What To Know About Ancient and Modern Cambodia (or Khmer)
During the Angkor period, Cambodia was a powerful and prosperous empire that flourished and dominated almost all of inland Southeast Asia. The Angkor sculptors created temples that mapped the Cambodian landscape in stone. Khmer decorations drew inspiration from religion. Mythical creatures from Hinduism and Buddhism were carved on walls. Temples were built in accordance to the rule of ancient Khmer architecture, with the basic temple layout including a central shrine, a courtyard, an enclosing wall, and a moat. Many temples from this period, like Bayon and Angkor Wat still remain today, scattered throughout Cambodia and neighboring countries, as a reminder of the grandeur of Khmer arts and culture.
Phnom Penh: Set on the sweltering plains of southeastern Cambodia, Phnom Penh is a place of broad boulevards and warren-like markets, combining the endless energy and increasing sophistication of an economically ascendant nation with all the customary color and chaos of Southeast Asia. The capital is a chaotic yet charming city that boasts one of the most beautiful riverfronts in the region.
Siem Reap and Angkor: Cambodia's ultimate drawcard is the sprawling temple complex of Angkor, a vast array of centuries-old structures, rising over the forested northern plains. But, there's also plenty to do in nearby Siem Reap, a sophisticated town with lively nightlife and great restaurants.
Northern Cambodia: Stretching from the Thai border in the west to the Vietnamese frontier in the east, Northern Cambodia is the country's biggest region. This is where old-world traditions are the be found: in sleepy towns packed with Colonial-era shophouses and among little-visited temples set in deep countryside. Battambang is the most visited town in the area, with its photogenic streetscapes and fascinating surrounds, while the easternmost regions, around Sen Monorom and Ban Lung, are perfect for adventures into the wilderness.
Southern Cambodia: Land gives way uneasily to the sea along Cambodia's southern coast. This is a region of deep inlets and mangroves. It's also home to powdery beaches and paradise islands. Sihanoukville is the original beach destination, complemented by new seashore hideaways among the islands further south. The supremely atmospheric towns of Kep and Kampot also lie on this coast. Inland, meanwhile, an arc of forested hills walls the inland plains, and provide superb opportunities for jungle journeys.
Fun Fact: The Angkorian state was originally known as Kamboja-desa, "Land of the Kambojas", a name of uncertain Indian origin. In colloquial Khmer this became Kampuchea, which the French rulers turned into Cambodge during the 19th century. This in turn was anglicized as Cambodia, the modern name for the country.
The basis of the Cambodian economy continues to be the wet rice agriculture. The iconic image of the Cambodian countryside is one of rice paddies among which are scattered sugar palms. Until recently, much of the area outside the flood plains was forested. Cambodian artisans are known for silk and cotton weaving, silver work, silver and gold jewelry, and basketry.
The culture of Cambodia is rich and varied, dates back many centuries, and has been heavily influenced by India. Throughout Cambodia's long history, a major source of inspiration was from religion. Cambodia is predominantly Buddhist with about 1% Christian and the remaining population following Islam, atheism, or animism.
The Buddhist temple complex, or vott, is central to community life, as is the calendar of Buddhist holidays, which is linked to the seasons and the agricultural cycle. Monks must reside in a single temple for the length of the rainy season, and ceremonies mark the beginning and end of the retreat.
Fun Fact: Cambodia is home to the largest religious building in the entire world! Isn’t that something? Not the Vatican – which is its own country, not Westminster Abbey, and not any other impressive religious construction.
There is a general assumption in Cambodia that degrees of wealth can and should be publicly known. In the absence of banks, wealth is traditionally worn on the person as jewelry, which remains an important marker of status. There is also a distinction between the poor family houses of bamboo and thatch, the more economically secure family traditional wood houses on stilts, and the richer family houses of stone or cement. In Phnom Penh, the wealthiest families live in villas as opposed to apartments or wood houses.
