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Educators Programs in Cambodia

Exploring Cambodia

Cambodia Basics

Located in Southeast Asia, Cambodia borders Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Cambodia is slightly smaller than Oklahoma and the terrain is made up of mostly low, flat plains with mountainous areas in the southwest and north.

In the south-central region is the capital city of Phnom Penh. To the north is Siem Reap which is home to hundreds of natural and manmade attractions such as temples, colonial buildings, museums and floating villages.

floating school in the community of Prek Toal, Cambodia

Brief History of Cambodia

Most Cambodians consider themselves Khmer, or the descendants of the Angkor dynasty, which at one point extended over present day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, southern Vietnam, Burma, and Malaysia. The empire shrank from the 15th century onward, and eventually became a part of French Indochina in 1887. During World War II, the Japanese claimed control over Cambodia. In 1945, King Sihanouk began a quest for Cambodian independence, but it wasn’t officially declared until 1953.

In 1970, King Sihanouk was ousted after a five-year struggle, and Khmer Rouge forces took control of the country. Aiming to revolutionize the country into an agrarian cooperative, the Khmer Rouge instituted a campaign of terror, emptying cities and executing dissidents across the country. Studies estimate that at least one-and-a-half million and most likely around two-and-a-quarter million people died both at the hands of Khmer Rouge soldiers and indirectly by starvation and lack of medicine for diseases such as malaria.

In 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded the country, taking over Phnom Penh and pushing the Khmer Rouge out into Thailand. Unexpectedly, the international community condoned Vietnam’s invasion, and the U.S. and other developed countries suspended aid to Cambodia. In 1985, Hun Sen was appointed Prime Minister of Cambodia and peace talks began between opposing factions. However, it was not until 1991 that a Peace Conference was held and peace accords were signed, mandating democratic elections and a cease fire.

Cultural Expectations 

While in Cambodia, you can expect…  

to wear the traditional krama (scarf), to visit incredible temples, and to take a fun ride in a tuk-tuk.

While in Cambodia, locals will expect you…  

to be respectful of Buddhist customs, dress appropriately in temples, and be mindful and considerate of your surroundings.

Cultural Icon

Angkor Wat, the largest Hindu temple in the world, was built in the early 12th century. It was rediscovered in 1860, when two missionaries came across the ruins of a lost city twice as large as Manhattan in the Cambodian jungle. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and was featured in Angelina Jolie’s film Tomb Raider.


The official language is Khmer, but many people also speak English, French, or Chinese as a second language.

  • Hello: Sure-sday 
  • How are you? Neak sok sabai tay; Good: Lar-or 
  • Good morning: Ah roun sure-sdey; Good afternoon: Sa yourn sure-sdey; Good night: Rea trey sure-sdey 
  • Welcome: Som sva kum
  • Goodbye: Lear-hiey 
  • Please: Som; Thank you: Or-kun 
  • Excuse me: Som tos 
  • Sorry: Som tos
  • What is your name? Teh neak chmours a vey?; My name is ___. Kha nhom chmours ___. 
  • Where are you from? Teh neak mork pi protes na?; I am from ___. Kha nhom mork pi protes ___? 
  • How old are you? Teh neark ah yu pon manh?; I am ___ years old. Kha nhom ah yu ___. 
  • Do you speak English? Teh neark niyeay phea sar anglay ban te? 


Traditional food consists mostly of fish and rice, so be prepared to eat plenty of rice. There are many varieties of rice in Cambodia, including sticky rice, which can also be eaten with coconut milk and mango as a dessert. When in Cambodia, you will also feast on…

  • Lok lak (marinated pork or beef slices served with spicy green peppercorns)
  • Char kadow (spice chicken)
  • Amok (vegetables or meat steamed in a savory coconut-based curry)
  • Fried tarantulas

Ethnic Groups

95.4 percent of the population are Khmer, 2.4 percent Cham, 1.5 percent Chinese, and 0.7 percent other ethnic minorities.


The official currency used in Cambodia is the Riel (KHR). Eleven different bills exist between 50 Riel all the way up to 100,000 Riel.

