the trimmings, chilled out stoner zones and world-class trekking routes.
Expect insanely-packed crowds during Chinese holidays.
The key to enjoyable travel in China is to do it in the pleasant spring or autumn weather, scheduled around major Chinese holidays, when every tourist site in the country gets unbelievably packed.
- Labor Day: first week of May
- National Day: first week of October
- Summer: June-Sept. Brutally hot, humid and smoggy.
- University holidays: June-Sept. and Jan-Feb.
- Chinese New Year: late Jan. or early Feb.
Where to stay
In the mega-cities, choosing a central location gives you in easy access to transit routes, shopping hubs and tourist sites. Splurge for a 5-star hotel or go with a cheap standard from the Super 8 Motel chain.
Hostels: in China hostels make sense for all ages of foreign tourists. In most tourist areas, street life is crowded, noisy and (outside of parks) not conducive to just hanging out. So if you stay in a hotel, you are basically confined to your room, a tourist site or a dining spot.
In hostels, there are communal spaces (many nestled in delightful hidden courtyards) that are great for meeting other travelers, organizing tours and swapping stories. Take advantage of the savings (prices between USD $6-15 nightly) and add a great social dimension to your experience.
The objectives are the same in all Chinese tourist areas: take in the sights, discover restaurants, find the best nightlife spots and stroll through local markets.
All the popular tourist spots are thick with con artists. Prepare to deal with shady taxi drivers, pimps, restaurants that drastically overcharge newbies and hordes of sweet lasses offering friendship.
The Beijing financial district
Beijing is one of those rare cities that offers pretty much everything a traveler might hope to gain out of an Asian adventure: majestic sights, fantastic shopping, countryside forays to the Great Wall and a dynamic nightlife scene.
There are many sites of interest to explore in the city. Grab and English map (10RMB, sold all over town) and explore.
Talk smack with locals in the labyrinthine hutongs; sample amazing local fare in neighborhood eateries; chill in one of the city’s myriad parks, where old men smoking pipes fuss over birds in bamboo cages as amateur opera singers belt out arias amid fleets of old ladies performing tai chi.
When the sun sets, hit up Sanlitun (expat central), Houhai Lake (chillout) or Wudaokou (artsy student area) where you can sate all of your vices.
Looking from the Pudong Financial District over the Huangpu River to the Shanghai city core.
Rivaling New York and Paris in vibrance and modernity, Shanghai is one of the world’s leading business cities and has the most expats in China.
Unlike Beijing, Shanghai lacks impressive tourist attractions – the pleasures here are in the luxury malls, gourmet restaurants and amazing nightlife scene.
Fishing boat headed to the West Lake Tourist Park pier.
An easy day-trip from Shanghai, hundreds of thousands of tourists flock here every year to enjoy classical Chinese gardens, lavish temples and traditional lakeside teahouses.
When tired of sightseeing, the downtown core offers decent shopping options, a host of international restaurants and a decent nightlife scene, including a few expat bars.
In sum it’s a pleasant town with a fair level of stimulation and cultural authenticity.
Xi’an city wall at dusk.
Xi’an is the second most famous of China’s ancient national capitals after Beijing. It is a major tourist town that is packed with relics and historical sites, the highlights being the Terracotta Army, a few pagodas and a city wall.
The crown jewel of the Xi’an experience is the Museum of Terracotta Warriors, a UNESCO world cultural heritage site has three vaults covering 20,000 square meters which holds 8,000 terracotta warriors, 100 chariots, and 30,000 weapons.
If you don’t wish to book a tour to the museum through your hotel, catch bus 306 from the Xi’an bus station (opposite the train station, inside the city wall). The trip takes 40 minutes and costs 7 RMB.
Gulin and Yangshuo
The Guilin/ Yangshuo experience involves karst mountains, rock climbing, marijuana, seedy brothels, transparent scams, and a general sense that backpackers — and their hedonistic impulses — are very welcome. This is probably what Thailand was like 20 years ago.
The area around Guilin was formed about 200 million years ago, when two crustal movements thrust limestone sediments out of the sea which formed a large expanse of land. These karst formations eroded into 1500-meter tall (on average) formations that run alongside the Li River.
Most tourists come here to take in the scenery and explore the city for a few days before taking a boat (recommended) or bus down 65 km down river to Yangshuo, where the landscape is more accessible and the vibe more relaxed.
Yangshuo, as seen from a hot air balloon.
This small town of 150,000 people is surrounded by more than 70,000 karst peaks, making it one of Asia’s premier sport-climbing areas. It is also a full-blown backpacker’s eden.
The main drag along West Street is packed with western-friendly restaurants, cafes, hostels, and shops. Many locals speak English, and the entire town is geared towards making you stay — and thus spend — as long as possible.
Most travelers come here to chill out and smoke weed, or else head out into the countryside to explore the scenery or climb rocks.
Yunnan is what Thailand was 20 years ago: a chilled out place with awesome natural beauty, tourist-friendly locals, abundant cheap weed and lots of lazy day afternoon diversions for slackers.
The capital city Kunming (6 million people) serves as a relaxed launching point for four interesting trips:
Kunming to Dali
The Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple at sunrise near Dali.
There are 7 flights daily that take 45 minutes to Dali for around xxx. Luxury express buses depart from Kunming West bus station, take around 5 hours and costs 180 RMB (USD $29). There are also night trains (145 RMB) that take around 8 hours.
400 km west of Kunming, Dali is the capital city of the prefecture of the same name. Located near the Himalayan foothills, it is predominantly inhabited by the Bai people, who fled south from Kublai Khan’s armies in 1253 and founded Thailand.
Dali is big Chinese tourist town that is also a popular chill spot for international visitors. Along “Foreigner Street” are tons of places serving backpacker fare and several “coffee shops” of the type one might expect in Amsterdam.
A stay of around 3 days should suffice, with at least one spent hiking in the gorgeous surrounding area recommended.
Dali to Lijiang
Black Dragon Pool (with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background) is a short walk north of Lijiang Old Town.
A 4-hour drive, Lijiang is the only Chinese city listed on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list. It has a rich 1,300-year history, intriguing architecture (blending styles from several different cultures) and spectacular scenery.
The tourist experience in both of these places involves booking a room with a view, and then spending a few days mingling with locals while tripping out on the nature.
Lijiang to Shangri-La
Hiking in the Blue Moon Valley Scenic area, a 15-minute drive from Shangril-La.
A 4-hour drive north takes you to the Himalayas.
Zhongdian County is so gorgeous (snow-capped mountains, green lakes, tons of flowers, and friendly Tibetan folk) that the Chinese government changed its name to Shangri La in 2002.
Shangri-La is a typical tourist town (much less crowded than Lijiang) with a mix of Han and Tibetan residents. It provides a great base to experience Tibetan culture.
The surrounding countryside is almost purely Tibetan. Planet Asia suggests 3 full days for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding in the hills, then flying back to Kunming.
Ice sculptures at the Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival.
If you happen to be traveling during China in winter, this frigid city in the deep north has a Russian flavor and some decent sights, but the main reason to come here is for the Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival. Beginning every year in early January, it attracts tens of thousands of visitors to marvel at amazing ice sculptures scattered throughout the city’s parks.
If you happen out this way, it’s certainly worth a few days to check out sculptures, explore the city and sample hearty Russian comfort foods.
Largely because of the language and culture barrier, the China travel experience can be extremely challenging. You will get lost often, be given wrong directions frequently (Chinese prefer to save face than admit ignorance) and become a master at mime.
By muscling through the meat grinder, expect to gain confidence until you start to get into the flow.
Then you can start to revel in the chaos and let it ride without restrictions until your travel time is up.
The view when flying into Phnom Penh airport
In contrast to the frenetic megalopolis that is Bangkok, Phnom Penh is small and rickety, with a relaxed air of old Asia. It is a compact city without skyscrapers, just a handful of shopping malls, and smiling people everywhere. It is flat and easy to navigate by bicycle, scooter or tuk-tuk.
Easily explore the city’s tree-lined boulevards on foot or by bike. Pic: Michael Coghlan
Expat scene: Phnom Penh has a small but vibrant expat community that is made up of NGO workers, English teachers, sexpats and exiles. In addition, there is a regular flow of short-time tourists passing through, which adds a festive flavor to the mix.
Phnom Penh locals: locals are surprisingly friendly, considering that most are desperately poor. It is not uncommon to see entire families sleeping rough. Many tuk-tuk drivers live in their vehicles and only eat when they get fares. Minimum wage is $128 monthly by law, but much less in practice.