In rural Cambodia, the families live in rectangular houses that vary in size. They are typically constructed of a wooden frame with gabled thatch roof and walls of woven bamboo. The house contains three rooms separated by partitions of woven bamboo. The front room serves as a living room used to receive visitors, the next room is the parents' bedroom, and the third is for unmarried daughters. Sons sleep anywhere they can find space. Family members and neighbors work together to build the house, and a house-raising ceremony is held upon its completion.
Food is prepared in a separate kitchen located near the house but usually behind it. Toilet facilities consist of simple pits in the ground, located away from the house, that are covered up when filled. Any livestock is kept below the house.
A Cambodian child, up to the age of three or four, is given considerable physical affection and freedom. Children around five years of age are expected to help look after younger siblings. Children's games emphasize socialization or skill rather than winning and losing. Most children begin school when they are seven. By this time, they are familiar with society norms of politeness, obedience, and respect toward their elders and toward Buddhist monks. By age 10, a girl is expected to help her mother in basic household tasks; a boy knows how to care for the family's livestock and works on the farm under the supervision of older males.
Fun Fact: Birthdays in Cambodia are almost a non-event. The relevance of birthdays is very diminished. It is such a non-event that some people do not know what a birthday is, but only remember and recognize their birthday season. On the opposite scale, funerals are of great importance in the Cambodian culture. Families often group together their entire life’s savings and sell all their major possessions to cover the cost of a funeral, which typically lasts more than six weeks.
In Cambodia, the choice of a spouse is a complex one, and it may involve parents and friends of both parties, as well as a matchmaker. The girl may veto the spouse her parents or matchmaker have chosen. Courtship patterns differ between rural and urban Cambodia; romantic love is a notion that exists to a much greater extent in larger cities. A man usually marries between the ages of 19 and 25, a girl between the ages of 16 and 22. After a spouse has been selected, each family investigates the other to make sure its child is marrying into a good family.
Fun Fact: The average age of the population of Cambodia is quite young. Around 50% of Cambodia’s people are younger than 15 years-old! Sixty percent of its people are younger than 30. The country is full of fresh faces, lively spirits and few wrinkles.
Cambodian culture is very hierarchical. The greater a person's age, the greater the level of respect that must be granted to them. Cambodians are addressed with a hierarchical title corresponding to their seniority before the name. When a married couple becomes too old to support themselves, they may invite the youngest child's family to move in and to take over running the household. At this stage in their lives, they enjoy a position of high status.
Individuals in Cambodia are surrounded by a small inner circle of family and friends who are his or her closest associates, those that would be approached first for help. The nuclear family, consisting of a husband and a wife and their unmarried children, is the most important kin group. Beyond this close circle are more distant relatives and casual friends. In rural Cambodia, the strongest ties—besides those to the nuclear family and to close friends—are those to other members of the local community. There is a strong feeling of pride—for the village, for the district, and for the province—within Cambodian community life.
Fun Fact: Customary Cambodian teachings: if a person does not wake up before sunrise he is lazy; you have to tell your parents or elders where you are going and what time you are coming back home; close doors gently, otherwise you have a bad temper; sit with your legs straight down and not crossed (crossing your legs shows that you are an impolite person); and always let other people talk more than you.
Clothing in Cambodia is one of the most important aspects of the culture. Cambodian fashion is divided by the people's differing castes and social classes. They traditionally wear a checkered scarf called a "Krama". The "krama" is what distinctly separates the Cambodians from their neighbors. The scarf is used for many purposes including for style, protection from the sun, an aid (for feet) when climbing trees, a hammock for infants, a towel, or as a sarong. A "krama" can also be easily shaped into a small child's doll for play.
PLACES TO VISIT:
Royal Palace: Bearing a striking resemblance to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand the Royal Palace, with its gilded, pitched roofs framed by nagas (serpents), is one of the most prominent landmarks of Phnom Penh. Built in the mid-19th century in the classic Khmer style, the Royal Palace is the official residence of Cambodia's reigning monarch. The Royal Residence is permanently closed to the public, and the Throne Hall is closed during royal receptions.
