Buying Gold in Cambodia: Chi, Damlung, Grams and Ounces

Gold is always a good investment.  And while gold prices are more or less the same around the world (it is a global market, and in Cambodia shops adjust the price of gold daily based on the global market), the price of workmanship is not  (for the current price of gold, you can see the price chart at the bottom of the page). 

So while you are not going to get a better deal buying gold bars in Cambodia, you can purchase gold jewelry at a significantly lower mark-up than in Europe or the United States provided the workmanship is local.  There is a lot of Italian jewelry imported to Cambodia, and it will have a premium price attached to it.  But you can expect a markup of only about $20 over the spot price for most locally smithed gold.  Being as this is less that the above-spot price charged by gold brokers for bullion in the United States and Europe and well below the mark-up for gold jewelry, it means that gold is Cambodia is quite a good deal and one you are not likely to find in the West or India.

Buying Gold in Cambodia as an Investment

A goldsmith in a market.  Because the lower
cost of workmanship, gold jewelry from
Cambodia is a good investment.  Image from
You might be surprised to know that finding 24 carat gold is pretty easy to find, and for an investment it is your best bet.

It is known as ទឹកដបមាស, "Tuk Dap Meas" (មាស "meas" means gold in Khmer; ទឹក "tuk" or "water," and ដប "dap" means "ten"--and it just means the gold tests pure and is and is pure gold--99.8% gold, at least).  You will not find gold of this sort commonly in Thailand--only Cambodia and Vietnam generally sells pure gold like this. Pure gold will have a gaudy yellow look to it, and it is soft--you should be able to make a dent in it with your thumbnail. 

Most jewelry sold in the United States is at most 22 carat (91.6% gold) because of just that reason--pure gold is soft, and if constantly worn it actually wears down.  And since most people do not want their gold disappearing, most opt for less than pure gold.  You can also find more wearable jewelry, but the prices can be harder to pin down as well as determining just what percentage of gold you are getting.  It is fairly easy for a novice to tell pure gold from 18 carat gold, but a lot harder to tell 22 carat from 18 carat and you probably aren't packing a gold tester with you in your suitcase.  Also, the Khmer do not use the carat system you might be familiar with.  Instead, gold is measured in parts of a thousand.  Khmer by far prefer pure gold.  As gold is viewed as a way of preserving wealth, they want it to be of the highest quality and most easily disposed of if needed.  Most Khmer prefer gold to banks, and who can blame then when many lived through a time when money was actually abolished in their country--so any wealth in banks or cash disappeared overnight.
Nearly all markets will have gold dealers tucked away.
Khmer buy gold to preserve wealth, and it is an
an embarrassment for a Khmer woman not to be wearing
a gold necklace.  Hence you will see even the children
of the well-to-do sporting gold jewelry.

Overwhelmingly, gold dealers in Cambodia are honest and will provide a certificate of purchase (in Khmer) that states what it is you bought and how much you paid for it.  These little slips are important if you think you might be selling or pawning what you bought in Cambodia.  If they do not give you one, request one.  They should indicate the price per chi (we'll get to that below) as well as the total amount paid.  They will also have modern scales and they should show you the weight on the scales of anything you decide to purchase.  If you suspect you may have been ripped off, you can sell it back at a small loss as long as you have the receipt (usually no more than $5 unless somehow the price of gold plummets from the time you buy it and decide to return it).  It is better to be safe than sorry, and if you don't know what you are doing or what you are buying, you probably shouldn't be buying.

You may be able to negotiate a few dollars off the price, but don't expect the price to come down dramatically.  As stated earlier, gold prices are fixed according the global market.  That being said, you should know the price of gold before you go to buy and also understand how gold is measured and sold in Cambodia.

Gold Measurements in Cambodia: Chi and Damlung

Typical 24K Cambodian
gold; note the almost
garish yellow color; 
the chain and medallion
together are 8 chi
Gold is sold by the chi (ជី) in Cambodia (and Vietnam).  Ten chi equals one damlung (តម្លឹង).  A damlung is 37.49 grams, meaning one chi is 3.749 grams.  At today's prices that means one chi is selling for $143.19 USD.  Of course, by tomorrow that could have changed.*  We find it a bit annoying that many sites list one chi as 3.8 grams.  If you use that figure, you are going to figuring one damlung as 38 grams, not 37.49, and so would be paying $70 extra per damlung in today's market for their mistake.

