Introduction to Cambodia

Can you believe that Cambodians don’t celebrate their birthdays? Some people even don’t know the date! They like having things done their way… and they even have another version of Oreo Cookies –named “Stereo”. And looking at their behavior on the streets – one might assume they are extremely bold (which is an understatement really), as you will see many people seated on one motorbike or in a single car. What’s more, the streets are always overcrowded. And even during more serious ceremonies such as weddings, people just love to have fun. The party may as well be held in big tent outdoors or in a wedding house.

Did you know that around 50% of Cambodians are less than 15 years old? The country has lost 25 000 square kilometers of forests between 1990 and 2005, and is currently one of the most deforested countries in the world.

Would you like to get more information about Cambodia? Read on!

Country local name: Preahreacheanachakr Kampuchea (phonetic transliteration)
Country local short name: Kampuchea Kampuchea
Government type: parliamentary constitutional monarchy
Capital: Phnom Penh
Time difference: UTC+7 (12 hours ahead of Washington, DC, during Standard Time)
Independence: 9 November 1953 (from France)
National holiday: Independence Day, 9 November (1953)
Population: 15,708,756
Ethnic groups: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%
Languages: Khmer (official) 96.3%, other 3.7% (2008 est.)
Religions: Buddhist (official) 96.9%, Muslim 1.9%, Christian 0.4%, other 0.8% (2008 est.)
Terrain: mostly low, flat plains; mountains in southwest and north
Elevation extremes: lowest point: Gulf of Thailand 0 m
highest point: Phnum Aoral 1,810 m
Natural resources: oil and gas, timber, gemstones, iron ore, manganese, phosphates, hydropower potential, arable land
Agriculture – products: rice, rubber, corn, vegetables, cashews, cassava (manioc, tapioca), silk
Industries: tourism, garments, construction, rice milling, fishing, wood and wood products, rubber, cement, gem mining, textiles
Exports: clothing, timber, rubber, rice, fish, tobacco, footwear
Shopping hours:  Most shops are open from 8 am – 8 pm for the all week.
Major infectious diseases: degree of risk: very high
food or waterborne diseases: bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A, and typhoid fever
vectorborne diseases: dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, and malaria
Climate: tropical; rainy, monsoon season (May to November); dry season (December to April); little seasonal temperature variation
Natural hazards: monsoonal rains (June to November); flooding; occasional droughts


It’s worth to visit Cambodia throughout the whole year, although most visitors love to go there between November and March. This means that getting cheaper prices during those months might be a notch more difficult, so you might consider visiting Cambodia between May and early October. However, you should keep in mind that the most pleasant, cool & mild weather to explore the country is from November to February, which explains the earlier peak of tourism. 

Cambodia has two distinct seasons: the dry season (October to late April) and the wet season (May to September). During the dry season, temperatures range from a 68°F (20°C) to 95°F (35°C). April and May are even hotter – with the temperature above 100°F (38°C). Minimum temperatures during the wet season range from 75°F (24°C) and stay around 90°F (32°C) for the rest of the time. It is during this time that the southwest monsoon comes bringing almost 75% of Cambodia’s annual rainfall. 

When the peak of the wet season (July to September) comes - it rains almost every day, which can affect your desire for outdoor activities, such as hiking or boat cruises. Still, even during the wet season, mornings are generally dry, and you can admire the transformation nature is undergoing into a waterlogged territory of tropical green.

Cambodian cuisine is very similar to Thai food and Vietnamese cuisine, with the difference that it offers more fish. Khmer food (the same as Cambodian food) reflects the minds, thoughts, and the way of living of Cambodian’s. Food provides people with energy for the day – it is important for Cambodians to be physically present and mentally focused.

Khmer cuisine is famous for its rice, (also the sticky kind), lemongrass, palm sugar, kaffir lime leaves, chili, coconut milk, galangal, shallots and prahok, which is a pungent seasoning added to stir fries, made from fermented fish. 

Let’s have a closer look at the specialties Cambodian cuisine has to offer.

