Cambodia is home to the famous Angkor Wat – a ‘bucket-list’ UNESCO site that draws millions of visitors a year.
While the Angkor temple circuit truly is a must-see, there’s more to Cambodia than ancient Khmer capitals. Drawing on our experience creating tours across this beautiful country, we’ve come up with a long list of fun and interesting facts about Cambodia you might want to know if you’re planning a trip.
For instance, did you know Cambodia also offers delicious cuisine (including some unusual snacks)? It’s also got a gargantuan lake you can cruise and pristine tropical islands where you can swim in incredible coral-filled seas.
To get to know Cambodia a little better, check out our 25 fun and interesting facts – some will truly blow your mind!
Fact #1 – Say hello by ‘sampeah’
Cambodian people say hello with a sampeah, with the hands held together in a namaste prayer position and a bow of the head (much like the Thai wai). There are different levels of sampeah, with the most respectful ones featuring the highest hand position and lowest bowing of the head.
Fact #2 – Cambodians keep their feet on the ground
Cambodia is a Buddhist country, where the top of the head is the body’s most holy part and the feet its most unholy.
Therefore, it’s considered rude to point at things with your feet or have your soles facing anything but the ground.
So don’t put your feet up in a tuk tuk, facing the driver’s head, and always be mindful of what your feet are doing in a temple.
Fact #3 – The country has super speciality snacks
The legends (nightmares) are true: fried tarantulas are a delicacy in Cambodia. The ‘capital’ of fried spider snacks is Skuon in Cham Province, but you can find them across the country. They are said to be reminiscent of soft-shell crab.
Fact #4 – Human habitation began WAY before the Khmer kingdom
More than 70 thousand years ago, in fact! Laang Spean Cave in Battambang province is an archaeological site where several layers of habitation have been unearthed, with stone flake tools found dating back to the Holocene era.
Fact #5 – Dinosaurs in Ta Prohm?
The Bayon-style temple of Ta Prohm (the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple) was rumoured to feature a carving of a stegosaurus, with some over-excited observers claiming it proof that humans and dinosaurs once cohabitated. Most likely, it’s just a carving of a buffalo, a rhinoceros or even a mythical creature (in which the temple is covered).
Fact #6 – A temple like no other
Some facts about Angkor Wat: It is the largest religious monument ever constructed. It is located just outside Siem Reap.
It measures 1,626,000 meters squared. It includes a moat, a ‘temple mountain’, temple galleries, an exterior wall, libraries, pavilions and more. Its walls are completely covered in bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu epics.
It was built by Suryavarman II, perhaps as his funerary temple, though he died before it was completed.
Fact #7 – A city of epic proportions
Did you know that Angkor Wat is made from between 5 and 10 million stone blocks, each weighing 1.5 tons?
If you think that’s impressive, consider that the entire city of Angkor used more stone than all the pyramids of Egypt combined and covered more area than present-day Paris.
Fact #8 – And more still to be unearthed
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.
Fact #9 – A truly Great Lake
The Tonle Sap (which translates to ‘Great Lake’) is Southeast Asia’s largest saltwater lake.
It’s attached to the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap River, with the combined lake and river expanding to more than 24 thousand square kilometers in the wet season.
The lake is a Biosphere Reserve and is home to overwater communities and a diverse array of wildlife. It’s a great destination if you like leisurely cruising.
Fact #10 – You can immerse yourself in Cambodian conservation
If you’ve always fancied yourself a marine biologist or just wants to contribute to the conservation of some of the world’s most biodiverse waters, there are several organization that accept volunteers.
Most positions let you help out by collecting data and taking part of various conservation initiatives while enjoying the idyllic waters of the Gulf of Thailand.
Some, like the Song Saa Foundation, are even attached to a luxurious sustainable resort.
Fact #11 – Travel is important to the economy
In fact, it is Cambodia’s second-biggest industry. In 2016, the country had a record 5,011,712 foreign visitors, a 5% increase on 2015.
Fact #12 – You can eat for a good cause
What’s that, you say? Eat and do something good for disadvantaged children?
Enjoy a meal at Friends in Phnom Penh, Jaan Bai in Battambang or Haven in Siem Reap and you are helping improve the future of street kids and young underprivileged adults, bite by bite.
Check the TREE Alliance for its network of nonprofit restaurants around the country.
Fact #13 – Speaking of food…
Not all of Cambodia’s delicacies have eight legs. Num banh chok is a delightful all-day dish of fish and rice noodle soup with various veg and spices thrown in.
Then there’s the famous amok, which is steamed red curry wrapped in a banana leaf.
Thirdly, if you are out Kep way you will most definitely want to try the Kep crab with kampot pepper, which is a legendary local dish that tastes as good as it sounds.