Before you head out to purchase gold, it is a good idea to check the current gold prices (below) and covert it from grams to chi.

 1 Gram = 0.267 Chi 
Number of Chi ÷ 0.267 x Price of Gold in Grams = World Market Gold Price

Then, considering that there will be a $20-$30 charge above the spot price, that will give you an idea of what is a good price.  So if you have $400 to spend, you can buy just a little more than two chi of gold or about ten grams.  That is really a great deal considering that buying bullion in the states generally has a markup for $60 or more above spot for one ounce, and if you have to pay for shipping watch out as that will be an added cost (plus insurance).

Keep in mind that internationally gold is often dealt in troy ounces. One troy ounce equals 31.1 grams (that is 8.23 chi).

Also, keep in mind safety.  Wearing something like this in public can attract the attention of thieves and pick-pockets.  Travelers have had chains ripped off their necks by passing motorcycles or while sitting in a tuk-tuk or even had them cut off their necks without them even realizing it.  If you are wearing $500 around your neck it can be a tempting target.  And of course never, never put something like this in your checked bags when you fly!  If you are buying tuk dap meas it is probably an investment, so make sure you protect it as one.

A final reminder . . . remember that you are suppose to declare goods acquired while abroad.  The United States, for example, allows you to import $800 of goods into the country without paying customs duties. Also, gold does not count as a monetary instrument in the USA.  You should check on the customs for your country as you don't want to get charged a custom duty for that gold you got such a good deal on!

Gold Prices Over the Last Three Days

gold price charts provided by

*The price of gold declined nearly $50 per chi since this was originally published.
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Shipping from Cambodia

Let's face it: shipping in Cambodia is difficult and expensive, but it can be done. However, when we first tried to send items out of Cambodia or get things delivered to us in Cambodia we found out that it is really hard to figure out with not a lot of information out there on the Web. Now that we've learned for ourselves, we've put together hopefully a one-stop shop for you to know what are the best options for you to ship things in and out of Cambodia.

Throughout our many ventures in shipping and receiving, from documents to gifts and larger items to moving from abroad and back, we've learned a few things. The first thing you should know unless you are sending a letter, non-essential package or shipping major ocean freight (and if you are planning on doing that, then you should be consulting a local logistics company) then you will probably have to bring your item to Battambang, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville or Phnom Penh to send it on out of the country.

Shipping Items From Cambodia

There are just a couple hints we'll share to help you get your package (safely) to your destination outside Cambodia.
  1. Never send valuables or monetary instruments except through courier services that offer insurance, and then ensure the insured amount matches the customs declaration to avoid any hassles.
  2. Carefully package anything fragile and consider sending it via DHL or FedEx rather than by EMS.
  3. If time is important, use a courier services. One blogger recently reported it took her brother's postcard more than a year to reach her. We've had positive experiences shipping with EMS, like our Emergency First Responders paperwork, and we've also had postcards that never arrived . . . or perhaps they will next year.
  4. Check out the Cambodian export restrictions for what cannot be send out of Cambodia

Cambodia Postal Service

  1. Cambodian Postal Service: We suggest you use the Cambodian postal service only for noncritical itemslike postcards. Actually, there is no real Cambodian Postal Service as mail in Cambodia is handled by EMS—Express Mail Service. EMS is an International Postal Express Mail Service offered by Postal-Operators of the Universal Postal Union (UPU). The UPU, a specialized agency of the United Nations, promotes the harmonization of postal services worldwide. Despite this, it is infamous for being laid, delayed, and mishanded.

    Also, there is no real mail delivery service except for big, easily identified businesses. If you are coming to work, your best bet is to receive mail at your workplace with the understanding that only non-critical items should be sent through the mail service (since EMS will handle local mail delivery for items sent through United States Postal Service or Canadian Royal Mail, for example).  You can also go to the local post office and request that they hold your mail for you.  This is the best option if you cannot have it delivered to a business.

