While we’ve already explored some of Southeast Asia’s most fascinating countries, there’s something about Cambodia that transcends expectations and enchants visitors – both first timers and seasoned travellers.
- Cambodia Capital: Phnom Penh
- Largest City in Cambodia: Phnom Penh
- Cambodia Population (2016): 15,626,444 (70th)
- Total Area of Cambodia: 181,035 km2 (88th)
- Official Language of Cambodia: Khmer
- Cambodia Currency: US dollar ($) (USD) – de facto
History of Cambodia
Early civilization in Cambodia was characterized by a variety of tribes and settlements, with organized trade prevalent around 400 BCE. It wasn’t until about seven centuries later (3rd century CE) when more advanced civilization took shape – in the form of the Funan and Chenla states (Indian influenced kingdoms which also stretched into Vietnam). The Chenla kingdom eventually splintered, with the ‘land’ and ‘water’ realms ruled separately (and weaker for it).
The Khmer Empire
By 802 a new power had risen – the strong Khmer Empire. Ruled by a God-king who inspired cultish devotion, the Empire captured much of the region over the next six centuries from their capital city of Angkor. By the 12th century, the Khmer Empire was the preeminent force in Southeast Asia and Angkor had grown to become what is now considered the largest pre-industrial city in the world. This golden age of Cambodia also saw Buddhism become the dominant religion of the land, taking over from the already established Hinduism.
Dark Times for Cambodia
Moving into the 15th century the Khmer Empire was in decline – a decline that was only hastened by the loss of Angkor in 1432. With the loss of their capital, the Empire moved to the city of Longvek and attempted to build a vast maritime trading network. Though this was initially successful, regional wars eventually decimated the kingdom, and Cambodia was (for the most part) broken into a series of smaller states ruled by more powerful neighbours (namely the Vietnamese and Thai).
The French Arrive
In the mid 1800’s, the Thai king signed an agreement with France and Cambodia became a protectorate of the European power. For nearly a century, France ruled in Cambodia, overseeing a period of vast population growth. Despite French rule, the Cambodian monarchy persisted…and it was under King Norodom Sihanouk the transition to independence was completed in 1953.
War…Vietnam and Civil
Independence came with its own set of problems however. Cambodia, now a constitutional monarchy, was unable to regain the Mekong Delta from Vietnam (which had once been part of the Khmer Empire and was still home to many ethnic Khmers). In addition, the Vietnam War had begun in the region and Cambodia found itself caught in the middle. It adopted a policy of neutrality, allowing Vietnamese communists to take sanctuary and transport supplies/arms while also allegedly telling the US they could bomb the communist forces. When the US began this however, now-Prince Sihanouk public condemned the actions – though this was ignored. Eventually, dissatisfaction with the prince’s stance and public anti-US policy angered members of the army who initiated a coup and removed him from power in 1970.
The new regime was staunchly anti-communist and as such had the support of the US. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong however began fighting against the new government to retain Cambodia as a sanctuary. Coupled with the former king urging supports to rise up, a civil war soon began. A new rebel force also formed during this time – the Khmer Rouge. As the communists gained ground, the government leadership became further splintered and dis-unified. In early 1975, the communists defeated the government forces…just as the US forces were evacuating the country.
The Khmer Rouge
Despite many different factions within the communist forces, it was the Khmer Rouge who took control of Phnom Penh (the capital). Taking a cue from Maoist China, the Khmer Rouge implemented a radical agricultural revolution. Cities were evacuated as everyone was sent to work the fields. In addition, the Khmer Rouge and its leader Pol Pot scoured the country for anything Western, including medicine, knowledge, and those who had learned them. The regime also targeted ethnic minorities in a mass genocide. Nearly 1.5 million were executed by the regime while many more died as a result of their policies. The mass graves gave rise to the term ‘Killing Fields’ and many remnants of the atrocities committed still remain today.
End of the Horror
The Khmer Rouge had devastated the country both in loss of life and economically. In addition, they had begun to attack Vietnam (specially the Mekong Delta which they still believed was theirs). This led to a Vietnamese counter-invasion of Cambodia. The occupying army now controlled the country, though they did so through the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). The exiled government(s) formed the CGDK, which included the Khmer Rouge, royalists who still supported Sihanouk, and more. Despite international pressure, Vietnam refused to leave the country. Finally, in 1991, a peace agreement was reached and elections were set – to be overseen and governed by a UN transitional authority (UNTAC).
In 1993 the monarchy was restored (though without real power) and elections were held. However, in 1997 co-PM Hun Sen led a coup to oust many of his rivals and took the mantle of Prime Minster for himself. He remains in power today and is viewed as an autocratic dictator in all respects. Over the years he has outmaneuvered his opponents and built a vast support network including political allies and military forces. However, the country has also begun to heal from the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, with many (though not all) former officials undergoing trials for war crimes. Many concerns remain in Cambodia, however it is not easy to move past the harsh reality that so recently gripped the country.
Cambodian culture is the product of a wide array of influences, ethnicities, and religions. There are also distinct differences between the lowland majority and the hill tribes – though the government has encouraged a shared culture as of late. The culture and architecture of the powerful Khmer Empire has had a profound affect on Cambodia – with remnants of the Angkorian era some of the most enduring images of the country today.
Flag of Cambodia
The Cambodian flag consists of a red band with a two blue bands above and below. In the middle is a depiction of the Angkor Wat, a temple complex from the days of the Khmer Empire and the marquee tourist attraction in the country. The blue symbolizes liberty, cooperation, brotherhood, and the King; the red stands for bravery and the people; and the Angkor Wat represents integrity, justice, heritage, and Buddhism.
Like many nearby countries, rice is the base of nearly every dish. Fish is also popular as are a wide variety of tropical fruits, noodles, and soup. In addition, the century of French rule left a lasting mark on the cuisine, with baguettes commonly served with Cambodian red curry.
Sports in Cambodia
Soccer is popular in Cambodia, though not quite to the same level as some other countries in the wider region. Volleyball is very widely followed in Cambodia, though other activities like basketball, field hockey, bodybuilding, rugby union, baseball, and even cockfighting are popular.
The Cambodian riel may be the official currency of Cambodia, however these days it is not the most widely used. The UN operation in the early 90’s resulted in a large amount of US dollars being injected into the economy. Today, the US dollar is the de facto currency, though riel notes are used for values smaller than $1 (as American coins are not in circulation). While our Currency Spotlight this week focuses on the US dollar, you should know that some more rural areas might operate in riel (though you can still use smaller domination US$ bills).
Geography of Cambodia
Cambodia is a completely tropical country, feauturing large lowland plains with highlands and small mountains surrounding it. In addition, the country also features a 443-kilometre coastline along the Gulf of Thailand as well as parts of the vast Mekong River Delta. The Tonle Sap (translates to ‘Great Lake) rests at the heart of the country and is home to a large amount of rice cultivation.
Cities in Cambodia
The largest city in Cambodia is by far the nations capital – Phnom Penh. Prior to the wars of the late 20th century, it was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the region, though many of the French architectural wonders are still around today. Over 1.5 million live in the city, with Battambang (the second largest city) home to under 200,000.
Facts about Cambodia
- The Cambodian flag is the only one in the world that features a building
- In Phnom Penh (1.5 million people), there are 1.3 million mopeds
- Cambodia has a very young population
- There are no McDonald’s in Cambodia
- The country’s motto is “Nation, Religion, King”
- Tarantula kebabs are a delicacy
- Drinks are sometimes served in plastic bags on the street
That’s all for now! Check back later this week for the Travel Guide and learn more about Cambodia’s de facto currency (the US dollar) with our Spotlight!
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