Cambodia, officially known as the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. With a total landmass of 181,035 square kilometres (69,898 sq mi), it is bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
With a population of over 14.8 million, Cambodia is the 69th most populous country in the world. The official religion is Theravada Buddhism, which is practiced by around 95% of the Cambodian population. The country minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and 30 various hill tribes. The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh; the political, economic, and cultural center of Cambodia.
The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with Norodom Sihamoni, a monarch chosen by the Royal Throne Council, as head of state. The head of government is Hun Sen, who is currently the longest serving leader in South East Asia and has ruled Cambodia for over 25 years.
In 802 AD Jayavarman II declared himself king which marked the beginning of the Khmer Empire. Successive kings flourished which marked the Khmer empire’s immense power and wealth who dominate much of Southeast Asia for over 600 years. Cambodia was ruled as a vassal between its neighbors, until it was colonized by the French in mid-19th century. Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The Vietnam War extended into Cambodia, giving rise to the Khmer Rouge, which took Phnom Penh in 1975. Cambodia reemerged several years later within a socialistic sphere of influence as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea until 1993. After years of isolation, the war-ravaged nation was reunited under the monarchy in 1993.
Rebuilding from decades of civil war, Cambodia has seen rapid progress in the economic and human resource areas. The country has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with economic growth growing an average 6.0% for the last 10 years. Strong textiles, agriculture, construction, garments, and tourism sectors led to foreign investments and international trade. In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters, and once commercial extraction begins in 2013, the oil revenues could profoundly affect Cambodia’s economy.
The history of Cambodia began in the first century A.D with the establishment of a State called Funan. Funan is still renowned as being the oldest Indianized State in the whole of Southeast Asia. Modern day Khmer customs and language evolved from this period in time.
Sanskrit, which is part of the Mon Khmer family dialect, was the written and spoken language of that time. The officially known religion began with Hinduism, which over the years evolved into Buddhism. Distinct characteristics of that period still remain today. These features can be recognized in ancient buildings, and ancient farming methods, as well as country clothing.
The State of Funan was situated in what is known today as the southern province of Takeo and lasted for a period of 600 years. This dynasty gave way to the powerful Angkor Empire that was eventually responsible for establishing the Khmer Kingdom, as we know it today.
The following generation of powerful kings that belonged to the Angkorian dynasty are believed to have come from India and Javanese part of today’s Indonesia. The dynasty reigned for a period of 650 years, and their empire covered much of South East Asia, as we know it today. Their territory stretched from Burma, which lies east, to the South China Sea and further north, right up to Laos.
Khmer kings, during this golden period of rule, built the most ornate and extensive temples or prasats known to mankind. These spectacular constructions were built throughout the kingdom, Angkor Wat, is of course the most famous. Amongst the most successful of the Angkorean kings was Preah Bat Jaya Varman II, Preah Bat Indra Varman I, Preah Bat Surya VarmanII, and Preah Bat Jaya Varman VII. Besides building the most majestic prasats on earth, they were also responsible for huge agricultural feats of engineering which included sophisticated irrigation systems, great water reservoirs, and countless canal systems that guaranteed food transport. Some of these systems are still in use even today.
Angkor became the capital of a great kingdom and the centre for government, education, religion, and commerce. However, in the late 13th century a sudden shift of power took place. Angkor was invaded and eventually, completely ravaged. Mankind’s most predominant creation on earth was plunged into total destruction. The entire population and wealth of a once proud civilization was abandoned and covered by tropical forest.
Following the abandonment of Angkor, Cambodia’s capital population migrated south to Long Vek, then further to Ou Dong, and eventually to Phnom Penh. The destruction of the mighty Angkorian capital also caused a decline, adaptation, and eventual replacement of Hinduism. Theravada Buddhism became the national religion.
From the 15th century to the 17th century, Cambodia often found itself encroached by neighboring Thai and Vietnamese forces. They resisted, but eventually succumbed to a European colonial power. In 1863, Preah Bat Norodom signed a Protectorate Treaty which France, which consequently placed Cambodia under French rule for the next 90 years.
After the death of Preah Bat Norodom in 1904, Preah Bat Sisowath, cousin to King Norodom, was subsequently crowned as the new king of Cambodia.
However, the throne returned to the Norodom family with the following coronation of Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk, our current monarch, in 1941. At that time he was only 18 years old.
Shortly after that, during the Second World War in 1945, the Japanese ousted the French. King Norodom Sihanouk took the opportunity to free Cambodia from foreign control. For many years following, His majesty campaigned tirelessly for this objective, and was eventually rewarded. Cambodian was granted its independence in 1953. The Independence ceremony marked the end of 90 years of French protectorate rule. In 1959, King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated the throne, turning the position of Kingship over to his father, Preah Bat Norodom Soramarith. Then, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, became the Head of State and ruled the government.
From 1950 through to 1970, the Kingdom of Cambodia was self-sufficient and prosperous. It excelled in many areas of development. Cambodia was then known as the jewel of the Orient. Unfortunately the prosperity was very short lived. As war started to escalate in Vietnam, Cambodia’s borders increasingly became the targets of American and Vietnamese aggression. On March 18th , 1970, General Lon Nol, backed by the Americans, overthrew the Head of State Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Consequently, Cambodia became deeply involved in the war, fighting mainly against the Communist Khmer fighting faction, the Khmer Rouge. Lon Nol’s control over Cambodia’s government lasted for a period of barely five years, being eventually overthrown by the Khmer Rouge, headed by Pol Pot on the 17th of April 1975.
