By Archana Singh
Cambodia wasn’t love at first sight. It was chaotic, hot, and humid. However, it turned out to be a treasure trove where disappointment turned into amazement. So, hop on and go beyond Angkor Wat, to explore the unique facts about Cambodia.
Doing Away With Barriers
To begin with, visa and airport transfers are a cakewalk in Cambodia. One passport size photograph, thirty dollars and five minutes are all that is required to get a visa in Cambodia. Say goodbye, and good riddance to unnecessary paperwork, long queues and nerve-wracking questions.
As soon as one steps out of the airport, there are prepaid taxis, tuk-tuks, and mopeds waiting to zip you away. A tuk-tuk to the city center costs $11, while a taxi costs $12. I hired a taxi and unfortunately got stuck with it. One thing to keep in mind is to not reveal your travel plans to your driver. Instead, seek your hotel or hostel’s help
Perfect Getaway for the Vacillating Travellers
Unlike its neighbours, Cambodia is still unexplored and uncrowded. Therefore, it’s fairly easy to find accommodation in and around popular areas at attractive prices. Arriving without prior booking will not leave you stranded.
Most of the properties are owned by foreigners and serviced by locals. The staff is extremely amicable and at your service at all times.
To top it all, the best part is that you don’t need to book your entire stay in advance. You can keep your plans flexible and decide your accommodation according to the mood of your wanderlust. I managed to get accommodations in offbeat places like Sen Monorom, Batambang and Kampot without any prior booking. However, I would strongly advise you to carry your toilet paper and water around!
Currency? Barely a Worry!
Cambodia is a country where the dollar is the de-facto local currency. You can relish your dinner or hire a tuk-tuk or go sightseeing or do souvenir shopping; everything can be paid in dollars. Locals are happier to accept dollar than Riel since it gives them better value than their local currency. One dollar is equal to 4000 Riels, so it’s a win-win situation for travelers as well as the locals. The interesting fact is that even locals have to pay in dollars for big-ticket items like a bike or a car. However, whether it be in Cambodia or Paris, keeping small bills of exchange is always the way to go.
What’s in a Name?
While Hinduism and Buddhism influences can be seen everywhere in Cambodia, there is one more thing that has India has written all over it – the Cambodian Names. Just like in ancient India the caste system reflected our occupation, in Cambodia, the number of syllables in a person’s name reflect the level of his or her parents’ education and family’s social status.
My guide told me if you have a name like Borun, which has two syllables (o & u), it means you are from a farmer family. If you have three syllables, one of your parents comes from a blue collar job.
The King has seven syllables and the Prime Minister has the highest number of syllables – 14 (Samdech Akeak Moha Sena Padey Techo Hun Sen; meaning “Lord Prime Minister, Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen). And if you are a Chinese-Khmer businessmen with a business empire and connections with Hun Sen or Royal Family, you can buy the title of “Okhna”, or Lord.
In order to avoid any mishappenings, while addressing a person, do note that the Cambodian name is always spoken and written in the order of the last name then the first name.
The Bucolic Side of Cambodia
Cambodia has a lot more to offer than its headline sights – Angkor Wat. What won me over was the friendliness of the people along with the yummy vegetarian Khmer cuisine. The sublime beauty of the countryside and its pristine tropical rain-forests were also delightful. Places like Koh Kher, Sen Monorom, Koh Kong, Battambang, Ban Lung, which you wouldn’t find in guidebooks, are actually the places where the heart of Cambodia lies.
Being an offbeat traveller I keep my plans fluid and trust the advice of locals and fellow travelers. One such gem of an advice was given by the Austrian friends I met in Battambang. They introduced me to Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri, which lies in North East of Cambodia, near the Vietnam border. It is a must visit place for nature and animal lovers. The Elephant Valley Project is an NGO working towards rehabilitating the captive elephants in Jungle, conserving their natural habitat and supporting the local people who work with these magnificent creatures. I’d suggest you take a side trip to the magnificent Bousra waterfall in Mondulkiri.
For the Time-Starved Travellers
Most hotels have a tie-up with travel agencies and drivers, who can take you out on day tours. They are economical and saves you lot of planning headache. Cambodia has a strong culture and history. When in Cambodia, you should not miss an Apsara dance and Circus. Both are unique to Cambodia and through the medium of art, they show both the glorious as well as the horrific past of Cambodia. However, be quick to book your tours at least a day in advance to avoid last minute cancellations.
Politics And Beer Galore
Julius Caesar said, “You can control people if you give them two things – something to eat and something to enjoy.”
Guess that’s the philosophy of Hun Sen. From North to South, East to West, from the big cities to countryside, there are only two things ubiquitous in Cambodia – the giant billboards of People’s Party of Cambodia (PPC) and beer. Beer is cheaper than water in Cambodia. Even in a tourist hub like a Pub Street, you can buy a beer for 50 cents. To have the best experience, you must try Angor Beer or Draft Beer, accompanied by local dishes like Khmer Curry or Amok.
The Key Role Of Foreigners
Cambodia is a unique place where both the destruction as well as the construction is credited to foreigners. While countries like Vietnam, US, China and Russia have played a hand in the Cambodian Genocide and Civil war, it is also the foreigners who are relentlessly working for the welfare of the Cambodians.
Tourism is the second largest industry after agriculture. The conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm (the famous Tomb Raider Temple) are handled by the Archaeological Survey of India. Education and health is mostly run by foreign aids and NGOs. China owns 10% land in Cambodia and most of the factories are owned by Chinese businessmen. The most revered person in Cambodia is Dr. Beat Richner, a Swiss pediatrician who founded the children’s hospitals in Cambodia, where kids up to the age of 14 are treated free of cost.
In fact, hiring a local guide is can help the locals immensely. Not only does it serve as a supplementary income but they also get to learn a foreign language.
Land Of The Hammocks
Nobody loves a hammock as much as the Cambodians do. They love to lounge and nap in a hammock almost anywhere and everywhere. I saw hammocks slung between trees, on the side of a road, behind souvenir stands, in a tuk-tuk, on a boat, in the kitchen of a small restaurant, under a small Khmer hut among other places.
And Cambodians love to enjoy socializing and dining in hammocks too. No wonder many of Cambodia’s scenic natural resorts feature dozens of open-air, thatched roof ‘gazebos’ with hammocks full of locals dining, drinking, and dozing the day away. Away from the humdrum and noisy cities, you see an array of hammock bars in the countryside. Taking one home should definitely be at the top of your shopping list!
Changing Governments, Changing Names
With new power comes a new name. Cambodia has been changing its name whenever a new government came into power over the past 63 years.
- 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 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 constitutional monarchy)
The history and culture of Cambodia are fascinating. It would be prudent of any potential traveller to pre-read and research. These were just a few unique things I discovered about Cambodia. I am sure you’ll discover more as you travel through this beautiful and enchanting country.
Archana Singh is currently associated with Starcom MediaVest Group, Philippines, as Connections Director on Coca-Cola. She has previously served as the Business Director of the McCann Worldgroup. She is passionate about solo travel.
Featured Image Credits: Travelseewrite