There’s much to be loved and explored when it comes to the vast, old-worldly kingdom of Cambodia, once ruled by the magnificent Khmer Empire. From ancient temples and archaeological treasures to rustic islands, secluded beaches, enchanting landscapes and modern, vibrant cities, Cambodia is a confounding yet alluring destination that never ceases to amaze even the most seasoned of travellers. The vast temple complex of Angkor Wat is of course the country’s biggest draw, but many visitors are also charmed by the well-known hospitality of Cambodians and flavourful Khmer cuisine. Although international travel is still restricted, it doesn’t hurt to reminisce and make plans for the future. Below, we’ve cobbled a list of sounds that will spark memories and celebrate the beautiful country through your ears.
1. Monks chanting
Saffron-robed monks are a familiar sight across the country, where majority of its population practise Theravada Buddhism. There are more than 4,000 temples here, all around 900 years old, with the sprawling Angkor Wat complex being the most famous. It’s not uncommon to hear the revered holy men chanting in pagodas as they go about their daily rituals and devotions, as well as partake in religious rites. During Pchum Ben Day, a significant 15-day Cambodian religious festival also known as the ancestors’ day, devotees would visit multiple pagodas to present food offerings and prayers to monks as an act of remembering the dead. The monks will chant overnight to mark the beginning of the festival as well as throughout the day.
Listen: Monks chanting at Wat Khmer Kampuchea Krom
2. Khmer music
There are a few forms of traditional musical ensembles in Cambodia, the most common being the Pinpeat, comprising nine wind and percussion instruments, including several varieties of xylophone and drums, and the Mohaori, an ensemble of nine to 12 wind, stringed, and percussion musical instruments. The former typically accompanies court dances, masked plays, shadow plays and religious ceremonies, while the latter is more for secular purposes such as dinner banquets or as an accompaniment for Mohaori dramas or folk dances. Instruments specific to Cambodia include the Khloy, a vertical duct flute made of bamboo, hardwood or plastic with buzzing membrane; the Sneng – a water buffalo or ox horn with a single-free-reed mouthpiece; the Krapeu – a crocodile-shaped fretted floor zither or lute with three strings; and the Roneat – which refers to several Cambodian xylophone types.
Listen: Ethnic Cambodian music
3. The trumpeting of Asian elephants
The lush, untamed jungles of Cambodia are home to a host of indigenous wildlife, including the sun bear, yellow-cheeked crested gibbon and the Asian elephant. There are approximately 400 wild elephants in Cambodia, with the majority found in the Mondulkiri Province. You can get up close and personal with these beautiful animals through companies such as the Elephant Valley Project, a non-profit organisation that aims to improve the health and welfare conditions of captive elephants. It is also a sanctuary for nine elephants and offers respite to over-worked or retired animals. Another example is the Mondulkiri Project which houses four elephants. It offers tours, where proceeds are used to support their rescued elephants and fund wild elephant protection initiatives. Both organisations do not offer elephant rides, a practice that is discouraged in the country.
Listen: Elephant sounds
4. Sounds from the Mekong River
Measuring 4,350km-long, the Mekong is the seventh longest in Asia and plays a significant role in the lives and livelihood of many Cambodians as it serves an important resource for food and water security. For one, the water is crucial for rice production. For another, it is the world’s most productive inland fishery – it’s been reported that Cambodians and Laotians catch more freshwater fish per capita than anyone else on the planet. The shifting currents of the Tonle Sap for example, form a natural fish factory, and is where you’ll find finger-length silverfish, catfish, and many other species in between. Proposed dams for the river will also help provide electricity to rural villages along it, although much of it would be sold to neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. The annual Bon Om Touk festival in November marks the reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River – many visit to watch exhilarating boat races along the Sisowath Quay, attend concerts and admire fireworks shooting from illuminated royal boats.
Listen: Relaxing river sounds
Tuk-tuks are the most popular mode of transport and are ubiquitous in Cambodia, so it’s not unusual to hear their roaring engines and exuberant horns as you stroll along the street. Unlike the auto-rickshaws driven by their Thai counterparts that are more ornate and come together as one structure (with the driver cabin attached directly to the passenger cabin), tuk-tuks here comprise a motorbike attached to a cabin of four seats, resembling a horse-drawn carriage that are also called remorques, or French for “trailer”. Tuk-tuks remain the cheapest and most convenient form of transport in town and is a great way to know the country, its culture and its people. Note: It’s recommended that you negotiate and settle on a reasonable price before you begin your journey.
6. Market scenes
A visit to Cambodia isn’t complete until you visit at least one of Phnom Penh’s bustling, chaotic and colourful markets. Locals frequent these bazaars to stock up on daily essentials, so a meander through the sometimes unusual stalls will allow you to fully soak in the city’s most authentic sounds, smells and scenes. Whether you are looking for souvenirs, food, jewellery, clothing, or local handicrafts, or you want to get your hair or nails done in a jiffy, these markets cover it all. Central Market (Phsar Thmei) is the most iconic Phnom Penh market, thanks to its eye-catching architecture of a central dome. Built by the French during the colonial period, it is also tourist-friendly as it’s clean and modern (but prices also reflect that). Another favourite is the Russian Market (Tuol Tom Poung), a dim, narrow market with stalls that sprawl like a spiderweb. It’s known for souvenirs such as wood carvings, musical instruments and other trinkets, as well as clothes, accessories and of course, street food. Take time to explore the boutique bars and unique eateries in its surroundings, as the neighbourhood is quickly gaining a reputation to be one of the Cambodian capital’s coolest areas.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.