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Respecting Cambodian Culture: Essential Dos & Don’ts

Introduce Cambodia’s Rich History and Culture

Cambodia is a Southeast Asian country with a rich history and vibrant culture that goes far beyond its famed temples like Angkor Wat. Cambodia was once home to the powerful Khmer Empire which built the magnificent temple complexes in Angkor and ruled over much of the region. However, Cambodia’s more recent history has been marked by great tragedy and turmoil during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s which left a devastating mark on the country.

Today, Cambodia is recovering and rebuilding with a young population that makes up over 50% of its 16 million people. Cambodian culture is deeply influenced by Buddhism as well as centuries of Indian, French and Southeast Asian influences. The people are known for their friendliness, devotion to family, creativity and resilience. Cambodian cuisine features flavorful dishes like Amok, rice noodles, and tropical fruits. Traditional handicrafts like textiles, carvings and basketry are still practiced widely today. Music and dance are integral parts of Cambodian culture with traditional folk genres like Pin Peat orchestra and the elegant Apsara dances. 

Cambodia offers much more than just the iconic Angkor temple complexes to discover.

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh is the bustling capital city of Cambodia and home to over 2 million people. The city sits at the convergence of the Tonlé Sap, Mekong, and Bassac rivers, giving it the nickname “The Pearl of Asia.” Even with its rapid development in recent years, Phnom Penh retains much of its French colonial charm seen in landmarks like the Royal Palace and Central Market.

The Royal Palace is arguably the most striking building in Phnom Penh. Built in 1866 by King Norodom, the palace compound contains ornate Khmer-style pavilions with golden roofs. The Silver Pagoda located within the palace complex houses treasures such as a 90 kg gold Buddha encrusted with over 9,000 diamonds. Visitors can tour the Throne Hall and Moonlight Pavilion to admire royal artifacts and get a glimpse into Cambodia’s monarchy.

The National Museum near the Royal Palace holds the world’s largest collection of Khmer cultural artifacts. Spanning history from the 4th to 13th centuries, the museum houses ancient statues, ceramics, and carvings. Highlights include an impressive statue of Vishnu from the 6th century and an 8th century bronze statue of Bhairava. For those wanting to understand Khmer civilization and the ancient Angkorian era, the National Museum is a must-visit.

Just 15 km outside the city center are the infamous killing fields of Choeung Ek. This solemn place is a memorial to the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. Originally sugarcane plantations and Chinese graveyards, Choeung Ek was one of the hundreds of execution centers used by the Khmer Rouge to imprison and kill those believed to be enemies of the regime. A stupa memorial filled with over 5,000 human skulls that were buried in mass graves serves as a haunting reminder. Visiting the Killing Fields provides critical insight into Cambodia’s tragic history.

Phnom Penh offers visitors both cultural landmarks and somber history. As the gateway to the Kingdom of Cambodia, this bustling capital provides a compelling start to exploring the country beyond Angkor Wat.


Sihanoukville is home to Cambodia’s most famous beaches located on the Gulf of Thailand. With its idyllic stretches of white sand and crystal clear waters, it’s easy to see why Sihanoukville has become such a popular beach getaway.

The beaches here are the main attraction. Ochheuteal Beach is the most popular and conveniently located right in town. With its gentle sloping sands and calm waters, it offers ideal swimming and relaxation. A few kilometers south of town, Otres Beach provides a more laidback vibe with bungalow style accommodation and beachfront dining. Further south, 4km Sokha Beach impresses with 15km of pristine sands.

Offshore lies Cambodia’s islands. Koh Rong is the second largest island after Koh Kong, blessed with stunning beaches and jungle interior. Koh Rong Samloem located nearby charms with its village vibe and bioluminescent plankton. Day trips to these two gorgeous tropical islands are easily arranged from Sihanoukville. For smaller, less developed islands, head to Koh Ta Kiev and Koh Russei.

Underwater, Sihanoukville offers some of Cambodia’s best scuba diving and snorkeling. The coastal waters harbor beautiful coral reefs and marine life like seahorses and stingrays. There are over 15 dive sites around the islands and also two shipwrecks. Diving trips and PADI certification courses can be organized by the many dive centers in town.

With plentiful water sports, boat trips, and island hopping opportunities, Sihanoukville is definitely a top spot for sun, sand, and sea in Cambodia.


