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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Introduction to Cambodia

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.
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.

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy
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.

Cambodian people

Hanging loose in a Siem Reap farming village.
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.
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.
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.
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

  • 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 per cent 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.
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.

Cambodia visas

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.

Money in Cambodia

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

Local “bus” in suburban Phnom Penh. Pic: Arian Zwegers.
Local “bus” in suburban Phnom Penh. Pic: Arian Zwegers.

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.

Illegal drugs in Cambodia

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.


Dangers in Cambodia

  • 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 and making Money in Cambodia

A broad look at expected costs for visitors to Cambodia:

Accommodation:$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.
FoodStreet meals usually cost less than $2, while a standard meal in an expat restaurant costs between $5-10.
DrinkA 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.
TransportBus 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.
DrugsAuthentic 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

Expat salaries in Cambodia

Most expats work in Cambodia as teachers, NGO office workers or bar staff.

JobTypical benefits
English teacher$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
BartenderNo working visa. At the high end, free room, meals and a salary of around $30/ day. At the low end, similar benefits, no pay.
NGO internA housing stipend of around $250/ month; an extra $100 in spending money is possible if you’re lucky.
NGO ExecutiveA proper western executive salary; housing and flight allowance; education allowance for children; paid holidays.

Cambodia websites and 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.
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:

TouristsThe 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.
BackpackersCambodia 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.
ExilesThere 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.
Expat workersConcentrated 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.
Business operatorsCambodia 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.
Backpacker party on Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville. Pic source.

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