Rural land reclamation drives many farmers into the city to grim fates. Pic: Michael Coghlan
Phnom Penh Travel Essentials
Trundling through Phnom Penh streets.
For detailed visa information, check out the Traveler Essentials section of our Introduction to Cambodia guide.
- Peak season: November-February is cool and sunny.
- Hot season: March-July is sweltering and humid.
- Rainy season: July-October has lots of rain in short bursts that floods the streets.
Flying into Phnom Penh
By air, there are daily flights into Phnom Penh Airport (PNH) from all major regional airports (Bangkok, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Taipei) as well as from Luang Prabang in Laos. The terminal has ATMs, money changes, and 3G SIM cards for sale.
Cambodia uses a dual-currency system: the local currency, the riel, is used interchangeably with the US dollar. You can pay for everything – and receive change – in either currency. Larger sums are typically quoted in dollars, smaller amounts in riel. Most cities have ATMS that accept foreign cards and disperse in US dollars.
SIM Cards & Google Maps
If you purchase a 3G SIM card to use with your smartphone, the Google Maps app with GPS tracking works wonderfully in Phnom Penh. Immediately past customs at the airport are a selection of SIM providers. When buying SIM cards beware that sellers will charge as much as you’re willing to believe. Cellcard SIMS are popular with expats, and cost $10 ($5 for the card, $5 for a month of service).
Getting from the airport to the city
The airport is 11km from the city center. Taxis from the official taxi stand at the airport costs a flat US$10. Alternatively, there are always many tuk-tuk drivers hanging around outside the terminal, willing to haggle down (in low season) to $5 into town.
Getting Around the City
Phnom Penh is a small flat city with most locations within 10 minutes of each other. Traffic looks chaotic, but there is an order to it which is easy to get into the flow of.
Get into the flow of the ordered chaos and glide smoothly.
- By taxi: except from the airport, sedan taxis do not ply the streets and are usually only available by reservation.
- By tuk-tuk/ moto-taxi: hordes of desperate drivers lurk all over the city hassling pedestrians incessantly. Most places you will want to go are within 10 minutes of each other, which should cost a maximum of $3.
- By scooter: many places near the riverside rent scooters. Be warned that if you don’t have an international driver’s license, the cops will catch you.
- By bicycle: Phnom Penh is flat snd easy to cycle. Using Google maps GPS on your smartphone makes navigation a breeze. An added bonus is that there are no rules for bikes here, free reign to zip through traffic, onto sidewalks, and down the wrong sides of the street.
Mountain bikes and scooters are available for rent at several shops along the riverside.
Leaving Phnom Penh by Bus
Phnom Penh lacks a central bus station, but has many smaller ones run by private companies. Any guesthouse will hook you up with bus tickets for a fee, or else you can buy directly from the company of your choosing. Two popular options with expats are Capitol Tours and Giant Ibis.
Loading the Capitol Tours bus to Sihanoukville from their private terminal; $3 extra to bring your bike.
- To Poipet (Thai border): the main overland route to Bangkok takes 5 hours and costs $8.
- To Ho Chi Minh City: this trip takes 6 hours and costs $10
- To Siem Reap: half of the road is unpaved. Take the Giant Ibis night bus with a valium (9 hours, $15) and arrive fresh and rested. Take the day bus and suffer.
- To Sihanoukville: a smooth 4 hour drive along a paved national highway through countryside. Capitol sells one-way tickets for $8 – stick a bike in the hold for an extra $3.
Phnom Penh expenses and income potential
A broad look at expected costs for visitors to Phnom Penh (converted to $USD):
||Ho Chi Minh City
|Gasoline (per gallon)
|Local bottled beer
- Guesthouse dorm bed: $5.00
- Street cafe meal: $4.00
- Local draft beer in a restaurant: .50¢
- 3-star aircon hotel: $30
- Foreign cuisine restaurant meal: $10
- Bottle of imported beer: $3
The biggest expense for most people will be alcohol – per-unit prices are cheap, but add up fast!
- NGO Management: $4-6,000 monthly
- ESL teacher: $800 monthly
- International School Teacher: $1,800 monthly
- Expat Bartender: $500-700 monthly
- Minimum local wage: $128 monthly
- Local construction workers: $80 monthly
- Local Drivers: $85 monthly
Keep in mind that the legal minimum wage is $128 per month – the sheer amount of urban migration ensures that many get haggled down to working for less.
Data was compiled by Planet Asia and supplemented with info from Prake.com, Humuch.com and Numbeo.com
Advice: prepare for endless pleas for money: tuk-tuk drivers will constantly call after you while kids and haggard moms hassle you on the sidewalks. Try to be firm and kind while considering that you’re in the 3rd-poorest country in Asia.
Tourist traps can be boring, but they help fill a void.
On holiday, those accustomed to rigid schedules may discover a void – lots of free time to spend, and no real structure in place on how to spend it.
The easiest way to fill that void is to drink beer all day.
The next easiest method is to take day-trips. Even though admiring statues and staring at paintings may not be what you consider interesting back home, the adventure of getting there at least gives you something to do – and a means of interacting with the city beyond the bars.
The Khmer Rouge memorials are well worth checking out, but in Planet Asia’s experience, the big tourist sites (like the Royal Palace) are a drag – hot and crowded, with touts and beggars hassling relentlessly. If you must, check out Tripadvisor’s Phnom Penh tourist attractions for an exhaustive list.
Below is a summary of the main spots.
The National Museum is conveniently located near the Royal Palace and Street 172 .
- Central Market: this city landmark contains a decent selection of knockoff electronics, t-shirts,luggage and souvenirs.
- National Museum: just across from the Royal Palace, this building contains a collection of ancient artifacts and statues.
- Wat Phnom: at the center of a small park near the riverside, the temple marks the founding of Phnom Penh. The park itself is a popular gathering place for locals, and also a magnet four touts flogging elephant rides, knick-knacks and fortune-telling services.
- Independence Monument: this landmark, which commemorates the departure of the French in 1953, is at a main traffic hub and thus dominates the center of the city. There are two large parks nearby that serve as a popular chill-space for locals during evenings.
- Riverside: cultural sites and dozens of pubs, restaurants and shops line the riverfront. The Royal Palace, Silver Pagoda and National Museum are within walking distance, while between streets 178 and 240 are dozens of bars, pubs and restaurants. Strolling along the riverside is a popular way to catch some evening breeze, while street 178 is known as “Art Street” because of the several art galleries that all seem to sell the same generic prints.
- Killing Fields: located 15km southwest of the city, this particular site is where 17,000 men, women and children were interrogated, tortured and killed.
- Toul Sleng Genocide Museum: this high school was converted into an interrogation center during the Khmer Rouge era and into a museum after peace was restored. Thousands of photos and torture devices make up the majority of items on display.
Bars & Restaurants
There are four main areas that cater to expats in Phnom Penh: Street 172 (backpacker joints); Street 278 (backpacker cafes, nightclubs, international cuisine), Street 51 (sexpat bars, nightclubs, street food) and the riverside area (beer bars, lady bars, live music, backpacker cafes, local food).
Expat party on Street 278: 70% foreign women!
Moving forward, rely on listings, or else stroll around one of the four areas and see what catches your fancy. If you want complete listings:
In backpacker joints, expect similar fare across the board: pizzas, curries, noodles, pastas, English breakfasts, etc.
Most NGO offices and international schools are in the BKK1 area. There are a few backpacker places there, and also a wide selection of more expensive drinking and dining options, with prices similar to what you would pay in the west.
Recommended nightlife spots
Although it does not compare to Bangkok, Phnom Penh offers a variety of ladybars, nightclubs and backpacker joints that throw some surprisingly kicking parties. The majority of local expats are women, while sex workers are legion. In most places, males can expected to a vastly outnumbered. Planet Asia picks:
Scoring snapper on Street 51
- Clubbing on Street 51: the main sexpat drag also has two pumping clubs among the ladybars: Pontoon goes every night until dawn and draws a lot of affluent young Cambodians. Gunfights are not unheard of, but in general, the $3 drinks are quality and big-name DJs often make appearances. Hear of Darkeness is just a short walk from here and draws sex workers, backpackers and expats on two floors pumping ear-slitting top-40 pop songs. If you need a break from the loud music, Howie’s Bar is a legendary dive with lively late-night crowds getting smashed.
- Live music bars: Sharkey’s has pool tables, live music, open mics and sex workers; Irish pub Paddy Rice hosts open mics every Thursday in a scenic riverside location; the FCC has interesting live gigs most weekend evenings.