Kampot is a riverside town in southern Cambodia known for its pepper farms and countryside charm. The town is situated on the banks of the Kampong Bay River, with French colonial architecture lining the streets.

Kampot pepper is considered one of the finest peppers in the world. The pepper vines grow on family farms in the fertile red earth surrounding Kampot. Visiting the pepper farms offers a fascinating look into this iconic Cambodian product. Learning how pepper is cultivated and dried, and purchase bags of freshly ground pepper.

Outside of town, the beautiful Cambodian countryside awaits. Bike through lush rice paddies, past tiny villages, and up into the foothills of the Elephant Mountains. Stop at shady roadside stalls selling fresh coconuts. Or hike through Boung Rieu forest, home to endangered animals like the pileated gibbon.

Kampot serves as an ideal base to explore the south coast region. Nearby attractions include lazy days by the sea in Kep and exploring the historic cave temples at Phnom Chhnork. But Kampot itself, with its riverside cafes, countryside adventures, and world-famous pepper, makes it a top place to visit in Cambodia.


Battambang is the perfect place to experience Cambodia’s colonial legacy and immerse yourself in the countryside’s tranquil landscapes. Known as the “rice bowl” of Cambodia, Battambang is surrounded by emerald-green rice paddies that seem to stretch as far as the eye can see.

The provincial capital retains a unique architectural heritage from the French colonial era, with some of the best-preserved colonial buildings in Cambodia. Take a stroll along the beautiful Sangker River lined with brightly painted French shop-houses, where you can admire the ornate facades and arched colonnades. Don’t miss the Governor’s Mansion built in the early 1900s – an imposing testament to the French colonial presence.

Another unmissable experience is riding the “bamboo train”, an improvised rail system constructed from basic materials like bamboo slats, used by locals to transport people and goods. Sitting just inches above the ground, you’ll zip through lush scenery at surprisingly fast speeds. The bamboo train journey evokes a feeling of nostalgia and adventure.

With its serene countryside setting, fascinating vestiges of history, and warm locals, Battambang offers an authentic glimpse into rural Cambodia away from the tourist crowds.

Preah Vihea

Located in northern Cambodia, Preah Vihear province is a tapestry of historical intrigue and breathtaking natural beauty. Despite being sparsely populated and heavily forested, the region boasts a rich legacy, particularly evident in its three impressive Angkorian-era sites.

Atop a 525-meter cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains sits the crown jewel, Preah Vihear Temple. This 12th-century Khmer sanctuary, aptly named “sacred shrine,” offers travelers not only breathtaking views but also an unforgettable spiritual experience. Climb the ancient stone steps and explore the intricate carvings, remnants of a powerful empire dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.

Delving deeper into Preah Vihear’s past, let’s encounter Koh Ker, a captivating archaeological site. Dating back to the 10th century, it served as the powerful capital under King Jayavarman IV. Unlike the serene sandstone of Angkor Wat, Koh Ker boasts a distinctive aesthetic, employing reddish laterite blocks in its captivating structures.  The undisputed jewel is the awe-inspiring Prasat Thom, a seven-tiered pyramidal temple dramatically rising from the jungle.  Prepare for a rewarding climb, for the summit unveils breathtaking panoramic vistas.

Adding to the province’s enigmatic allure is Preah Khan.  While its exact purpose remains a mystery, its imposing presence and intricate carvings suggest a grand religious or royal complex.  Unlike the open layout of Angkor Wat, Preah Khan features a series of concentric enclosures, fostering a sense of intrigue.  Explore the maze-like corridors adorned with detailed bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology and daily life in the Khmer Empire. Admire the well-preserved lintels, doorways, and towers, each a testament to the era’s skilled craftsmanship.

Preah Vihear offers a unique experience for travelers seeking a less-frequented path.  Explore the province’s historical treasures, immerse yourself in its natural beauty, and discover a hidden gem waiting to be unveiled.

Beyond the Hidden Gems:

This list merely scratches the surface of Cambodia’s hidden treasures.  As you delve deeper, uncover ancient temples, serene countryside escapes, and vibrant local markets brimming with handcrafted treasures.  Embrace the warmth of the Cambodian people, their rich traditions, and their resilience. Cambodia awaits the intrepid traveler, ready to offer an unforgettable adventure that goes beyond the magnificence of Angkor Wat.

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