FedEx Shipping Cambodia

  1. FedEx: Here is the deal on FedEx. You can use it to ship out of Cambodia, but packages can only be sent to Phnom Penh. Technically, FedEx says that items can only be shipped from Phnom Pehn as well, but Siem Reap's Fast Global Transport does have an office that can handle FedEx shipping that is about one block from Lucky Mall on the opposite side of the street (if you cruise through, you will see a FedEx sign on the front of the shop-space—they can also handle UPS shipments from Cambodia).

    However, when we tried to arrange a FedEx shipment to Siem Reap from abroad, we were told it wasn't possible—that they would have to come to the FedEx distribution center in Phnom Penh to get their package (address below). Base rates are $60—that means, if you need to send a manila envelope with a single sheet of paper, it will still cost you $60. What FedEx does offer, though, is one of the best ways to ship larger items out of the country if you want minimal hassle, and you can arrange for home/location delivery service to most other locations. The cost is about $16 US per pound or $30 per kilo—that is for
    FedEx International Priority. FedEx does not handle freight shipments from Cambodia.  Here are the basic FedEx rates, shipping from Cambodia to the United States:

    Up to One Pound: $60
    Two Pounds: $73
    Three Pounds: $86
    Four Pounds: $99
    Five Pounds: $112
    Six Pounds: $125
    Ten Pounds: $160
    and about $16 per pound thereafter

    FedEx Phnom Penh Office: Khan Daun Penh,
    Phnom Penh. Tel : (855) 23 216708: Fax : (855) 23 216721: Office Hours : 07:30-17:30

    Fast Global Transport in Siem Reap: No. 540, St. 66, Sala Kanseng Village, Siem Reap City, Siem Reap, Tel: (855) 099 604 303

DHL Shipping Cambodia

  1. DHL: We think that DHL is one of the best international shippers that there is. We “discovered” DHL as a way to ship and be sure what we were sending got to India, and we've discovered that it is also the way to ensure things get delivered to us in Cambodia. DHL can ship out of and to most places in Cambodia. The prices are about the same as FedEx. They can insure your packages for you as well so if something is lost or damaged you can file a claim. Just be sure to check out “How to Get Mail in Cambodia” below some some tips and hints about how to actually get your package delivered while in Cambodia.

    One thing that is a bit curious that you need to know--DHL may require a postal code to ship.  Well, Cambodia has postal codes, but they are still a work in progress.  So PHN is what you can use for the Cambodia postal code.

    DHL Phnom Penh Office:No. 353, Ang Duong (St. 110), 12201, Phnom Penh, Tel (855) 023 427 726, (855) 023 427 656

    DHL Siem Reap Office: No. F15A, Sivatha (St.), Phsar Kandal, Sangkat Svay Dangkum, Siem Reap City, Siem Reap, Tel (855) 063 964 949, (855) 012 799 432

Freight and Relocation Shipments Cambodia

Camfreight Cambodia

  1. Camfreight: Camfreight is the major logistics company in Cambodia. If you are going into the import/export business or need to move an entire household, these are the first people you should talk to. They can arrange for air and sea freight and help clear major items through customs, et cetera. While most travelers won't need their services, businesses and expats will find them helpful.

    Phnom Pehn Office: Villa No 85c , 313 Street Beoung Kak 2 Ward, Toul Kork Dist, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Tel : (855-23)-883 901/ 902 Fax : (855-23)-889 888

    Siem Reap Office: #No 3c, Top Town Road Salakanseng Ward, Siem Reap Dist, Siem Reap Province. Tel :(855-63)-964 648 Fax :(855-63)-964 649

Excess Baggage Cambodia

World Angkor Transport

  1. World Angkor Transport: This company just might come in handy for the over-eager souvenir shopper who couldn't stop themselves from loading up at the Siem Reap Night Market. World Angkor can arrange shipping for your excess baggage at a rate that claim they can beat most airlines excess bag fees (Korean Air, which flies out of Siem Reap to Seoul, for example, charges $140 US for a third bag weighing up to 32kg). The also provide freight services both air and sea and also offer baggage insurance. They have a service center in the Phnom Penh International Airport in the check-in area as well as in Siem Reap office but in town, not at the airport.