- Backpacker hangouts: Mad Monkey Phnom Penh offers tours and regular social events (such as free keg nights). Blue Dog Hostel is located nearby; they cater to backpackers on a smaller scale, thus offering a more intimate means of getting connected. A few minutes away from Blue Dog is Top Banana, the end-point for many backpacker pub crawls organized in the area.
Phnom Penh Shopping
The Central Market is within 10 minutes of most Phnom Penh attractions.
A great thing about Cambodia is that it has not yet been ravaged by consumerism. If shopping malls and consumer diversions are your thing, Phnom Penh pales in comparison to Bangkok:
|H&M clothing stores
For westerners, shopping in Phnom Penh is for souvenirs or necessities – the closest luxuries are in Bangkok. Phnom Penh’s main offerings are local markets, supermarkets, convenience stores, boutiques and niche shops. If you want complete listings, check Visit-Mekong.com.
Jostling among the crowds at a local market
Planet Asia picks:
- Central Market: built in 1937, this features a huge central dome with four wings extending outwards lined with shopping stalls. The purpose of the design is to provide a ventilated commercial center protected against heat and rain. Today the market offers quality knockoff clothing, electronics, souvenirs and jewelry (Tripadvisor reviews).
- Local Markets: there are several local markets around the city offering fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish. Be warned that some sellers take pleasure in overcharging foreigners.
- Russian Market: west of the city center, this has the requisite knockoff t-shirts and souvenirs, plus a large selection of DVDs and Buddha statues. (Tripadvisor reviews)).
- Supermarkets: Lucky Supermarkets has 5 locations and offers a good range of western and Asian products. Pencil Supercenter is chaotically organized, but offers a decent selection of meats and imported canned goods. Bayon Supermarket has the best selection of cereals in town and a huge array of Singaporean, Korean and Japanese items, but a limited meat and vegetable section.
Accommodation in Phnom Penh
Guesthouses and backpacker bars line both sides of Street 172.
There are many hotels in town that cater to foreign travelers, ranging from $100 nightly 5-star hotels to $5 dorm beds. The easiest place to land from the airport is along street 172 – it’s near the riverside, every driver knows it, and it’s packed with cheap guesthouses.
For a good listing of cheap options in this area, run your parameters through the Hostelworld search engine.
Those looking for long-term options can research on the very active Phnom Penh housing Facebook group or check local adverts on Phnompenh.com. Shared houses rent for as little as $150 monthly, while private units range from $250 to $700 monthly.
Physical Fitness in Phnom Penh
Poolside at the Cambodiana Fitness Center
Phnom Penh has everything needed for fitness freaks to remain lean and strong. Open-air Khmer gyms are all over the city (ask a local), but most are very hot and dusty. Conversely, western-class gyms are expensive ($50-$150 monthly) but well worth the expense for new equipment, air conditioning, steam and sauna rooms and outdoor pools. For all western-class options, check out Travelfish’s Gyms in Phnom Penh or this Keeping Fit in Phnom Penh article.
As most expats live in the BK1 area or near the Riverside, two gyms stand out, because of their locations:
A few places in town sell legit supplements.
For those near the Riverside, the Cambodiana Physiqe Club has 5-star amenities and a huge outdoor pool overlooking the Mekong River ($50-75 monthly, depending on the length purchased).
NGO office workers and international school teachers tend to frequent The Place, a high-end European-run outfit with all the trimmings and astronomical prices ($150 monthly)
Why protein supplements are available from Musclefreak Cambodia and Bcambodia.
For health foods, Artillery Cafe stocks quinoa and organic meats, while many of the convenience stores in town sell organic brown rice, dried beans, unsweetened yogurt and whole-grain breads as part of their regular stock.
For tourists, Phnom Penh is essentially a transit point onwards to Sihanoukville or Siem Reap. Exploring the sights and nightlife should satisfy for a couple of days, but not much more.
Phnom Penh’s real appeal is as an expat base: visas are easy to procure, the cost of living is cheap, the locals are friendly and the city is easy to get around.
Nanjing city center
Although the Chinese government does not officially define cities into tiers, China analysts frequently do so. First tier are the commercial megacities; second-tier are generally provincial capitals; third-tier important provincial cities. Nanjing is the capital of Jiangsu Province. It has a rich cultural heritage, sizable expat community (international students, teachers, corporate workers, entertainers) and a world-class infrastructure that includes a rapidly-expanding subway system and a high-speed railway hub.
Stacking Nanjing against the megacities:
||GDP per capita (in $USD)
||# of expats
||# of universities for foreign students
Nanjing is 75 minutes to Shanghai by high-speed train.
Nanjing is well-developed, with modern highways and high-speed railway connections (7 hours to Beijing, 3 hours to Shanghai). It is a cycling-friendly city with many other convenient options: taxis; public buses; a metro service; tourist buses.
It is an attractive city by Chinese standards, with leafy boulevards, Ming walls looming over riverside parks and a cosmopolitan range of visitor facilities.
Nanjing’s back streets teem with kaleidoscopic stimuli. Pic: Ken Marhsall
Nanjing was long considered one of the hottest cities of Nanjing, but as of 2013, one source had it ranked 14th, another ranked it 8th hottest.
- Spring: March-May. Temperatures gradually warm and humidity increases until the summer furnance hits.
- Summer: June-Sept. Extremely hot and humid with heavy rains in June and July.
- Autumn: Oct-Nov. Pleasant, cool and dry; the best time to visit. Evenings tend to get cool.
- Winter: Dec-Feb. Cold and humid with occasional snow. Temperatures drop as low as -7 °C (19 °F).
Getting to Nanjing
- By train: there are two main railway stations: Nanjing Station on the north shore of Xuanwu Lake and Nanjing South (at Zhonghuamen Metro Station). Until 2010, Nanjing Station was the city’s main station, but now it only serves some routes to Shanghai, Zhenjiang, Changzhou and Suzhou. Nanjing South serves long-haul high-speed trains to Beijing, Shanghai, Xuzhou, Zhengzhou, Zhenjiang, Danyang, Changzhou, Wuxi, Suzhou, Kunshan, Jinan, Tianjin, Wuhan, and Hefei. There are two 300kph high speed trains that reach Shanghai in 75 minutes, and slower options that take upwards of 4 hours.
- By bus: overnight buses connect Nanjing with large hubs such as Beijing and Guangzhou via Zhongyangmen Station and Nanjing South Station. Other popular bus routes go to Shanghai, Hangzhou, and the nearby provinces.
- By air: Nanjing Lukou International Airport is 35km from the city center and offers flights to most cities in China and a number of Asian destinations including Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. From the city center, taxis cost around 150 RMB (45 minutes); 20 RMB shuttles depart every 20 minutes from the Zhonghuamen Long-Distance Bus Station (near Zhonghuamen metro station); subway line S1 costs 6 RMB and takes around 30 minutes to get into town.
Getting around Nanjing
- Taxi: Taxis can be found all around the city with rush hours being most difficult to hail one down from the street. All vehicles should be metered but keep an eyes on this in case of fraud.
- City bus: Although bus is the best way to get around many cities in China, this fact is a little less so in Nanjing. Buses run to most areas of the city that are inaccessible by its comprehensive subway system and are very affordable. It is best to bring exact change in order to take a bus.
- Subway: There are 2 main lines that well cover most main destinations. Line 1 runs north-south, line 2 runs east-west. Trains run every 6 to 8 minutes and fares are charged by distance, generally between 3-5RMB.
- Bicycle: most areas have bike lanes and coin-operated public bikes are available for rent all over the city. There are several high-end mountain bikes in town and hundreds of places to buy used Chinese bikes for cheap. Theft is a major problem – thieves will often dump locked bikes into trucks.
The Chinese currency is the rénmínbì (RMB), the basic unit is the yuán, which is also referred to as kuài. Bills are issued in denominations of ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100.
If landing in Nanjing, you can change most major foreign currencies into RMB at the airport.
In the city, ATMs (usually those operated by the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China) accept most international credit and bank debit cards to draw out cash.
You can exchange currency at the aforementioned banks with your passport (M-F, 9am-5pm).
Nanjing is one of China’s safest cities: violent crime against foreigners is rare, but troubles can potentially arise.
- Theft: pickpocketing is most common around the Fuzi Miao (Confucius Temple) area, while some have reported stolen cameras in Purple Mountain Park.
- Bike theft: if you have a nice bike, be careful. If thieves can’t cut your lock, they will toss your locked bike into a flatbed. If security guards are posted, expect them to claim ignorance. Say goodbye.
