In this series, Andrew Harper-recommended destination specialists and tour operators share their insight into what they consider to be some of the most fascinating and culturally diverse populations across the globe.
Cambodia’s natural beauty and unrivaled temple architecture have made this Southeast Asia country a popular destination for travelers. However, it’s the hospitable inhabitants that many visitors enjoy most.
“Cambodia is one of our favorite places to visit, not only for the amazing history and monuments, but for the chance to interact with the local Khmer people,” says Kara Werth, director of operations with TCS World Travel. “The residents travelers meet are open and friendly.”
The Khmers are the predominant ethnic group in Cambodia as well as one of the oldest in Southeast Asia. The Khmer empire ruled from 802 A.D. until 1431 A.D., covering an area that encompassed much of modern-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. During this time, the Khmer amassed incredible wealth and power, in part because of their engineering prowess, which they demonstrated through an elaborate hydraulic and irrigation system that included canals and large reservoirs, as well as an extensive road network.
The Khmer empire dissolved in the 15th century for reasons that continue to be debated, although wars with Siamese and Thai kingdoms and the devastating effects of drought and floods are prominent explanations. After losing their one-time dominance, the Khmer continued in decline until the mid-1800s, when the country was placed as a French protectorate. It was during this time that French naturalist Alexandre-Henri Mouhot published his drawings of the Khmer ruins of Angkor, hidden in the overgrown jungle, and ushered in the rediscovery of the capital of the former Khmer empire by the Western world.
Although Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, the country descended into civil war just 20 years later. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer suffered under the genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge, which banned Cambodia’s traditional arts. An estimated two million Cambodians died during this time, including 90 percent of Khmer artists, who were targeted for execution.
“Most of the Khmer suffered personal loss under Pol Pot’s regime, but they are determined not to let that period in history define them,” Werth says. Indeed, although it has not been easy, Cambodia and the Khmer people have worked to restore their culture, including expressing their history and their hope for the future through art. The result is a mix of historic and modern Khmer arts, crafts and architecture.
“The Khmer have great artisans and have found a way to preserve their cultural traditions and translate them to goods, including silk, stone and wood carvings, lacquering, painting and more, all of which are in high demand,” Werth says.
At the same time, historic Khmer art and architecture continue to offer a glimpse into the culture’s intriguing past. Nothing exemplifies this more than the Khmer’s dozens of temple complexes, most notably the iconic Angkor Wat, which Mr. Harper calls “otherworldly.” Built in the 12th century, this grand temple—which features an intricate, detailed style of sculpture and stone carving known as Khmer sculpture—is featured on the Cambodian flag.
Yet, Cambodia’s bridge between its past and present is most palpable in the Khmer people, who have steadfastly rebuilt their culture by drawing on both historic and contemporary influences. “Most of our guests go for the history and Angkor Wat,” Werth says, “but the warmth and kindness of the people make for a memorable visit.”
TCS World Travel offers private-jet journeys to Cambodia, including Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh. TCS supports schools in the Siem Reap and Tonle Sap, Cambodia, area, such as TCS staff volunteering at local schools.