Fact #14 – You can see the temples – and the cities – with the wind in your hair
There’s no need to work up too much of a sweat on the Angkor circuit.
Travel from temple to temple by remork – the Cambodian version of a tuk tuk.
In fact, you can do all your urban transits by remork – a single ride usually costs no more than a couple of US dollars.
Fact #15 – The all-purpose scarf
If there’s one ubiquitous ‘garment’ in Cambodia, it’s the krama.
A gingham-check swathe of fabric in either red or blue, this handy item is so deeply entrenched in Khmer culture as to be a national symbol. Its main use is as a head wrapping, but has myriad different uses – as a skirt, bag, baby sling, pillow covering, pillow, sun shade etc.
Each region has its own distinct patterns, with most krama made on the family loom from cotton or silk.
Fact #16 – Idyllic islands aplenty
Off the coast of Sihanoukville you’ll find the Koh Rong archipelago, with the country’s second-largest island, Koh Rong.
Still relatively undeveloped compared to Thailand’s Koh Chang to the north and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc to the south, Koh Rong and its surrounding islands offer the type of deserted beach getaway that’s hard to come by these days.
Fact #17 – Cambodia also has an ancient pyramid
Way back before work had even begun on Angkor Wat, there was the capital city of Koh Ker – or Lingapura.
Built by Jayavarman IV, the city included a gargantuan water tank and 40 temples, of which one called Prasat Thom is the most significant.
This massive seven-tiered pyramid-shaped temple complex has stairs all the way to the top that reward with panoramic jungle views.
Fact #18 – Lingapura’s statues are still in high demand
The art of sculpture was said to have hit its peak back when Lingapura was capital.
All of its statues have been looted over the last millennia, but at least one has been recovered – Duryodhana, one of a pair of ‘wrestlers’, which was found up for auction by Sotheby’s in 2011.
After a lengthy legal battle with the owner, Duryodhana was returned voluntarily to Cambodia in 2013.
The other wrestler of the pair, Bhima, is on display in a private gallery in the US.
Fact #19 – The commune that was once a Khmer masterpiece
Banteay Chhmar Temple complex, 20 kilometers from the Thai border, was built by king Jayavarman VII between the 12th and 13th century.
While the temple site has suffered severe looting and damage from the elements, bas-reliefs remain, as do its ‘face towers’.
You can see this site and experience local life in the villages of Banteay Chhmar by planning a homestay with a local family.
Fact #20 – Cambodia is home to some rare wild creatures
The biologically diverse jungles of Cambodia are home to 212 species of mammal, including Asian elephants, tigers, tiger cats, sun bears, gibbons and deer, amongst others.
Eighteen species are either endangered or critically endangered, making conservation in Cambodia all the more important.
Conservation projects such as Elephant Valley Project let you meet elephants and support the livelihood of local communities at the same time.
Fact #21 – It also has a lot of greenery
More than 8,000 species of plant, to be specific. Many plants are endemic to the region, with the Tonle Sap floodplain in particular where unique species flourish.
The national flower of Cambodia? The fragrant rumdul bloom.
Fact #22 – Cambodia has a circus with a difference
The Phare Circus of Battambang brings together talented young performers skilled in acrobatics, theater, dance and music to breathe new life into traditional Cambodian folklore.
Their sell-out shows are one of the country’s most incredible contemporary arts and not to be missed.
Fact #23 – A kingdom even more ancient than Angkor
Fancy yourself a cultural adventurer? Enjoy exploring great kingdoms of the past?
The ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk, 176 kilometers from Angkor, give you a glimpse of life in 600-700AD, with more than 100 well-preserved temples dotted throughout quiet countryside, some half-engulfed by forest.
The site, a temple complex built by King Isanavarman I as the capital of the Chenla Kingdom, was recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Few foreign travelers ever come here, making it a true ‘off the beaten path’ discovery.
Fact #24 – There is a many-faced temple in Cambodia
A crumbling Khmer structure in the Angkor complex, the elaborately decorated Bayon is distinct for its face towers.
Its 216 serene stone faces are believed to be either depictions of Jayavarman VII, who was ruling at the time, or a bodhisattva – or even a combination of the two, since Jayavarman VII was considered a ‘god-king’.
A popular thing to do here is pose ‘nose to nose’ with one of the giant stone faces, using camera angles to play with perspective.
Fact #25 – Your visit to Cambodia can make a positive impact
Visit local villages, get to experience rural life, support disadvantaged young people by patronising restaurants such as Sala Bai and explore Angkor with a community guide – all while experiencing a side of Cambodia most travelers never see.
Do you have a fun fact about Cambodia you’d like to share with other travelers?
If we’ve skipped something from our list, we’d love to hear it.
Let us know in the comments, or send us an email at info[alt]backyardtravel.com.