When I was in primary school, i remembered history lessons taught us that this country is called Kampuchea. Today, it is known as Cambodia, also officially the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Since then, Cambodia has fascinated me. Her culture, her people, and history was very interesting. As a child, the fact that Cambodia is located at the southern part of the IndoChina peninsula was something that caught my attention. Being born and raised on an island called Singapore, I wondered what it was like living as part of a peninsula?
In October 2018, I was fortunate to visit Phnom Penh, the capital and also the largest city in Cambodia. It is also the political, economic and cultural centre of the nation.
Phnom Penh today is a flourishing city. Besides the popular attractions that draw many tourists, there are more high rise buildings and hotels, modern malls, coffee places where people chill and relax as well as many more exotic and interesting places to see, eat and stay.
While I was there, the city impressed my in many ways. But there was something that did not make my visit a good experience. I did not find the people warm or welcoming to tourists. In fact, many were downright cold and rude.
Where is Cambodia?
The Indochina peninsula is this large piece of land that extends beyond China, downwards south towards the equator (though never really reaching it).
At the southern part of this peninsula is Cambodia. Surrounding this country, and also part of the Indochina peninsula are Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Thailand is at the northwest of Cambodia, Laos is at the northeast, and Vietnam is to the east.
This places Cambodia in a very interesting location. Her history naturally is linked to these other countries. And since then so are trade, social and cultural exchanges.
Races, Culture & Religion
At the point of time this article was written, the population in Cambodia is over 16 million. Most are native Khmer people with minorities such as the Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and about 30 people of the hill tribes.
The culture in Cambodia is uniquely Khmer. Yet, it can be said that there were many contributions to the Cambodian culture by the French, the Theravada Buddhism, the Angkorian culture, and even the Indians through Hinduism.
The majority of the people in Cambodia practices Buddhism. It can be said that about 97% of the people are Buddhists. And the official religion is Theravada Buddhism.
There are other religions practiced too; such as Islam, Christianity, Folk Religion and even the other form of Buddhism that is Mahayana Buddhism.
In the past, Hinduism played a critical role in this country. And influenced the construction of temples and monuments such as the famous Angkor Wat, one of the World Heritage Sites.
The official language is Khmer, or Cambodian. There is a strong influence of Sanskrit and Pali in their language.
Most of the people also speak English. So, if you speak English, traveling around and communicating with the locals is not a problem
Festivals and Public Holidays
There are many public holidays in Cambodia. One important point to note is that most of the holidays follow the Khmer traditional calendar, known as Chhankitek.
This is a lunar calendar that is based on the movement of the moon. As such, you will find that some of the public holidays will fall on different solar calendar dates every year.
Here are some of the public holidays and festivals in Cambodia:
1 January, New Year
As with the rest of the world, Cambodia does celebrate the New Year that falls on the solar calendar’s January 1st.
January 7, Victory Day over Genocide
This is the day that remembers the genocide that happened in this country, and also the end of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979.
Usually January or February, Chinese New Year
This is celebrated by almost all Cambodians. It does not matter if they are Chinese or not. It is believed that by taking part in the Chinese New Year celebrations, you will receive good luck.
Just like other countries that celebrate Chinese New Year, there are lion dances. And most businesses close for this period to allow employees to go home and spend time with their families.
Usually in February, Meak Bochea
A national holiday to commemorate the gathering of monks to listen to Buddha’s preaching.
March 8, International Women’s Day
It is awesome that this country celebrates the International Women’s Day. A day when the entire world dedicates to all the women in the world, and remembers their hard work and bravery.
April 14 to 16, Khmer New Year
This is a very important national holiday that lasts three days. It allows the people to fully celebrate the Khmer New Year.
Usually April or May, Visak Bochea
By now, you would have noticed that some of the festivals or public holidays are not set on certain dates and are described as ‘Usually this month or that month or these months’. Just like this holiday – Visak Bochea.
The reason, as mentioned above, is that holidays like this follow the lunar calendar. As such, they do not fall on the same dates on the solar calendar every year.
Visak Bochea is a national holiday where people who are Buddhists observe and commemorate the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha.
Other countries call this Vesak Day or Wesak Day.