Amok is one of the most popular dishes in Cambodia. It is a fish mousse served with fresh coconut milk and curry paste (a mild taste thanks to the addition of coconut milk). All these ingredients are wrapped up in banana leaves and baked (or sometimes cooked) in the shell of a young coconut. Lok Lak is a traditional Khmer dish made from beef or pork slices, stir-fried in their final phase of preparation. This dish is prepared with the addition of salt, black pepper, soy sauce, lime, garlic, oyster sauce, tomato, onion and lettuce, and served with fried potatoes and an egg. Balut is a snack considered to be a real treat in Cambodia, which probably not every tourist will enjoy, as basically it is a boiled duck embryo. Babor is rice porridge with chicken broth. It is often served with small dried fries or an omelet. Nom banh chok is a typical breakfast, which you can order at any time of the day. It consists of rice noodles served with green fish gravy, green beans, lemongrass, mint, chili, banana blossom and cucumber. It is a famous street dish, and it’s really cheap. Kdam chaa is fried crab, which you really should try. Bai Sach Chrouk - grilled pork or chicken broth with broken or fractured rice - is also a popular dish available to eat on the streets of Cambodia. Kuy teav is a rice noodle soup with some seasonings and vegetables. Pong Aime is a sweet, served with ice, sugar water and condensed milk.

Cambodians drink a lot of green tea and bottled water. You should really avoid tap water. We also recommend that you try fresh coconut juice – a very popular drink in Cambodia. Iced coffee or iced tea are also very popular refreshments.

As for beer - Anchor and Angkor are the most well-known domestic brands.

Also - don’t forget to try the Golden Muscle Wine! It is made from herbs and deer antlers.

·    Before Cambodia became Cambodia, it was known under other names: the Khmer Republic during its republican years, Democratic Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge regime, and the People’s Republic of Kampuchea under the leftist group called Salvation Front.

Jumreap sooa. – Hello.
Ttii nih mian niak jeh piasah ohngkleh teh? – Does anyone speak English?
K’nyom men yooul teh. – I don’t understand.
Tau neak sok sapbaiy jea the? – How are you?
K’nyom sok sapbaiy. – I’m fine.
K’nyom tch muoh… - My name is...
Baat. – Yes.
Dteh. – No.
Orgoon. – Thank you.
Sohm dtoh. – Excuse me.
Soam ni-yay yeut-yeut. – Please speak slowly.
Nih ch’muah ey? – What is this?
Bpon maan? – How much?

·    The head is considered to be the most important part of the body. That’s why you should not touch it, even in the kindest manner and with the best of intentions. 
·    When you’re greeting someone for the first time, do the som-peahs. It is a common greeting gesture: you put your hands together at the level of your chest with your fingers pointing upwards – like for praying - and then you bow your head slightly. You don’t need to do this every time, a simple Thai “wai” or “hello” is totally acceptable. And remember to smile. :-)
·    Cambodians are a very friendly, gracious and gentle people. That’s why any raised voices, over-reacting, cursing or fights are simply unacceptable, and are considered to be undignified.  
·    Dress modestly. Pay attention to covering your body when visiting temples, don’t wear clothes which are too colorful, and don’t overdo it with perfume. 
·    Respect monks - and don’t try do touch them. If you want to talk to one of them while the monk is sitting, do the same & sit down. You may address him as “Venerable” followed by his first or whole name. Women should be aware that the custom in Cambodia is that they shouldn’t walk near monks and keep a respectable distance when meeting one in public transport.
·    Don’t take it too personally when a native Cambodian laughs or giggles if you ask them something they don’t understand or know the answer to (for example – if the taxi driver is not sure about the way). That’s their natural reaction to uncertainty, and it’s their means of dealing with stress.  
·    Public displays of affection are considered to be offensive. Even married couples should not touch each other in public.
·    If you are invited to someone’s house, bring a small gift such as fruit, flowers or sweets.  
·    Always remove your shoes when entering someone’s house. Feet are considered to be impure, because they are the lowest part of our bodies. It is also disrespectful to point your feet at someone or something with religious significance.
·    The perception of time is different in cities (e.g. when you are scheduled to meet someone for a business meeting) and in rural areas, where people treat time in a more flexible manner (health services, weather or transportation are higher on their list of important issues to care about).

Phnom Penh is the largest city and as Cambodia’s capital it can boast the most classical architecture. The city has its own charm, in a large part created by its beautiful riverside promenade and colonial buildings, many of which still remain damaged as an aftermath of the revolution. Some people call it “the pearl of Asia”, and there are many reasons for that. You can still feel the spirit of the 15th century hovering above the city. Moreover, you should also see the Royal Palace, the National Museum (where you can admire a stunning collection of ancient Khmer art), the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum, Silver Pagoda’s colorful stupas, bustling markets, bars, restaurants and finally – Phsar Reatrey, where you can get handcrafted items. 