    Phnom Penh Office: In the Airport, Tel: (855) 236-320-338

    Siem Reap Office: Salakanseng Village, Svay Dongkum, Siem Reap, Tel: (855) 63-966-210

How To Ensure You Get Your Mail in Cambodia

There are a few things that you can do to help ensure that packages, no matter how they are sent, reach you. For postal service delivery, it is often best to go to your local EMS office and ask it be held for you so that you can come there to collect it. Still, the following tips will help ensure your get your mail in Cambodia.
  1. There is no postal or zip codes in Cambodia. But, as a colleague in India found out, DHL won't ship without a postal code and the local India office was no help in finding it. After talking to DHL I found out you can use PHN (as in Phnom Penh) as the postal code for shipping anywhere in Cambodia.

  2. Include a landmark. So a typical USA address looks like this and gets delivered:
    Susan Anthony
    50 University Ave
    Des Moines, ID 34051

    Your chances of getting your mail delivered in Cambodia increase if the address looks something like this:
    Susan Anthony
    013 Sivutha Street
    Near Takata Guesthouse
    Stung Thmei Commune
    Siem Reap Town
    Siem Reap Province
    Cambodia, PHN

  3. Put your local contact number on the package very clearly! This is one of the most important parts of ensuring you get your package! If your number is clearly visible then EMS or DHL can contact you if they cannot find you or, if rather that trying to find you, they want you to come and pick up the package. We actually make sure two numbers are listed on each package that is sent so that in a scenario where one of us loses our phone that we can still be reached. Even to have that proper address and not to have a working, local number where you can be reached is to risk never getting your package (we actually had a DHL package get returned to India because they had not included our phone number as we'd requested).

  4. Put the local shipping office number on the package, too! If you are shipping DHL, for example, include the local branch (say, Siem Reap) on the package, too.

  5. Finally, make sure that what you are sending is allowed by checking out the Cambodian import restrictions. Most of the restrictions are understandable, but tobacco and perfume are also restricted items for mail import to Cambodia.

Just to note, UPS and TNT both offer shipping from Cambodia with offices in Phnom Penh and there are a few more courier services you can try. We've put together a further list for you below and also included information on cities outside Siem Reap and Phnom Pehn, but be warned we haven't used any of these companies personally, nor have we heard any reviews of their Cambodian services. If you've used any of them, leave us a comment and let us know your experiences.

Battambang Shipping

Cambodia Express Group Inc.
No. 715, Group 29, Prek Mohatep Village, Sangkat Svay Por, Battambang City, Battambang. Tel: (855) 016 888 053, (855) 016 953 653 (they also have a Phnom Pehn office, and we are pretty sure they ship through DHL/FedEx to the west)

TNT also has an branch in Battambang. We are waiting for TNT's office in Phnom Pehn to e-mail us the contact information for this, so we'll update this ASAP.

Phnom Penh Shipping

Outside of some of the other companies with addresses and information already listed, you can also check out these reputable shippers.

JVK International Movers Ltd, No. 27 Street 134, Sangkat, Vealvong, Khann 7, Markara Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Tel.: 855-23-724-746

TNT Express Worldwide
No. 28, Preah Monivong (St. 93), 12201, Phnom Penh, Tel: (855) 023 430 922

Sihanoukville Shipping

TNT has a branch here. We are waiting for TNT's office in Phnom Pehn to e-mail us the contact information for this, so we'll update this ASAP.

Siem Reap Shipping

Outside of some of the other companies with addresses and information already listed, you can also check out these reputable shippers.

TNT Express Worldwide
Located near the Old Market next to the Ta Phrom Hotel. Tel: (855) 063-963758 We are waiting for TNT's office in Phnom Pehn to e-mail us and confirm these phone numbers, so we'll update this ASAP.

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Angkor Area Map

Trying to figure out which wat is what?

Here is a handy (and easily printable) map of the Angkor Wat area, including some of the outliers like the Western Baray.  While this map may not what you need to navigate your way, it will help you to identify where these monuments are in relation to one another and help you imagine what this ancient metropolis must have been like.