- Taxi scams: while in-city taxis are generally solid, unlicensed taxi operators (from the airport, bus and train stations) will aggressively try to herd newbies away from the official taxi stands to private cars charging triple the price.
- Teahouse scams: although not as common in Nanjing as in Shanghai, keep your eyes out for overly eager (hot, young) Chinese females striking up a conversation and then inviting you to a “traditional tea ceremony”. If you fall for it, once the tea gets served, the girl will disappear, and then you’ll be hit with a monstrous bill – likely presented by a hulking goon.
- Crazy Traffic: statistically, the biggest threat in Nanjing is the traffic – China has only 3% of the world’s drivers, but one of the highest per capita rates of road fatalities. The general rule on the roads is that the biggest vehicle has the right of way. Pedestrians go last. Cars will not stop for you or respect red lights. Driving on the sidewalk is allowed. Mashing horns is normal. Walk slowly and employ locals as shields when crossing streets.
- Bar brawls: the worst thing a foreigner can do in a bar confrontation is make a local “lose face”. Although less of an issue than in Shanghai, the 2013 Shanghai Crime & Safety Report’s advice is applicable to Nanjing: “Violent crime affecting the expatriate community most often occurs in the bars and clubs of the nightlife districts. Bar fights have occurred due to cultural miscommunication, xenophobia, and alcohol… Prostitutes and drugs are known to be present in some clubs.”
Expenses and income potential
A broad look at expected costs for visitors to Nanjing (prices in $USD):
|Gasoline (per liter)
|Local bottled beer
|Pack of cigarettes
|Fitness club membership
Data by Planet Asia, Humuch.com and Numbeo.com
- Guesthouse dorm bed: 250 RMB ($40.00)
- Street cafe meal: 40 RMB ($6.50)
- Local draft beer in a restaurant: 20 RMB ($3.20)
- 3-star aircon hotel: 400 RMB ($65)
- Expat restaurant meal: 100 RMB ($16.25)
- Bottle of imported beer: 50 RMB ($8.00)
The biggest expense for most people will be alcohol – per-unit prices are cheap, but add up fast!
Nanjing is a popular tourist town with plenty of easy day-trips to enjoy.
Aerial view of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum, nestled in the foothills of Purple Mountain. Pic: source
For directions to each place listed (plus more), check out our Nanjing tourist attractions on Google maps.
- Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum: located at the southern foot of Purple Mountain, this revered tourist destination serves as a tribute to the ‘father of China’. There are marble archways, copper gates, and a huge statue of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. Surrounding this statue are small scupltures that depict some of the struggles Dr. Sun endured during his life.
- Presidential Palace: following the establishment of the Republic of China, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen took the oath of Provisional President here. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, then Nationalist Government returned to Nanjing, and declared the compound to be the Presidential Palace in 1948. Located near the 1912 entertainment district, architecture and history buffs may find a visit worthwhile.
- Nanjing Museum: covering an area of 129,000 square meters, the Nanjing Museum is made up of two buildings packed with historical and revolutionary cultural relics, including porcelain from the palace of the Qing dynasty (221 BC – 206 BC) and relics from the Shang dynasty (16th – 11th century BC).
- Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall: this monument memorializes the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who died at the hands of invading Japanese troops in Nanjing in 1937.The 28,000 meter memorial is made up of three main sections: outdoor exhibits; a gruesome presentation of excavated bones; and an elaborate multimedia presentation (films, audio, text and images) that explains the entire history of the massacre in both English and Chinese.
- Confucius Temple (FuziMiao): pickpocket central is crowded and dirty but the punters flock here. The temple was built in 1034 to honor the great philosopher Confucius. Around the main buildings is a labyrinthine of market stalls, food vendors, a KFC and a McDonald’s.
Bars and Restaurants
For directions to each place listed (plus more), check out our Nanjing food and beverage guide on Google maps.
Since the demise of Castle Bar in 2011 (the place where every partier showed up to party every Sat. nite), Nanjing has lacked a cohesive “scene”, now fragmented into several small clusters.
The 2015 Nanjing food and beverage scene is easy to figure out: Shanghai Road features the densest cluster of expat-friendly places, several good spots are scattered around the downtown area, and the 1912 district has a huge block of clubs and higher-end restaurants.
Nanjing girls partying in 1912
Recommended nightlife spots
Nanjing’s nightlife scene in no way compares to the awesomeness of Shanghai’s – on many weekend nights, it’s not unusual to find most places near-empty.
Backstreet booze-ups are most often held in autumn.
An exhaustive list of options is not necessary here. There are a few spots where expats congregate – meet one, and you will be connected. If you are new in town and looking to network, choose among the following and get yourself out there:
- 1912 District (club district): a big nightclub area that is mainly frequented by young affluent Chinese, although foreigners are welcome. Expect ridiculously loud music, forced table service and small dance areas. (more info)
- C-Lounge (young hipsters): run by the man behind Castle Bar, this space (within walking distance of 1912) continues the tradition of touring bands and DJs passing through for sets. Very popular with international students, they hold rotating club, live music and party nights – plus an excellently chilled and stylish vibe on off-nights. (Facebook Page | directions)
- Jimmy’s (sports bar): this long-time expat favorite this is one of the best places in town to make new friends (just sit at the bar and start chatting). The bar offers killer southern bbq, a huge selection of imported beers and every sport imaginable on multiple big screens. (website | TripAdvisor)
- Brewsells (social space): giving Jimmy’s a run as the most popular expat bar in town, Brewsell’s is a tiny smoke-free space in the heart of the student district that serves Belgian beers and international pub fare. Despite the small space, Brewsell’s regularly gets so crowded that it’s not unusual to see 20 people inside the bar while dozens more chill outside (in an international hipster-ish communal way) as bemused locals walk by in pyjamas. (TripAdvisor)
- Secco (German): this cavernous space serves as a local for local Germans and Nords working as engineers for big $$ in Nanjing. It doubles as a playspace for a loyal crowd of international regulars romping round club nights, live music, strong cocktails and the best European food in the city. (TripAdvisor)
Conclusion: to get connected with local expats, head to whichever spot suits your taste. Sit at the bar, order a drink and start asking questions. It is literally that easy.
According to a 2014 survey of foreigners in Nanjing, Jiaozi (Chinese ravioli)is the bomb.
The best way to discover Nanjing cuisine is in the company of a local. If you don’t know anyone, wander around Nanjing Normal University’s campus and ask a Chinese student to join you for lunch.
On your own, there are plenty of local food shacks near the main bar areas. If you lack language skills, make sure the place has picture menus and you’re set.
Easily-accessible things to look out for:
- Salted duck: in the 14th century, as Nanjing was under seige, local farmers began salting and pressing ducks in order to smuggle them in for hungry residents. It caught on and became the city’s signature dish: typically served boiled, sliced and cold.
- Duck blood soup: locals use every part of the duck, including congealed chunks of blood served in a thin broth with coriander.
- Roasted duck: the most accessible duck option for foreigners. It is considered a crispier and juicer variation of the Beijing version that is served sliced with plum sauce.
- Jiaozi (Chinese ravioli): Nanjing dumplings are wildly popular and served in carts, shacks and shops all over town. Filled with ground meat or vegetables, they are most often served in broth.?
- Baozi (steamed buns): steamed bread with fillings. Famous China-wide, Nanjing varieties include ground pork, tofu mince and steamed greens. These are cheap, filling, and served out of small shops all over town.
In China, shopping malls are for day-trippers and rich people – shoppers buy online.
- Clothing & general goods: Taobao fronts with clothing, toys and similar Amazon fare, but their back room is the true Silk Road – a goldmine of countercultural delights.
- Electronics: the fear of buying fakes from local shops (including fake warranties) is mitigated with JD.com, the Chinese version of Newegg. They sell guaranteed authentic products that are delivered to your door, cash paid on delivery.
- Organic food: Fields China offers organic meats, vegetable and a wide selection of imported products. They charge a premium, but deliver to Nanjing with superb service.
To order from Taobao or JD.com, you will need help of a local.
Accommodation in Nanjing
Lower-end cities units like these rent for around USD$450 monthly.
Here are some solid basic to 3-star motels that go as cheap as 200 RMB (USD$33). For long-term stays, there are a few cheap student dorms and dozens of agents around town who will help you find a place. Highlights:
- Jasmine Youth Hostel: located in the student district, this hostel is in a large garden compound with cheap rooms and a social lounge area with a fully-stocked bar. Dorm beds start at 60RMB nightly ($9.70) (book online).