History repeated itself once again as soon as Pol Pot invaded. The entire population evacuated the city leaving a once vibrant capital in ruin and decay. After the evacuation, The Khmer Rouge tricked Prince Norodom Sihanouk in to returning to Phnom Penh to be Head of State, but he was not allowed to Phnom Penh to be Head of State, but he was not allowed to leave the Palace walls-in effect he was placed under house arrest. The Khmer Rouge then proceeded to implement a “reign of terror” on Cambodia’s entire population. People were brutally forced to work as slaves in the rice fields. These people had to endure long periods of hard, painful labor while effectively being starved at the same time. Pol pot’s Kampuchean force labor camps tortured, killed or starved to death an estimated 2 million people, including women and children who they savagely put to death indiscriminately.
In 1979, The People’s Republic of Kampuchea, supported by Vietnamese, liberated the capital. This presented the opportunity for the country to become re-established once again. Throughout the 1980’s, Cambodia, with the assistance of the Vietnamese re-built their economy.
In1989, the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia and the country was re-named “State of Cambodia.” In 1991, a Paris Peace Accord created the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) which was backed by some 22,000 United Nations troops to prepare the first, free and fair general election. In May 1993 UNTAC supervised Cambodia’s first general election. Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk Was subsequently re-instated as King. A second general election was held in July 1998.
Today, the Kingdom of Cambodia is once again a peaceful place to visit. It is, at present, in the process of getting rebuilt. Cambodia now in-corporates a Parliamentary Government system, with His Majesty Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk Varman, King and Head of State; H.E. Samdech Chea Sim, President of the Senate; H.R.H. Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh, President of the National Assembly and H.E. Samdech Hun Sen, Prime Minister. His Majesty effectively remains the symbol of national unity for the people of Cambodia who hold him dear to their hearts.
Culture & Tradition
Traditional arts and crafts are abundant in Cambodia. Scuptures., paintings and curving done with great care and attention. One can view such antiquities in market place, shop or museum.
The variety of arts and crafts are large in range and include such item as: silver and gold jewellery, wicker were furniture, fine hard wood furniture, silks, marble sculptures, high quality China, leather ware and much more. There is a sharp eye for detail here and much of the products will be intricately carved especially the furniture, sculptures etc.
Unfortunately, much of these works completely ceased to exist during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Artisans ware instead forced to work in labour camps, where most of them died painful deaths. Many arts and crafts also purposely perished during that time.
Today there has been a revival, due to a great deal of restoration work, which has been initiated by foreign governments. Now many centers have been established to keep the ancient methods of the craftwork alive. You can see examples of this throughout the country.
Situated on the Indochinese peninsula, Cambodia is bordered by Thailand and Laos on the north and Vietnam on the east and south. The Gulf of Thailand is off the western coast. The size of Missouri, the country consists chiefly of a large alluvial plain ringed by mountains with the Mekong River to the east. The plain is centered around Lake Tonle Sap, which is a natural storage basin of the Mekong.
The imposing faces on the temples in Siem Reap evoke awe-inspiring admiration of the achievements of an ancient civilisation – that suddenly abandoned its own creation.
The temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Banteay Srey are amongst some of the most photographed World Heritage-listed wonders found in the north of Cambodia.
Venturing to the ruins and beyond is an unforgettable experience. Here’s a few things to know when travelling to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
1. Cambodia’s flag is the only one in the world to feature a building
Image by Tara Buffington
Angkor Wat is the heart and soul of Cambodia. The world heritage-listed site was built in the early 12th century and is the biggest religious complex on the planet.
2. The ancient ruins of Angkor are way bigger than you think
While Angkor Wat is the biggest religious complex in the world, the grounds of the temple ruins extend over an area of more than 500 acres – that’s about 50 times larger than the site of Machu Picchu!
3. The country has a shocking past that happened not that long ago
During the four years of the Khmer Rouge’s rule around 2 million people were killed. That’s one-fifth of the population. Because of the genocide that took place from 1975-1979 up to 63% of Cambodia’s population is under thirty.
4. You can learn from the locals on a homestay adventure
On a trip with Intrepid, you have the opportunity to take part in a homestay, trek through jungle and learn more about rural life in Cambodia.
5. There’s nothing like a traditional Cambodian wedding
Traditional Cambodian weddings are full of celebration, intermingled with glamorous garments and a non-stop party that can go for up to three days and three nights!
6. Cambodians celebrate the New Year in April
Cambodia’s New Year’s celebrations (called Choul Chnam Thmey in the local language – Khmer) is held in mid-April each year and marks the end of the traditional harvest season. This is the biggest celebration of the year in Cambodia.
7. There are giant geckos that have a distinct chirp
Cambodians believe that counting a gecko’s chirp will tell you if you’ll be lucky to marry. It is considered good luck if a tokay gecko lets out seven or more calls in the same room as you.
8. Insects are widely eaten throughout the country
While Cambodians are renowned for cooking up creepy crawlies such as crickets, ants and even tarantulas. Most people eat fish, vegetables and rice as part of their daily diet.
9. You’ll find the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia
The Tonle Sap provides sustenance to nearly half of Cambodia’s crops and is a major source for fishing. The amazing thing about this lake is that large parts regenerate during the wet season when the monsoon rain falls and floods the central area between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.
10. You can get nearly anywhere in a tuk tuk
Image by Ryan Bolton
The first thing you’ll see when you arrive in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh is the long line of tuk tuks at the airport and waiting at nearly every street corner around town. While the journey can get your heart pumping – normal road rules are thrown out the window – it’s a quicker way to navigate through the streets. Plus, tuk tuks are more readily available in some towns. But remember to negotiate the price before getting in!
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