Angkor Wat Map (Temple Areas)

Click on the image above to access the full-size (and printable)

Curious about Angkor Wat?  Check out some of our articles on this spectacular testament to humanity's ability, or preview it by reading what Wiki has to say about things:

As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation – first Hindu, dedicated to the god Vishnu, then Buddhist. It is the world's largest religious building. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia, appearing on its national flag, and it is the country's prime attraction for visitors. Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple mountain and the later galleried temple, based on early South Indian Hindu architecture, with key features such as the Jagati. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology: within a moat and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres (2.2 mi) long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas (guardian spirits) adorning its walls.

The modern name, Angkor Wat, means "City Temple"; Angkor is a vernacular form of the word nokor (នគរ), which comes from the Sanskrit word nagar (नगर), Thai, Nakon, meaning capital or city. Wat is the Khmer word for temple (and also in Thai). Prior to this time the temple was known as Preah Pisnulok, after the posthumous title of its founder, Suryavarman II.

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Visiting Phnom Kulen, Cambodia

Southeast Asia Travel Advice has just launched a YouTube channel!  Now you can see Southeast Asia Travel Advice!  Any destination guides will be posted on our site here, so no need to go far.  We hope you find them helpful and enjoyable, and our plan is to post about one per month for the rest of this year.

The inaugural video (outside footage of the recent flooding in Siem Reap) is a destination guide to Phnom Kulen.  Check out the video, then pack your bags and come to Cambodia to see it in person!

Phnom Kulen

Phnom Kulen is where the Angkorian era “officially” began, with Jayavarman II initiated the cult of the king, a linga cult, in what is dated as 804 CE and declaring his independence from Java of whom the Khmer had Photobucketbeen a vassalage state (whether this is actually "Java" or "Lava" (a Lao kingdom) is debated, as well as the legend that he was earlier held as a ransom of the kingdom in Java.  An inscription from the Sdok Kak Thom temple recounts that on the top of the Kulen Hills, Jayavarman instructed a Brahman priest named Hiranhadama to conduct a religious ritual known as the cult of the devajara (Khmer: ទេវរាជា) which placed him as a chakravartin, universal monarch. The cult established him as the supreme ruler of the land, and therefore he succeeded in unifying the country--basically, he brought Cambodia into existence.

  See our video above or visit our earlier article about Phnom Kulen to learn more.
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Bantaey Chmar, The Mystery of Cambodia

Bantaey Chmar Temple

Banteay Chmar is 12th century a not often visited temple ruin in Northerwestern Cambodia quite near the volatile Thai border.  The ruin itself will immediately look familiar.  It is one of two known temples with the mysteriously smiling four-faced deity, Avalokitesvara, staring into the cardinal directions.  This Bodhisattva, or Buddhist salvation figure, is better known throughout Southeast Asia in the form he took on after passing into China through Tibet—Guan Yin, the Goddess of Compassion.  He was reimported into Southeast Asia in female form through Chinese influence and she is a significant deity in Vietnamese and Cambodian Buddhism.

The other temple with this same memorable face is the spectacular Angkor Thom, usually one of the first temples visited at the complexes north of Siem Reap.  Banteay Chmar also resembles the temple known as Bayon: its outer gallery is carved with bas-reliefs  similar to those found at Bayon.  There is a reason for this resemblance—their builder was the same, and likely many of the artisans who built these more visited temples also worked on the carvings at Banteay Chmar.

Jayavarman VII, The God-King

Like the smile of Avalokitesvara, Banteay Chmar is a mysterious place.  It is believed to have been constructed by the prolific builder Jayavarman VII. It is known to have housed the largest Buddhist monastery of Angkorian times, but the purpose of its construction remains a mystery.   Jayavarman VII rose to power after the Khmer kingdom was reduced to shambles by Cham invasions from the East and some theorize that this temple was built as an offering to thank the Gods for the Khmers’ triumph over their enemies.  Whether this is the case or not may never been known.  What is know, however, is that Jayavarman VII was the second Buddhist Khmer king, and his identification with Avalokitesvara indicates that unlike the majority of Khmer today, Jayavarman was a Mahayana Buddhist.

