A Tour of Cambodia - All you Need to Know

A Tour of Cambodia - All you Need to Know

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Tucked between and often overshadowed by tourism hotspots Thailand and Vietnam, is the small but enchanting Kingdom of Cambodia. Once the most powerful Empire in South East Asia, this colourful place is bursting with history, culture, and natural beauty sure to capture the heart of any visitor. Despite having endured a brutal civil war that changed the face of the nation, it remains one of the friendliest places on earth and deserves far more attention than it gets. 

 

The Basics

Royal Palace CambodiaSituated in South East Asia, the Kingdom of Cambodia is bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east. Like the rest of the region, Cambodia’s climate is dictated by tropical monsoons. It has two distinct seasons; the rainy season (May-Oct) and the dry season (Nov-Apr), and temperatures range from 21 to 35 °C (69.8 to 95.0 °F). Cambodia is recognised as one of the countries most susceptible to natural disasters, and flooding is common.

Cambodia, known in Khmer as Kampuchea, has had a turbulent political past. Today, it is ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in an elective constitutional monarchy, with Hun Sen as Prime Minister. Despite having got through years of political upheaval, controversy and corruption is still rife.

Theravada Buddhism has been the primary religion in Cambodia since the 15th Century, and around 95% of Cambodians are Buddhists. Having made an impressive recovery from a recent civil war, the nation has seen two decades of strong economic growth and is now considered a lower middle-income country. Cambodia’s tourism industry is rapidly developing, and symbols of globalisation feature in large cities like Phnom Penh.

 

History

One of the most noteworthy periods of Cambodian history began in the 9th Century, when the Angkor Empire was established. Lead by Jayavarman II, the Angkor Empire became the most powerful of the region, dominating most of South-East Asia. It was during Angkor’s reign that the world’s largest concentration of religious temples was constructed. Known today as Angkor Wat, the complex was originally built for the Hindu God Vishnu, but as Buddhism became the primary religion of the state, it became a Buddhist temple.  

Angkor Wat Temple complex CambodiaThe 15th Century saw the fall of the Angkor Empire, and the beginning of a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation. During this time, neighbouring countries gained control over Cambodia, and Theravada Buddhism became the state religion. Later, during the 19th Century, Siam (the then Thailand) and Vietnam fought for control of Cambodia, causing King Norodom to sign a treaty for French protection.

Cambodia remained a protectorate of France from 1867 to 1953, before gaining independence under King Norodom Sihanouk. King Norodom Sihanouk made Cambodia a constitutional monarchy and later abdicated the throne to his father to become head of state. As head of state, Sihanouk formed his own political party and adopted an official policy of neutrality as the Vietnam War progressed. During this period, he allowed Vietnamese communists to use Cambodia as a sanctuary and a supply route for their arms and other aid to their forces fighting in South Vietnam. This was a controversial decision that led to a large protest on March 11th, 1970, whilst Sihanouk was in Paris. Deciding he needn’t to return to Cambodia, Sihanouk stayed in France and was meanwhile overthrown by Lon Nol, who assumed emergency powers. Five years later, General Lon Nol, was overthrown by Pol Pot, who lead the Khmer Rouge; a brutal regime aiming to transform Cambodia into a rural, classless society.

On 17th April 1975, the Khmer Rouge descended on Phnom Penh and ordered residents to evacuate the city within 24 hours. Those that weren’t killed in the evacuation were forced into the countryside, where they had to do manual slave work or face brutal punishment. In pursuit of forming the ‘ideal communist society’, Pol Pot declared this as ‘year zero’ and began to purify society of western influences and the educated. Businesses were closed, healthcare abolished, and foreign aid and medical assistance refused. The now ‘Democratic Kampuchea’ was isolated from the outside world, and few knew of the terror going on within Cambodian borders. During the ensuing four years, 1.7 million people died as a result of brutal execution, starvation, disease or exhaustion. 

Cambodia Killing Fields memorialAs fighting broke out in neighbouring Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge began to lose its tight grip on the Cambodian population. The Communist organisation was over thrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese, who took Phnom Penh and established the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Following a 10-year Vietnamese occupation, troops were withdrawn, and the government renamed the country the State of Cambodia.

