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Cambodia (Lonely Planet Country Guides) Paperback – 1 Aug 2008
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Nobody covers the world like Lonely Planet.' --New York Post, May 2004 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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However, many travellers in Asia who I've met have commented that 'there didn't seem like there was much to do in Cambodia apart from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh', and this (I believe) is probably a result of 'lonely planet syndrome'. Beyond these two destinations (and a few on the coast near phnom penh, the book treats the rest of the country very briefly, which may leave the impression that these areas aren't worht visiting. Evidently, this is because these areas simply are not touristy - and is what you'd expect from a guidebook like this (so no discrdit whatsoever to the author). But, all I'd say is don't let this put you off. I spent three months travelling the country, largely following reccomendations from locals as I went, and found many areas barely mentioned in the book but which were more than worth exploring. For example, a highlight of my trip was a trek in Botum Sakor national park, an outstandingly beautiful (and large) national park which isn't even mentioned at all in the guide (as far as I can tell). Cambodia has a huge amount to offer any traveller - you could easily spend years exploring the country - so please (please) don't flick through the lonely planet and decide its only worth a few days.
The other main problem is that Cambodia is a rapidly changing country and as such even a one month old guide would probably be out of date. Yes - the LP Cambodia says that you can get to town X in 40 mins by share taxi for $Y, but thats only a rough guide. Roads change, prices change, new public mini bus services arise and die out, and a new hotel / housing development / factory is built right over that lake that you're looking for. Its useful as a guide - but don't make the mistake of thinking that everything it says is some kind of enshrined fact.
Finally, watch out for some of the guesthouse reccomendations. Occasionally owners find out they are in the lonely planet and stop caring because they have a guranteed customer base for the next four years. I found this several times. If the guesthouse doesn't match up to the LP's glowing description - move on. There's always a freindly, clean, well run guesthouse around the next corner in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Overall I'd say this is a sturdy travel guide and very useful, and reamins by far the best guide on Cambodia for the average tourist and traveller - but I would warn against assuming that it is covers everything and sticking to its reccomendations like glue, because if you do you may never get to see the real country. And if you find yourself in an area which isn't really in the LP - don't assume that you should leave for somewhere that is.
The writing in LP Cambodia is easy to follow and there is a great history section to read before you go to help you get the feel for the place. One big benefit is that on the kindle edition you can see popular bookmarks and notes from other users should they choose toshare them; that turns it into the guidebook that has peer review before you go. The search facility and bookmarking / notes are invaluable as they help you find that museum in Phnom Penn that you were interested in visiting and just make it easier to tag places to visit or visited as you go; or you can use the search to finding a restaurant in Siem Reap. One negative is the maps are harder to use on the Kindle than other visitors paper copies.
The only thing the book doesn't prepare you for is the random overpricing that has occurred, the variation from shop to shop is immense. Shop where the locals shop and you'll save a fortune.
Nick Ray has lived in Cambodia for years and knows the country from a westerner's perspective. He has written or contributed to all the LP guides to Cambodia. In this edition the usual LP layout is followed with introductory sections on `getting started', when to go (just avoid the killer months of April-May before the rains), suggested itineraries, Cambodian history and a basic local language section to learn some Khmer which will go down well if you get it right (but is more likely to induce good-humored hilarity if you don't).
The different regions of Cambodia are then described in long, dedicated chapters, with more than half the book devoted to Phnom Penh and the Angkor temples/Siem Reap - the main reason most travellers will go to Cambodia.
Most visitors arrive in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap by air. If you've come from somewhere like Thailand then the squalor, poverty and difficulties most Cambodians face every day can be quite a shock. Thousands of people have limb amputations from land mines, which still litter whole regions of the country from the Khmer Rouge days. Highlights in PP are the Killing Fields museum with graphic gruesome details you'd never see in any sanitised museum in the west; the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (you must wear long sleeves or will be denied entry, and note the sign at the main entrance advising you must deposit all your weapons and explosives with Reception for the duration of your tour!). The Tonle Sap will vary greatly in size depending on the time of year you visit, and when the lake is full in October-November it can be truly spectacular, especially from the air.
So, on to Siem Reap (Khmer for "Siamese routed"!) = the number one destination for most visitors. The thousands of visitors to the Angkor temples are mainly other Asians like Chinese, Koreans and Japanese in big tour groups, but also increasing numbers of westerners of every age-group and budget. Allow 3 full days for the temples or longer if you're really interested in the history and want to go to the more far-flung sites. The new government antiquities museum in SR is also worth a visit, very high class and professionally managed compared to just about everything else in Cambodia.
The LP then has a chapter on Sihanoukville and the South Coast which is reasonably detailed at publication but quickly out-of-date, as this part of Cambodia is developing the fastest. North-western region where Battambang will be the primary travel destination, and the less-visited Eastern region with minority tribal cultures and spectacular wildlife including tigers and elephants also get a chapter each. The maps are accurate, but some are too small and not easy to use on the move. The photo selection is as usual fantastic with a fine pick offering an all-round feel for the country.
The LP is generally OK on accommodation and eating places but things change quickly. Log on at a local internet café for about US$0.50/hour to get up-to-date information more current than any guide book. Some travellers report that if a guest house is recommended by the LP then sometimes they stop trying, as they are guaranteed to be fully booked no matter what.
Nick Ray is a biker and recommends some routes for touring the country by motorcycle. He does mention the local authorities don't allow foreigners to ride motorcycles in the Siem Reap/Angkor area, but you can get around the prohibition if you rent/buy outside town and travel to SR by motorbike, and if you have dark-ish or sun-browned skin and wear a crash helmet (which unlike in Vietnam is not compulsory in Cambodia), they assume you're Cambodian. If caught, then feign ignorance or offer a modest bribe, which in our experience usually works. Caution: in the wet season (June-October) the smaller roads are washed out with mud and biking is a nightmare. Gasoline is cheap by European standards but very expensive for a Cambodian worker who might only be earning US$80/month.
Another thing the LP guide doesn't mention is that if you have a smartphone or a Blackberry, the emailing service doesn't work at all in most parts of Cambodia but the GSM phone functions are OK. Once you cross the border to Vietnam or Thailand, then your backlog of emails will all arrive in one big download.
Beware of wide pricing variations, especially in the tourist areas. There is little government regulation of anything much in Cambodia or at least nothing consistent, anything can be had for a price and you need to keep your wits about you. Local wages are pitifully low and people need to make a living so scams are common. Having said that, Cambodia is much safer and friendlier than say Jakarta or Manila on a normal day, so long as you observe the usual health precautions in the tropics and avoid areas with unexploded ordnance which in any case are well marked these days.
Don't miss out on the local delicacies - steamed python and deep-fried spiders.
The updated Cambodia LP is due in 2012.