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The most important facts about Cambodia you need to know

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Cambodia was once a huge empire. Its complicated history and painful past has contributed to the current culture in Cambodia today. For instance, the impressive Angkor Wat temples are so symbolic that they even feature on the country’s flag. It is the largest religious monument in the world and attracts loads of tourists every year. Find more cultural facts about Cambodia below.

In the meantime, check out eco-friendly hotels in Siem Reap and all the things to do in Siem Reap.

Cultural facts about Cambodia

But first, a quick introduction:

  • Capital: Phnom Penh
  • Currency: Cambodian riel (KHR), although US $ is the de facto currency
  • Official language: Khmer
  • Main religions: Theravada Buddhism

Cambodian culture and the Khmer Empire

The Khmer Empire was a Hindu-Buddhist empire which existed around 802 CE until the 15th century. King Jayavarman II set up the foundations of the Khmer Empire in Angkor. He proclaimed a universal monarch named Kambuja (Cambodia) after declaring independence from Java (Indonesia), and declared himself king and ruler.

Angkor was the capital city of the Empire, and monuments such as Angkor Wat and Bayon indicate how wealthy and powerful the Empire was.

Angkor was at its peak between the 11th and 13th century, and was the biggest pre-industrial city in the world. When Angkor fell in the 15th century, so did the Empire.

Many aspects contributed to its fall: unstable relationships between rulers and elites, leading to power struggles and frequent civil wars; rising conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism; foreign invasions, etc.

Angkor Wat Temple: the symbol of Cambodia

angkor wat cambodia
Angkor Wat
  • Built under Suryavarman II.
  • Took 37 years to build.
  • Largest religious monument in the world.
  • Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, instead of Shiva (breaking from the tradition of previous rulers).
  • Originally constructed as a Hindu temple, but gradually converting to a Buddhist temple around the 12th century
  • The temple represents Mount Meru, a sacred mountain with 5 peaks. In Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, this mountain is considered the center of all physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes.
  • The reliefs represent scenes from Indian literature, and almost of all the surfaces, columns, roofs, etc. are covered in carvings.
  • Is oriented to the west, unlike other Angkorian temples.
  • The monument is made out of sandstone.
  • Despite neglection, the temple was preserved from jungle encroachment partly due to its moat.

Angkor Wat’s artistic beauty and legacy, as well as other monuments in Angkor, led to France claiming Cambodia as a protectorate in 1863 and invading Siam (Thailand) to take control of the temples.

Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is an inner royal city that was built around the 12th century, and is known for its temples, particularly Bayon. There are 5 city gates through which to enter the city. Bayon is pictured below:

angkor thom
Angkor Thom

Other temples near Angkor Wat

Within the Angkor Archaeological Park, there are other temples that surround Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, such as Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei, Phnom Bakheng, Ta Keo, Ta Som, East Mebon, Pre Rup, and Neak Pean.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is the capital city of the Siem Reap province in the northwestern part of Cambodia. Small villages around the Siem Reap river form the town that is Siem Reap. It became popular after the French acquired Angkor, especially because of its proximity to the temples.

However,  around the late 1960s, the Vietnam war extended into Cambodia, which led to the US bombing Cambodia from 1969 to 1973.

During the coup of 1970, the deposed king gave power to the Khmer Rouge communist regime. The population of major cities and towns (like Siem Reap) were forced to move towards the countryside because of Khmer Rouge.

Political facts about Cambodia: Khmer Rouge

Khmer Rouge is the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kambuja. Formed in 1968, it was removed from power by Vietnam in 1979 after the Cambodian-Vietnam war.

They are responsible for the Cambodian genocide, where an estimated 1.5 to 3 million people died from mass executions, famine, torture, forced labour, and disease.

The Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation in 1979 led to Siem Reap’s tumultuous circumstances, and it was not considered safe for tourists to visit until the 1990s.

Despite the removal of the Khmer Rouge from power, millions of land mines and unexploded objects were left behind. You will encounter many people with amputated arms or legs asking for money in Siem Reap, and this is a testament to how dangerous Siem Reap was.

Apsara dance

Apsara dance cambodia
Apsara Dance

Do not miss this dance show when in Cambodia! The Apsara dance is a Khmer classical dance performance that was previously practised in the royal palaces, as it was created by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia under the patronage of the Queen.

The Apsara is played by a woman, whose movements’ purpose are to narrate classical or religious stories.

Cambodian Cuisine

Khmer meals (aka Cambodian meals) usually consist of more than one dish, with contrasting flavours and textures, using a lot of herbs, leaves, dipping sauces, and pickled vegetables.

Rice is the staple food, and can be prepared in a hundred different ways, and is also consumed in forms of street snacks or dessert. Freshwater fish is a big part of the Cambodian diet.

amok dish, cambodia
Amok

Amok is one of the most well-known Cambodian dishes. It is meant to have a fragrant and zesty taste, rather than spicy. The meat or vegetables is covered with kroeung (a mixture of pounded shallots, lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime), peanuts, coconut milk, and egg, and then wrapped in banana leaf until everything becomes a mousse-like paste.

Beef Lok Lak, dragon fruit, cambodia
Beef Lok Lak, dragon fruit, and fried shrimp

Lok Lak is marinated beef that has been stir-fried, and is served with onions on a bed of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sauce which consists of black pepper, salt, lime juice.

How to be a good tourist and travel sustainably in Cambodia

  1. All over Cambodia, you will see signs that mention appropriate attire and dress codes especially when visiting holy sites. In fact, this is so important that this is the first sign you see as soon as you enter the airport in Siem Reap, and it’s also plastered all around the temples, hotels, and tourist areas. And yet, you will still see many tourists wearing shorts and sleeveless tops at holy places. 
    Now, I know first hand that Cambodia is hot and humid, and after walking around all day in that heat, you just want to be comfortable. However, there are light cotton long pants being sold all over the country, and they’re cheap, comfortable, and pretty stylish. There is absolutely no reason to disregard the country’s rules and etiquette when you have options available for dressing appropriately.
  1. Don’t give money to beggars, especially children. There are organisations that help those in need, it’s better to donate there, where you can also verify where the funds actually go.
  2. Employ local drivers and guides directly rather than using an agency or international marketplace agencies. These tend to charge a huge commission from the locals.
  • Is Cambodia a poor country?

FAQs

Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia. The country suffered atrocities during multiple wars in the 20th century, and are still struggling to rebuild, mostly due to corruption, limited resources and job prospects, and high-income inequality.

  • Where is Cambodia?

Cambodia is a country in South East Asia, located below Laos, with Vietnam on the right and Thailand on the left.

  • Is Cambodia safe?

Cambodia is not the safest country to visit. While violent crimes are rarely directed at tourists, there is still a lot of petty crime and it’s important to stay vigilant.

  • Is Cambodia a communist country?

No, Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy and an elected government. However, the Prime Minister has been in power since 1985 and does not have any opposition.

Before you go, make sure to book an eco-friendly hotel in Siem Reap while planning your trip with all the things to do in Siem Reap.

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