Like previous and subsequent Hindu kings, he sought to assume the role of devaraja, “God-King.”  These mysteriously smiling faces bear a striking resemblance to the king himself.    After consolidating his own power he embarked on many great construction projects in part to solidify his position as God King.  These construction projects would continue to transform Khmer society.  Requiring hundreds of thousands of workers, all of whom came to a centralized location to work, he helped continue the urbanize the kingdom.  Ta Prohm,  Preah Khan, Bayon,  Angkor Thom, Neak Pean  are among his other constructions, and perhaps except for the last, they all bear some similarity to Bantaey Chmar.  Visiting Bantaey Chmar is, however, singularly unique.

Its size is not readily apparent, but Bantaey Chmar’s outer enclosure, mostly tumbled down, is 1.9 by 1.7 km and that is surrounded by a moat that still holds water in the rainy season.  To the east is a dried out baray—a man-made lake.  Unlike the “Western Baray” west of Siem Reap, which still holds water some 800 years after its construction, the one at Bantaey Chmar is merely an impression.  Within the first enclosure, there is a middle enclose mostly standing.

Within the middle enclosure, and surrounding the main temple, is the inner wall that features some of the most beautiful bas-reliefs of any Cambodian temples with only Bayon and Angkor rivaling them.  These carvings provide a snapshot back in time just like the paintings of the Flemish or Italians give us a glimpse into Western culture.  The reliefs depict religious deities but also martial scenes and dipictions of everyday life, frozen in stone for over 800 years.  Scenes of going to market, working, and fishing line the same walls as Buddhas of compassion and military campaigns.

Daily Life and Tomb Raiders

Notable is the relief of Avalokitesvara and the propitiation scenes of villagers delivering up offerings.  They enforce the idea that the God King needed these rice offerings to feel his army of temple builders as well as secure the kingdom and fend off Cham invaders.  And of course, there are the every present Apsara dancers, of the celestial dancers of the Royal Court.  It was reported that the Cham’s kidnapped the court’s Apsaras in the raids before  Jayavarman VII repealed them.  No doubt their depiction here had an added significance to contemporary viewers.  It was their God-King who had returned the Celestial Dancers.  It modern times, however, it has largely been the Thais who have been stealing Apsaras.

Relief of Avalokitesvara

Since the end of the Khmer Rouge period, Bantaey Chmar has been heavily looted   Bantaey Chmar was listed on the World Heritage’s Watch Sites three times between 1998 and 2002.  A decade ago large portions of the western gallery wall were removed by looters, resulting in the loss of six of the Avilokitesvara reliefs.  Cambodians claim it was the Thais who did it.  Whether this particular accusation is true or is merely a part of Cambodia’s ongoing rivalry with its bigger neighbor is unknown, but certainly many Khmer artifacts can be found in Thai antiques stores as well as Cambodian ones.  Be cautious, however, and buying Angkorian artifacts no matter where you are.  The United States has a reparation policy with Cambodia, and bring these ancient artifacts into the United States without the proper import approval is illegal.  This important legislation gave a way for these “tomb raiders” to prosecuted for their real crimes against humanity—deriving the whole world the opportunity to experience these sites intact.

Preservation intends to change visitor dynamics as well as tomb raiders.  While not planning on heavily restoring it like the structures of Angkor Thom or Angkor Wat, it will be preserved as a ruin.  However,  a suspended cable platform is planned, turning a visit to the ruin into touring it on a walkway.

Visiting Bantaey Chmar

Currently, however there are no suspended walkways and only one viewing platform made out of roughly hewn two-by-fours.  There are not even the lurking guides who will give you a tour for a dollar or children selling guide books.  There are a few Khmer boys who take your entrance fee—expect to pay $5 or $10.  That is because there are not many ways to get to Bantaey Chmar, meaning that tourists rarely visit it.  Some days none come at all, and sometimes there may be two groups of two or three.  It is also too far out of the way to attract locale Khmer for a picnic stop.  That means that here you find the idyllic peace that looking at a photograph of Ta Prom can give you—a sense of abandonment, of solitude.

