Cambodia always sounded like something out of this world and after I spent some time here, I realized 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 14 surprising facts about Cambodia that will blow you away.
Different Greetings For Different People
We start off this list of interesting facts about Cambodia with their traditional greeting. Sampeah is the traditional Cambodian manner of greeting and parting with others. It encompasses a variety of gestures that convey respect, and the specific method employed depends on factors such as age, relationship, and social status to the individual being greeted or bid farewell. In total, there are five distinct ways to demonstrate respect through sampeah.
Тhe Young Population
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 that followed.
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.
A contributing factor to this is…
The Average Age Of Getting Married
According to data from the United Nations, the average age of marriage for women in Cambodia was around 22 years old, while for men, it was approximately 25 years old, a number that may shock most people in the West. However, not all is nice and bloomy because they have this strange widely-present phenomenon of…
Babies Being Born With Scars
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 babies are the reincarnated victims killed during the Regime. The 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!
This takes us to a few more interesting facts about Cambodia related to…
The Khmer Rouge Legacy And Its Dystopian Idea
The objective of the Khmer Rouge party was to establish a society without social classes, centered around agriculture in rural areas. Taking control of Cambodia on April 17, 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), commonly known as the Khmer Rouge, kept its existence concealed until 1977. Under their rule, the value of human life was disregarded, leading to widespread repression and massacres. Between 1975 and 1979, the period when the party held power, nearly two million people lost their lives.
In their effort to transform Cambodia into a classless rural community, the Khmer Rouge closed down public schools, religious institutions (such as pagodas, mosques, and churches), universities, shops, and government buildings. These spaces were either repurposed as prisons, stables, re-education camps, or granaries. Transportation, both public and private, was abolished, private ownership was eliminated, and non-revolutionary forms of entertainment were nonexistent. Additionally, public gatherings and discussions were strictly prohibited during this period.
It Actually Helped The US Bomb Its Own People
One of the well-known interesting facts about Cambodia is that it was probably the only country in world’s history that was bombed just to intimidate another country. The bombing carried out by the United States between 1965 and 1973 (to intimidate Vietnam) but many people don’t know that the US was assisted by none other than the Khmer Rouge. The bombing resulted in the deaths of approximately 300,000 individuals in Cambodia but that was nothing compared to what was coming next. Interestingly, many people who endured the impact of the bombings subsequently joined the Khmer Rouge.
Home To The World’s First Killing Cave
In Cambodia, one can find a unique site known as the “Killing Cave” situated in Phnom Sampeau. This cave holds the remains of individuals who were victims of the Khmer Rouge, including doctors, teachers, men, women, and children. It stands as a solemn testament to the tragic events that took place during that period.
Today, you can visit the Killing Cave as a tourist and if you’re looking for a unique experience with a knowledgeable guide that can answer all of your questions, I warmly recommend this half-day tour.
The Most Brutal Rule In Human History?
During what is considered the most savage reign in global history, the people of Cambodia were compelled to cultivate a minimum of three tons of rice per hectare across the entire nation. This cruel punishment resulted in civilians being coerced into laboring for over 12 hours daily, enduring inadequate sustenance and rest throughout these years.
It is estimated that approximately 1.7 to 2.2 million people died in Cambodia during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979. The deaths were a result of execution, forced labor, famine, and various other causes associated with the policies and actions of the Khmer Rouge.
Maybe that’s why…
Birthdays Aren’t A Part Of Cambodian Tradition
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 generations. The majority of them don’t know their exact birth date, but they do know how old they are.
However, funerals on the other hand, are…
The Cost Of Funerals Is Ridiculously Expensive
Despite the fact that the typical monthly earnings in Cambodia hover slightly above USD 100, funeral ceremonies in the country can extend for up to 49 days and incur an average expenditure of USD 9,000. In this culturally traditional nation, conducting proper funerals holds great significance, often requiring families to combine their savings in order to meet the financial demands of the funeral proceedings.
And even though the Civil War happened a long time ago, it still charges its annual tax on Cambodians (and our list of interesting facts about Cambodia couldn’t be complete without this one)…
Landmines Still Kill People In Cambodia
The Cambodian civil war ended in 1975 and one of the most surprising facts about Cambodia is that people are still dying today as a consequence of this same war. You can imagine what kind of conflict it was when 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 another decade to completely clear the area. This makes the border between Laos and Cambodia one of the most dangerous places in Southeast Asia.
Hence, it should come as no surprise that Cambodia has…
The World’s Largest Population Of Amputees
Cambodia holds the unfortunate distinction of having the highest number of amputees resulting from landmines among any country in the world. Since 1979, there have been over 64,000 recorded casualties directly attributed to landmines. Shockingly, nearly half of the landmines that were originally laid remain uncleared to this day.
