17 Interesting and Unusual Facts about Cambodia
Cambodia, wait, is that right? Yes, for this decade it is. Cambodia is a country that is full of funny and interesting things. From the fact that it has changed its name with each new government, to the fact that birthdays aren’t even a thing, to the belief that listening to crickets will help you figure out who you will one day marry, there is enough in this country to make you doubt the sanity of their, and probably your own traditions and idiosyncrasies. Come, let’s get involved.
1. Is it Cambodia or Kampuchea?
One often cited interesting fact about Cambodia is the frequency of which it has changed its name. Originally known as the Kingdom of Cambodia in 1953, the country has gone through five names since then, only to now return to its original name. With each new reigning power, the name of the country has changed. Among the other names that have shared the limelight are The Khmer Republic, and The People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Interesting stuff. Ever since 1993, the name has gained some stability, and is, all things considered, unlikely to change again. Good news for the poor person updating all the legal documents of the country, hey!
2. The average age of the population is under 15
An intensely sobering fact, albeit very interesting, is the average age of the population of Cambodia. Around 50 per cent of Cambodia’s people are younger than 15 years-old! Sixty per cent of its people are younger than thirty. The country is full of fresh faces, lively spirits and few wrinkles. The mass decimation of the Cambodian population under the rule of the Khmer Rouge is why there are very few elders in the country. In just four years, between 2 and 3 million of the then 8 million strong population was murdered. The Killing Fields is where a lot of the atrocities were committed – a site well worth a visit.
3. No McDonald’s in Cambodia
Cambodia is one of the very few countries in the world where there isn’t, and has never been, a McDonald’s. Further, KFC is actually bleeding money in Cambodia. It is the only country in the world that the fast-food chain is not turning a profit. Just like that, faith in the human race has been restored! However, the country does have a Burger King, which makes very little sense.
4. Angkor Wat is the world largest religious building
Cambodia is home to the largest religious building in the entire world! Isn’t that something? Not the Vatican – which is its own country, not Westminster Abbey, and not any other impressive religious construction. Angkor Wat! The name actually directly translates to “City of Temples”, which makes perfect sense – quite unlike many other direct translations.
5. Cambodian flag is the only one in the world with a building on it
Cambodia is interesting in another way that is particularly unique. Flags all over the world seem to be the same designs in different colours or the same colours in different designs. However, Cambodia broke the mould with their flag and went ahead and put Angkor Wat on it. It is the only flag in the world with a building on it! With over 200 national flags in the world, this is pretty darn unique and independent – kind of like that kid in school who doesn’t need the approval of the masses, the one who sticks out without abashment.
6. Nobody cares about their birthdays
While most of us start getting pretty excited around our birthday, start planning how we will spend it the month before, and no doubt treat ourselves to something on the day, birthdays in the Kingdom are almost a non-event. Birthdays slip passed the young and old without a second given to them. Their relevance is somehow very diminished, which is almost incomprehensible to your four-year-old self, struggling to shut your eyes for some sleep the night before your big day. It is such a non-event that some people do not know what birthday is, but only remember and recognise their birthday season.
7. Funerals are of great importance
Possibly the most interesting fact on this list is the staggering amounts of money that is spent of funerals in Cambodia. The average cost of a funeral is thought to sit around the 9000 USD mark. In a country where the average monthly income per person is less than 100 USD, this figure seems incorrect. But, it isn’t! Families often must group together their entire life’s savings and sell all their major possessions in order to cover the cost of the funeral. As you can well-imagine, and can easily infer, funerals are of great importance in the culture. The extraordinary price is a little more comprehensible when you consider that the funeral can go on for 49 days.
8. The Khmer New Year is a very wet festival
The Khmer New Year celebrations are something to behold. The celebration goes on for three whole days, with the last of them being something of a neat-freak’s nightmare. The last day of the celebration is marked by an unbelievable amount of water being thrown around. However, the madness only really sets in once the first cloud of talcum powder has hit you in the face. The festival is widely attended and very cherished by locals, but you’ll be sure to find a good amount of tourists joining in on the festivities!
9. Parts of the body – sacred and dirty
Our perception of our bodies is largely linked to where we grow up, and the kinds of friends we have. This is why your mom was always worried about ‘those tattooed kids’ in your school. In Cambodia, a person’s head is considered the highest part of their body, is almost sacred, and should never be touched, even if it is done in a kind and loving manner.
While a person’s head is very sacred and respected, the underside of a person’s foot is not. Pointing the sole of your foot at someone, or even something, is considered very disrespectful. Good to know!
