Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Educational Summer Vacation: Studying Cambodia

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As it happened, we had 6 free weeks this summer and I have 6 kids, so each one picked a different country of the world to learn about for a week. It gives us some structure for the summer, and we find ourselves doing, eating, and learning things we probably never would have otherwise.

My 7-year-old knew right away which country he wanted to pick: a classmate of his from Cambodia last year talked about her country for show-and-tell and it must've made quite the impression on him!


The first thing we did was pull out our crayons and make the Cambodian flag. My 13-year-old copied down the temple in the middle and the 5- and 7-year-old colored around it. 

While researching, we saw several claims online that Cambodia is the only flag that features a building and the kids were all like, "Nuh-uh! We just did Afghanistan and their flag has a mosque." So they're learning something, evidently.

While I read Cambodia from the Countries We Come From series, the kids found Cambodia on the map and filled out their passports. I started keeping the kids' pages from year to year because of their cute handwriting and misspellings, but even if you just throw them away afterward it still gets them searching the map and thinking about what's on there.

(We have this big wall map and the passport pages are a free printable here.)

We then watched Cambodia from the Globe Trekker series. I don't know how many of these videos there are, but we've seen at least a dozen of them. The host - who's starting to feel like a personal friend of mine after all this time - essentially takes you along on a vacation to a different country every episode. My teenager thinks he's funny.

In Cambodian folk tales, you'll come across an interesting character called Judge Rabbit. For a bedtime story, we read Judge Rabbit and the Tree Spirit by Lina Mao Wall. 

The moral of the Judge Rabbit stories seems to be that ignorance and pride get you nowhere. Not sure if my kids got that message, but they enjoyed the pictures regardless.


It's a little hard to find online resources to learn Khmer, the language of Cambodia, but we did our best today.

First we learned a few Khmer phrases from this guy, and then we learned to count from 1 to 10 here. Khmer is by far the easiest language to remember numbers in, because it essentially goes 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 5-1, 5-2, 5-3, 5-4, 10. Easy, right?

Khmer (also called Cambodian) shares a lot of features with Thai, which my kids remembered from last summer. They have a similar script and share a general sound, but Khmer isn't a tonal language like Thai is.

We watched someone writing in Khmer to see what the script looks like, and then learned just a little about the alphabet. Khmer has the longest alphabet in the world, actually, with 74 letters (although some of them aren't currently used.)

You can print off a coloring page here, but my kids chose to use some of these handwriting practice worksheets from Facebook instead.

The 15-year-old.

The 9-year-old.

The 7-year-old.


Cambodia is probably most famous for Angkor Wat, the ancient stone temple that is positively gigantic. The Khmer Empire built it in the 12th century, but they died out and the city of Angkor was completely lost to the jungle.

Some French explorer randomly stumbled upon it 900 years later, probably looking for somewhere private to go to the bathroom. What would it have been like to be that guy?

We watched this mini-documentary on Angkor and then saw some 4K videos of Angkor Wat to get a feel for what it's like to visit there.

It wasn't the greatest quality YouTube video you'll ever see, but the kids liked watching the traditional Apsara dancers at Angkor Wat here.

Originally, Angkor Wat was a Hindu temple, but it was later converted to a Buddhist temple as Buddhism became the main religion of the area.

We reviewed what we knew with Buddhism from the DK Eyewitness Books series, and then did some Buddhist-style meditation with the help of a guided meditation script for me to read out loud. 

The older teens said they almost fell asleep (which is good, I think?) and the 7-year-old sneaked out in the middle to go play Minecraft, so I think I know now where each of my kids falls in terms of mindfulness.

For dinner, we had this Khmer curry. I had really high hopes after reading the recipe: it had great explanations, pictures of unfamiliar ingredients (I often have to Google them), and promised to be "not too out of reach for the average American home cook."


Sadly, it did not live up to my expectations.

