Cambodia always sounded like something out of this world to me for some reason. And after I spent some time there, I saw that they have a very different way of doing things compared to the ways I’m used to. Despite all the differences, Cambodia remains one of my favorite destinations because of the things I saw and learned there. Seeing all these unusual things really stretched my mind and made me love life even more. Here are the 14 surprising facts about Cambodia you should learn before visiting.
Cambodia today is one of the very few countries in the world with a predominately young population. One of the reasons is that the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communist party) killed a large portion of the population during their rule. Their fall in 1979 resulted in a baby boom in the years afterward.
Half of the total population of Cambodia are children below the age of 15. 68% of the population is younger than 30, while the birth rate is three times higher than the death rate. Incredible!
In recent years Cambodia has been dealing with one very interesting phenomenon. An increasing number of newborns are born with huge scars with a striking resemblance to bullet holes. Local people have a simple explanation for this. They believe that the babies are the reincarnated victims killed during the Regime. This Khmer Rouge was one of the more ruthless regimes to ever exist and they would go after entire families. After killing the baby’s parents, jailers would go on to killing their babies as well. And this was an official policy!
Traditionally, birthdays aren’t celebrated in Cambodia. Nowadays that’s becoming a thing among the younger population, but not for the people from the older generation. The majority of them don’t know their exact birth date, but they do know how old they are.
I mentioned this in the first part, but this number is so shocking I have to say it again! The Khmer Rouge killed between 1.5 and 2 million out of the 8 million, or almost a quarter. And they were the ruling party for only 4 years! Even if the regime was topped down a long time ago it left huge consequences. Whole generations of children were raised by traumatized parents. Crimes against humanity are still lead in Cambodian courts and the average income is less than $3 USD per day.
The Cambodian civil war ended in 1975, which was 42 years ago. You can imagine what kind of conflict it was since 42 years after the war, people are still dying from landmines. Not only that, but 60,000 people died and a lot more were injured as a result of stepping over landmines set by both sides. The official estimates are saying that it will take a decade to completely clear the area. This makes the border between Laos and Cambodia one of the most dangerous places in Southeast Asia.
The Cambodian staple food is rice and fish of course, but Cambodians have a rather exotic street food. Spiders, locusts, fried crickets. One of the ultimate street food delicacies is the tarantula kebab. Another very popular street food that you can easily find in the market are the termite eggs.
While I was in Phnom Penh, I saw only a handful of traffic lights and that was only on the main boulevards. I also saw a lot of people driving the opposite side of the streets. This is very common for tuk-tuks and motorbikes, but even cars do that.
After speaking to locals, they explained that they have road rules, just very no one respect those. I’ve seen other cities where people would drive in opposite directions very often. However, the lack of traffic lights and stop signs really makes driving in Cambodia a unique experience.
Pointing at things is considered offensive. You should use your whole palm if you want to show something, including menu items when ordering at a restaurant. And Cambodians don’t use their left hand when interacting because it’s considered dirty. The assumption being that you use that hand to clean yourself in the bathroom. Yes, western toilets and toilet paper aren’t really a thing in Cambodia.
It’s also considered disrespectful to point your feet at people. That’s why Cambodians always sit with their feet tucked in. And lastly, the head is regarded as the highest part of the body and should not be touched in any case no matter how good your intentions are.
Cambodia has been changing its name every 12.5 years in the past half of a century. The main reason for that is the change of government. After the fall of the monarchy, the Lol Non changed the name to the Khmer Republic. The Khmer Rouge did the same introducing the Democratic Kampuchea Republic. After their fall, the Vietnam-sponsored government changed the name to the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. In the protectorate years, it became the State of Cambodia. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1993, the country got back its original name: the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Angkor Wat is something that Cambodians are really proud of. By the way, the Tomb Raider was shot in Angkor Wat if you’re wondering why it seems familiar. Anyway, this monument is so respected that it has been emblazoned with the Cambodian flag, thus making it the only national flag in the world that features a building.
Yes, it’s true! Cambodia has the only river in the world that flows in two different directions. Twice a year, Tonle Sap changes its flow direction, depending on the season: whether it’s the monsoon or dry season. Between November and May (dry season) the waters of Tonle Sap drain into the Mekong River. In June they are flowing in the opposite direction and come back to the lake. Miraculous!
Are you planning to travel around the country and visit more tourist attractions? Check out this list of the best places to stay around Cambodia.
Cambodia is definitely a land of Mopeds. One of the amazing facts about its Capital, Phnom Penh is that the city has 1.5 million residents and an estimated number of 1.3 million mopeds. Mopeds are literally everywhere. Here’s the street scene at lunchtime a few steps from my hotel. Combine this with the lack of traffic lights and stop signs you get the ultimate chaotic urban jungle that Phnom Penh is.
As far as I could tell during my time in Cambodia, a large portion of the population didn’t have refrigerators in their homes. Most of the people buy fresh food daily at one of the hundreds of street markets throughout the cities. You’re probably wondering how can people afford that. Well, healthy food is extremely cheap in Cambodia taking in consideration all circumstances.
American fast food restaurants aren’t very popular in Cambodia. That’s probably the reason why McDonald’s never tried to expand to Cambodia. Anyway, fast food is actually more expensive than street food or fresh ingredients sold by street vendors. That’s how cheap healthy food in Cambodia is. All this results with the 6 KFC restaurants across Cambodia to lose around $200,000 per month back in 2012 and 2013 (last reports I could find). And I don’t think it’s better, even nowadays. Every time I would pass by a KFC restaurant I would see very few people inside.