But it’s not only humans who are unfortunate in Cambodia, it’s animals too…
Tigers No More
In my opinion, this is one of the saddest interesting facts about Cambodia. A couple of years ago, tigers were officially declared “functionally extinct” in Cambodia. The sighting of the last tiger occurred in the eastern province of Mondulkiri back in 2007. Once a habitat for Indochinese tigers, Cambodia’s forests have suffered severe depletion of tiger populations due to rampant poaching of both tigers and their prey.
But that’s not all. Cambodia is also the country with…
The Highest Deforestation Rate In The World
Cambodia exhibits one of the most alarming rates of deforestation globally, with approximately 2,000 square kilometers (494,210 acres) of forest being lost annually. The government’s granting of timber concessions in the 1990s triggered a rapid deforestation process, leading to the country ranking as the third highest in terms of deforestation rate by 2005.
However, Cambodia still is…
Home To Some Extremely Rare Species
And this is one of my favorite interesting facts about Cambodia, as long as these species don’t experience the fate of the recently extinct tigers. Until then, Cambodia remains a habitat for a diverse range of exceptionally rare and endangered animal species.
Along the Mekong River, one can encounter the Irrawaddy dolphin and the Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle. The Cardamom Mountains boast a rich variety of unique flora and fauna found exclusively in Cambodia, while the Tonle Sap lake harbors an astonishing abundance of rare and exotic marine and avian life. If you’re in the area, you should seriously consider this biosphere reserve tour of Tonle Sap that presents visitors with the rare chance to see some of Cambodia’s endangered species.
It is also worth noting that Cambodia’s natural landscapes remain significantly under-researched, leaving the possibility of numerous undiscovered species roaming these areas.
And personally, this is somewhat surprising because…
Cambodians Can Eat Anything
Speaking of interesting facts about Cambodia, we have to mention some unique local eating habits. The Cambodian staple food is rice and fish of course, but Cambodians have a rather exotic selection of street food. Spiders, locusts, fried crickets, etc. are not uncommon. 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. If you’re into trying the finest local delicacies, check out this underground tuk-tuk food tour of Phnom Penh (thank me later).
And speaking of quirky culinary habits and interesting facts about Cambodia, you’ll be surprised to hear that geckos are being spared because locals…
Count The Chirps Of A Gecko To Determine Their Luck
During our childhood, we are often led to believe in amusing and endearing notions. We are convinced that our mothers devour the cookies we leave for Santa Claus and create tiny paw imprints from the Easter Bunny all over the kitchen floor. Although these beliefs keep us in a state of delightful delusion for a significant period of time, they somehow contribute to our growth. Similarly, the people of Cambodia possess their own captivating beliefs.
Among them is the charming practice of counting the chirps of a gecko, earnestly hoping for a desired outcome. The first chirp signifies a future marriage to a bachelor, while the second chirp indicates a marriage to a widower. The anticipation continues, alternating between the prospects of a bachelor and a widower, and so forth.
I believe we covered a lot of sad (even tragic) interesting facts about Cambodia and it’s about time we switch to happier thoughts and we’ll start that change with Cambodia’s pride and joy…
The World’s Largest Religious Building
One of the most fascinating facts about Cambodia is the presence of the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat. Constructed during the 12th century in the Khmer Empire, this magnificent architectural marvel originally served as a Hindu temple dedicated to the deity Vishnu. Later, it was transformed into a Buddhist temple complex. The site is so huge it’s impossible to explore it on foot and hiring a tuk-tuk is the best alternative. If you use this link to hire one, you’ll get 10% off and you won’t have to haggle with local tuk tuk drivers at the entrance that will likely try to overcharge you.
Spanning an enormous area of approximately 162.6 hectares (402 acres), Angkor Wat is recognized as the largest religious monument globally. Its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 attests to its exceptional universal value and cultural significance.
In fact, it’s so significant that Cambodia is…
The Only Country With A Building On Its Flag
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.
Speaking of interesting facts about Cambodia and the Angkor Wat, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that…
It Was Built Different
But you might be when I tell you what I mean by this. In contrast to neighboring temples and temples around the world for that matter, which predominantly faced east like the prevailing custom of the era, The Angkor Wat uniquely faces west—a direction traditionally linked with notions of death.
But wait, that’s not the last surprise this list of interesting facts about Cambodia hides (it’s just the beginning)…
There Are 4,000 Discovered Temples In Cambodia
Please note the word ‘discovered’. As impressive as the number 4,000 sound, what’s even more impressive is that Cambodia is home to …
Entire Undiscovered Cities
Using laser technology, a significant discovery was made earlier this year. Within the vicinity of Angkor Wat and hidden beneath the lush tropical forest floor, numerous medieval cities, ranging from 900 to 1,400 years old, have been discovered. Astonishingly, some of these previously unknown cities are as vast in size as Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.