- Super 8 Motels: a cheap and reliable option (rooms start at 268 RMB ($43), with 11 locations around the city (book online)
- Long-term rentals: budget private accommodation in Nanjing rents for around 3,000 RMB monthly ($480) and will require use of an agent (Chinese landlords tend to be very prickly).
Cash still flows through Jiangsu province and Nanjing is the hub of that. Most of the tourists coming through town are Chinese – foreigners tend to come here for business or to live.
Gazing across Xuanwu lake to the city center.
When Pol Pot’s regime was driven from power in 1977, the highway from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville became notorious for banditry, and few dared to attempt the journey. In 1997, with peace and stability was achieved, backpackers began to arrive for the unspoiled beaches and chilled-out vibe. Incredibly, both elements still exist today, making it one of Asia’s most intriguing beach destinations.
Sihanoukville proper is a peninsula ringed by by a few grotty beaches and few few decent ones; offshore are a couple of island destinations with spectacular beaches and pumping party vibes.
Sihanoukville Travel Essentials
- Peak season: November-Feb. Cool and sunny.
- Hot season: March-July. Non-existent breeze, sweltering heat and largely deserted beaches.
- Rainy season: July-October. Lots of rain in typically short bursts.
Cycling along Otres beach at low tide.
Getting there from Phnom Penh: the ride to Sihanoukville takes around 4.5 hours by bus (slightly less via taxi or mini-bus) along National Route 4, one of Cambodia’s best roads.
- Bus: several companies offer service, with Capitol Tours and Sorya the most popular options ($5-$6 one-way, $3 to bring a bicycle along). Both run daily services with most runs departing between 7am until 2:30pm. Buses will drop you near Victory Hill outside of town – suffering a gouging by the tuk-tuk mafia is the only way onward to the beaches.
- Mini-bus: Giant Ibis is the main player, offering 17-seaters with (spotty) wifi and a TV playing English movies. Tickets cost $10 and includes pickup from your hotel. Mey Hong Transport is another solid option (less expats use it) that does not offer hotel pickup – you’ll need to take a tuk-tuk to their station on the outskirts of town.
- Taxi: private taxis charge $50-60 one-way, typically in newish sedans that generally go really fast.
- Shared taxi: the worst option crams 7 people into 5-seat sedans for $7-10 per person. In Phnom Penh this service is found at the southwest corner of the Central Market (most tuk-tuk drivers know it), while in Sihanoukville they depart from the old bus station.
From Siem Reap by Air: Ankor Air offers four flights weekly. One-way flights cost $150, round-trip double that. Flight time is around one hour, compared to 12-ish hours by bus. The small Sihanoukville Airport (IATA: KOS) is located 17km east of town. Shuttles from the airport into town costs $6 (you will get dropped off around the Serendipity Beach area) and the trip takes around 20 minutes. The other option is by taxi, which generally costs $20 but often gets jacked higher during peak season.
Getting around town
Sihanoukville has a notorious tuk-tuk mafia that charge $3-5 for most trips (non-negotiable) and are also notorious for selling drugs, reporting the sale to the cops and then slitting to profits of the bust. While drugs are easy to buy here, never buy from these guys!
The better option is to bring your own bike or else rent a bike or motor scooter in town (generally less than $5/ day, more in high season).
Getting to the islands
The main pier to the islands is at the end of Serendipity Beach Road.
The two main islands worth traveling two are Ko Rong (backpacker-oriented party vibe) and Ko Rong Sanloem (no parties, better suited to couples and families); both offer spectacular white-sand beaches and clear waters, so the choice basicially depends on your preferred vibe.
There are dozens of ferry operators offering services – if you book a place to stay online, you will likely be forced to also buy a ferry ticket from a particular company).
If you prefer the DIY route, speed ferries (45 minutes) and slow boats (1.5 hours) depart from the main pier at Serendipity beach. The former costs $30 for open return tickets; the latter $20. Departures start at 8am and finish around 3pm – enquire at the ticket office.
There are no ATMs on the islands but plenty along the Serendipity strip. Make sure to stock up on enough cash before heading out.
A summary of the main areas in town that draw expats and tourists:
Located near Victory Beach and the Sihanoukville Port, Victory Hill was backpacker central until the late 1990s. Today, it has degenerated into a grotty dump of bars serving .50¢ to miserly sexpats living off of pension funds. The main drag is a seedy stretch of lady bars with a smattering of penny-pinching alcoholics and hordes of bored-looking bargirls.
On the positive side there are plenty of restaurants and guesthouses (with rooms as cheap as $5 per day), and the best beaches are easy to reach by tuk-tuk.
- Best suited for: sexpats on a budget.
- Room rates: around $25 for a private bungalow. Charlie Harper’s has $5 rooms and negotiable rates.
- Typical experience: wake up to a late lunch and then nurse beers until you pass out 12 hours later.
Named after the deserted Independence Hotel at its north end, this 1 kilometer-long stretch of sand features a 500-meter stretch of BBQ huts and bars and a smattering of sexpats.
Serendipity & Ochheuteal Beaches
The most popular beach in town, Ochheuteal is a long sandy stretch that is dominated by Cambodian BBQ shacks to the south and expat pubs towards the Serendipity Pier at the northern end.
Serendipity is where the action is for expats, with tons of accomdation options of all ranges and plenty of bars that cater to young and old travelers. Many of the beach bars throw regular all-night parties with cheap booze and organized drinking games (very popular with young backpackers), while Serendipity Beach road is lined with quality bars and restaurants serving all types of international cuisine.
- Best suited for: everyone who enjoys active beaches.
- Room rates: around $20 for a private bungalow, $5 for dorm beds, work for room and board is possible.
- Typical experience: stroll the beach in the morning; lounge with beers in the afternoon; beach bbq for dinner; party among backpackers or bargirls, depending on your preference.
Otres Beach Beach
Otres is the most beautiful stretch of beach on the mainland
A 3-kilometer stretch of sugar-white sand, clear waters and reasonably-priced bungalows with large empty stretches with no development. If you’re looking for some peaceful chill without the hordes of drunks and pumping music, this spot is hard to beat.
- Best suited for: couples and families.
- Room rates: around $25 for a private bungalow.
- Typical experience: sunbathing, swimming and exploring, interspersed with long laps and leisurely meals.
There are two island paradises easily accessible from the mainland. Ko Rong is more suited to backpackers, Ko Rong Sanloem to families and couples.
Facing the tourist village on Ko Rong’s main beach.
Blessed with white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters, Ko Rong (78 square kilometers) is known mainly for the party vibe on its main beach Ko Touch, which is dominated by an ugly cluster of cheap guesthouses dominated by young backpackers getting off their faces every night of the week.
Beyond that chaos, however, there are plenty of othwer beaches with sparse development and goregous bays teeming with marine life.
There are two main areas for tourists:
- Ko Touch: rampant bungalow construction serving the young backpacker crowd with music pumping late into the night. There are plenty of places to eat and drink, a few convenience stores, spotty wifi but no ATM machines.
- Soksan Village: served by regular slow boats from the mainland, this village is at the end of a lovely 7km stretch of white sand beaches. There are several bungalow operations to choose from, while the main village contains a small supermarket with some beachside pool tables the primary entertainment on offer. Be warned that since manny parts of this beach is deserted, thus breeding hordes of snadflies (one bite will sting like hell for weeks).
During low season, it is easy to stroll the beach of your choice and pick a place to stay, but impossible during peak times, where you must book ahead or not bother coming.
- Best suited for: young backpackers on a budget.
- Room rates: $5 dorm beds, $15 for a private room, $50 for a beach bungalow.
- Typical experience: wake up late, laze around the beach, start drinking late evening, party until 3am, repeat. Bring rolling papers and condoms.
Ko Rong Sanloem
Ko Rong Sanloem’s main beach is a tastefully developed paradise.
40 minutes from the mainland by speedboat, this may be one of the best beach islands in all of Asia. Aside from the absolutely gorgeous white sand beaches and turquoise waters, development is very tasteful. Bungalow operations are spread reasonably far apart from each other, no vendors work the strip, and nightlife is limited to quiet meals and cocktails.
Prices for food and accommodation are high (average of USD$50/ night for a bungalow), but a few budget options exist as well (such as tent rentals for $5 nightly).
- Best suited for: families, children, couples.
- Room rates: minimum $50 for a private bungalow on the beach.
- Typical experience: beach bliss with gentle waters, no hawkers or music bars and exquisite dining options.
Because of its low-cost rooms and continual flow of tourists, Sihanoukville was once a prime place for foreigners to disappear into anonymity.