Usually April, QingMing Festival
This is another festival that is celebrated by the Chinese. It is also referred to as Ching Ming. It is a time when people visit the graves of their ancestors. They bring food and drinks for the spirits of the dead. And they will clean the tomb, if there is any. That is why this is also called Tomb Sweeping Day.
May 1, Labor Day
On this day, the entire country recognizes the economical and social achievements of the workers, and celebrates them.
Usually in May, Royal Ploughing Ceremony
This is to mark the start of the planting season.
May 13 to 15, King Norodom Sihamoni’s Birthday
The King of Cambodia is beloved. Hence, a national holiday was established to commemorate and celebrate the day His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni was born. And that day was May 14, 1953 on the solar calendar.
May 20, National Day of Remembrance
One of the saddest period of Cambodian history was the mass killings during the Cambodian Genocide that began on May 20, 1976. This public holiday is a reminder that such a monstrosity must never happen again.
June 1, International Children’s Day
This is another international celebration that Cambodia has embraced and made into a public holiday. The idea is to remember that the children are the future, and we must keep them safe.
June 18, Queen Mother’s Birthday
The Queen Mother is as much loved as the King. And this national holiday celebrates the birthday of Queen Mother Norodom Monineath that is on June 18, 1936.
September 24, Constitution Day
On this historic day, the great King Sihanouk signed the Cambodian constitution. The entire country celebrates this every year on September 24th.
Usually September or October, 3 days Celebration, Pchum Ben
This is also called ‘Ancestor’s Day’ or ‘Festival of the Dead’. The national holiday period lasts three days. But the Cambodians are known to practice Pchum Ben for 15 days.
During the time, they pay respects to the spirits of their deceased relatives by offering prayers and food. Meals are also cooked for monks.
For many Cambodians, this is a time to remember those who died during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Usually September, Silkworm Festival
Cambodia has a long history of silk textiles. The hand woven textiles by experienced weavers is much respected. On a full moon day in September, this festival pays tribute to this beautiful tradition.
Usually September or October, Mid Autumn Festival
Mid Autumn Festival is celebrated in many Asian countries, especially when there is a Chinese community. In Cambodia, many Khmers celebrate this festival because they believe that it will bring them good luck and prosperity.
The celebrations begin in the early morning when the people prostrate to the moon, and offer fresh flowers, cassava soup, flat rice, and sugar cane juice. In the night, more goodies are prepared and laid on a table. Upon the view of the full moon, everyone rejoices and prays for blessings.
October 15, Commemoration Day of King’s Father
This holiday is dedicated to the Royal Soul of His Majesty Preah Bat Samdech Preah Norodom Sihanouk, Preahmahaviraksat, King Father of the Cambodian National Independence.
October 23, Paris Peace Agreement Day
This is the day when the Paris Peace Accords are commemorated.
October 29, Coronation Day of King Sihamoni
A day to commemorate the Coronation of King Sihamoni.
November 9, Independence Day
A glorious celebration on this day for Cambodia’s independence from France in 1953.
Usually October or November, 3 days of Celebration, Water Festival
This is one of the most exciting and colorful festivals in Cambodia. Originally, it was established to remember when the ancient Cambodian navy soldiers battled for Cambodia under King Jayavarman VII during the Khmer Empire.
Today, a thrilling boat race along Mekong River provides much entertainment and celebration on this wonderful three days.
Usually November or December, Kite Flying Festival
One month after the Water Festival, the nation celebrates the Kite Flying Festival. It is a time for the Khmers to pray for good weather and good harvest. Also, for peace, freedom and happiness for everyone. At the same time, the festival has become an opportunity for kite makers to demonstrate their talents.
December 10, Human Rights Day
An awesome day to celebrate the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Dress Code & National Dress
No matter how Cambodia has advanced in recent years, as a visitor you must know that this is still a country steeped in traditions, rich culture and long history. As a visitor, please respect the culture and dress appropriately.
When visiting sacred places like temples and Angkor Wat, do not wear revealing clothing like sleeveless tops, tank tops or shorts not covering the knees. Doing so, you are showing disrespect for the temple’s sanctity.
