Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cambodia travel tips

Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of Cambodia (Photo by Zuna Yoga)

Thinking of doing your yoga teacher training somewhere exotic? Many of our students have already spent time in Bali, and want to explore a new country as they immerse themselves in yoga and meditation. Consider Cambodia! A journey to Cambodia offers a new perspective on the history and people of Southeast Asia. This country has a lot going for it: the unforgettable temples of Angkor, the buzzing cities, endless miles of unspoiled tropical beaches, the mighty Mekong River, tasty food, and some of the friendliest people in the region. We spent a week traveling around this fascinating gem of a country, and have compiled a list of helpful tips and must-see places to visit before or after your yoga teacher training.

The Basics

Contemporary Cambodia has its roots in the powerful Khmer empire, which previously ruled vast territories (much of what is now Vietnam, Thailand and Laos). The fairly well-preserved remains of this empire can be seen at the famous temples of Angkor, monuments unrivaled in scale and grandeur in southeast Asia. In fact, Angkor Wat was named the #1 destination in Southeast Asia on a TripAdvisor poll, and the #2 destination worldwide. Heady praise indeed. 

But Cambodia is more than just a land of ancient temples. Its capital city, Phnom Penh, is bustling with a large expat population surrounding all the NGO's operating in the city. Also, Cambodia's southern coastline is beautiful and much less developed than other neighboring countries.

If you’re planning a trip to Cambodia, the best time to go is during December and January when the humidity and rainfall are relatively low. Fortunately, this is also the time frame when Zuna Yoga will be leading 200 and 300 hour yoga teacher trainings in Kep Province, in the Southeast Coastal region.

Getting there

Phnom Penh International airport (PNH) is the country's major hub, with the majority of
Siem Reap street
international flights arriving here. Siem Reap International airport (REP) also seems some traffic within Asia from low-cost carriers. We flew into Siem Reap from Bangkok (DMK) on Air Asia. Our flight out of the country left from PNH, so we got to see both airports. Both had a decent range of services, including ATMs, free wifi and cafes. Siem Reap is much smaller. To get from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, we flew with Cambodia Angkor Air - a small prop plane that got the job done. The checked baggage limit was 20kg per person, ours was a few kg over, but we were not charged excess baggage fees. Sihanoukville International airport also has links to PNH and REP.

Visas

All visitors, except citizens of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam need a visa to enter Cambodia. Visas are available on arrival at both international airports, all six international border crossings with Thailand, some international border crossings with Vietnam, and at the main border crossing with Laos. The official price for a tourist visa is USD20. It is valid for one stay of up to 30 days. Those issued in advance expire 90 days after issue. In Phnom Penh (or elsewhere via agencies), tourist visas can be extended only once, allowing an additional 30 days at a cost of around USD30. Our retreat center will offer visa extensions to anyone staying for the Zero to 500 hour yoga teacher training.

To apply for a visa on arrival, you will need a passport-size photo, a passport which is valid for at least 6 months and has at least one completely blank visa page remaining, and clean US$ notes with which to pay the fee. You'll receive the application form for your VOA on the plane. At REP we paid $20 plus a $2 fee since we didn't have a passport photo with us. 

At Phnom Penh or Siem Reap airport, head to the Visa on Arrival desk and join the queue with everyone else who just got off your plane. Your application form is reviewed and you'll pay the visa fee. Then move to the right and wait for your name to be called. You then receive your passport with the visa. Once reunited with your passport, join the immigration queue and finally, make your way to baggage claim. 

The immigration officials at the airport are the rudest people you'll meet on your entire Cambodian trip - don't take it personally. Their brusque manner is not representative of the treatment you'll receive elsewhere.

Citizens of most nations can apply for an e-Visa on-line on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation website, through a service provided by a private Cambodian company. This is a normal Tourist Visa but costs USD25 instead of the normal USD20. The visa arrives as a PDF file by e-mail within 3 business days. The application requires a digital photograph of yourself (in .jpg or .png format). You can scan your passport photo or have a passport sized photograph taken with a digital camera. You need to print two copies (one for entry and one for exit) of the PDF visa, cut out the visa parts and keep them with your passport.

Visas in advance (either on-line or from an embassy/consulate) save time at the border but are a little more expensive. However, you do get to skip the queues of people applying for the visas arrival. Although you may simply spend the saved time waiting at the luggage belt for your suitcase.

Money

The Cambodian riel and US dollar are both official currencies, with riel only used for small transactions (i.e. below $5). Change will be given in USD for bills up to $1, and in riel for smaller amounts. Often you'll be given a combo of different notes and currencies as your change, so make a note of the exchange rate (currently 4000 riel per USD) and count your change. US coins are not used in Cambodia. ATMs will generally only dispense US dollars, although some are loaded with both currencies. ATMs are common throughout the country with a surprising penetration even into backwater towns, though if in doubt stock up before a trip into remote areas.

You will not need much cash during the yoga teacher training, as it is all-inclusive. Bring extra for souvenirs and massages. You can exchange foreign cash at banks and local exchange offices. Don't forget to tell your bank and credit card companies the dates that you will be traveling, or they might cut off your funds for fraud protection. Asia prefers Visa or MasterCard.

Internet / SIM cards

SIM cards are easily available and cheap in Cambodia if you want to make local phone calls on your global ready phone. Cambodia uses the GSM mobile system. There are nine operators to choose from, with Metfone, Cellcard and Smart Mobile being the largest. Prepaid SIM cards are widely available (USD1 and up). There are stands selling SIM cards at the airports. Tourists can add 3G/4G mobile Internet to their SIM for as little as $3/month or unlimited data package for $25/month (Metfone). 