Similar to the Thai beach scene, a growing meth problem is taking hold in Sihanoukville – for desperate addicts, foreigners are considered plum targets. Unlike Thai beaches, police sweeps are not as aggressive or prevalent, but they are increasing.
Be warned that Sihanoukville is no longer a place to smoke weed openly. Spiked drink incidents are increasing. Tuk-tuk drivers will sell you drugs and then grass you up. Foreign con-artists lurk for opportunities from the shadows. Local gangsters pack guns.
Be aware of the following:
- Murders: Aussie man clubbed to death during a robbery in 2009; American woman murdered on Ko Rong island in 2013.
- Robberies: reports and warnings (link).
- Passport sweeps: long-term expats who have ditched their passports are getting rooted out.
- Drug busts: Russian turf wars have sparked the new police chief to take a hard line on foreign crime, and the number of foreigners getting nabbed is growing. Two examples from 2015: 33-year-old British national busted with meth and weed; 66-year-old British national pinched with 77 grams of meth.
On the mainland, if you are looking for trouble, grab a beer and get into the mix along Serendipity or Ochheuteal Beach. If you are short on time but desire good swimming and quiet, head to Otres.
On the islands, if you want to get laid and party hard, go to Ko Rong. If you want sugar sand and crystal water beach bliss, Ko Rong Sanloem is perfect.
Magnificent Ko Rong Sanloem
There is great poetry revealed in Cambodia when interacting with the local people. Although ravaged by a horrific past and grim present (3rd-poorest country in Asia), their human spirit shines through. They display a gentle nature, love of laughter and genuine curiosity that is infectious.
They are very welcoming to foreigners and integration into their society is welcomed. Many speak English and French, while the ones who don’t are generally keen to interact nonetheless.
Rural folk are outgoing and curious about foreigners.
This is in stark contrast to the horrors you will witness in the genocide museums here. The majority of the population is under age 30. They don’t talk about the past and seem content in the moment.
Making friends here is easy. Everyone smiles.
Cambodia for foreigners
While Thailand has long been a mecca for western escapees (particularly those living on the margins of legality and financial sustainability), visa restrictions there over the past few years has put a spotlight on Cambodia.
For tourists, the crumbling remains of the Khmer Empire at Ankor Wat is Cambodia’s biggest draw, with the beaches of Sihanoukville and bistros, boutique hotels and expat scene in the capital Phnom Penh close behind.
For expats, Cambodia is sublime. Locals are dirt-poor but genuine, friendly and easy to connect with. $300 gets you a one-year visa with no questions asked. Apartments rent for as little as $150 monthly. Draft beer sells for 50¢ a glass. The Internet is solid, the bargirls pretty and air of relaxation perpetual.
Expats in Cambodia: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
In this version of Mos Eisley, Jabba draws an expat salary managing an NGO, Obi Wan’s a sexpat, Han Solo teaches English, Chewie’s on drugs and Luke is a backpacker, living cheap and partying large.
Hanging loose in a Siem Reap farming village.
Tolkien description of Hobbits could apply to Cambodians as well: lovers of food & drink, laughter & celebrations, peace and “good tilled” earth.
Despite their tragic past and grim present (the third poorest country in Asia, ahead of only Nepal and Bangladesh), the genuine warmth and hospitality of Cambodians is stunning.
Expats disillusioned with western life may identify with their struggle:
“No other nation’s population is so riven with PTSD and other traumatic mental illnesses. Given their history, given the subservient state Cambodians have accepted without complaint for more than a millenium, they don’t seem to care. They carry no ambitions. They hold no dreams. All they want is to be left alone.“
– Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land
The history of Cambodia
A super-condensed timeline:
The Khmer Empire
Construction of Ankor Wat in the early 12th century. Pic: source.
- Neolithic era: SE Asia was populated by indigenous people.
- 1st century CE: the rise of the Khmer empire began when Indian and Chinese traders began interacting with locals until Indian culture took root. Religion (Hinduism and Buddhism), law, science and writing spread over several centuries, eventually giving rise to new Indian princely states. These were often no more than single fortified cities that warred with other states. Over time, these coalesced into larger states.
- 790 CE: the warrior Jayavarman II subdued enough surrounding states to declare himself the first King of the Ankorian era.
- Early 12th century: King Suryavarman II built Ankor Wat as the temple of the state.
- Late 12th century: after Jayavarman VII was declared King, he established Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion and began a 40-year period of Angkor’s most prolific monument building. After his death in 1220, no further grand monuments were built.
The French Colonial era
King Norodom Sihanouk played a leading role in Cambodia’s post-WWII history. Pic: source.
- 1863: King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over his kingdom. The state gradually came under French colonial rule.
- 1941-1945: during WWII, the pro-Japanese Thai Government invaded Cambodia’s western provinces, which led to a short Japanese occupation, during which time they established a pro-Tokyo puppet-state.
- March 1945: King Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Kampuchea, following a formal request by the Japanese.
- August 1945: the end of WWII saw allied troops roll into Cambodia, disarming and repatriating the Japanese.
- October 1945: the French reimposed their colonial administration of the country.
- March 1970: King Norodom Sihanouk was ousted by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. Lon Nol assumed power, allied Cambodia with the United States, abolished the monarchy and renamed the country as the Khmer Republic.
- April 1970: U.S. President Nixon announced that US and South Vietnamese ground forces had entered Cambodia in a campaign aimed at destroying North Vietnam bases in Cambodia.
- October 1970: North Vietnam overran large parts of eastern Cambodia, turning over their territories to the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge era
A Cambodian looking at a collection of skulls that make up a map of Cambodia, at Tuol Sleng Prison Museum in 1998. Pic: source.
- 1972: a new Constitution was drafted and Lon Nol name President. Disunity, corruption and a flimsy 30,000-strong army severely weakened the power of the administration. The Khmer Rouge insurgency inside Cambodia continued to grow.
- 1973: the Khmer Rouge controlled 60% of Cambodian territory and 25% of its population.
- 1975: Khmer Rouge troops launched a 117-day offensive which crippled the Khmer administration. American-funded airlifts of rice and ammunition were halted when Congress refused further financial aid to Cambodia.
- 1975-1979: the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia, evacuated all cities and towns and herded the entire urban population into the countryside to work as farmers. Remnants of the old society were abolished and religion was suppressed. Agriculture was collectivized, and the surviving part of the industrial base was abandoned or placed under state control. Cambodia had neither a currency nor a banking system. It was during this time that 1/3 of the 6 million Cambodians were killed.
- Mid-1978: the Khmer Rouge broke off relations with Hanoi.
- 1979: the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Pol Pot’s forces fled to the Thai border. 600,000 Cambodians were carted off to refugee camps near the Thai border, with tens of thousands murdered there.
The Hun Sen era
- 1991: a comprehensive peace agreement was reached and enforced by the United Nations.
- 1993: elections were held, resulting in Prince Ranariddh (representing the royalist FUNCINPEC Party) earning 45% of the vote, followed by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. Despite the UN monitoring the elections, Hun Sen refused to step down and negotiated a transitional government agreement that allowed him to remain as co-prime minister.
- 1997: Hun Sen launched a coup and became the country’s sole Prime Minister.
- 2013: Hun Sen declared his intention to rule Cambodia until 2026, when he turn 74.
Cambodia Travel Essentials
Monsoon rains come in short heavy bursts.
Cambodia is hot year-round. The dry season runs from November to May; the cool season (peak tourist time) is from March to May; the rainy season is from June to October.
Getting to Cambodia
By air: there are direct flights to Phnom Penh (and an increasing number to Siem Reap) from nearby cities including Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok, Vientiane, Ho Chi Minh City and several cities in China.
Overland: there are six border crossings to Thailand, seven to Vietnam and one to Laos that are open to foreigners. Visas can be obtained at all points.
Visas are required by everyone except nationals of Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. Options:
- Single entry visa: can be obtained on arrival ($20, with one passport photograph required). It is valid for 30 days and can be extended only once, for an additional 30 days.
- Business visa: can also be obtained on arrival ($25, with one passport photograph required). It can be extended a variety of ways, the most expensive being a 12-month multiple entry visa for $270.
- E-visas: available online at evisa.mfaic.gov.kh, these cost $25, but can only be used through the airports at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, or overland at Koh Kong, Bavet and Poipet. The main appeal of getting an e-visa is to avoid hassles during overland border crossings.
Cambodia uses a dual-currency system: the local currency, the riel, is used interchangeably with the US dollar. You can pay for everything – and receive change – in either currency. Larger sums are typically quoted in dollars, smaller amounts in riel. Most towns have ATMS that accept foreign cards and disperse in US dollars.
