Discover Cambodia: 5 Reasons to Visit The Kingdom of Wonder
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In the heart of Southeast Asia lies a small but incredibly abundant country rightfully known as the Kingdom of Wonder. Home to the world’s largest ancient temple complex, a vibrant community of the friendliest people, and kilometers of pristine beaches, it is no surprise why Cambodia has earned this illustrious title.
The country offers some of the most wholesome experiences for visitors, with a reputation amongst eco-travelers wanting more than just a holiday lounging in the sun, and bon vivants aiming to soak up the culture and enjoy the thriving night scene.
Cambodia has so much to offer every humble traveler. Keep reading to find out what makes this country unique and worth adding to the holiday agenda.
1. The Largest Religious Monument in The World
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One of the most significant reasons tourists flock to Cambodia from all over the globe is to visit the ancient Hindu temple complex called Angkor Wat. This magnificent heritage site is the largest religious monument in the world and is visited by over 2 million tourists every year.
Built in the 12 century by the Khmer King Suryavarnam II in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, the temple was once the center of the Angkor Empire, showcasing Khmer architecture’s brilliance. The temple features an array of impressive towers and statues, all beautifully carved with an elegant Hindu design.
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The monument is such a distinguished symbol of pride in Cambodia that it has earned a place on the country’s national flag and is still used as a place of worship by Buddhists.
Angkor Wat slowly transformed from a Hindu place of worship to a Buddhist temple in the late 12th century, when the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII came to rule marking the start of the country's overall shift to Buddhism.
2. Strong Cultural Beliefs and Buddhism
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Today, about 98% of Cambodia’s population follows the Buddhist belief system, with Theravada Buddhism recognized as the country’s official religion. The modest religion’s roots are deep for the Khmer people, going as far back as the 5th century, and surviving 2 historic wars.
Part of the cultural beliefs held amongst the Khmer people, who make up at least 97% of Cambodia’s population includes a widely-taught legend of Cambodia’s origin.
The legend of origin follows the story of an Indian Brahman priest known as Preah Thong who came across an island after following an arrow he saw in his dream. On the island, he fell in love and married a Princess called Soma. As a dowry to the wedding, her father drank the water surrounding the island, revealing it to be a mountain top. The land uncovered below became what is known as Cambodia today, and the happy couple's descendants became the Khmer people.
This popular legend is so significant to the culture that it is reenacted during traditional wedding ceremonies and is included in the elementary school curriculum. The legend is also said to be responsible for the belief that mountain tops are sacred and explains why the oldest Khmer temples were built atop them.
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Cambodia’s religious history is also responsible for the wonderful nature and hospitality of people in the country, with both Buddhism and Hinduism teaching strong morals of kindness and peace.
Amongst the humble, peace-loving practices, meditation is a key element to the culture, with many who partake using locally made mala necklaces, like our Saamnang “Luck” Mala Necklace.
When a country is built on happy people with a strong cultural core, like Cambodia is, vibrant traditional dances and religious festivals are sure to ensue.
3. Vibrant Cultural Dance Shows and Exciting Festivals
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Once an explicitly royal occasion, Cambodian traditional dance shows became popularized to the public in the 20th century, thanks to the support of Khmer Queen Sisowath Kossamak Nearireach.
Queen Sisowath nurtured the artform back to health after the devastating Khmer Rouge genocide between 1975 and 1979, where many of Cambodia’s traditional art forms were almost lost with the lives taken.
Today, two forms of traditional dances are performed, including Classical Dances and Folk Dances, each beautifully unique in purpose and style.
Classical dance originated as a form of calling out to the gods and paying respects to royal courts, with some specific performances, like the Aspara Dance, used to narrate religious stories or classical myths. This form incorporates elaborate headdresses and intricate hand movements, using slow and controlled paces to tell a story.
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Folk dance, on the other hand, is used for both ceremonial and theatrical performances, with ceremonial dances reserved for specific religious rituals and celebrations. Common attire for these performances includes farmer, peasant, certain tribe outfits, and animal interpretations.
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Many traditional dance performances coincide with important religious festivals. A few popular festivals of great importance to Cambodians include the Khmer New Year, which marks the end of Harvest Season, Pchum Ben, the festival of the dead, and Meak Bochea the most important Buddist festival in the country.