Siem Reap is home to Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world. It is the fastest growing city in Cambodia, and year by year it is becoming a major tourist hub. Here you can indulge in a laid-back atmosphere and relax in the surrounding of corncob towers and temples (such as Bayon and Ta Prohm), and some of the lesser-known temples in the complex, such as the Buddhist temple. You can take a break in the beautiful gardens, or explore Banteay Srei and the jungle-smothered ruins of Beng Mealea. You also should visit Angkor Thom –the place where Tomb Raider was filmed. Everybody will find something for themselves, as the city offers world-class wines, great food, shopping, fantastic spas, cultural events and local tours. Have fun!

Sihanoukville (also known as Kompong Saom) is at the same time the country’s busiest town and the most popular beach resort on the Gulf of Thailand. The sandy and rocky beaches of this area attract many tourists. Mangrove forests of the lush Ream National Park, which is located 16 miles north of Sihanoukville are also definitely worth seeing. By the way, the park is home to approximately 200 bird species, has coral reefs, tumbling waterfalls and is perfect for trekking or boat trips. 
If you are a fan of water sports, you will find a wide range of opportunities to go windsurfing, kayaking, kitesurfing or snorkeling, especially in Sihanoukville.

Koh Rong is the second largest island of Cambodia, and over the recent years has become probably one of the most beautiful islands in the Gulf of Thailand. It’s a true paradise, especially for young travelers. Parties, pristine beaches, cheap cocktails and drinks, sweet laziness, extraordinary sunsets with a view of the sea and plenty of opportunities for diving, snorkeling, and even hiking – all of these attractions are waiting for you! You can get there only by a small local ferry. Besides, there are many kinds of wildlife and birds, which you can easily observe and admire.

Kampot. One of the attractions you should put at the top of your list is taking the Crab Shuttle and admiring the picturesque scenery on your way! This glamorous riverside town is famous for its salt and pepper production, and is located not too far from the Gulf of Thailand. There is a lot that tourists can explore – for example the Phnom Bokor National Park and its amazing array of wildlife - did you know that it is the home of one of the biggest herds of elephants? You will also have many possibilities to try water sports (kite surfing, paddle boarding or even swimming in the Popokvil Waterfall), as well as many opportunities to eat delicious Cambodian food. 
The Crab Shuttle will take you to the Kep.

Kep is also a seaside resort area in Cambodia, where you can try a variety of beach activities and enjoy its relaxing, laid-back atmosphere. What it unique about this place is that there is no city center, which perhaps some of you might find hard to imagine. But actually this is the city’s main charm, because each hotel leads you to a crowded beach, providing you with many opportunities to walk or hike. You can travel down the roads to the Kep National Park, feast yourselves at restaurants with splendid seafood, see Rabbit Island, Wat Kiri Sela or to the Kep Butterfly Farm. Just go there & discover those beautiful places!

If you want to see the Irrawaddy dolphins, Kratie is the right place to visit. This small town is located on the banks of the Mekong River, and wherever you go, you will be surrounded by French colonial buildings. If you reach this place before sunset, you will have the chance to admire one of the most picturesque views in Mekong, Cambodia.

Battambang is famous for its history and many ancient temples. There might not be any golden beaches in this area, but Battambang has a nice balance of various attractions it has to offer. The city is well known for its really friendly atmosphere created by its many food stalls offering inexpensive meals, arty cafes and restaurants with Khmer, French and Western cuisine. If you are adventurous enough, you can take a ride on the bamboo train, or explore the countryside by bike.

Banlung (also known as “Red Earth”) is located in northern Cambodia, and is also a popular tourist attraction. The Virachey National Park is the largest national park in Cambodia and offers fantastic nature, different species of monkeys and other animals, exotic plants and beautiful forests. You can take a day or night tour, or a multi-day trip. You can also go trekking by yourself and explore the luscious forests. There is also a volcanic crater filled with freshwater in Yak Lom Lake, and amazing waterfalls in the Ratanakiri province.

Read our stories from our trips to NEPAL and PERU combined with volunteering experience, which we made in 2016 and 2017 >>

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