Getting around Cambodia
The ramshackle national highway network has made impressive improvements in recent years, with many dirt roads now getting paved. Roads can still be bumpy however, while during rainy season large patches of tarmac often get washed away.
- Buses: the cheapest option is also the most convenient. All bus operators are privately-run and generally arrive and depart from their booking offices. Most companies offer cheap fares ($5 from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, $8 to Siem Reap) on modern buses with good service.
- Minibuses: a slightly more expensive option that are usually slightly faster but often horrifically crowded.
- Shared taxis: more expensive than minibuses and slightly faster, but a rough ride: three people get packed in the front, four in the back.
- Boat: a popular option in the past due to Cambodia’s shoddy road network (which is now much-improved). Expect choppy water, uninspired scenery and regret.
Hard and soft drugs are common. Possession is illegal and although prosecution is rare, it happens. Low-grade marijuana is widely available, as is opium, crystal meth and very cheap heroin. Cocaine is also available, but in many cases, it’s pure heroin – snort it and die. In the pharmacies, steroids, valium and ED drugs (Viagra, Cialis, etc) are readily available.
- Land mines: more than 2,000 minefields have been discovered (usually by locals getting blown up) with new locations often being reported. In rural areas, it is therefore a good idea to stick to jungle paths and avoid taking shortcuts without a guide.
- Guns: robberies at gunpoint have been known to happen, particularly in Phnom Penh. Avoid flaunting wealth, and if held up, don’t resist.
- Bag snatching: women riding in tuk-tuks or on motorbike taxis are often the victims, in some cases getting pulled off/out of their vehicle in the process.
- Road accidents: if any damage to property or injury to a person/ domestic animal, it is the driver’s responsibility to come to a financial agreement with the other parties involved. It has been known for locals to pressure foreigners to pay up before the cops arrive, even if they are not at fault.
Spending & making money in Cambodia
A broad look at expected costs for visitors to Cambodia:
||$5 shared dorms are plentiful, while 3-star hotels charge between $15-$25 per night. Monthly rentals typically require a 6-month commitment, with shared options going for as little as $150 monthly, while western-quality places rent for between $3-500.
||Street meals usually cost less than $2, while a standard meal in an expat restaurant costs between $5-10.
||A bottle of water costs 1000 riels (25¢); a glass of draft beer costs .50¢; a decent bottle of wine in an expat bistro costs around $20.
||Bus fares to anywhere in the country from Phnom Penh usually costs less than $10; a tuk-tuk or motorbike taxi should cost no more than $2.
||Authentic Cialis costs around $10 for a 4-pack; authentic valiums are around $1 each (generic are cheaper); a single-serving ampoule of steroids costs $6; a bag of marijuana costs $25; a bag of cocaine costs $100
Most expats work in Cambodia as teachers, NGO office workers or bar staff.
||$8-12/ hour; legit places will also give you a work visa
|International school teacher
||$2,000/ month plus around $500/ month for housing; two months paid holiday
||No working visa. At the high end, free room, meals and a salary of around $30/ day. At the low end, similar benefits, no pay.
||A housing stipend of around $250/ month; an extra $100 in spending money is possible if you’re lucky.
||A proper western executive salary; housing and flight allowance; education allowance for children; paid holidays.
Cambodia Websites & Forums
There are three main options: Khmer440 pulls around 75,000 visits per month, CambodiaExpatsOnline around 20,000, and the LivinginCambodiaForums around 2,000. As with most expat forums, the “regulars” can be rude, many threads are bloated with inside jokes, and information is often inaccurate. Still there’s useful information in all three, if your BS filter and search skills are on point.
For tourists, Tripadvisor’s Cambodia forum are a solid source of support, while Reddit’s r/Cambodia is not very active, although the information provided tends to be solid.
MoveToCambodia.com offers succinct free guides and a comprehensive commercial expatriation guide ($7.99 for the ebook, $12.95 for the paperback version) via a modern, easy-to-navigate website.
CanbyPublications.com publishes free guidebooks quarterly (available in most guesthouses and expat bars) that are essentially commercial listings for bars, restaurants and hotels. They also offer very sparse online guides in a website that appears to be around 30 years old.
The biggest challenge upon landing in Cambodia is finding a good place to stay without insight. Remedy that by booking a room through a service like TripAdvisor or HostelWorld (for those on a budget) – for your first night only.
Most tourist areas are clustered together, which means that finding suitable accommodation is as easy as strolling around. The added advantage is that online bookings are more expenses, while when booking in person, rates are negotiable.
Street 172 in Phnom Penh is full of backpacker establishments.
What happens next depends on your preferences. To conclude, here’s a big generalization of how the expat groups roll here:
||The typical route involves exploring Ankor Wat and Siem Reap, chilling on the beaches of Sihanoukville and a few days sightseeing and/or partying in Phnom Penh.
||Cambodia is tailored for backpackers with super-cheap (often free) accommodation and tons of organized parties in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and most of all in Sihanooukville.
||There are lots of older men living off pensions, a smattering of ESL teachers and others who seem to do nothing at all. Day-drinking is common, drugs are readily available, living conditions are cheap, and locals will warmly welcome you (and your cash) into their world.
||Concentrated in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, they work in international schools or NGO offices. The majority are women. Because most of the expat men here are either undesirable or unavailable, they tend to frequent backpacker parties and drink heavily. Find them on Tinder.
||Cambodia encourages foreign investment. There are several foreign guesthouse operators on Ko Rong Samloem, several bar/ restaurant owners in all three main areas, and handfuls of artists operating studios, etc. If you have money and a business vision, entry is welcomed.
Backpacker party on Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville. Pic source.
Other Cambodia guides
Most of the China guides you read online will rave about the glittering skyscrapers and fancy bullet trains of a rising colossus steeped in ancient history and culture.
Entrance to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
Indeed, for tourists, China offers a wide range of breathtaking landscapes: subtropical jungles, vast deserts, Himalayan mountains and space-age mega-cities; each with diverse peoples and traditions.
For potential expats, China offers the most diverse range of job opportunities in Asia, although the glory days have passed: the job marketing is tightening, while living in modern China can be a grind. The sheer density of people is inescapable. There is rampant mismanagement, corruption scandals, food scandals and an emerging rift between the party and the people – under eternally gray skies.
On the other hand, there are still more opportunities in China than the west, and many positive things to experience:
- Still lots of teaching jobs
- More networking and professional opportunities than there are back home
- Genuine, family-oriented locals
- A very cheap cost of living (if you avoid expat pubs)
- Safe and orderly, very little street violence
- Plenty of leeway given to foreigners – do as you will, and no one will mind
Relevant: life-altering benefits enjoyed by expats in Asia also pertains to China.
China Travel Essentials
China is a vast country with wide-ranging climatic conditions. To generalize:
- Winter: Dec-Feb. Incredibly cold in the north, cold in the middle (Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing etc) and cool in the south.
- Spring: March-May. Unpredictable weather, usually warm with periods of cool.
- Summer: June-Sept. Brutally hot, humid and smoggy.
- Autumn: Oct-Nov. The most comfortable time of year, with mild temperatures and little rain.
Cooling off in the blistering Beijing heat. Pic: Jackie WS.
Tourist seasons in China are determined by major Chinese holidays, when every tourist site in the country gets unbelievably packed. Try to avoid these periods for travel, if possible:
- Labor Day: first week of May
- National Day: first week of October
- Summer: June-Sept. Brutally hot, humid and smoggy.
- University holidays: June-Sept. and Jan-Feb.
- Chinese New Year: late Jan. or early Feb.
Visas are required by everyone except nationals of Japan, Singapore, Brunei, San Marino, Mauritius, the Seychelles and the Bahamas.
You must apply for a visa at the nearest Chinese embassy with a passport-sized photo and supporting documents. In all cases, your passport should be valid for at least 12 more months and have at least two blank pages.