It took a long time to make, and the shrimp paste it called for smelled SO BAD. Like, think of the worst thing you've ever smelled and then ferment it, and that might give you sort of an idea of what shrimp paste smells like. I now have an entire bottle of the stuff in my fridge and I'm afraid to get rid of it, worrying that if I throw it in the trash it will leach out and poison the water supply.


For a bedtime story, I read a cute folk tale about four jungle animals called The Last King of Angkor Wat by Graeme Base. The kids liked it and the pictures were pretty.


After the Khmer empire died out in the 1400s, the French colonized Cambodia. You can still see French influence and names around the country, and some people still speak French in addition to Khmer.

A particularly gory part of Cambodia's history came next, when a communist group known as the Khmer Rouge (French for "red Khmers") took over in 1975. 

In four years, they killed 2 million people: a fifth of the population of Cambodia. Because of that and also civil war afterward, half the country is under 25.

I read the picture book A Half Spoon of Rice by Icy Smith was a compelling story (I could tell because they were listening very, very quietly) and gives some historical context in the back. A Song for Cambodia by Michelle Lord is about the power of music for a young boy who was allowed to play  for the soldiers during the time of the Khmer Rouge, so we next decided to look up the instrument he played which was called the khim.

(A little freeze dancing to this video of someone playing the khim is a great way to burn off some nervous energy if necessary after all that.)

In 1993, the civil wars were finally over and a king started ruling Cambodia. You can see pictures of the royal palance in Phnom Pehn if you look them up online. Today, it's a peaceful and friendly country, although still poor and recovering from years of hardship.


In Cambodia, no one celebrates birthdays. Some older people don't even know their exact age. (My 13-year-old says that makes more sense than having a party every year for doing nothing other than continuing to exist.)

Funerals, on the other hand, are multi-day affairs that get very, very expensive. In a country where the average monthly salary is $100, the average funeral costs $9,000. Families pool together their life savings, and funeral attendees traditionally give the hosts a gift of money to offset the costs.

The most important holiday in Cambodia is Khmer New Year, which happens on April 13 after the rice harvest is over. It lasts for three full days. On the first day, they clean house and play traditional New Year games. 

We searched this list and played the most popular game, Leak Konsaeng. The kids described it as a Cambodian version of Duck, Duck, Goose.

A second important holiday is Cambodia is the water festival, which celebrates the retreat of floodwater from a large lake named Tonle Sap. 

We watched this video about the "floating villages" on Tonle Sap (although they aren't really floating, they're houses built on stilts):

On the first day of the water festival, there are illuminated boat parades and boat races with these ridiculously long boats that seat upwards of 70 people. On the second day, people give thanks to the moon and go to the temple at midnight to eat a rice dish called ambok.

We totally tried making it. My 9-year-old, who was still in a bad mood because she got yelled at for hitting her brother too hard during the New Year's game earlier (you're supposed to hit but it's supposed to be more of a playful tap than a concussion,) helped make it.

We didn't do the staying up until midnight part, though. We had the ambok for lunch. 

One thing we didn't get to, which we still might do because it looks fun, is making fish amok for dinner. Traditionally it's served in little banana leaf baskets, and I think the kids would have fun trying to make them with aluminum foil, but it ain't happening this week!

Lastly, here's a list of books about Cambodia or set in Cambodia that I left out for the kids to read as we studied the country:
Thanks for joining us for the sixth and final week of The Educational Summer Vacation 2021! We'll be back with more next year, if my kids have anything to say about it. 

For any complaining they do, they always seem eager to pick new countries the next summer and put more flags up on our wall.

Learning about Cambodia is fun and hands-on with these free crafts, ideas, and activities for kids! #Cambodia #angkor #khmer #educational
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Terra Heck said...

I think it's great that you have the kids study a country each week. I had plans on going to Cambodia in 2020 for a 2-week mission trip. Covid nixed that in the bud. I did not know that info about birthdays and funerals...interesting.

Emily said...

These are awesome resources! My husband is from Cambodia so I've been trying to celebrate Khmer New Year with the kids every year and these are great ideas to help me with things to do so they can learn about one of their nationalities :)