When entering a sacred place, take off your shoes, sandals or any hat or cap or any head covering. Below is an educational video by His Excellency Sok Sangvar about the code of conduct when visiting a holy place in Cambodia.
The krama is more of a traditional dress accessory. It is a red and white or blue and white checkered scarf. It is at least 1 meter in length. And it is worn by men and women.
There is also the sampot, a wrap made of cotton or silk. It is a large piece of cloth that is about 2 meters long. It is used to wrap the lower part of the body like a sarong.
Cambodian women used to wrap themselves with the sampot. It is a long wrap that goes all the way to the ankles. For men, it is shorter, and they match it with a jacket.
Together with the sampot, the women wear the Av Pak. This is a blouse usually made from cotton and embroidered with silk and gold thread. It has a high, embroidered collar too. This is often worn as formal wear or for special occasions.
There is no actual national sport in Cambodia. There are more like pastimes such as soccer, kicking a sey (something like a footbag), and chess.
What is really popular is the Boat Race that was mentioned earlier in the Festivals and Holidays section. It is called Bon Om Tuuk, and is a major annual event.
It is held at the end of the rainy season. Many people attend this event that is held at the Mekong River. Boat racers compete down the river and back to the start point to much fanfare and excitement.
During this time, there are also games to play, fireworks to watch, and much festivities as people enjoy good food in an atmosphere that is like a carnival.
Currency in Cambodia
The official currency in Cambodia is the Riel (KHR).
While this is acceptable in most transactions, as a tourist it is best that you get US Dollars (USD) as it is more widely accepted at hotels, cafes, restaurants and even the attractions.
Weather in Cambodia
The Cool Season – December to February
The weather during this period is the best. It is actually cool and pleasant.
The Hot Season – March to June
Temperatures start to rise towards the end of February. By April, it gets really hot. Temperatures can rise to 40 degrees Celsius. Add humidity to the mix, and you get really difficult to tolerate weather.
There are short and strong showers occasionally during this hot season. This can bring brief respite.
The Rainy Season – June to November
The monsoon season starts to roll in around September. In the beginning, the showers are short. Usually less than an hour. They are also predictable as they often happen during the afternoons.
From October, the monsoon can get full swing, and it starts to rain more and heavily. It is also the time when temperatures start to drop, and everyone finds relief from the heat of the previous hot season.
Things to See in Cambodia
From what I hear, even from the locals, there are three main places that tourists must visit in Cambodia. They are Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville.
Phnom Penh is the capital city, and as such the popular attractions are those that relate to nation as a whole. For a start, there is the Royal Palace, Independence Monument, King Statue and many pagodas as well as the well liked riverside and boat cruise.
At Siem Reap, of course there is the world famous and iconic Angkor Wat. Aside from this, there are the other temples to visit, the many interesting museums, the night markets, nature and wildlife tours as well as visits to the local lifestyles.
Sihanoukville is the place to go when you like to enjoy time at the seaside. It is known for beautiful beaches where you can relax and enjoy the sun, sea and white sands. There are also many small tropical islands you can explore Of course, like the rest of Cambodia, Sihanouville has its fair share of temples and night markets.
What to eat in Cambodia?
Just like all other Southeast Asian countries, the staple food in Cambodia is rice. Fish is also another important part of the people’s diet. They get the fish from the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.
As a tourist, you can patronize the local restaurants where you can enjoy the local Khmer food as well as Thai and Vietnamese food. Most local restaurants also serve western food. Some even serve French food. For more about local food, please read my Phnom Penh Restaurants Review.
Cambodians drink lots of tea. In recent years, the younger generation have started to enjoy coffee more. And as such, coffee chains such as Starbucks have entered the market. There are a few local coffee chains, too. The most popular is Brown Coffee.
Local coffee are made with beans imported from Laos and Vietnam. There are domestically produced coffee, and this is gaining popularity. The beans come from the Ratanakiri Province and Mondulkiri Province.
Rice wine is also a popular local alcoholic drink. This is often infused with fruits or medicinal herbs. For example Sombal liquer, which is sraa tram (soaked wine). This is popular because of its smoothness.