There are four types relevant for most cases. For a full listing plus downloadable application forms, check out the China Embassy website.
|Tourist Visa (L)
||Can be issued for 30 or 60 days, with single, double and multiple entry options.
||Round-trip flight confirmation is required.
|Business Visa (F/M)
||F Visas are for those coming for non-commercial exchanges (science, tech, education, sport, etc). M visas are for those coming for commercial purposes. Both be issued for 30, 60 or 90 days.
||A formal invitation letter from your host is required bearing their signature, contact details and official stamp.
|Student Visa (X1/ X2)
||X1 is issued to issued to those who intend to study in China for a period of more than 180 days; X2 is for those studying less than 180 days. For both types, the visa holder must apply for a Temporary Residence Permit within 30 days of their entry into China (which can be extended for as long as 5 years).
||An original and a copy of the admission notice from your Chinese school is required to procure an X visa; for your in-China residence permit, someone from your school’s Foreign Affairs Office will take you to the police station and help get you registered.
|Work Visa (Z)
||Issued to those coming for paid employment. It is only valid for 30 days, during which time the visa holder must apply for a Temporary Residence Permit (which can be for a minimum of 90 days and a maximum of 5 years, although 1-year permits are the norm).
||The organization sponsoring your Z visa must be accredited to employ foreigners. They will send you a government-issued Employment Permit and a Visa Notification Letter, which must be submitted when you apply for the visa. The age limit is 18-60 for males and 18-55 for females; those coming to teach must have at least a Bachelor’s degree and two years of verifiable work experience.
The Chinese currency is the rénmínbì (RMB), the basic unit is the yuán, which is also referred to as kuài. Bills are issued in denominations of ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100.
It is not necessary to procure RMB before entering China, as you can change foreign currency (US, Canadian or Australian dollars, British pounds or euros) into RMB at the airport.
ATMs (usually those operated by the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China) accept Cirrus, Visa and Plus cards to make cash withdrawals.
If you need more RMB in-country, head to one of the aforementioned banks with foreign currency and your passport. Currency exchanges in banks are typically available Monday to Friday between 9am-5pm.
Getting around China
China has an excellent public transport system suitable for both long-distance and city transport.
Plane: all major cities are linked by air. You can buy tickets at most 5-star hotels and also online using a service like eLong or Train.
Train: China has invested billions to create one of the finrest rail networks in the world. It includes a line over the mountains into Tibet and a high-speed network that links Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, with eastern links connecting with Chengdu and Kunming.
The toughest part of riding the rails is buying tickets. They can be purchased at all stations using automated machines (in Chinese only, a Chinese ID card is required) or from ticket staff, most of whom do not speak English. If you don’t speak Chinese, have someone write out your destination and preferred time to save yourself hassle. You can check train schedules here.
Tickets are all one-way and will show the time and date of your departure plus your carriage number and seat assignment.
Bus: buses are useful when heading to more remote areas. Booking is usually done at the station, but if you don’t speak Chinese, you’ll have a hard time.
Taxis: although all cities have excellent public bus networks, navigating them as a non-Chinese speaker is extremely difficult – unless you’re accompanied by a local, stick to taxis. These generally cost a fixed rate (between 6-12 RMB) for a few kilometers, after which the meter kicks in at 1-3 RMB per km. If the driver refuses to use the meter, insist or try another taxi.
At the end of your taxi ride, the driver will print out a receipt which shows your billed amount plus the taxi number. If you ever lose anything in a taxi, having that slip can ensure you get your things back.
City buses: although all cities have excellent public bus networks, navigating them as a non-Chinese speaker is extremely difficult – unless you’re accompanied by a local or know exactly where to get off, stick to taxis.
Subway: at present there are 11 cities in China with fast, efficient subway services: Anshan, Beijing, Changchun, Chongqing, Dalian, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Shanghai, Shenyang, Shenzhen, Tianjin and Wuhan. For detailed information about each, check out Subways.net.
All Internet traffic in China is regulated by the Great Firewall. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are all blocked (you can use a VPN to break through). As a result of this filtering, Internet speeds can be sloooooow.
China has a solid mobile phone network. If your phone is unlocked, you can buy a China Unicom 3G SIM card that can be extended with prepaid top-up cards.
Hard and soft drugs are common. Meth addiction is a growing problem. Low-grade marijuana and powdered Xinjiang hash are widely available, imported dank available in the mega-cities. There is lots of low-grade cocaine as well, always heavily cut.
A national drug crackdown brought down a heap of B-list Chinese celebrities in 2014, while Africans have been getting busted in sweeps regularly.
In the night districts of the megacities, drugs are sold openly on the street. While expats once had free reign to indulge, random piss tests and home raids have started.
The most dangerous places in China are nightclubs, where foreigners have been known to suffer severe beatings. Chinese in clubs tend to use a swarm-type attack (20 guys against one) and often use steel rods and broken beer bottles as weapons.
Outside of drinking areas, be on guard for pick-pockets (rare), shady merchants (common) and ubiquitous teahouse scams.
Source: first hand experience of the China Tea House scam.
Spending & making money in China
A broad look at expected costs:
|City center apartment
||9,000 RMB (USD $1,500)
||8,000 RMB ($1,300)
||3,500 RMB ($550)
|Pack of cigarettes
||20 RMB ($3.20)
||15 RMB ($2.40)
|Taxi start rate
||13 RMB ($2.10)
||14 RMB ($2.25)
||11 RMB ($1.77)
|Monthly fitness club membership
||280 RMB ($45)
||300 RMB ($48)
||200 RMB (32)
|Local bottled beer (half liter)
||5 RMB (0.80¢)
||6 RMB (0.97¢)
||4 RMB (0.64¢)
|Local restaurant meal
||27 RMB ($4.35)
||30 RMB ($4.83)
||15 RMB ($2.41)
Data by Planet Asia and Numbeo.com
Monthly Wages in the mega-cities
|Megacity Expat wages
- Finance: 80,000 RMB ($12,800 USD)
- Management: 35,000 RMB ($5,650 USD)
- HR: 25,000 RMB ($4.000 USD)
- IT programming: 20,000 RMB ($3,220 USD)
- ESL teacher: 15,000 RMB ($2,400 USD)
||Chinese monthly wages
- Minimum wage: 9-17 RMB/ hour
- Shanghai waitress: 3,000 RMB ($483)
- National average wage: 2,396 RMB ($390)
- Public school teacher: 7,000 ($1,130)
Data compiled by Planet Asia in 2014 with help from gov.cn and Numbeo.com.
The Great Wall stretches 13,170 miles (21,196 kilometers) from east to west.
China tourism is simply too big a topic to include in this guide. For a detailed report, read Planet Asia’s 7 awesome tourist destinations in China.
In brief, China borders Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Mongolia, and North Korea. The diversity is stunning.
Tourist destinations offer a choice of Himalayan mountains, tropical forests, ancient ruins, space-age mega-cities, chilled out stoner zones and world-class trekking routes.
The language and culture barrier can make China travel challenging. Expect to get lost often, be given wrong directions frequently (Chinese prefer to save face than admit ignorance) and become a master at mime. Try to be firm and polite during your travels. Successful negotiations will bring confidence, which will help you get into the flow.
Expat life in China
1934 Hennessy ad depicting expat life on the Bund in Shanghai. Pic: source.
The expat condition in China is too wide a topic to shoehorn into this introductory guide, thus we branched it off into several supporting articles.
In brief, there are over 600,000 expats with registered working visas in China, and almost 300,000 international students. The number of expat workers coming to China has been increased by 10% annually since the year 2000, but has dipped in the first quarter of 2015.
Number of expats in China by city
- Shanghai: 210,000 expat residents
- Guangzhou: 118,000 expat residents
- Beijing: 107,000 expat residents
- Nanjing: 17,000 expat residents
- Suzhou: 15,000 expat residents
- Shenzhen: 13,000 expat residents
- Hangzhou: 10,000 expat residents
China gets a bad rap for its unruly crowds and the backwards behavior of its rural migrants. While in India the chaos is overwhelming, in China it’s manageable. If you keep your temper in check and make sure not to let anyone lose face, there are amazing things to discover:
Early morning tai chi on the street in Chengdu.
- Authentic people: many appear gruff at first, but the Chinese are wonderfully social. Once the ice is broken, they display genuine warmth and hospitality. They are extremely curious about foreigners (speak a few words to them in Chinese and watch their eyes light up) and are easy to engage.
- Spectacular sightseeing: China boasts some of the most amazing natural scenery in the world, ranging from towering snow-capped peaks to raging rivers to pristine subtropical forests.
- Diverse food: although many complain that typical dishes are overly salty and oily, those less finicky will enjoy a diverse array of hearty fare that really sticks to your ribs.
- Rich culture: traces of China’s 5,000 year history can be found all over the country, in the form of ancient temples, time-honored traditions, music, festivals, etc. For those interested in history, languages, and culture, China offers innumerable learning opportunities.
- Safety: one of the upsides of the Communist regime is that overt criminal activity is rare – Chinese streets are very safe, and solo travel (even for women) poses few safety risks.
Going in blind to a country as complex as China is definitely not a good idea. This introduction is designed to remedy that by giving you enough of an awareness of the big-picture parameters to enjoy your stay.