And that’s not the only recent archaeological discovery…
Massive City Under Mount Kulen
This list of interesting facts about Cambodia wouldn’t be complete without the massive discovery of the lost ancient city underneath Mount Kulen that was recently discovered by archaeologists. If you’re looking to explore the area, a few suggestions that come to mind include this waterfall tour, this customizable full-day tour, and this Kulen Mountain jeep tour.
And speaking of unique structures and interesting facts about Cambodia, you should know about…
Cambodia’s Very Own Ancient Pyramid
Prior to the construction of Angkor Wat, there existed the ancient capital city of Koh Ker, also known as Lingapura. This city, built by Jayavarman IV, featured remarkable architectural elements, including a colossal water reservoir and a collection of 40 temples. Among them, Prasat Thom stands out as the most prominent structure. This immense pyramid-shaped temple complex comprises seven tiers and offers a striking sight with its staircase leading to the pinnacle, where visitors are rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views of the surrounding jungle.
But this list of interesting facts about Cambodia wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t find something even older than this…
Dinosaurs In Ta Prohm?
There have been rumors surrounding the Bayon-style temple of Ta Prohm, famously known as the “Tomb Raider” temple, suggesting the presence of a carving depicting a stegosaurus. Some enthusiastic observers have even claimed that this carving serves as evidence of a coexistence between humans and dinosaurs. However, take this with a grain of salt, it’s of course, possible that the carving may represent a buffalo, a rhinoceros, or perhaps a mythical creature, as the temple is adorned with various mythical motifs and figures.
Tonle Sap– A Worldwide Phenomenon
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!
If you’re a fan of water-related activities and are looking for some tours, check out this Tonle Sap sunset tour, this half-day tour of the neighboring floating villages, and last but not least, the tour of the flooded forest.
The Impression That There’s No Road Rules
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 them. 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.
However, the lack of traffic lights and stop signs really makes driving in Cambodia a unique experience. And it doesn’t help at all that Cambodia is basically…
The Land Of A Million Bikes
Cambodia is definitely a land of Mopeds. One of the most surprising facts about the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is that the city has 1.5 million residents and an estimated number of 1.3 million mopeds. Mopeds are literally everywhere. The picture below is 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.
Maybe that’s why gestures are such a huge part of local culture (because without them it would be very difficult to make your way the busy, crowded streets). Speaking of gestures…
When In Cambodia, Watch Your Gestures
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.
4 Different Names In The Past 50 Years
Speaking of interesting facts about Cambodia, do you know that on average, this country changes its name every 12.5 years (at least in the last 50 years)? 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.
Refrigeration In Households Isn’t Really A Thing
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 into consideration all circumstances. This leads me to one of my favorite interesting facts about Cambodia;
This leads me to one of the saddest interesting facts about Cambodia…
According to data from the World Bank, the national poverty line in Cambodia was set at $1.90 per day and around 12.9% of the Cambodian population lived below this poverty line in 2023. This means that they struggled to meet their basic needs, including food, shelter, healthcare, and education, with less than $1.90 per day.
It’s no wonder that…
Cambodia Is The Only Place On Earth Where KFC Isn’t Profitable
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 in 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 only a few people inside.
Unique Chance To Visit A Blind Clinic
Last but certainly not least, we round up this list of interesting facts about Cambodia with Cambodia’s very own “Seeing Hands”. As per the Avoidable Blindness Initiative by the Australian Government, Cambodia has a significant number of blind individuals, with approximately 43,800 people experiencing blindness in both eyes. In response to this trend, several organizations have implemented measures to address the issue.
One noteworthy and innovative initiative that has gained popularity is the establishment of centers called Seeing Hands. These centers, located in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, and Kampot, offer blind massages. This initiative not only provides employment opportunities for visually impaired individuals but also offers a unique and beneficial service to the community.
Useful resources for visiting Cambodia
For the cheapest flights to Cambodia, use this Qatar Airways special offer. I use it for my flights and I saved hundreds of dollars throughout the years.
When it comes to travel insurance, I use and recommend World Nomads.
If you want to rent a car in Cambodia, get up to 30% off with this AutoEurope offer.
And last but not least, to save on accommodation in Cambodia, use this Booking.com link to get up to 20% off on all bookings.
How many of these surprising facts about Cambodia did you know about? Which one was the most surprising one? Are there any more interesting facts about Cambodia you know of that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments!
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