Cambodia has an unofficial dual currency system, with US dollars accepted and widely used across Cambodia. For purchases over a dollar, US dollars are used, and for purchases under or received change you normally receive Riel.


Buddhism has been the Cambodian state religion since the 13th century AD. Today, 97-percent of the population are Buddist. Muslim, Christian and other religions make up the rest of the population.

Did You Know?

  • Most young men in Cambodia are Buddhist monks for a short time.
  • The Cambodian flag is the only flag in the world that features a building. The building is Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Over the past 50 years Cambodia has changed its name five times. Currently it’s back to the Kingdom of Cambodia, which was the country’s name from 1953–1970.
  • Hun Sen led Cambodia as Prime Minister for over 25 years up until 2023. Now Prime Minister Hun Manet has succeeded his father as the country’s leader.
  • Buffalo racing is a traditional sport in Cambodia.
  • In Buddhist countries, it is considered rude to point feet, particularly the soles, towards a person or things, so tuck them away when sitting on the floor or on a chair.
  • The golden age of Cambodia was between the 9th and 14th century, during which it was a powerful and prosperous empire that flourished and dominated almost all of inland Southeast Asia.
  • About 50 percent of the Cambodian population is under the age of 15.
  • Cambodians typically give their children names that rhyme with another family member as a form of endearment.
  • Angkor Wat was initially used for Hindu celebrations.
  • There are more than 800 species of fish in Cambodian waters and a species of freshwater dolphin in the Mekong River.
  • Cambodians greet each other with hands pressed together and a small bow, called a sompeah.

Rustic Pathways in Cambodia

Lessons Learned in the Floating Villages of Cambodia
The floating villages of Cambodia are unlike most places on earth. Many Rustic Pathways students over the years have come to appreciate their unique way of life.

Why the Most Important River in Southeast Asia Is Under Threat
Climate change and development have taken a major toll on the Mekong River. And that’s bad news for the 60 million people who rely on it.

Photos That Will Make You Want To Sell Your Belongings and Move to a Floating Village
The friendly faces of the villagers, the vibrant colors of the produce, and the majesty of Angkor Wat at sunrise will make you feel completely at home.

A to Z: Everything You Need to Know About Traveling to Cambodia
A collection of all things Cambodian.

Q&A: Going to Cambodia With Rustic Pathways
Our Cambodia Country Manager answers the most frequently asked questions about travel to Cambodia.

Exploring Cambodia

Cambodia Travel Bucket List (5 MUST DOs)


Ta Prohm’s Haunting Ruins are a 1,000-year-old Climate Change Warning
The jungle has overtaken this temple built in 1186.


Amok Recipe
Fish amok is a traditional Cambodian dish made by steaming fish, coconut milk, and spices in banana leaf baskets. ‘Amok’ is the process of steaming the protein in banana leaves.  If you’d like to try a less traditional version with chicken and no steaming necessary, try this one!


Destination Cambodia
For a deeper context of the country, seen through a tourist’s lens, consider the book Destination Cambodia- one of our favorites!

In the Shadow of the Banyan
This novel is set during the regime from the eyes of a seven-year-old.


Cambodian Music Genre Review
If you’re interested in World Music, you’ll need to know Cambodia. The Khmer culture’s musical emphasis provides a rich history of song and dance to explore, starting with this 15 minute article. The Rustic Team is big fans of Dengue Fever- check them out inside!


Explore Angkor Wat Virtually
Now that you’re accustomed to Cambodia and some of its “greatest hits”, it’s Tomb Raider time! Explore the tunnels, catacombs, and amazing views inside the Angkor Wat complex through Google’s customized street view experience of this incredible site.

Watch The Killing Fields (Trailer Below)
-Warning- this is a graphic film, but a very important one to understand the heartbreak of this wonderful country. The Killing Fields is a celebrated story of survival during one of the worst genocides in the world, conducted by the authoritarian Khmer Rouge government following the Vietnam War. If you’d like to explore this film, start with the trailer here, but again viewer discretion is advised.