10. The average age of marriage
While the average age of the population in Cambodia will have been a little surprising, this next fact may be even more shocking to the independent, Western women out there. The average age of marriage for a man in Cambodia is 25, and for women, 22! This must bring a whole new level of intensity to teenage relationships and holiday flings!
11. Traditional Cambodian weddings
In keeping with matters of the heart, traditional Cambodian weddings are not your ordinary run of affairs. The weddings can go on for as long as three days! If you were wondering out of interest, or excitement, the festivities don’t stop in the night-time either. If you have a Cambodian friend, and have a sort of masochistic complex regarding your liver, then see if you can attend one!
12. There are still a lot of active landmiles in the country
A shocking fact, and just one of the trillion reasons to not go to war is the number of landmines that are still within the rural countryside of Cambodia. Between 4 and 6 million mines are estimated to be active, with as many as 30 people dying every year from a one of them.
13. Counting the chirps of a gecko
We all made to believe some silly, albeit adorable things when we’re young. Your mother eats the cookies that you leave for Santa, and makes little paw marks from the Easter Bunny all over the kitchen floor. These beliefs are somehow very enriching, even though they keep you deluded for an impressive period of time. Cambodian locals have their own charming beliefs. One of the best is the way that they count the chirps of a gecko, fiercely hoping for the outcome they’re looking for. The first chirp means you’ll one day marry a bachelor, the second means you’ll end up marrying a widower. Bachelor or widower, bachelor or widower, and so on and so forth.
14. US dollar is one of the national currencies in Cambodia
The currency in Cambodia is the Riel. The currency is very much in use on a daily basis. However, because of it’s extremely low value, and continuous rate of devaluing, the country has adopted the US dollar as one of its national currencies. Today, the country is ninety-per cent dollarized. When drawing from the ATM, you’ll get dollars. When paying for your visa, it’ll be in dollars. When handing over money to the street vendor for the pineapple you’ve already smoothed down your throat, it’ll be in dollars. However, you’ll most often get your change in Riel. Keeping this Riel is pretty important, as trying to exchange USD 20 at a small outlet is going to end in nothing but frustration and that same twenty-dollar bill in your pocket. It’s a mix-matched, topsy-turvy system that’ll have you using all the multiplication and division skills of you learned in your youth.
15. Traffic rules in Cambodia? Never heard of!
Considering the insane driving habits of the locals in the country, it is really a modern miracle that there is absolutely no road-rage. The streets are like a lawless land, which, at first, is perturbing to say the least. However, insofar as others have carte blanch to drive the wrong way down a road, or to ignore traffic lights, you can do it all too! It is the equality of it all that makes it work. No one holds anyone to any rules, and in so doing, nobody can do any wrong. Driving on the roads takes a little boldness, and a little getting used to. In a while, you’ll be as mellow as a bus driver overtaking on a blind bend.
16. Cambodia is home to some extremely rare animal species
Cambodia is home to a host of especially rare and endangered animal species. On the Mekong River, you’ll find the Irrawaddy dolphin and the Cantor’s Giant Softshell Turtle. The turtle is incredibly strange, so you know. The Cardamom mountains is home to an array of fauna and flora unique to Cambodia, and the Tonle Sap lake has an astounding amount of rare and exotic marine and bird life. Cambodia’s natural landscapes are also significantly under-researched, which means that there could be a bunch of species roaming the landscapes that are still under the radar. You should go find them.
17. Tonle Sap Lake is a natural wonder
Tonle Sap Lake is a wonderous place. In recent years it was indicted into the list of UNESCO biosphere reserves, protected for it’s importance for animals and humans alike. The lake does an incredible thing twice a year – the flow of water changes direction and either fills up, or drains the lake. The marvel makes the lake either the largest lake in Southeast Asia, or just another, rather medium-sized one. The flow of the water has wonderful consequences for the wildlife of the area, as well as the human settlements in and around the lake, bringing fish, tourism, and new opportunities.
Cambodia is a land of great interest
Cambodia really is a land of great interest to the traveller looking to step outside of the things we so often take for granted. Exposure to a land like this, to people like this, and to the ways of being in the world like this, is sure to do one of two things to you. If you’re lucky, they’ll do both. First, you’re bound to stretch your limits and accommodate these new experiences into your mental models of the world. Secondly, and this is an important one, you could find yourself smiling, laughing, and even rolling on the floor when you think back to, or recite stories about your time in this part of the world.