Top tip: Keep to the roads and start before the Angkor sun
Cambodia shares borders in the north with Laos and Thailand, in the east with Vietnam and in the Southwest with the Gulf of Thailand.
The landscape comprises tropical rainforest and fertile cultivated land with lots of rivers. In the Northeast there are highlands. At the junction of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers lies the capital. In the centre of the country is a large inland lake also called Tonle Sap, the source of the Tonle Sap river run. There are also numerous offshore islands along the Southwest coast.
Cambodia has a typical monsoon climate and the monsoon season is from May to October. In the north winters can be colder, while throughout most of the country temperatures remain fairly constant.
Facts and Figures
181,035 sq km (69,898 sq miles).
14,805,358 (2011 estimate)
Phnom Penh – population 2,234,566 (2011)
Khmer is the official language spoken by 95 per cent of the population. Chinese and Vietnamese are also spoken. French was widely spoken until the arrival of the Pol Pot regime and is still taught in schools, but English is now a more popular language to learn among the younger generation.
90 per cent Buddhist (Therauda), the remainder Muslim and Christian. Buddhism was reinstated as the national religion in 1998 after a ban on religious activity in 1975.
GMT + 7
Recovering from decades of civil war, Cambodia is enjoying something of a cultural renaissance, with an exploding economy that has helped it become one of the highlights of South East Asia. Spectacular Khmer architecture, fine arts, temples and pagodas are just some of the highlights, along with learning about the fascinating, if harrowing, recent history of the country under the Khmer Rouge regime. You can encounter awe inspiring historical remains at the world famous Angkor Wat, take an elephant ride, laze on deserted tropical islands in the south, eat exotic, never-before-seen fruits and drink fresh coconut juice.
Since the ousting of the Pol Pot regime, many aspects of Khmer cultural life have revived. The famed National Ballet has been recreated, Buddhist temples have re-opened. The interrogation centre of the Pol Pot regime in Phnom Penh is now the chilling Toul Sleng Museum of Genocide. Other attractions in the capital are the Royal Palace, with its famous Silver Pavilion, and the National Museum of Khmer Art.
River cruises operate on the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers near the capital. Angkor Wat, built to honour the Hindu god Vishnu, is often hailed as one of the most extraordinary architectural creations ever built, with its intricate bas relieves, strange acoustics and magnificent soaring towers. Don’t miss nearby riverside Siem Reap.
Oudong, 30 km (19 miles) from Phnom Penh, is located on a hill overlooking vast plains and is famous for the burial chides of the Khmer kings. Tonle Bati has interesting ruins and makes an excellent picnic spot. The Municipal Theatre in Phnom Penh stages performances, and classical Cambodian music and dance, performed by students, can be seen at the Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh. Antiques, woodcarvings, papier mache masks, brass figurines, Kramas (checked scarves), material for sarongs and hols, and items and jewellery made of gold, silver and precious stones are Cambodia’s best buys. The Central Market, Tuol Tom Pong Market, Old Market and the Bijouterie D’Etat (State Jewellery Shop) are the best places for buying jewellery.
There is not much known about the early history of Cambodia but there is evidence of people living in parts of the country around 4000BC. There was trade along the coastline with the Chinese and Indians in the early AD centuries.
A kingdom known as ‘Funan’ flourished between AD300 and AD600. A dynasty founded by the prince Jayavarman, possibly descended from the rulers of Funan, ruled from settlements in the eastern part of the country between around AD790 and the 11th century. Cambodian power spread westwards during this period into parts of Thailand.
From the 9th century the Khmer dynasty held power and made the kingdom of Kambuja, where modern-day Cambodia gets its name. This was one of the most powerful dynastys in Asia but it fell into decline after the 15th Century until, during the 1800s the country came under French Colonial rule. This is why although Khmer is the main language today, French was spoken until the arrival of the Pol Pot regime and is still used by those of the older generation now.
In 1953 Cambodia gained Independence from the French. Norodom Sihanouk was appointed king and reigned until the 1970s, when a coup d’etat and the Khmer Rouge led to years of repression and the execution of tens of thousands.
The Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted; its goal was to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of coming to power the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day.
The start of rule by the Khmer Rouge was proclaimed as Year Zero and it cut the country off from the outside world, getting rid of the currency and postal services. During this time millions of people were executed, often for on reason at all, or they died of famine and disease as meals consisted of little more than watery rice porridge twice a day.
On 25 December 1978 Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia, toppling the Pol Pot government two weeks later. Following a period of Vietnamese occupation, Cambodia reemerged several years later within a socialistic sphere of influence as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea until 1993 when, after years of isolation, the war-ravaged nation was reunited under the monarchy, with Sihanouk as King.
His son, the current monarch, took over following his father’s abdication in 2004. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability in the form of a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
Interested in Cambodia? Call +44 (0)20 7604 4408 for expert holiday advice