With that said, the religious festivals and culture aren’t the only draw to The Kingdom of Wonder for travelers seeking excitement and fun. Across Cambodia are many eco-tourism hotspots and areas with an exciting nightlife scene.
4. Sustainable Tourism and Ongoing Nightlife
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Seeing the thriving tourism industry in Cambodia today, one would never imagine the state of the Cambodian economy less than 50 years ago. Since recovering from the Khmer Rouge in the ‘90s, and after years of peace negotiations and rebuilding, Cambodia saw one of the biggest tourism increases in the history of Asia, alongside India and China.
Between the years 2000 and 2013, Cambodia’s tourism influx skyrocketed from less than 150 thousand to over 4.2 million international tourists. Since then tourism has thrived in the country, from guests seeking sustainable tourism destinations to guests looking to have a good time by enjoying the thriving night scene.
Of course, as with most countries worldwide, the tourism sector came to a halt during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, things are looking up for the country as they are currently boasting some of the best vaccination rates amongst most of their Southeast Asian neighbors with over 50% of the country fully vaccinated as of September this year.
Once Cambodia reopens its doors to tourists, the main attractions and destinations will all be waiting and ready for the influx. On the eco-tourism route in Cambodia, nature enthusiasts and wildlife lovers can enjoy any one of the countries 7 national parks and 3 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
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With over 20% of Cambodia officially protected by the government, the Ministry of Environment continues to expand and improve this protection. New sustainable conservation projects and various eco-tourism initiatives that tourists can partake in include the rainforest initiative Chi Phat and the Elephant Valley Project, perfect for animal-loving visitors.
On the other end of the spectrum, tourists looking to immerse themselves in the vibrant nightlife of the cities to get a further taste of Cambodia’s dynamic culture can find an overwhelming array of exciting activities to indulge in.
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One of the most exhilarating cities you can’t overlook is Phnom Penh, known as the city with the best nightlife in the entire country. From the most thrilling after-dark venues for socializing, dancing, and grabbing a drink, to the awe-inspiring cultural theaters hosting traditional dance and shadow theatre performances, there is never a dull moment.
After all the dancing and theatre indulgence, you can finish off the night with a breath of outdoor air by visiting one of the popular night markets in the city.
The night markets are teeming with stalls selling handmade items, clothing, jewelry, and of course food. Live performers fill the air with traditional Cambodian music while a blend of tourists and locals browse and enjoy the colorfully lit streets.
5. Vibrant Daily Markets and Skilled Local Artisans
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Markets, in general, are a large part of Cambodian culture, with most locals buying their fresh produce from popular market locations across the towns and cities. Amongst these local markets are talented artisans selling their handiwork.
Many local Khmer people work tirelessly at their crafts to keep certain traditional techniques alive, such as ancient silk weaving methods and lacquerware designs. These techniques are passed on over generations, and crafts made can be found for sale at most local markets.
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Silk items are some of the most in-demand products with kramas, or silk scarves, the most loved by tourists and popularized around the world. For a beautiful silk scarf of your own, see our range of Samrosa “Beauty” Silk Shawls, made by local artisan, Dy, and our MAP Cambodia Vocational Training Team.
Image by Uwe Schroeder
Other distinctive keepsakes you will find at markets in Cambodia are skillfully made sculptures of Buddha, animals, and soldiers, all delicately hand-carved out of wood, jade, or stone. If you are lucky, you may see an artisan at work, slowly revealing the figurine while you watch.
For a travel-light souvenir, authentically portraying the countries ancient culture, you can also take home an ink and rice paper painting, or something with a personal touch like locally made jewelry. If you like upcycled fashion, our Upcycled Rice Dream Bag is the perfect sustainable souvenir, handmade by local Cambodian artisans and making a unique gift.
No matter the item, each artisan passionately pours their heart and soul into their craft, fully and humbly relying on their handiwork to survive.
Support a Local Artisan From The Comfort of Home
With more insight into what makes Cambodia one of the most delightful places to visit on our beautiful blue planet, it is worth noting that the country is still considered developing with 13.5% of people living below the poverty line.
Browse our range of made-in-Cambodia products and reminisce on your holiday plans to this abundant, culturally rich country while 100% of proceeds go towards supporting local artisans and contributing to the education and basic provisions of children in underprivileged communities.