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Travel and Photography Tips for Travelling in Cambodia

July 1, 2010

Words and Images by Danielle Lancaster

As I make the journey back to Australia after a fabulous week in Siem Reap, Cambodia I thought I’d answer a few of the emails from people asking for tips to travelling to Cambodia in this blog.There are loads of web sites with relevant information on travelling in Cambodia and it is a great idea to go through them but here’s a few of mine.

Allow more than one day to see the temples and buy a non consecutive day pass. There is more than Angkor Wat to see! The temples are huge and there can be a lot of walking. Allow time to see the outer temples such as Banteay Prey and Beng Melea. These are not included in your temple pass and are well worth seeing as they are less visited by tourists and amazing!

Never touch a monk! If handing a monk something always bow your head and hold the edge of the object closest to you and away from them. Always ask permission to photograph monks and white-robed nuns (Don Chees) before doing so – during Pol Pot around 95% of the monks in Cambodia disappeared in his eight point plan. They are special people and deserve respect. If they say no, put your camera down.

Make sure you have permission to photograph within any temple and/or pagoda
and treat the nuns and monks with respect.

When entering a temple take off your shoes, hat and sunglasses. Wear appropriate clothing to all non living and living temples. Shorts and singlet tops should be avoided. Look at Cambodian men – you will rarely see any men wearing shorts.

Drink plenty of water and watch the colour of your urine. Never drink any water from taps and always only drink bottled water. Most hotels and guest houses will supply two bottles of water each day and bottled water is easily bought. Use bottle water for brushing of teeth.

Lock your goods in your suitcase in your room and use a safety deposit box within your hotel/guest house for your passport.

Don’t buy from the street children. I know this can be hard as this is a very poor country, however if people keep buying from the children on the streets, around the temples etc and they continue to make any form of income from it their parents will keep them on the streets and not send them to school. School in Cambodia in our eyes is not expensive but in a country where they are lucky to earn $0.50 cents per day, education is the only way these beautiful people can move forward.

Cash is best. Make it US dollars and plenty of small notes – it’s also best to have loads of $1 notes. Not many places have credit card facilities and Cambodian money is often forfeited and not regularly dealt in. Don’t even bother with travellers cheques. When changing money ensure no notes have a tear in them as they will not be accepted and you will have to go to a bank to exchange.

Take plenty of $1 Us notes and make sure not one of your notes
has a tear in it no matter how small.

Be mindful of tourism traps like the Lake tour of Tonle Sap. There is more than one village on the lake and many operators take tourists to the ‘tourist’ one where you are taken to a floating souvenir shop and hassled by begging children and adults. There are other villages more worthy of visiting such as Kampong Phluk and while this is a bit of a drive by tuk tuk then dirt bikes (supplied at a meeting point with driver if needed) it is worth it.

On a photography note:
Make sure your lenses have a UV filter and rarely use your lens cap due to condensation build up. I actually take mine of before getting out of the plane and it does not go back on again till I have boarded on my way home.

Keep a cloth for cleaning your lens handy all the time. Cambodia can be very dusty.

Don’t count out visiting during the wet. Yes it is hot and humid but there are fewer tourists; the clouds make for wonderful images of the temples and landscapes and downpours are tropical so heavy and usually only short in duration, however it can make for some areas to be more difficult to get to. I have had some awesome experiences on dirt bikes during these times.

Find a good driver. I use Chamnan and am happy to pass on his details. He speaks very good English and knows the type of things photographers like to do. He is also willing to start early and finish late; however I also respect him and look after him. That is: I buy him water, food and little treats like spiders and crickets. I also pay him generously but each time I return he is the first to meet me with a huge smile and Cambodian bow greeting.

Learn the correct greeting: a bow and holding of the hands pressed together called a Sompeah. The lower the bow and the higher the hands, the more respect is shown. Handshakes are today used in business, however I still avoid this on all levels as a showing of respect. In Australia we tend to prefer firm handshakes – not in Cambodia as this can be interpreted as aggression. When exchanging business cards, the right hand or both hands should be used.

Cambodians do not hug and don’t like touching so be wary of this.

Learn to say thank you properly, again using the Sompeah gesture. And always smile. You will be rewarded with a wonderful experience.

Don’t go in with a fear factor. I have travelled in Cambodia as a lone female and yes a few years ago there were lots of jackings and bag snatching but this has become less and less. I travel at night on dirt bikes with drivers I do not know and never once felt threatened, actually the opposite they look after me and love that I will give it a go including riding through flooded streets with water up to our knees. On saying this though when I do go out at night I wear jeans and a t-shirt that covers my chest well and upper arms.

Don’t take the first price especially in the markets.

There are still land mines! Be careful where you go if you decide to walk off any well travelled track! It is thought there are still four and six million land mines not discovered and children and adults are still the victims even today of walking on a mine. Heavily mined areas include: Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Pursat and Kampong Thom provinces however they are everywhere even around Angkor Wat and so it’s best to stay on well-travelled paths and have a knowledgeable guide or driver.

I spend time meeting people and going to their homes etc to photograph them. I always take a gift and wrap it but never in white as this is the colour of mourning. Present the gift to the oldest person in the house and use both hands with a bow. They will never open them on receipt so don’t be offended. Remove your shoes, hat and sunglasses before entering the home and never sit directly on the ground – even on a shoe is better than the ground.

Refreshments are often offered and should always be accepted even if only a little is taken. If you are offered to sit on a mat on the floor tuck your legs and feet backwards and never sit cross legged or stretch your legs out in front.

A lunch date with a medicine man in a village required proper etiquette.

Never photograph in airports, around military installations and railway stations – this is forbidden! Jail in Cambodia is not nice and often a short stay can quickly become a long stay.

Discretion should be used when photographing all Cambodian people, especially monks, members of the police and army.

Some ceremonies are very private. Again permission is required.

Please note: I was not in a temple or pagado while taking this image.
Image by: Kelly McIlvenny’s

Never enter a school, orphanage or any place children are without the appropriate invitation and permission. There are strict laws concerning contact with Cambodian children and imprisonment can and does happen for immoral behaviour.

Trafficking of children for prostitution is growing especially young girls and some orphanages and homes are not run by ‘respectable’ people. It is estimated that there are approximately 80,000–100,000 prostitutes in Cambodia and that 30% of these are under 18 years of age – this is growing. Be careful and mindful especially when photographing children and if seen touching them in any manner. Again, jail here is not nice!

Before I photographed at this school,
I gained the appropriate permission and was esorted by a teacher.

Please don’t be deterred. Cambodia is a country that is oozing with photography opportunities. Enjoy this amazing country with its ancient temples and warm and friendly people, it’s why I go back each year!

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