Cambodia is known as the Kingdom of Wonder. You'll be left in wonder at what this country has to offer. At the same time, you will also often wonder ‘what on earth was that?’
Contents: Introduction | Language and Places | Culture and Food | Projects in Cambodia | Visiting the Kingdom of Wonder
I should admit that I really only visited the popular tourist destinations during my brief trip to Cambodia. Like the millions of visitors who visit Cambodia, it was easy to be baited by the picturesque temples featured on top trending posts on Instagram. It was when I returned to Australia when I realised that there was so much of the Real Cambodia that I hadn’t yet explored - yet it was right in front of me the whole time.
Cambodia has experienced year on year growth in tourism in line with stronger government and foreign investment. Tourist itineraries are highlighted with sunrise pilgrimages to the sprawling temples of Angkor Wat and visits to the Genocide Museum and Killing Fields. There are plenty of good reasons to visit these areas for their cultural and historical significance. Chetra “Tra” Cheng, a local AIESECer, describes the temples of Angkor as “truly magical places left behind by [our] Khmer ancestors for future generations to mesmerise". This architectural paragon definitely left me in wonder when I visited in the early morning before the arrival of stampeding tour groups. I, like many, wonder about what was taken away from Cambodia when I see the pieces that were left behind.
Parts of the country are richly vibrant, and I had the pleasure to interview some locals about what they believe are important to Cambodia’s identity. I’ll conclude with some of my findings on the issues that AIESEC is trying to address in this corner of the world.
Language and Places
One of the culture shocks of coming to Cambodia is the Khmer language. Khmer boasts an alphabet with 32 consonants and the rest is above my comprehension (I managed to just remember several essential phrases). The local AIESECers will give you a crash course in Khmer when you arrive and provide assistant if you need help translating - they tell me it’s a great way for them to practice their English.
The most populous provinces are Phnom Penh (“fenom pen”) and Siem Reap (“seam rip”). While most tourists flock to the cities, some are learning of the hidden gems along Cambodia’s coastal areas. Locals, expats, and AIESEC exchange participants alike tell me about the easy way of life and the glimmering coastline. Sihanoukville, Kampot, and Kep are the provinces to visit where you can escape the heat. Ethical and eco-tourism is also slowly on the rise in the Cardamom Mountains (Koh Kong) and the fertile floodplains of the mighty Mekong River (Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri).
Culture and Food
Angels exist in Cambodia. Angels are called Apsaras in the native tongue and statues of these muses adorn ancient temples and buildings. It’s no surprise that the Apsara dance, one of the traditional dances from the Angkor era, is the most beautiful of the many traditional Cambodian dances. Chetra tells me that dance is an essential component of Cambodian culture:
“To me personally, Cambodian traditional dance is one of the most eye catching and fascinating traditions that I love. Every dance, every movement, every act, and every musical score has rich meaning and a story. You can understand so much about Cambodia if you pay close attention”
If you’ve explored Cambodia vicariously through Instagram, you’d think there’s a memo for wearing a sports bra and/or a breathable t-shirt with your elephant pants. But Chetra says that dressing like a local in traditional clothes is a step above:
“I have seen foreigners wear traditional Cambodian clothes and they looked amazing. I guarantee that everyone will look fantastic in the traditional clothes.”
The staples of the Cambodian cuisine include rice, vegetables, and unique sauces. You’ll taste delicious flavour profiles accentuated by lemongrass, ginger, shallots, mints, and other native South-East Asian herbs and spices. Some famous dishes include:
These silky morsels of fish are cooked in a lemongrass and coconut milk-based sauce and wrapped in banana leaf. You can customise the level of spice and it goes well with rice.
This is a mild curry suitable for beginners as it’s more creamy than it is spicy. The potatoes melt in your mouth and the traditional recipe includes a spice paste called kroeung.
This dish brings back memories of being so good I couldn’t focus on anything else but my food. Usually pork or beef, lok lak is a stir-fry meat dish with a delicious sweet and savoury brown sauce. If some of the other food is out of your comfort zone, this is a safe choice.
Some believe that insects are the food of the future because of its high nutrient and protein density and energy efficient cultivation. Well, you can taste the future with local classics like crickets-on-a-stick and barbecued tarantulas. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it.
Projects in Cambodia: Orkun
I remember a conversation with Meijen from Phnom Penh: she mentioned that her generation is the first to be born and raised after the Khmer Rouge regime. It struck me how recent this dark chapter of history had occurred.
“I found out from my parents that I had an aunt who was taken away to be ‘educated’ by the government. That night there were tears because everyone in the family knew what that really meant. We don’t know where she went or how to contact her, let alone if she’s still alive”
This generation will be the ones to set the foundations for Cambodia’s future. For example, Meijen is passionate about issues in Cambodia including closing the gender gap and access to quality education. In one of her early experiences with Orkun Project, an AIESEC initiative where young volunteers from other countries come to Cambodia to teach, she met a Hawaiian philanthropist who was sponsoring one of the schools.
“The classes run by volunteers was a great addition to keep these students engaged at school. A female student who graduated from this school has now received a scholarship to study in the United States. That’s something unheard of in these areas, where it’s expected that you become a farmer or house duties.”
Orkun means thank you in Khmer, a sign of gratitude to those who want to create impact and learn more about Cambodia. Meijen really believes in this project, and will leverage these learnings to continue developing initiatives as the elected president for AIESEC in Cambodia in the 2019-20 term.
Visiting the Kingdom of Wonder
“Cambodia is known as the Kingdom of Wonder,” Jack told me in the back of our tuk-tuk, as it shuttled into downtown Phnom Penh. I had asked him about his phone screen, which looked like it suffered a fall. “You'll be left in wonder at what this country has to offer. At the same time, you will also often wonder ‘what on earth was that?’” Earlier that week, a motorist reached out to take Jack’s phone whilst he was in a tuk-tuk. Reflexively, he pulled back, but cracked his screen in the process.
The keyword is care when visiting Cambodia. Take care of yourself, look after your belongings - it’s natural to feel outside of your comfort zone, which you will adjust to over time. In the process, you’ll have a chance to be aware of your relationship with technology and your surroundings.
Care doesn’t always mean charity. Whilst you do your research before arriving, you might come across the topic of ethical tourism. You may feel inclined to give food or money to the poor, but this may promote dependence on tourist generosity rather than aspiring toward education and work, both of which are important for rebuilding Cambodia. There may be better ways to invest your money and support these locals, and I implore you to find them.
And if visiting Cambodia is still really outside your comfort zone, AIESEC is the perfect organisation to embrace it. If my first lesson in Cambodia was to hold on to what you have (remembering Jack’s phone), then the final lesson was to let go of any fears you have. The AIESEC volunteers are thoughtful, welcoming, and extremely hospitable. These are just two of many lessons that you’ll learn when visiting the Kingdom of Wonder.
Learn to let go of any fears you have
Special orkun (thanks) to Meijen (above), Chetra, and Jack, who were mentioned in this article, and to all my friends in AIESEC in Cambodia.