Discovering Cambodia with Tom Vater

1. Are there any local customs travelers should be aware of?

As in many other Asian countries, travelers should be aware that a clean personal appearance goes a long way to make things go more smoothly. Away from the beaches, bare-chested men in shorts and women in bikinis or hot-pants offend, embarrass or amuse most Cambodians. Women in skimpy clothes are often judged to be sex workers. When dealing with officials, personal appearance and politeness is especially important. Women should never touch monks or hand anything to them directly.

2. The temple ruins of Angkor are the most famous, but what other temples should visitors not overlook?

There are several other spectacular temple areas in Cambodia, also dating back to and even before the Angkor Empire. Depending on the amount of time and adventurous spirit a traveler has, Beng Melea, Ko Ker and Preah Khan (in Preah Vihear Province), and of course the hilltop temple Preah Vihear itself—currently the site of a political and military drama played put over a border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand—are great off-the-beaten-track options. Beng Melea is easy to get to, Ko Ker is also not too hard a journey from Siam Reap, but the other sites require endurance and a long ride on a motorbike.

3. What is the best way to experience Cambodia’s remaining tropical forests?

Tourism in most provinces, especially in the remote parts of the country, is in its infancy—but growing steadily. The larger tropical forest areas accessible to travelers are found in Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri in the north east, as well as in the Cardamom Mountains in the south west of the country, best visited from Koh Kong or Pursat. In Mondulkiri, it’s possible to trek by elephant. In Ratanakiri, good old fashioned treks on foot can be organized within national parks. In the Cardamoms, a dirt bike tour might be the best option.

4. What are your favorite things to do in bustling capital Phnom Penh?

Watching the life on the riverfront in the late afternoon or early evening is always fascinating. Elephants, fruit vendors, monks and beggars, families from the provinces—in the city for the first time—tourists, boatmen, kids jumping into the water and women offering to free a tiny bird from an equally tiny cage (one of many) for your good luck—in exchange of a few thousand riel, all mill around in happy confusion. Sit down for a drink at the FCC, Cantina or La Croisette and let it all sink in.

5. What are the top three beaches in Cambodia?

For sheer remoteness Rabbit Island (Koh Tonsay), off the coast of Kep, is great—palm fringed, framed by rocky headlands and very basic facilities. More comfortable and relaxing with a good range of accommodation, restaurants and nightlife is Serendipity Beach in Sihanoukville, with Otres Beach coming in a close second. If swimming is not a priority, Kep Beach offers faded post-colonial charm and the best steamed crabs in the country.

6. What’s the best time of year to visit?

The best time to visit is after the rains in October/November, when the country is green, water-levels in rivers and the Tonlé Sap Lake are high, but the summer heat is fading. The climate remains pleasant into February. The rainy season can also be an interesting time to visit for determined travelers. Roads can be muddy, bus services interrupted, but the light is beautiful and there are fewer tourists.

7. Describe Khmer cuisine. What one dish or specialty should every traveler try?

Every traveler with a modicum of courage and curiosity should try prahoc, Cambodia’s national dish, once. Perhaps it’s best to try this fermented fish paste in a restaurant before venturing out for the market variety. For those with a taste for the bizarre, the little town of Skuon, north of Phnom Penh, might be of interest. Here the local cottage industry is tarantulas, which are sold for consumption, fried or alive and crawling. Tasty.

8. Given Cambodia’s tragic recent history, are there places travelers should avoid visiting?

Cambodia is a pretty safe country to travel in. Visitors should note however, that it remains imperative to stay on well trodden paths in the countryside, and if traveling on foot in remote regions, to take a guide. While much of the country has been de-mined, countless landmines do remain in the ground and move with the rains. Cambodians continue to be maimed and killed by the long war years’ legacy. There are no particular areas of Cambodia best avoided. Nighttime in Phnom Penh carries minor risks. After midnight, many people driving appear to be drunk and robberies remain fairly common. Also watch out for daytime snatch artists on motorbikes in the capital, looking for easy handbags and backpacks in the traffic.

9. What’s the best way to travel around Cambodia?

These days, the bus system is pretty good between the major destinations. Taxis are a faster and more expensive alternative. In more remote areas, renting a car (with driver) or driving a dirt-bike might make sense, as public transport is reduced to incredibly overloaded pick-ups. The trains are amongst the slowest in Asia and only for aficionados. Visitors to Battambang can take a ride on the bamboo train, also called Nory. Put together from a couple of wheel axles, a wooden platform and the engine of a water-pump, these private handcars zip up and down the railway tracks, transporting people, animals, motorbikes, market produce and smuggled wood through areas with little other infrastructure.

10. What’s Cambodia’s best kept secret?

In a way, Cambodia’s best kept secret is the county itself. Most visitors spend just a few days in Siem Reap and the Angkor temples, with perhaps a quick hop to the capital. The rest of the country either offers adequate but simple infrastructure for moderately adventurous travelers or virtually unchartered remote regions for die-hards. If you’re lucky, you might arrive at the massive temple pyramid of Ko Ker and be the only visitor. Cambodia offers a huge number of rarely visited sights. And some of the beaches aren’t bad either.

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