Wild Cambodia Travel Tips from 700-year-old Chinese Explorer

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A new travel guide helps tourists experience Angkor—the magnificent jungle capital of ancient Cambodia—as it was 700 years ago. In 1296 AD, Chinese explorer Zhou Daguan wrote an eyewitness account of the wealthy city, and now a new translation reveals that visitors can still see what he saw…if they know where to look!

Customs of Cambodia–Zhou Daguan translated by Solang and Beling Uk

“Customs of Cambodia–Zhou Daguan” translated by Solang and Beling Uk

Surprisingly, the best guide to Angkor may be a 700-year-old Chinese traveler whose newly translated notes reveal myriad travel tips that remain unchanged through the centuries.

Hidden in the jungles of Cambodia, Angkor was the wealthy capital of the Khmer Empire when it dominated Southeast Asia from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Today, hundreds of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples still attract adventurous pilgrims seeking to rediscover the secrets of this lost kingdom. Surprisingly, the best and most unlikely guide may be a 700-year-old Chinese traveler whose notes reveal myriad travel tips and observations that remain unchanged through the centuries.

Our story began in 1296 AD when adventurer Zhou Daguan spent a year in Angkor as part of a diplomatic mission sent by Chinese Emperor Temür Khan. Zhou diligently recorded intriguing—sometimes bizarre—aspects of the country’s complex society and royal court, with subtle details of the kingdom’s customs, religion, flora and fauna. For example, the opening of his account of a royal procession:

“During my stay of over a year, I have seen this king go out four or five times. Every time he goes out, there are horse-mounted troops in front, and flag carriers, drummers and musicians at the rear. There are three to five hundred palace women wearing floral patterned dresses, with flowers inserted in their hair buns, and they carry huge candles and form their own group. The candles are lit even in bright daylight.”

Zhou carefully divided his records into forty topics as follows: The City Perimeter; Palace and Housing; Clothing and Jewelry; Officials; The Three Religions; The People; Women Giving Birth; Maidens; Slaves; Language; Wild Men; Writing; New Year and Calendar Order; Disputes and Litigation; Illnesses and Skin Diseases; Death; Cultivation; Mountains and Rivers; Produce; Trade; Desirable Chinese Goods; Plants and Trees; Flying Birds; Walking Animals; Vegetables; Fish and Dragons; Fermenting Alcohol; Salt, Vinegar, Soy Paste and Qu; Silkworms and Mulberry Trees; Utensils; Carts and Palanquins; Boats and Oars; Provinces; Villages; Collecting Gall Bladders; An Extraordinary Story; Bathing; Immigration; The Army; and finally The King’s Movements Out and Into the Palace.

A little more than a century after his visit the empire collapsed for unknown reasons that scholars still debate. Today, Zhou’s words are the only surviving eyewitness account of Cambodian life at its dazzling peak in the final years of the mysterious 13th century.

Fast forward to the 21st century when retired Cambodian scientist Solang Uk and his Chinese-born micro-biologist wife Beling began a multi-year project translating one of the earliest copies of Zhou’s account into English. With a personal knowledge of Chinese and Cambodian culture, language and geography, their new translation clarifies hundreds of puzzles relating to each of Zhou’s forty topics that had previously been unresolved for centuries.

Their project achieved perfection when renowned author and mathematician Amir D. Aczel agreed to contribute a foreword to their book. Like the translators, Aczel also followed the ancient traveler’s footsteps pursuing his lifetime goal of discovering who invented the abstract concept of “zero.” Aczel found his answer in Cambodia, as revealed in his best-selling book “Finding Zero.”

Their new edition of “Customs of Cambodia–Zhou Daguan” from DatAsia Press is now available. It includes more than 100 full-color illustrations and fascinating annotations relevant for all modern visitors to Cambodia. For the first time, unidentified places, titles, plants, animals and other details come to life, giving readers the most accurate vision of the ancient Khmer Empire through the ancient eyes of Zhou Daguan.

DatAsia Press specializes in publishing exceptional fiction and non-fiction books relating to the history, art, literature and culture of Southeast Asia—Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. DatAsia books are available online from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for worldwide delivery.

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Kent Davis
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