Shopping in Cambodia
There are many wet markets, day markets and night markets to shop at in Cambodia. These are markets where you can find cheap local food, household items, arts, handicrafts, fake branded goods, clothes, and accessories.
In recent years, the malls have started to appear. One of the popular malls in Phnom Penh is the Aeon Mall. There are many brand stores, theme stores, large supermarket, cafes and restaurants. If a wet market is not your style, visit the supermarket at the malls.
How to Get to Cambodia?
Just like any other country, when you visit Cambodia, make sure you have a valid passport. One of the things to note is that your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the date of entry to Cambodia.
Before planning to visit Cambodia, check if there are airlines in your country that fly direct to this place. If there are not, then you will have to fly to a country in Southeast Asia and make a connecting flight to your destination.
You can fly direct to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap from Singapore, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, Kuala Lumpur as well as many other Southeast Asian cities.
There are trains to Cambodia from Bangkok and other cities in the region. Also, the Trans-Siberian railway from Europe takes you to Cambodia. But
There are private bus companies that provide transport to Cambodia. These are from Bangkok and Saigon. If you are coming from these cities, and decide to take the bus, check with the right bus companies.
The most popular way to Cambodia via road is from Bangkok. You can rent a taxi or a car and drive in to the country. Oddly enough, when you travel by taxi or car, you can arrive in Cambodia faster than by bus.
By Boat / Ferry
There is only one ferry that goes to Cambodia. And that is from Vietnam. It is run by a ferry company called Mandarin Cruises. Go to them to check for further information such as sailing schedules.
It is very difficult to travel by foot into Cambodia. Consider the above options instead, especially flying.
Most visitors to Cambodia require a visa. It can be obtained upon arrival at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap International Airports.
Visitors from some countries are required to get the visa in advance. It is best to visit the official Cambodian immigration website for more accurate details
People from ASEAN countries do not need to get a visa, as long as the stay is not more than 21 or 30 days (depending on the country). ASEAN countries include Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei Darussalam, and Myanmar. Again, it is best to check official resources to confirm this.
How to Get Around in Cambodia?
After you arrive in Cambodia, you will find there are a few ways to get around a city.
There are city buses that is one of the most used public transportation by locals. As a visitor, you can try this mode of transport too. But it will take a lot of effort to understand the bus routes and schedules.
The upside is that the bus fares are very low. At the point of time this article is written, the fare can be as low as USD0.25.
While cheap and almost convenient, do not that the buses do not have air conditioning. And during peak hours, they can get very packed.
Taxis are plenty, and easily available. It is rather safe to take a taxi. One advantage is that the drivers speak English and usually are very knowledgeable about the city they drive in.
Today, in cities like Phnom Penh, Grab is very popular, and the choice for locals and tourists. This is a service where you can get a cab or a Grab driver (for example an owner of a private car) to drive you to your destination. It is exactly like Uber.
All you have to do is download the app, and fill in your details. Then use the app to ‘hail’ a vehicle to get you to your destination.
These are like the rickshaws or trishaws in other cities in Southeast Asia. The passenger sits on a large chair (sometimes can fit two people), that is fitted to a three-wheeled vehicle. The driver peddles to get the vehicle moving.
The advantage of this is that you get a clear view of all surroundings because the top cover can be pulled back. Also, this is relatively cheap.
The downside is that you will get wet when it rains.
Motos are basically motorcycles that act as taxis. It is quite common in countries like Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
It is very cheap and convenient. As a motorcycle, they can easily maneuver around other vehicles and not get stuck in any traffic jams.
Downside is you will get wet when it rains.
By Tuk Tuk
Like Thailand, there are Tuk Tuks in Cambodia that drives people around the city. It is basically a passenger carriage on a three-wheeled motor vehicle.
It is much cheaper than traveling by a taxi.
Most visitors travel around by Tuk Tuks or Grab. At times, when an attraction is nearby, you can consider traveling by foot.
But please be careful when crossing roads. The traffic lights can be confusing. And sometimes cars do not follow the lights.
If you have ANY questions about Cambodia, ANY at all, please submit your questions as comments below. I will be happy to help you out.
Thank you for reading this.
Wishing you and your loved ones safe and happy travels,