In the first century AD, traders from India brought Hinduism and Buddhism to the interior of Cambodia. The collection of competing kingdoms in the 6th to 8th centuries came together by the Angkorian era that lasted from 802-1432. King Jayavarman II rose against Javanese domination in the south and was the first king of what we now call Cambodia. The Kmer empire was made possible by reservoirs and irrigation works sophisticated and massive enough to support Angkor’s huge population. In the 9th century, the capital was moved to Angkor creating a new center for worship, scholarship and the arts. Suryavarman II (1113-1150) unified the kingdom after wars with south and central Vietnam. His devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu inspired him to commission Angkor Wat. His cousin, a devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism built the city of Anghor Thom around 1200. The 1000 sq-km irrigation network began silting up due to deforestation and erosion, and two droughts played a role in the decline of Angkor. The Thais invaded in 1351 and 1431 capturing thousands of intellectuals and artisans. From 1600 until the arrival of the French, a series of weak kings were under the control of either the Thais or Vietnamese.
The French. In 1864, the French arrived to protect the country from its neighbors. In 1907, Thailand returned the northwest provinces (including Angkor) back to Cambodia. Under King Sihanouk (r 1941-1955 and 1993-2004), Cambodia declared independence in November, 1953.
A period of peace and prosperity followed until the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong used Cambodia in the battle against the South Vietnamese and US, prompting devastating American bombing and a land invasion into eastern Cambodia. In 1970, Sihanouk was overthrown by General Lon Nol who allied himself with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement dubbed the Kmer Rouge.
Kmer Rouge. They took Phnom Penh in 1975 and instituted one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to transform Cambodia – renamed Democratic Kampuchea – into a giant peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative, untainted by anything that had come before. Within days, the entire population of Phenom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly, and infirm, were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12-15 hours a day. Intellectuals were systematically wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed.
Leading the Kmer Rouge was Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. As a young man, he won a scholarship in Paris, where he developed the radical Marxist ideas that later metamorphosed into extreme Maoism. Under his rule, Cambodia became a vast slave labour camp. Food was minimal for a back-breaking day in the fields. Diseases like malaria and dysentery stalked the camps.
Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end by the Vietnamese who liberated the almost empty city of Phenom Penh in January, 1979. It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died during the 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule. The most accepted estimate is that at least 1.7 million people perished at the hands of Pol Pot and his followers.
The Khmer Rouge took refuge in the mountains near the Thai border and the Vietnamese installed a government led by former Khmer Rouge officers including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had defected to Vietnam in 1977. In the dislocation that followed liberation, little rice was planted or harvested, leading to a massive famine.
Civil War. A civil war continued throughout the 1980s. In 1991, all parties signed the Paris Peace Accords, setting up the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), which ruled the country for two years. Although UNTAC is still heralded as one of the UN’s success stories, elections with a 90% were held in 1993, and the Khmer Rouge soon re-established a guerrila network throughout Cambodia. There was a significant increase in prostitution and AIDs during the UNTAC years. The UN allowed the Khymer Rouge to occupy the Cambodian seat at the UN until 1991 (thus the murderers represented their victims for 12 years) because China insisted on protecting their Khmer Rouge allies.
Cambodia Today. Things are obviously better than under the Khymer Rouge, but Cambodia remains one of the poorest nations in Asia, and it remains a tough existence for most of the population. According to the UN Development Program, it is in worse shape than Congo and the Solomon Islands, just ahead of Myanmar. Transparency International, the anticorruption watchdog, rates it 158 out of 180. China has pledged $1.1 billion in assistance with no strings attached. Generals continue evictions of city dwellers and illegal land grabs. Many NGOs are in the country improving education and infrastructure.
The royal family has been a constant in Cambodian society. King Sihanouk abdicated in 2004 in favor of his son, Sihamoni who has bought renewed credibility to the monarchy. The Cambodian Peoples Party with Prime Minister Hun Sen is in power, but the electorate is poorly educated and the opposition is divided.
With a population of 15 million now, there is a rapid growth rate of 2% per year. 80% are ethnic Khymers making it the most homogenous in SE Asia. 10-20% are Cham, Chinese or Vietnamese. 100,000 minority people live in the mountainous areas.
Life is centered on family, food and faith. Increasing numbers of young people are migrating to the cities. Serious food shortages still occur in times of drought or inflation. For country folk, survival depends on what they grow. Buddhism has helped them survive the terrible years.
The economy has liberalized and investors are returning. Rubber is the leading industry with palm oil and paper pulp secondary and virgin forest is not being replanted. The garment industry is important. Tourism is booming with more than 2 million visitors a year. Foreign aid accounts for half the government budget. Corruption remains a way of life that exists to some extent in all levels of government.
Religion. 93% practice Theravuda Buddhism, but Hinduism and animism pervade many cultural activities. Under the Khmer Rouge, almost all monks were killed and most of its 3000 wats were damaged or destroyed.
They also destroyed cultural artefacts, statues, books and anything of the past. The temples of Angkor were spared but little else survived.
At 181,035 sq-km, it is about half the size of Vietnam. There is 435km of coastline on the Gulf of Thailand. Sediment from the mighty Mekong make central Cambodia incredibly fertile. Tonle Sap, SE Asia’s largest lake, is a dominant geographical feature. It fills when the Mekong is high and drains in the dry season. The SW has the Cardamon and Elephant mountains and the NE the Eastern Highlands.
Wildlife. Of its 212 species of mammal, the elephant, tiger, black gibbon, clouded leopard, sun bear and pangolin (an anteater favored by the Chinese) are seriously threatened. 720 birds find it a congenial home thanks to the year-around water in Tonle Sap. Of 240 reptiles, the cobra, king cobra, kraits and Russells viper are poisonous.
National Parks and sanctuaries cover 25% of the country, but the government doesn’t have the resources to protect them. The Khmer will eat anything but tourists should avoid eating endangered species.
Logging for charcoal, timber, and agricultural land are the biggest threat. Corrupt military and civilian officials and their business partners benefit. Deforestation contributes to flooding along the Mekong. Siltation, overfishing and pollution threaten the future health of Tonle Sap. Oil, recently discovered off the SW coast, could threaten the beaches and mangrove forests through sloppy extraction. Garbage, especially plastic bags and bottles litters the country.
Insurance. Ensure that you have evacuation coverage as medical services and poor. Most evacuations are to Bangkok.
Money. The riel and the $US are accepted everywhere. 4000 riel/$US.
Mines. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world especially in the NW near the Thai border.
Traffic is chaotic with traffic moving on both sides of the road in both directions.
Crime. Generally it is a safe country but drive-by bag snatchings occur in big cities.
Visas. One month tourist visas are available on arrival at all border crossings. Overcharging by border officials is apparently rampant.