Fun Fact: The palace was built with French assistance on the site of a former temple on the western bank of the Tonlé Sap River, and is designed to face the rising sun.
Temples of Angkor: Composed of Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious building; Bayon, one of the world's weirdest; or Ta Prohm, where nature runs amok. Siem Reap is the base for exploring the world's grandest collection of temples and is abuzz with a superb selection of restaurants and bars.
Angkor Wat is not the only noteworthy temple. Don't forget the pre-Angkorian capital of Sambor Prei Kuk, the region's first temple city, or the jungle temples of Preag Vihear Province.
Prasat Preah Vihear: The most mountainous Khmer temple, perched imperiously on the cliff-face of the Dangkrek Mountains, forming a controversial post between Cambodia and Thailand. The foundation stones of the temple stretch to the edge of the cliff as it falls precipitously away to the plains below, and the views across northern Cambodia are incredible.
Banteay Chhmar: An explorer's delight, this area offers mini temples lost in the jungle and crumbling ruins revealing hidden faces.
Mondulkirir & Ratanakiri Provinces: Eventually the endless rice fields and sugar palms of the Cambodian lowlands give way to the rolling hills of the wild northeast.
Cambodia's Southern Islands: A secret no more, the islands off Sihanoukville are reminiscent of Thailand in the 1980s, when Ko Samui and Ko Pha Nga were new frontiers.
Kratie: Gateway to the rare fresh-water Irrawaddy dolphins of the Mekong River, Kratie is emerging as a busy crossroads on the overland route between Phnom Penh and northeastern Cambodia or southern Laos. The town has a certain decaying colonial grandeur and boasts some of the country's best Mekong sunsets.
Battambang: This is the real Cambodia, far from the jet-set destinations of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Along the banks of the Sangker River, Battambang is one of the best-preserved colonial-era towns in the country. Streets lined with graceful old shophouses host art galleries and social enterprises ranging from fair-trade cafes to bike excursions. Beyond Battambang lies the Cambodian countryside and a cluster of ancient temples.
(NOT SO) Fun Fact: It is estimated that there are 4-6 million active landmines throughout the rural countryside of Cambodia. As many as 30 people still die every year from one of them.
Everyone has tried Thai and Vietnamese specialties before they hit the region, but Cambodian cuisine remains under the culinary radar. This cuisine is similar to that found in Southeast Asian neighbors and shares many similarities with Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Cambodian cuisine also uses fish sauce widely in soups, stir-fried cuisine, and as dippings. This sauce, known as prahok, a type of fermented fish paste, is used in many dishes as a distinctive flavoring. Coconut milk is the main ingredient of many Cambodian curries and desserts.
Traditionally, a home meal is served on a mat on the floor or with the diners seated together on a raised bamboo platform. Meals are eaten in shifts according to status, with adult males and guests eating first and food preparers last.
Typically, Cambodians eat their meals with at least three or four separate dishes. Each individual dish will usually be one of either sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Almost every meal is eaten with a bowl of rice. The following Cambodian "foodie" information should not be missed!
Amok (baked fish with lemongrass, chili and coconut) is the national dish, but sumptuous seafood and fresh-fish dishes are plentiful, including Kep crab infused with Kampot pepper. It wouldn't be Asia without street snacks and Cambodia delivers everything from noodles (mee) and congee (bobor, rice porridge) to deep-fried tarantulas and roasted crickets. With subtle spices and delicate herbs. Cambodian food is an unexpected epicurean experience.
Fun Fact: Cambodia is one of the very few countries in the world where there isn’t, and has never been, a McDonald’s. However, the country does have a Burger King restaurant. (Makes little sense!) And, Cambodia is the only country in the world KFC is not turning a profit.
Cambodia is a land of great interest to travelers. Exposure to a country like this, to people like this, and to the ways of living in the world like this, is sure to do these things: stretch your limits, find yourself smiling and laughing when you recall things you’ve learned, or even experienced in, this part of the world.