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Volunteers showing their painting on a Kindergarten wall in Cambodia

Getting Ready for Cambodia: Volunteer Preparation Guide

Let us answer all your questions about travelling to Cambodia 

By Jonatan Durand | 23rd January, 2020
Updated on 13th March, 2020

Feeling prepared while planning your trip to Cambodia is important, especially if you’re travelling there for the first time as a volunteer or intern. With the help of our team, you should have everything sorted before you embark on your journey (incl. flights, passport, and visa). 

Even though our staff will fully prepare you, you might feel a little more confident doing your own preparation too. Therefore, we’ve answered commonly asked questions to put your mind at ease:

  1. What do you need to know about the culture of Cambodia?
  2. What do you need to know about the logistics to travel to/in Cambodia?
  3. What do you need to prepare for sightseeing in Cambodia?

This will help you plan your trip to Cambodia efficiently so you can make the best of your travel and volunteer experience abroad.  

1. What do you need to know about the culture of Cambodia?

Knowing more about the country and culture will help you anticipate a probable culture shock and feel more comfortable settling in the country. 

To understand Cambodia today, you need to know that the country experienced years of political instability and endured the horrors of the Khmer Rouge Regime in the 1970’s, which affected the country’s development. 

The country is still recovering from the effects of war and poverty but it’s now developing rapidly, mostly thanks to tourism. Many tourists visit Cambodia appealed by its great food, friendly people, amazing Buddhist temples, lush nature and white sand beaches.

Like each country, Cambodia has culture, customs and beliefs that you might not be familiar with. Here are the main things you should know before you go to Cambodia:

Cambodians speak several languages

The official language of Cambodia is Khmer. However, French is sometimes still spoken in the country, because it was once a French protectorate (1863-1953). Nowadays, English has become the dominating foreign language in the country and is widely spoken. You may actually help young children learning English as a volunteer in our Teaching project in Cambodia.   

Although you can easily communicate in English with them, Cambodians always appreciate when you try to speak their language. Here are a few Khmer phrases that you may want to know before your trip:

  • Jum reap sur: Hello
  • Jum reap leah: Goodbye
  • Sok sa bay te?: How are you?
  • Bart (if you are a male) / Jas (if you are a female): Yes
  • Awt Tay: No
  • Or kun: Thank you

The way to greet people is different in Cambodia

You’ll find out that Cambodians don’t shake hands to greet someone. The Cambodian way to greet one another is called the sampeah. Place your hands together as if you were praying, and bow the head to do the sampeah. You can have a look at this video to practice.


There are things you shouldn't do in Cambodia

Buddhism is the official religion in Cambodia and influences people’s lives and customs. As you’ll probably visit amazing Buddhist temples, it’s important to respect certain rules and show respect:

  • Don’t point your feed towards a Buddha representation. The feet being the lowest part of the body are considered to be impure.
  • Don’t wear revealing clothes in the temples. Dressing modestly is a sign of respect. Cover your shoulders and knees to visit religious sites. You can’t wear short dresses, shorts or tank tops.

In general, you should also know that it’s inappropriate to: 

  • Display affection in public: the Cambodian society is relatively conservative and such behavior is considered offensive.
  • Touch someone’s head (including children): the head is considered the most sacred part of a person's body in Buddhist countries.
  • Lose your temper. Arguing and getting angry won’t do any good if you find yourself in an uncomfortable position. Remaining calm and smiling would resolve problems much faster.
  • Bring up sensitive topics. War, politics, and the Khmer Rouge are examples of subjects to avoid. No matter how resilient and positive the country may seem, the population suffered a tragic history not so long ago and do not talk openly about it.

2. What do you need to know about the logistics?

Planning travel logistics is not the most exciting part of a trip preparation. However it’s very important to make sure you arranged everything from the moment you land in Cambodia:


Do you need vaccinations for Cambodia?

To prevent any potential health problems in Cambodia, it is wise to read the vaccination advice for Cambodia from the National Health Service of the United Kingdom. We also recommend visiting your general practitioner, ideally 6-8 weeks before you travel. They’re the best person to inform you about necessary vaccinations and give you health advice depending on the length of your stay, what you’ll be doing and your general health. 


What should you pack for Cambodia?

Here is our packing checklist for volunteers in Cambodia: 

  • Small day backpack, along with a main big backpack (should have 2 straps - wear over both shoulders to prevent bag snatching)
  • Light clothes - bring light pants and/or long dresses as you need to have your legs and shoulders covered to visit temples.
  • Umbrella or poncho (especially in the rainy season, June-Oct) - waterproofs will be too hot to wear.
  • Towel (towels are not provided at your accommodation)
  • Sunglasses and swimming gears
  • Sandals/light trainers
  • Basic toiletry and medical kit
  • Credit card, ATM card
  • Unlocked smartphone (it's possible to buy a local SIM card to use while here) - you will need it to order tuk tuks via a mobile app called GRAB
  • Photocopy of all important documents
  • Spare passport photos, you’ll need one upon arrival for your visa.
  • Universal plug adaptor
  • Insect repellent (lots!) and sun protection cream

Which currency is used in Cambodia?

There are two  currencies that you can use: Cambodian riel and US dollar, which is also widely accepted.

  • 1 US dollar ≃ 4000 Cambodian Riel (see the current exchange rate here)

Riel and dollars are completely intertwined in Cambodia. You'll usually pay for things in dollars then be given small change in Riel. 

The cost of living is pretty low in Cambodia, so you can probably enjoy cheap eats and bring back lots of souvenirs from the local markets. You can get an idea of the cost of things to plan your budget here


3. What do you need to prepare for sightseeing in Cambodia?

You won’t need a lot of preparation once in Cambodia. One of our local staff members will pick you up at the airport and drop you off at the volunteer house in Phnom Penh. 

However, there are still some things you might want to get ready for: 

Local transport in Phnom Penh

You need to know the transport system to get by in Phnom Penh, as there is no public transport network in the capital city. The best, cheapest, safest and most reliable way to book a tuk tuk is by using GRAB. Our staff will explain to you how to use it on your first day.


Best things to do in Cambodia

Outside the working hours of your volunteer project, you can use your free time to enjoy yourself, while discovering the country. Our local staff is here to help you organise trips and give you all the tips you need to give you the best experience in Cambodia. 

In order to start the fun already, do some reading about the weekend activities you want to do as part of your preparation. Here’s a list of great things you can do during your free time:

  • Visit the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Since you’ll be placed in the vibrant capital city, why not visit a farmer’s market and visit a temple or two. Wat Phnom entry costs only $1 and Wat Ounalom on the city waterfront is free to visit.
  • Visit Angkor Wat world wonder. Aside from the incredible beauty of the site, you’ll get to admire an incredible sunset over the temple.
  • Explore Siem Reap and its surroundings. Besides Angkor Wat temples, you can visit the floating villages on Tonle Sap lake or go watch a show of the traditional Apsara dance.
  • Take a beach trip to Sihanoukville. Isn’t it the best way to chill over the weekend? 

By now you should have everything you need to embark on this wonderful journey without any stress and hassle. Our local staff will support you from the moment you arrive at the airport until the day you leave. We’re sure you’ll have a great time and a life changing experience, doing something meaningful in this wonderful country and discovering what you’re capable of!


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Want to know more about volunteering in Cambodia and the organization of your trip? 

Get in touch with our Projects Experts. They'll be happy to answer any questions you may have.

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