WiFi is free at our yoga teacher training venue. Its speed is more suited to email checks and status updates than for video streaming. Sometimes it goes down, and takes a few days to get back up. We recommend getting a SIM card with a data plan if being online is important to you. We used our Smart SIM to help us navigate with Google maps even in remote areas, and were really glad we had it.

Food

Healthy eats at the Backyard Cafe
Cambodian meals typically consist of more than one dish and include a contrast of flavors, textures and temperatures, using plenty of herbs, leaves, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, edible flowers and other garnishes and condiments. Locals tend to favor meat and seafood dishes, but there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options around. Khmer curry is less spicy than the curries of neighboring Thailand - it is also coconut-milk-based but without the overpowering chili. Bakeries are ubiquitous, a remnant of colonial french rule. You'll find great baguettes, cakes and baked goods.

More and more healthy eating options are popping up in the cities, such as the Backyard Cafe in Phnom Penh. 

What to see

For most temple and palace visits, you must wear shorts that reach to the knee or lower, and T-shirts or blouses that reach to the elbow.

Siem Reap - a popular resort town, and the gateway to the Angkor temple complex. This is a growing city with plenty of hotels, restaurants, cafes and nightlife. There's lots of fun shopping at markets and boutiques, and plenty of day spas. It's a laid-back, pleasant place with some interesting French colonial and Chinese architecture. From Siem Reap airport, it's just a 7 km / $7 taxi ride into town. Your hotel may offer airport pick up (for free or at a charge), so ask them ahead of time.

Faces of Angkor Thom
Angkor Wat - the world’s largest religious structure, an architectural representation of the Hindu universe. This is the star of a massive temple city built over the course of six centuries by dozens of rulers who considered themselves to be part god, part king. As religious beliefs in the Khmer empire evolved, the temple was transformed from Hindu to Buddhist. The temples are still active centers of spiritual practice today. It's worth getting up before dawn to visit the temples before the throngs of tourists arrive, and before the heat of the sun really dials up. You can take a tuk-tuk or taxi, or even rent a bicycle to get there. It's recommended to hire a guide to visit this sprawling temple complex. A day pass costs $20USD. 

Angkor Thom (Bayon Temple) - Bayon is one of the most widely recognized temples because of the giant stone faces that adorn its towers. There are 54 towers of four smiling Buddha faces each, totaling 216 faces. The gates to the complex are equally impressive. 

Nature takes over at Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm - a captivating temple that is being reclaimed by the jungle. Scenes from the movie Tomb Raider were filmed here. Strangler figs and silk-cotton trees spill like liquid over dozens of temples in various stages of disrepair, growing out of the stone structures. It is atmospheric, photogenic and peaceful. Inside one temple, an altar of Shiva, replete with gold-foil decorations and offerings of mangoes and Sprite, is tended by a ‘wat granny’ – the term for older women, often widows, who have taken monastic vows and help maintain religious buildings between meditation and prayer.

Phare, the Cambodian Circus - a non-animal circus, with nightly performances in Siem Reap. Lonely Planet calls it "unmissable." This is Siem Reap's most unique, authentic, home-grown, top-rated (TripAdvisor) evening entertainment. Phare performers use theater, music, dance and modern circus arts to tell uniquely Cambodian stories. 

Phnom Penh - a gorgeous riverside location, an eclectic restaurant scene, unforgettable landmarks and a noticeable vitality. Sights in or near the capital city include:

Royal Palace - With its classic Khmer roofs and ornate gilding, the Royal Palace dominates the diminutive skyline of Phnom Penh. It is a striking structure near the riverfront and is still the official residence of King Sihamoni. Visitors are only allowed to visit the throne hall and a handful of buildings surrounding it, including the Silver Pagoda complex. The floor here is covered with 5 tons of silver, and the pagoda contains a Baccarat-crystal Buddha sitting on a golden pedestal, as well as a life-sized solid-gold Buddha, which weighs 90kg and is adorned with 2086 diamonds, the largest weighing in at 25 carats.

The Killing Fields - Pay your respects to the survival spirit of the Cambodian people by visiting this brutal reminder of the darkest side of humanity. Between 1975 and 1978 about 17,000 men, women, children and infants who had been detained and tortured at S-21 were transported to the extermination camp of Choeung Ek. The site is just one of three hundred killing fields scattered around the company during the murderous Pol Pot era.
Admission to the Killing Fields includes an excellent audio tour, which includes stories by those who survived the Khmer Rouge, as well as accounts by a guard and executioner.
Getting around by tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks are motorbikes with carriages and are the main way of getting around Phnom Penh for tourists. Average fares are about double those of a motorbike taxi (moto) – US$2 for short rides around the center, US$5 for slightly longer trips. If you ask the driver up front how much they'll charge, the answer is often: "Whatever you think is fair." When in doubt, ask your hotel staff about how much a ride from A to B should cost.

Koh Rong Island - 25km off the coast of Sihanoukville. A sleepy island with 43 km of
beaches and just a dozen or so guesthouses. Still very undeveloped. Phosphorescent plankton twinkle in the water and can be seen every night.


That's just a brief introduction to an endlessly fascinating country. Just an hour's flight from Bangkok, but a world away. We've chosen a peaceful, undeveloped spot for our Cambodia Yoga teacher trainings and look forward to sharing a journey through this amazing country with you.

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