ancient statues from angkor wat

Travel Guide: Cambodia, the Khmer Kingdom of Kampuchea

Whenever I end up zeroing in on a potential place of interest, what intrigues me the most are the weird/interesting/quirky, usually unheard of facts about that particular place. Facts which make it stand out from the rest. So here I am yet again, throwing some of those interesting tidbits at y’all. Let’s see if you figure out what country I am talking about !! This country is probably the only one in the world whose name has been changed so often and frequently that people end up getting confused with the current one. Every new government introduces a new name. It reminds me of Juliet, who immortalized social rebellion by falling in love with Romeo and asked defiantly “What’s in a name ? That which we call rose by any other name would still smell as sweet !” Well, in this country, apparently, everything is in a name. Moving forward, it’s a country where no one would give a second thought to your birthdate. Birthdays are not just a thing here but surprisingly enough, funerals are the most important event in a person’s life. You can understand the gravity of this importance by looking at their average expenditure pattern on the same. Where the average monthly salary is less than $100 USD, people end up spending over $9000 USD for funerals which can last up to 49 days. Someone does respect the concept of afterlife after all. Talking about the matters of heart, have you ever indulged in a game of love me/love me not by plucking petals off the ox eye daisy ? There’s something better in this country. The chirps of the Gecko are an indicator of whether one will marry a bachelor or a widower. Interesting, isn’t it ? Listening to the distinct sounds of gecko chirping is surely going on my bucket list. This country is home to one of the largest religious monuments in the world, which undoubtedly is a world wonder as well, and it’s the only country in the world whose flag features a building. I am sure the last one gives away the place that I am talking about, which is none other than the Kingdom Of Cambodia.

Cambodia or Kampuchea, as called by the locals, is a Buddhist elective monarchy located in the southeastern part of Southeast Asia and is bordered by Vietnam to the east and south, Laos in the northeast and Thailand in the west. You might be surprised to know that it is one of the most LGTBQ friendly countries in the region with the monarchs openly coming out in support of same sex marriages. Often a major tourist attraction due to Angkor Wat Temple, the biggest religious monument that we spoke of earlier, there is much more to Cambodia than just this impeccable world wonder that it is home to. With an impressive history from sprawling times immemorial, nothing excites more than a prospect of stumbling upon a lost ancient city that may be invisible to the naked eye but will surely not deceive the highly sophisticated LIDAR. In 2016, LIDAR technology revealed vast city networks beneath the ground around Angkor, exposing more of the ancient Khmer empire. Urban networks, including canals and dams have been detected stretching out across several provinces around Angkor Wat. As unlike many others, Cambodia has caught the attention of keen archeologists all over the world who have been discovering newer things with every excavation and expedition. 

History – What led it here?

History of Combodia
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For 2,000 years, Cambodia’s civilization absorbed influences from India and China and, in turn, transferred them to other Southeast Asian civilizations. From the Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Funan and Chenla through the golden age of the Angkor period, it had ascendency over territories that are now part of Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Here’s a brief discussion below on the history of the erstwhile Great Khmer Empire.

