When you first step into Cambodia, you are thrown into a bustle of life and vibrancy. Especially if you have never explored South East Asia before you may feel overwhelmed, but once you get past the initial burst of culture, the feeling is incredible! There are definitely unmistakable characteristics that make every inch of your body know that you are in Asia, but once you delve a little deeper you start to uncover the elements that make Cambodia just so wonderfully special.
If I were to ask you to think of a symbol of Cambodia, most would straight away most think of the temple Angkor Wat. Why wouldn’t your mind go to such an iconic structure, that transports you back in history with its intricate carvings and meticulous design. However what makes the country unique are their 7 national symbols for flower, mammal, tree, fruit, fish, reptile and bird.
(Photo by The Culture trip)
Romduol became the national flower in 2005 by the proclamation of royal decree by King Sihamoni. The plant has a yellowish-white flower with a single alternate leaf, a height of 8 to 12 metres, and edible fruits clustering with dark-red color when ripened. Romduol can be found almost everywhere in Cambodia and has a number of uses. The stem can be used in construction materials and firewood, but as it gives out an attractive smell in the late afternoon and evening, in ancient times Khmer people liked to use it to produce lip waxes. Another traditional belief since ancient times, is that Cambodian women are often compared to the Romduol flower because of its attractive fragrance.
The Kouprey which is similar to a large ox is native to Cambodia and is also their national mammal. Though thought to be living in the north and extinct in any area outside of Cambodia, some believe there could be as little as 250 left or that they have actually become extinct already. The Kouprey is characterised by distinctive features such as; strong robust appearance, powerful, fast moving, gentle temperament, calm towards other animals, resistant to sunshine and diseases, and has a sense of well-being. Due to these features the mammal was declared a national heritage symbol in the 1960s and is still regarded highly.
(Photo by Into Cambodia)
Now the national tree of Cambodia, can actually be recognised all across South East Asia called the Tnaot (Khmer), or Borassus flabellifer which is a type of palm tree. The palm is a popular plant representing Khmer society, because it shows the extent of Khmer territory from ancient times till today. The expression goes that “sugar palm tree is a shelter of Khmer house”. This relationship between history and the national tree was taught to me within my first few days in Cambodia as I stood gazing up at an impressive palm. Since that day I found myself seeing all these palms and daydreaming about there being one big enough to provide shelter for the entire country.
(Photo by Khmer Times)
When I sat down to write this blog I knew most of the national symbols, but didn’t know there was a national fruit. I also did not know there were more types of banana than just small or big…. Turns out there is a banana called the Chicken Egg Banana! Maybe the greatest name for a banana that grows alongside the Mekong river. The reasons for choosing Chicken Egg Banana as a national symbol was due to the numerous benefits it has to Khmer society. The crop provides income to the farmers, the stump is a source of flour, the stem can be cut off to feed animals or used as string, the flowers can be used as fresh vegetables or for cooking, and of course the banana itself is delicious…especially when they are cooked as fritters!!
(Image by Alchetron)
The mighty Mekong runs down through Cambodia and is home to their national fish, the Giant Mekong Barb. The Mekong is 1 of 3 rivers the barb can be found in, which is a whopping 150-300 Kg with a length of 2-3m. Unfortunately it is critically endangered, which prompted the Kingdom of Cambodia to designate this fauna as the national fish in 2005 to bring conservation awareness to this species.
(Photo by WCS)
Another national symbol that was recognised to help bring awareness to the endangered species, is the Royal Turtle. It is a striking looking reptile, with a black or grey shell, straight up nose shape and bright white eyes. In ancient times, it was protected by a royal decree with people collecting their eggs from January to March for the Royal Family, hence the name Royal Turtle. Now they are being protected in the mangrove forests from Kep to Koh Kong.
(Photo by Jonathan C Eames)
The Giant Ibis has been written about in popular Khmer songs and traditional tales and is the country’s national bird. Cambodia people believe that the bird is very intelligent, knowing that if they fail to hunt in a place, they will never come to that place again. It is said that their morning calls connect to the heart of Cambodian farmers for their first love, as well as simply telling them it is time for going to the fields. If you ever do hear their call, I can tell you now that it will definitely get you out of bed in the morning!
From bananas to turtles, the national symbols do cover an array of fascinating organisms that Cambodia has to offer. However as you make your own journeys and discoveries around the country, you will no doubt uncover hundreds more than will then turn into your very own symbols of Cambodia.