Though you’ll learn most of these things fairly quickly after arriving in Cambodia, these warnings and tips will help you know what to expect.
It’s unbearably hot
Coming from a place where it’s just settling into late fall, suddenly experiencing 90+ degree weather is pretty brutal. Despite the fact that the average daily temperatures for November hover around 81, it’s been at least 10 degrees hotter than that the entire time. It’s also humid, so the heat feels worse. You sweat constantly from places you forgot you could sweat. And hot season isn’t until March to June!
You should bring more clothes than you think you’ll need
Because of the temperature, or if you’re visiting during rainy season, you should bring more clothes than you normally would. You know that joke about how people pack for vacations like they’re going to shit themselves once a day? Yeah, do that. You’ll want to peel off your clothes by lunchtime (and probably throw them away).
If you need to buy anything, the markets will have it
Not knowing the former, I came ridiculously underprepared in terms of clothing. But you can buy $3 t-shirts, underwear, socks, and shoes in places like the Central Market in Phnom Penh and the Old Market in Siem Reap. So if you didn’t pack appropriately, Cambodia has your back. You can get anything from electronics, toys, to housewares and jewelry, in case you realize you need a new toaster.
Be aware that many things close midday
I’m not sure if it’s the weather or the fact that people like to take a rest after lunch, but certain sites, like the Royal Palace and Wat Ounalom temple in Phnom Penh, are closed midday. This is during the hottest hours of the afternoon from 11-2 pm. So you should probably make an effort to wake up early and do stuff in the morning and take a rest midday to avoid the heat before going out in the afternoon.
You can drink the water!
Contrary to popular belief, the water in major cities like Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is drinkable. It’s chlorinated, though, so it may not taste so good. If you don’t want to take the chance, you can also buy large bottles of water for 50 cents to a dollar from vendors all over. If you’re visiting small towns and villages, you should drink bottled water just to be safe.
US Dollars are the unofficial currency of Cambodia
Interestingly, the American dollar is commonly used around the country. It’s like the unofficial currency. Typically, Cambodian riel are used as change. So you won’t see coins, but if you need 50 cents in change, you’ll be given 2000 riel. ATMs dispense both.
You should bring singles
Everything costs less than $5, and local ATMs can give you denominations as high as $20-100, which is hard for locals to change. (To avoid getting high bills that are hard to break, try getting $80 or $90 instead of $100.) For example, riding tuk tuks is easier if you have exact change. Trips usually cost anywhere from $2-4. Otherwise, you or the driver will need to find a way to make change. It’s easier for everyone if you have the exact amount. This also makes tipping easier.
Don’t believe the rumors; people are honest
You may have heard horror tales about tourists getting ripped off, but for the most part, Cambodians are super honest. Tuk tuk drivers, people in hotels, salespeople in markets – people aren’t generally scammy. The worst we’ve been scammed is being asked for $4 by a tuk tuk driver on a trip we know costs $2. Similarly, they won’t ask for tips – one person downright refused one. But you should tip, because it’s nice, and what is pocket change to you means a whole lot to everyone else.
You need sun and insect protection
Though there are pharmacies all over the place, you should come prepared with sunblock and insect repellant, no matter where in the country you are. Mosquitoes will be all over the temples, in your hotel rooms. Guaranteed. I have some gnarly bites with a gigantic inflamed radius that’s 6-inches around. I hope it’s not malaria; I didn’t get that vaccination.
All ATMs have high fees
Most Americans are used to having their own bank charge them when using a foreign ATM, but we can usually avoid the foreign ATM’s own fee by going to a bank. In Cambodia, there’s no escaping the $4-6 ATM fees, even when you visit a bank. This is in addition to the fee your bank back home might charge you.
You need to be respectful in religious sites
Religious temples around Cambodia aren’t just pretty buildings that look good on Instagram (though they’re also that). They’re holy places of worship. Whether you’re religious or not, you have to respect the cultural rules, because you’re in someone else’s house. You must cover your knees and shoulders, no matter how hot it is. You shouldn’t take pictures of monks. You shouldn’t raise your voice. All of this goes double for Angkor Wat.