  • Prehistory – Archeological evidence corresponding to Pleistocene epoch is sparsely available barring few Quartz and  Quartzite pebbles found in terraces along Mekong river. However their dating is unreliable. The most ancient archaeological discovery site in Cambodia is considered to be the cave of L’aang Spean, in Battambang Province, which belongs to the Hoabinhian period, a term used to describe stone artifact assemblages in Southeast Asia that contain flaked, cobble artifacts, dated to c. 10,000–2000 BCE. Another prehistoric evidence that was discovered in the 1950s is the “circular earthworks”  discovered in the red soils near Memot. Evidence of Iron use can be traced to 500 BC in Khorat Plateau(now part of Thailand),  Baksei Chamkrong and other Angkorian temples. Glass beads are important evidence among iron artifacts found in Cambodia. 
  • Angkorian era – During 300-500 BC, the Indianised states of Funan and Chenla consolidated to form present day Cambodia and Vietnam. Not much is documented of this history but it does find mention in Chinese chronicles which also talk about Chenla ruler Jayavarman I, whose death around 681 AD was followed by political instability and turmoil. The port in territory of Funan also finds a mention in Ptolemy’s account as “Kattigara”. The great Khmer Empire/Angkor Empire  grew out of these remnants of Chenla, becoming firmly established in 802 when Jayavarman II (reigned c790-c835) declared independence from Java and proclaimed himself a Devaraja. He and his followers instituted the cult of the God-king and began a series of conquests that formed an empire which flourished in the area from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Around the 13th century, monks from Sri Lanka introduced Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia. The religion spread and eventually displaced Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the popular religion of Angkor; however it was not the official state religion until 1295 when Indravarman III took power. The Khmer Empire reached its zenith as Southeast Asia’s largest empire during the 12th century with Angkor being its centre of Power where a series of capitals were constructed. In 2007 an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world with an urban sprawl of 2,980 square kilometers.
  • Post – Angkor Period – After the decline of Khmer force in the 15th century owing to prolonged attacks and battles by neighboring kingdoms, Angkor was finally sacked by the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom, a powerful kingdom of Thailand, who later abandoned it in 1432 because of ecological failure and infrastructure breakdown. The Khmer seat of power was moved to the city of Lavek/Longvek, a maritime city, with the intention of regaining lost fortunes through trade. Portuguese have described the city as a place of wealth and flourishing trade. However, in a series of conquests that followed, Longvek was conquered and destroyed too at the hands of Ayutthaya. A new Khmer capital was established at Oudong but its power was only nominal. 
  • In the nineteenth century, a renewed struggle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia resulted in a period when Vietnamese officials attempted to force the Khmers to adopt Vietnamese customs. This led to rebellion and resulted in the Siamese-Vietnamese war of 1841. In 1863, King Norodom, who had been installed by Siam, sought the protection of Cambodia from Siam by French rule. 
  • French Colonisation – Cambodia became a protectorate of France from 1867 to 1953. French heavily interfered in the king making process, with the intention of puppet king on the throne. Their calculations, however went terribly wrong when they installed King Norodom Sihanouk on the throne, thinking he would be heavily influenced by the French. He however, ended up gaining Cambodia’s independence from French in 1953.
  • Post Cambodian Independence, there was a phase of political transition, turmoil and instability. That explains 60 years of changing country’s name incessantly, over the past 60 years, starting and ending with “The Kingdom of Cambodia”. Here’s a list of those name if you might be interested: 
    • The Kingdom of Cambodia: 1953-1970 (ruled by a monarchy)
    • The Khmer Republic: 1970-1975 (ruled by President Lon Nol’s government)
    • Democratic Kampuchea: 1975-1979 (under Pol Pot’s terrible Khmer Rouge regime)
    • The People’s Republic of Kampuchea: 1979-1989 (under the rule of the Vietnamese sponsored government)
    • The State of Cambodia: 1989-1993 (under the United Nations Transitional Assembly)
    • The Kingdom of Cambodia: 1993-present (under the restored constitutional monarchy)

The above timeline of nomenclature is a testimony to the political turmoil that Cambodia experience until 1993 when stability was finally restored. It includes the horrors of US-Vietnam war which percolated within the Khmer territory to the infamous Cambodian genocide of 1975 which wiped out one fifth of the population there.  However since 1993, continuous reconstruction efforts have been at work to rebuild a strong peaceful nation.

Religion and Ethnicity

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The Khmer (Cambodians) account for the vast majority of the population, giving a strong sense of national identity to the region. Statistically speaking, they account for 97% of the total population and the religion that this majority subscribes to is Theravada Buddhism. Ethnic minorities comprising the remaining 3% of the population include Chinese, Vietnamese, Muslim Cham-Malays, Laotians, and various indigenous peoples of the rural highlands. According to the Pew Research Center in 2010, 96.9% of Cambodia’s population was Buddhist, 2.0% Muslim, 0.4% Christian, and 0.7% folk religion and non religious. Surprisingly enough, this primarily Hindu country, which is home to the biggest Hindu temple in the world (Angkor Wat), has almost no trace of Hinduism left today. 

Places to Visit in Cambodia

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There are two seasons in Cambodia – Wet and Dry. While the rainy season is May-October and the dry season is November-April. Deciding on your travel schedule demands a much calculated trade off between clumsiness of rains and overwhelming crowds. The dry season witnesses a sea of tourists. So plan your travel accordingly.