Since this time, and several Khmer Rouge leaders have been taken to trial by the UN, and Pol Pot died in a jungle hideaway. Despite this, the country is still healing from its physical and emotional wounds. Many Cambodians alive today witnessed the horrors of and lost family during the Khmer Rouge reign, though this friendly nation appears to be living by the words of the Cambodian proverb, "Fear not the future, weep not for the past."

Today, the country is ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), with Hun Sen as Prime Minister.

 

Regions and Geography

Tonle Sap CambodiaWhen the Khmer Rouge began their reign of terror, they abolished all former Cambodian administrative divisions in favour of seven geographic zones: The Northwest, the North, the Northeast, the East, the Southwest, the West and the Centre. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia has been divided into 25 provinces and subdivided into 163 districts. The capital city, Phnom Penh, is both the most populated and the smallest region.

Cambodia is a relatively low-lying land. Mountains can be found in the north eastern Ratanakiri Province, and the south is characterised by beautiful beaches, waterfalls and islands.

The two most prominent features of Cambodia are Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and the Mekong River which flows through large parts of South East Asia. These both play an important role in the culture, economy and livelihood of Cambodians, who depend on the lakes fisheries and unique ecosystem.

 

Main Cities and Attractions

Though Cambodia is becoming an increasingly popular holiday destination, large parts of the country remain unspoiled by tourism. A handful of cities have become tourist hotspots, largely due to surrounding attractions. These cities are well-equipped for foreign visitors, with high-standard hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and bars.

Phnom Penh

Cambodia National MuseumSituated on the Mekong River, Phnom Penh is the vibrant capital of Cambodia, and the nation’s political, financial and cultural centre. As the country’s largest and most important city, Phnom Penh is home to around 2 million people, but somehow remains less hectic than its Thai and Vietnamese counterparts.

Phnom Penh is an exciting place that brilliantly combines traditional and modern Khmer culture. The Royal Palace, the National Museum of Cambodia, and Wat Phnom display beautiful traditional Cambodian architecture, while the Central Market is an example of the contemporary way of life.

A visit to the Cambodian capital will teach you a lot about the heart-breaking Khmer Rouge period; the Tuol Sleng Museum and Cheung Ek Killing Fields are informative museums that guide you around where some of the heinous crimes were committed and tell the story of this tragic part of Cambodian history.

 

Siem Reap

Angkor War CambodiaSiem Reap is a must-see for any visitor to Cambodia. Situated in the north west of the country, Siem Reap is known as a gateway to the famous Angkor era temple complex; Angkor Wat. This gothic style collection of millennium-old temples is today a major tourist attraction and has helped this previously rural area prosper.

Aside from the famous temple complex, Siem Reap is home to interesting architecture, traditional markets, cultural performances and beautiful parks. With the Tonle Sap river located in the south of the province, it offers a variety of things to see and do.

 

Battambang

The north western city of Battambang is Cambodia’s second most populous and most charming city. Despite not offering much in the way of tourist attractions, it remains a popular destination among foreign visitors, who enjoy the city’s river-side setting, laid-back way of life and unique French-Khmer architecture.

Thanks to its proximity to the Sangkae River, Battambang has been an important trading city throughout history. Around the city, you can find a number of interesting places to visit, such as Phnom Banan, a temple constructed during the 11th Century, and the Phnom Sampeou, a pretty hilltop pagoda that played a brutal role in the Khmer Rouge period. 

 

Culture

Religion has played an important role in Cambodian culture throughout history, and it continues to do so today. With over 95% of the population Buddhists, Theravada Buddhism is the official state religion.  

 

Architecture

Rural houses in CambodiaModern-day Cambodian architecture is formed of ancient Hindu temples that have been transformed into Buddhist ones as Buddhism became more prevalent. Buildings like the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh feature traditional Khmer style architecture with hints of European design.

The typical modern-day rural Cambodian family lives in a rectangular house constructed of wood that’s placed on wooden stilts. Walls are made from woven bamboo, and a thick thatch roof protects the interior from rain. Toilet facilities are usually a hole in the ground located away from the house, and any livestock is kept below the house. Traditionally, a family will build their own house with the help of neighbours. Upon completion, the family holds a house raising ceremony.