What you will actually find at Ta Prom is someone asking you to please move your elbow as it is in their shot, or waiting an interminable long time to take a photo while couple after couple has their picture taken infront of that “haunting scene” you wanted to capture.  The sounds at Bantaey Chmar will be of the birds singing, of a passing tractor, of insects humming.  Those God-Eyes staring serenely out over a largely tumbled down temple help one survey the history that stands before you, penetrated by trees and touched by time.  You often will have the entire grounds to yourself.  Outside a few shaky structures (that is what the single viewing platform is for), nothing is roped off.  Your access if unfettered.  Surely this would destroy the ruins if the hordes of Angkor stamped through here.  As it is, it is an abandoned ancient ruin far in the Cambodian countryside.

One can’t be completely free, however, and there are grim reminders on the way there.  Roadside landmine warning sighs with their “Death Symbol” mark areas just outside the outer moat’s walls.  This area of the country is among the most heavily mined in Cambodia.  The temple compound has been cleared of  mines, but you should not explore too far afield from the middle enclosure.  It is a real danger—landmines left by the Khmer Rouge still kill and main hundreds in Cambodia every year.

Most visitors reach this largely ignored temple through Sisaphon, a small, nondescript town about an hour east of the Thai border-crossing at Poipet.  It offers a single hotel and a few guesthouses that really are extra rooms rented out to travelers, most of them locals.  Don’t expect English to be spoken.  Adventurous travelers who don’t plan ahead can stay at one of these accommodations and make the trip the following day.  It can easily be reached by bus or taxi from the Arayanaprathet/Poipet border-crossing, about an hour drive east, and it makes an excellent stop to break up the right from Siem Reap to Bangkok.  It is located about one hour and forty-five minutes west of Siem Reap.

Road to Bantaey Chmar
Finding you way the next morning usually involved finding your way back to where you were dropped off—in front of the Golden Crown Hotel.  At a small junction in front of the only real hotel in town is usually where you will find moto drivers, the taxi cab drivers of Cambodia.  There are few tuk-tuks to be seen in Sisaphon, not that they could take the treacherous dirt roads to Bantaey Chmar.  Only four-wheel drives, bikes, oxen and other farm equipment ply these roads, and unless you planned ahead you will be going there on the back of a Khmer’s motorcycle.  Be prepared to be uncomfortable, and if you can bring a face mask or a bandana, you will appreciate it.

In the monsoon season, mostly between May and November, it can be at times unreachable.  When it is, even during these rainy times, you will be showered by clouds of red dust.  Sunglasses and something to cover your mouth and nose are not essential, but they are recommended.  For the adventurous, the ride there can be as exhilarating as the ancient ruins.  Of course, your drivers should fill up with at least a Johnny Walker bottle’s worth of petrol.

For those seeking something a little more chaperoned but just as adventurous, you can arrange homestays through the French NGO Agir Pour le Cambodge.  You can also make arrangements with tour operators in Siem Reap to make the journey from Siem Reap and make in the day (a long day) in a four-wheel drive or even rent a dirt bike in order to make your own trip or even make arrangements for a stay in Sisaphon with transportation.

However you get to Bantaey Chmar, it is worth the effort.  And while the preservation features planned for it will protect it for generations to come, for the moment you can walk through its ruined corridors and look at the images of ancient God Kings, alone, and it feels, if only for a minute, you are standing in a place that has only been touched by time.
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A Smart Traveler’s History of Cambodia, Pt. 1

This is the beginning of a three-part installment of "A Smart Traveler’s History of Cambodia.  Part one is "From the Beginning of the Common Era to the End of the Angkorian Period."  In part two, we'll cover the end of Angkor up to the end of the Khmer Rouge.  The last part will be an up-to-date travelers current events for Cambodia.  We hope you learn lots and enjoy!

Indic Influence in Cambodia

Cambodia has a long past that continues to shadow it.  There are the sleepy placid faces of the Jayavarman VII of Angkor Thom and the stricken, stark black and white photos that line the walls of Tong Sleng prison, and waving, happy royalty.  When most of us encounter a country like Cambodia, we are left with the taste of history in our mouths, as complex as any kroeung, the classically Cambodian curry. Even this common dish reflects the deep pool of history.