  1. Siem Reap – There’s 99% chance that you are lured into this Khmer Kingdom of Kampuchea because of Angkor Wat, world’s largest religious monument. It’s for the same reason Siam Reap, home to this world wonder, receives around 2 million tourists each year. It is the most famous but it’s just one of over a thousand in Angkor Archaeological Park. The park covers an area of over 400 sq km and contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire. Built between the 9th and 15th centuries, they’re collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. However, the temple complex isn’t the only thing you ought to see here. There are several other places of interest you can checkout or you can go for guided tours of the city.
    1. Angkor Archaeological Park – The vast ancient city that sprawls across Angkor Archaeological Park was once world’s largest, though only temple ruins remain today. The main temple complex within the site is Angkor Wat itself, with its stunning bas-reliefs carved with scenes from traditional Hindu epics. In particular, make sure to check out the Churning of the Ocean Milk bas-relief on the east gallery. The Bayon Temple is one of the most photogenic temples in the park. Built by the king Jayavarman VII, its highlight are the intricate bas-reliefs running around the temple walls that depict life here in the city and various battle scenes. The next must see temples on your list should be Banteay Srei( a 10th century temple made of red sandstone ) and Bakong Temple – the first mountain temple of Cambodia, which was also the official state temple of King Indravarman I in the final decades of the 9th C AD. The main deity inside is Lord Shiva.
      • Angkor National Museum -This museum does an excellent job at explaining the history of the Angkorian period, with audio-visual presentations, information boards, and a well-placed collection of Khmer treasures from the site’s temples, along with pieces from other Cambodian archaeological sites. You can check out more here.
      • Landmine Museum – The horrifying legacy of late 20th Century wars has also bequeathed Cambodia with scars and of course landmines. There are thought to be around five million landmines still sitting buried in the countryside left by Khmer Rouge forces, Vietnamese forces, and the Cambodian government. Cambodians are still paying the price today with 15 people on average injured by landmines each month. Checkout more about this museum here.
      • Cambodian Circus Show – Phare Ponleu Selpak, is a dazzling spectacle combining acrobatics, music, dance, circus, and a variety of other performing arts. You can grab your tickets here.
  2. Phnom Penh – This capital city of Cambodia is the heartbeat of the nation. It’s a cosmopolitan destination with cafes and pubs you wouldn’t find anywhere else in the country. It’s home to some very important and historic sites like the National Museum, the Royal Palace which provides gorgeous examples of traditional artistry, Tuol Sleng Museumand the killing fields of Choeung Ek which speak of the horror and brutality the people of this country suffered under Khmer Rouge rule.
  3. Sihanoukville Beaches – In Kompong Som Province, Sihanoukville is home to both a bustling city centre as well as a vibrant beach resort. The beaches here are Cambodia’s top destination for sand and sun.
  4. Ratanakiri – This region leading to ethnic minority villages is an intrepid traveler‘s delight. For adventure seekers, this province is one of the best places in Cambodia for trekking, from spotting gibbons at Veun Sai-Siem Pang Conservation Area, where overnight trips involve sleeping in hammocks and early rises to track buff-cheeked gibbons, to hiking in Virachey National Park, home to elephants, tigers, and sun bears. The green waters of Yeak Lom Crater Lake just outside of Ban Lung town are a tranquil swimming spot, while the waterfalls of Chaa Ong and Ka Tieng are a must visit too. 
  5. Battambang – Apart from historical ruins, this province is also popular for its Bat Caves. hey are also known as Killing Caves. Every evening, especially after sunset, you can witness thousands of bats fly out these caves into the woods nearby. You can checkout a detailed list of all major tourist attractions in Battambang here.
  6. Koh Rong – This is another very popular island in Cambodia is replete with white sands, pristine waters, palm groves, resorts, hotels and small villages. Located 25km from the Sihanoukville Coast in the Gulf of Thailand, it’s a perfect place for relaxing far away from the hustle and bustle of city traffic and the internet.
  7. Prasat Preah Vihear – The temples of Angkor Wat have fame, but Prasat Preah Vihear surely have an edge because of its spectacular location. Sitting atop the Dangrek Mountains, on an escarpment with dizzying views across the Cambodian floodplains, Prasat Preah Vihear is a monumental temple complex of intricately carved pavilions linked by long causeways, built originally to honor the god Shiva. Situated 200 kms from Siem Reap, this UNESCO World Heritage site makes for an ideal one day trip from Angkor.
  8. Tonlé Sap – It is Cambodia’s most important waterway and Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. This lake itself is home to 170 floating villages that depend on fishing for their livelihood, with homes built directly on the water. It’s a worldwide phenomenon as Tonle Sap is the only river in the world which flows in two directions. Twice a year, Tonle Sap changes its flow direction, depending on the season. In the dry season the waters of Tonle Sap drain into the Mekong River. In June they are flowing in the opposite direction and come back to the lake.

Places to Eat

Fish Amok
Image by Sharon Ang from Pixabay

You will be surprised to know that Cambodia is one of the few countries in the world which doesn’t have a McDonalds. In fact, it’s probably the only place where KFC is bleeding for money. However, there are several local treats one can expect from this Southeast Asian country. “The food is, by and large, less spicy than the food in neighboring countries. The use of Kampot pepper in some dishes creates a taste that is unique in all the world, coveted by chefs the world over. Sugarcane juice, muscle wine, fried crab, fish amok, and all the streetside fruit you could desire await the hungry traveler. There is a variety available too, catering to vegetarians and people of differing diets. However, the most popular dishes do contain either meat or fish.” This food guide here is one of the best when it comes to food in Cambodia.

Travel Tips

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Cambodians are sweet and friendly people and are very thoughtful of manners. For example, pointing your fingers or feet towards someone is considered rude and indecent. So be mindful of certain gestures that you may avoid coming across as rude. Also, it’s advisable to wear covered clothes on temple premises. Riel is the official currency, but due to devaluation, the USD has also been declared a national currency.  So you can pass on dollar bills to roadside vendors and it’s totally acceptable. Be good at your basic mathematics though. Rest, have fun guys !! Bon Voyage.

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