Everybody is going to Cambodia, it is a saying among the expats in the country today. The image of a tourist destination replaced that of a country associated with past conflicts and poverty. It is now a land of opportunities for people from around the world. Although the Khmer is one of the most difficult Asian languages for Westerners, the reality is that Cambodians are willing to learn English and other foreign languages to communicate with the rest of the planet.
You can live in the modern descendant land of one of the most important civilizations of East Asia. A people that dominated the region between the 1st and 15th centuries as Funan, Chenla, the Khmer Empire (Angkor) and, finally, the Kingdom of Cambodia with its modern history of constructions and destruction and yet hope and inspiration. You can take the challenge to learn how to speak Khmer, one of the oldest world living languages made of Sanskrit and the longest alphabet of the world (33 consonants + 28 vowels!)
Where is it?
Cambodia belongs to the Southeast Asian region and it is located in the southern part of the Indochina Peninsula with coast over the Gulf of Thailand. Thailand borders its west and north, Laos its north and Vietnam its east, stretching over 181,040 km2. It has the size of Uruguay in South America.
The country’s landscape consists of large alluvial plains, two main mountain ranges (Dangrek Mountains at the north and Cardamom Mountains at the south along the coast), and the famous Mekong River basin at the east, the Sap Lake (in Khmer Tonle Sap) which is its natural storage basin near the Angkor temples and the stunning Cambodian beaches and islands at the south.
The capital is Phnom Penh, a city with about 1.55 million inhabitants and it is the main industrial, commercial and political center of the country, with its international airport linking to the main Asian capitals, the beginning of the Mekong Delta and a thriving development between modernity, tradition and history.
The Siem Reap Province is the land of Angkor City, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire that subjugated most of the Indochina territories from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Although the temples in Siem Reap became the main tourist destination, the true is that Siem Reap is not the only region with ancient temples and temples are not the only attraction in Cambodia. Other provinces have their own archaeological evidences of ancient civilizations such as Battambang, Kampong Thom and Takeo. But it is also a country for eco-tourism inside its splendid national parks that include mountains, islands, beaches and tropical jungles in every corner.
The 70 percent of its population lives in rural areas, keeping ancient traditions and farming without much technology – a good place for those who enjoy natural farming and organic products. Out of the traditional and beautiful rice plantations everywhere, you can visit other plantations of the most exotic species like durian, pepper, Asian fruits, and crocodile and frogs farms.
The official and most spoken language in Cambodia is Khmer (Kamae), one of the oldest living language of the world and a combination of ancient Southeast Asian languages with Sanskrit, belonging to the Mon-Khmer linguistic family. In the past, Khmer language influenced neighboring languages like Thai and Lao, but it has gotten its own influence from other languages such as Vietnamese, Chinese and French. It is also considered one of the most difficult Asian languages to learn due to its extensive vocabulary and world’s longest alphabet. A very dedicated Westerner can master Khmer language in a period of one to three years.
But with the need for the reconstruction of the country after the war (The Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1991), Cambodians are willing to learn foreign languages, being English one of the most popular.
Khmer (Kamae) refers also to the ethnical belonging, but not all Cambodians are Khmer. The Cambodian ethnic minorities include peoples with their own languages and traditions, most of them living in Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri provinces. They are called Khmer Leu that translate “Cambodian Montagnards or Highlanders.” The main groups are Tampuan, Jarai, Kreung, Brou, Kachok, Kavet, Cham (Malay) and Pnong. There are also groups of Cambodian Vietnamese (Kamae-Viet), Chinese (Kamae-Chen), Lao (Kamae-Lao) and Thai (Kamae-Thai).
Cambodia use two currencies: the US dollar and the riel (in Khmer រៀល, sign: ៛, code: KHR). There is not used of coins, neither for USD nor for KHR. There are bills of 50, 100, 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 riels. One USD equals 4,000 KHR. It is recommended to make small transactions in KHR, because payments in USD will increase the cost of everything. In the Cambodian towns bordering Thailand, the Thai baht is accepted. As in many other Southeast Asian countries, people do not accept USD notes with any kind of wear and tear. Make sure that your USD bills are in good condition and do not accept USD bills with wear and tear.
Buddhism in the form of Theravada is the religion of about 95% of the population and it is also the State Religion according to the 43rd Article of the Cambodian Constitution that declares that a) Cambodian citizens of either gender shall have the right to freedom of belief; b) Freedom of religious belief and worship shall be guaranteed by the State on the condition that such freedom does not affect other religious beliefs or violate public order and security and c) Buddhism shall be the State religion.
Cambodian Theravada Buddhism is shared also by other countries of Southeast Asia like Thailand, Laos and Myanmar and it is syncretic with the ancient Shivaism and Brahmanism practiced by civilizations such as Funan, Chenla, Angkor and Ayutthaya. For this reason, it is common to see Buddhist Cambodians paying religious respect to images of Shiva and other Hindu deities.
Mahayana Buddhism & Confucianism
The presence of Sino Cambodians and Viet-Cambodians mean also the practice of the other main Buddhist school: Mahayana, especially in urban areas like Phnom Penh, Battambang and Kampot. But Sino Cambodians follow also Confucianism.
The Cambodian Cham ethnic remains from the ancient Malay Kingdom of Champa that extended across the coasts of what is today central and southern Vietnam from 192 to 1832 AD. The Cham practiced Hinduism and Islam and were in conflict with the Khmer Empire until the occupation of Vijaya, the Cham capital, during the 12th century. The annexation of the Kingdom of Champa by the Vietnamese in 1832 brought many Cham migrations to the rest of Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the Kampong Cham province is a reminiscence of this people that lost their country.
The Cambodian Cham people are Muslims and the main Cambodian ethnic minority in the country with 2% of the national population following this religion. They practice Sunni Islam and it is divided in two schools in the country: traditionalists and orthodox branches.
The first Christian Catholic missioners came to Cambodia in 1555. Although Cambodians have been always open to welcome Christianity, it remains a minority for the last 4 centuries. Cambodia was also the land of refugee for Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Indonesian Catholics fleeing their countries during Christian persecutions between the 17th and 19th century. But the main source of Christianity came from France during the colonial times. Vietnamese were more open to become Christians during the French Colony and many Vietnamese Catholics settled in Cambodia. After the conflicts between 1970’s and 1980’s, American evangelists promoted their religion in the country gaining some conversions, but Christianity in all its forms remain a minority not reaching 0.4%.
Cambodian ethnic minorities practice their own natural religions or animism. Many of those practices can be traced in ancient traditions that were common to all Southeast Asians before the Indianization period (first centuries AC) and the spread of Shivaism and Brahmanism. The pre-Indian believes are related with Neak Ta – the Holy Dragon.
Each Cambodian ethnic minority has its own religious system, frequently overlooked and misunderstood. It has to see with objects, places and creatures possessing spiritual qualities and spiritual leaders with shamanic powers. Most Cambodians, even if they are Buddhist, Muslims or Christians, believe in different forms of animism. They put a small wooden house at the entrance to pay respect to the dead and believe in the spirits of the earth, water, air and fire.
Modern Cambodia passed for one of the most radical forms of communism of the world: the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 and 1979 when all forms of religions were abolished. Between 1979 and 1991 Vietnam occupied Cambodia and there was a long and bloody civil war. It is also common to find Cambodians that do not practice any religion in particular or are indifferent to it. Although it is difficult to count people without religion, it is estimated that 0.2% of the Cambodian population does not profess a religion.