Cambodia enthralls visitors with its fabulously diverse cultural palette, its stunning historical monuments, and the alluring beauty of its tropical ecosystems. Sightseeing in and around the country’s great cities—Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap, and others—reveals the powerful legacy of both the Khmer Empire and French colonialism. Cambodia’s most iconic attraction is Angkor Wat, not far from Siem Reap. This Khmer temple, built in the 12th century, beautifully embodies Hindu and Buddhist spiritual architecture. Other incredible sights include Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace, the clifftop temple of Preah Vihear, and the enormous Mekong River (heartblood of the Southeast Asian mainland). As you work your way from place to place, you’ll be savoring the country’s sophisticated cuisine, which showcases native spices, sauces, grains, and fish in dishes influenced here and there by a French touch. All throughout your journey, you’ll discover in Cambodia a welcoming and hospitable culture.
Cambodia has a strong dance tradition. Cambodian classical dance has over 4,000 gestures that are used to convey the emotions of the dancers. Most of the movement is made using the dancers’ hands and feet. The crowns, masks and costumes worn for a performance tend toward the elaborate. In addition to dance, shadow theatre is another popular traditional form of entertainment involving the use of puppets.
Craftsmen from the Khmer Empire were known for their stone carving skill which they adopted from the Indian culture. Today the Cambodian craft heritage revolves around silver work and weaving. Weavers enjoy creating their work from either cotton or silk. Martial arts and soccer are likely the most popular sports in the country. Bokator is a type of hand-to-hand combat used by the Angkor armies thousands of years ago, which explains the uniform that is worn by the participants even today. Various forms of kickboxing, particularly pradal serey, are widely practiced, as is Khmer traditional wrestling.
Rather than watching traditional sports, those who would like to participate in sports while on their vacation might enjoy a round of golf, as the country is becoming a growing year round golf destination. Mountain biking gives participants an opportunity to get out and enjoy the verdant countryside. If mountain biking isn’t your thing, another good way to explore the countryside is by riding a regular bike, as the roads throughout the country are mostly flat, though not always in the best condition.
Although Cambodia’s cuisine shares some similarities with its neighbors, many of its dishes make generous use of a fermented fish paste called prahok, which gives Cambodian food its distinctive flavor. Another way Cambodian food derives its flavor is from the use of herbs and ground spices, though it tends to be less spicy than some of its near neighbors. Lemongrass in particular is one of the signature flavors of the local cuisine.
It would be difficult to talk about Cambodian gastronomy without mentioning its two staples, fish and rice. The freshwaters of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake provide an abundance of fresh fish and other seafood is available from the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodians are said to eat more rice than any other people in the world; in Cambodia both steamed rice and sticky rice are popular though the latter tends to be used in dessert type dishes.
In Cambodian there are lots of fried rice and noodle dishes, in fact noodle soup is often eaten as a breakfast dish. Also, French breads are widely available, a legacy of the time when the French controlled the country, though the Cambodians have added their own unique twist sometimes covering a baguette with sweet coconut oil to be eaten as a snack. Another unusual food snack that you may run across is women walking around with trays of barbecued and marinated spiders. It may not appeal Western taste buds, but it definitely makes for an interesting travel photo at the very least.
One of the more famous Cambodian dishes is Kampot Pepper crab, which has both a sweet and smoky flavor. Amok, a coconut curry dish with vegetables and meat is popular with travelers. Pork or chicken fried with ginger is available everywhere. Salad lovers will want to try the beef and vegetable salad, which includes beef thinly sliced and covered in lime juice, mint and peanuts served over cabbage, carrots and tomatoes.
Fruit is widely available and delicious; some of the more exotic types include longan, choko, jackfruit and mangosteen. On nearly every corner in towns visitors can find small stands offering fresh fruit shakes. In addition to shakes, soft drinks are readily available, though in addition to well-known brands, other flavors are also available which are much different than what you can get in the U.S. Some of the more unusual flavors you can try include lychee and pineapple sodas.
Located on the Indochinese peninsula, Cambodia is approximately the size of the state of Missouri. The country shares its northern border with Laos and Thailand, and its eastern and southern border with Vietnam. The western part of the country is coastline lying along the Gulf of Thailand.
Much of the topography of the country is flat and consists of rolling plains with a lot of the land given to rice production. The area had been one of the most forested in the region, but that is beginning to change rapidly. The Mekong River extends from the north to the south of the country and is significant because it is navigable for most of the way. The largest lake in the country is Tonle Sap which lies in the northwest; its size swells during the monsoon season because it is connected to the Mekong River and when the Mekong rises, it feeds into the Tonle Sap River and then into the lake which subsequently swells according to how much the river has overflowed its banks.
The main reason many travelers visit Cambodia is to experience the ancient capital of Angkor Wat. This stunning Buddhist landmark is an inspiring spiritual site. The temple complex was built in the early twelfth century and attracts countless visitors every year. A great way to see an overview of the complex is via a balloon ride. The temples range from those that have been preserved to those still in their original state, partially engulfed in the surrounding jungle.
From Angkor Wat, adventurous travelers can rent motorcycles and head to the Cambodian countryside. Although not for everyone, country roads in Cambodia can sometimes lead to rarely visited temples and ruins.
The unhurried feel of the waterside city of Phnom Penh tempts visitors to linger a while before or after a visit to Angkor Wat. The city’s riverside paths and wide boulevards invite guests to explore the town on foot admiring the wonderful colonial buildings. Its Royal Palace gains the admiration of visitors with stupas and Buddha statues and the National Museum contains an extensive collection of Khmer art.
Most visited cities: Phnom Penh, Siem Riep
Not a lot is known about the early history of the area until the rise of the Angkor Empire, also known as the Khmer Empire. It extended over much of Southeast Asia, claiming the region now known as present-day Cambodia in the 6th century. The Empire peaked between the 10th and 13th centuries and then fell into a decline after the 13th century when it endured attacks by its neighbors. By the 15th century Angkor was almost completely abandoned and the once mighty city and temples were covered by the surrounding forest.
In 1863, France colonized Cambodia along with Vietnam and Laos. The region thus became known as French Indochina and France essentially ruled the area for the next 90 years. Cambodia claimed its independence from France in 1953. In 1954 a Geneva conference was held to settle the French-Indochina War.
Cambodia declared a foreign policy of neutrality through the rest of the 1950’s and into the 1960’s until the eastern part of the country began serving as bases for the North Vietnamese. Within the country there was a split in domestic politics and a secret party known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea rose. The monarchy was overthrown in 1970 resulting in the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime which wanted to get rid of modern society and replace it with an agrarian one. There were more than a million deaths during the period between 1975 and 1979. In the late 1970’s the Vietnamese occupied the country driving the Khmer Rouge into the countryside. In 1991, the Paris Peace Accords mandated democratic elections and the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered in 1999.
Cambodia is now a constitutional monarchy with a multi-party democracy. From its spiritual sites to its friendly people, a visit to Cambodia is both exciting and memorable.