Khmer cooking mirrors the history of this Southeast Asian kingdom from ancient influences of Vedic cooking to a modern legacy of fine breads borrowed from their French colonizers. Chilies were introduced into Southeast Asia in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Kroeung is a specifically Khmer blend of curry; it was not only religion that was imported from India, but also the art of blending spices (via Java). Kroeung forms the essence of Khmer cuisine with its more subtle flavors and distinguishes it from that of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.

At about the beginning of Common Era, Cambodians underwent a process of cultural change as they imported “great traditions” from the Indian subcontinent. Today, travelers may still see much closer cultural affinities between South India and Cambodia than nearby Vietnam. Food is eaten with the hand and soup spoon, not chopsticks. Rural peoples wear turbans, their classically Khmer krormas. Larger krormas are often wore in the styles of dhotis or they wear lungis. The Khmer writing system, aksar Khmer, was borrowed from the Vedic script probably before India itself had been completely Sanskritized. Power Hindu kingdoms were established in Sumatra and the Indonesian islands that exerted strong Indic influence indirectly. Much like South Asia, leaders of particular martial prowess supplemented with religious stagemanship were able to carve out kingdoms of increasing expanse and sophistication and increasingly they relied on Indian notions of the devaraja, or god-king, and Sanskrit justifications for the institute of divine rule. 

Various principalities rose and fell. However, about the same time that a strong Indic influence was being felt in Cambodia there rose to power one of the first recorded dynasty's of Cambodia, a kingdom known to the Chinese at the Funan. The Funan court was large enough and wealthy enough to offer gifts to the empirial court of China towards the middle half of the second century Common Era and claimed its origins in an inspired Indian brahman, Kaundinya. Archeological records and Chinese accounts inform us it was a Siva-worshipping state, but its relative strength and prominence among its neighbor states is less well known.

The monuments that make up the gem of Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple structures begin to appear nearly a thousand years after the Common Era, when a great succession of Khmer kings controlled a centralized and powerful empire. The Angkorean period is generally dated between 802 CE and 1431 CE. The beginning date is marked by the claim of Jayavarman II to the title of devaraja and "universal monarch" (chakravartin) among the present day Kulen Hills. Through a program of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants, he achieved a unification of the country bordered by China to the north, Champa (now Central Vietnam) to the east, the ocean to the south and a place identified by a stone inscription as "the land of cardamoms and mangoes" to the west. Phnom Kulen, an hour trip into jungle and countryside from Siem Reap, still contains some of the oldest Angkorian ruins as well as river lingas and other features carved into the riverbeds, early examples of what would emerge as the cultural brilliance of this early Khmer empire.

Angkorean History

The kingdom of Jayavarman and his successors were not the only contenders of a great empire struggle that took place throughout Southeast Asia. Mon-Khmer kingdoms of the Burmese and Khmer, the Thai kingdoms, the Malay-related Champas, the Vietnamese, and the Malay kingdoms of Melacca and Sumatra. The Javanese were powerful through insular Southeast Asia and the mountains of Laos came to be home of the Lan Xang kingdom. 

Phnom Kulen ruins
The Thais and Champa each operated considerable influence over Cambodia, and one that can still be seen in playing out in contemporary Cambodian foreign relations with Cambodia and its neighbors. The Thai and Champa invasions and counter-invasions, the pushing the line of control back against the Champa kingdom and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, were central in shaping the Khmer kingdom. Indeed the devaraja was seen as a protector—Jayavarman literally translates from Sanskrit into “Victory+Protection.” The Angkorian dynasty eventually fell to the predation of the Ayutthaya kingdom, a Thai kingdom centered near present-day Bangkok. Within less than a century they climbed to power, and eventually in 1431 they sacked the great Khmer capital of Angkor. Today, border, cooperation and trade relations with Thailand and dominate the Cambodian news and continue to occupy present-day Cambodians. While the current regime has been hostile to the Thai democrats, it remains close to the ruling Vietnamese government as well as the Thai populist movement. 

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonlé Sap). The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together, they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually. In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core. The principal temple of the Angkorian region, Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II.

Check in next week for the second part, "From the End of Angkor to the End of the Khmer Rouge."
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