 

Gender Roles and Marriage

Though the Cambodian Constitution states men and women have equal rights, this is generally not the case. Women in Cambodia are largely unaware of their rights and are consequently discriminated against when it comes to work and education. Around 45% of Cambodian women can’t read or write and only 16% are enrolled in school.

The hierarchical Cambodian society places men in a higher position than women; a traditional analogy compares women to pieces of cotton which can be dirtied, and men to diamonds which can be wiped clean. This analogy accurately explains how sex and marriage are viewed in Cambodia; women who have sex outside of marriage are considered dirty and cannot find a husband or a job, while married men are permitted to have affairs and mistresses, and this would be forgiven, or wiped clean as the analogy suggests.

Women are seen as role models for children, whilst men are the heads of the family. Young boys are taught strength and power are important, and they are expected to be fierce and strong.

 

Etiquette

Monks in CambodiaCambodian culture is largely influenced by Buddhism, and a strict dress code applies around religious sites. When visiting temples or religious sites, you should be careful to cover your upper arms and legs. Though this rule is only enforced upon admission to religious sites, keep in mind that Cambodian society is very conservative, so it’s advisable not to show too much skin.

When entering a temple or a Cambodian home, you should always remove your shoes. As in other Asian cultures, pointing your feet directly at someone is considered rude. 

Women should be careful never to touch monks, as physical contact between monks and women is illegal. Should you need to pass something to a monk, it’s important you place it down and remove your hand, so the monk can pick it up. If beckoning someone over, be sure to do so with the palm of your hand facing down, as doing so with your palm up is considered suggestive or even offensive.

 

Other Cultural Facts

  • Despite having its own currency, the Cambodian Riel, the US Dollar is more widely used in Cambodia. They don’t use US coins though, so you’ll receive change in Riel. Unlike in other countries, the exchange rate you get is fair, so you don’t need to worry about being ripped off. Cambodians will not accept damaged or crumpled USD notes, so make sure to look after them.
  • Tomb Raider in CambodiaYou might have noticed throughout the post that Cambodia has had a string of different names over the years. In fact, its name has changed with every government in power, and has been called the Khmer Republic, Democratic Kampuchea, and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Today, it is known as the Kingdom of Cambodia.
  • Cambodian people have two different ages; their Khmer age and their international age. Traditionally, Cambodians are born at the age of one rather than zero as in other parts of the world, and they age another year on Khmer New Year, which falls in April. Birthdays are not usually celebrated in Cambodia, and many older people may not even know when their birthday falls!
  • Cambodian society places large importance on respect for elders. Elders are held in high regard and children are expected to support their parents as they grow older.
  • Part of the Tomb Raider film was shot at Ta Prohm temple, part of the Angkor Wat complex in 2000. This helped to make Angkor Wat a popular tourist destination and boost the region’s tourist industry.

 

Khmer Cuisine

Cambodia has a lot to offer in the way of food, though it’s often an afterthought thanks to the popularity of South East Asian culinary favourites; Thai and Vietnamese. Though similarities exist between Khmer and Thai cuisine, the former is differentiated by its rich flavour and less generous use of spice, coconut milk and sugar. Khmer dishes tend to be very healthy, fresh and tasty!

Fish Amok Cambodian FoodThe importance of the Mekong and Tonle Sap in Cambodian culture, mean that food culture is largely dominated by fish. The nations best-known dish, the Fish Amok, is a delicious curry made from lemongrass, turmeric root, garlic, shallots, galangal and fingerroot, and is a must-try for any visitor. Fried Crab (Kdam chaa) is a speciality of South Cambodia and is famous for its unique flavour, created by Kampot peppercorns.

Stir fries are also popular in Cambodia. One of the best examples of this kind is Lok Lak; a beef stir fry served with onions, cucumbers and tomatoes, rice and a dipping sauce made from lime juice, salt and pepper.

Years of poverty and war mean the Cambodian people are used to eating what they can to survive. Consequently, insects are commonly consumed, and now feature in some of the nations most popular dishes. All kinds of creepy crawlies feature on Khmer menus, from tarantulas to red ants. If you’re feeling brave, why not try red tree ants stir fried with beef and holy basil?

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