Its serene coastline borders the Gulf of Thailand. Cambodia is a tropical country and its southernmost point is a mere 10° above the equator. It covers 181,035 square kilometers.
There are mountains to the North and East but the land is mostly flat; perfect for rice cultivation. Indeed, Cambodian Jasmine Rice recently won the World’s Best Rice competition three times in a row. The green rice fields and trees are fed by the giant Tonle Sap Lake and famous Mekong River – the 12th longest river in the world -- that flows through the country and the capital city, Phnom Penh.
Minerals, oil and natural gas deposits were recently found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters – valuable assets that will surely contribute to this burgeoning economy.
Cambodia’s climate is hot and sunny all year round. Like most Southeast Asian countries there are two seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. The rains fall May-October and it is dry during November-April. December and January are the coolest months and April is the hottest. The average temperature is 27-28°C. During the rainy season downpours are limited to a couple of hours a day in the late afternoon or overnight so many tourists still come during this time to enjoy the country.
Cambodia’s total population is roughly 15.5 million people, 90% of which belong to the Khmer ethnic group. Many foreigners live here too and some ethnic groups have made their home in Cambodia for centuries including the Chams (Muslim Khmer), Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, Kuoy, Stieng and Tamil. Chinese people have a strong influence particularly in the business sector. Khmer is the official language of Cambodia.
Theravada Buddhism is the oldest surviving form of the religion and is practiced by 90% of the Cambodian population. Cambodian Buddhism shares much with other Theravada countries but has many notable and unique qualities. Buddha statues are revered in Cambodia and visitors are kindly asked to respect the customs surrounding these items (such as not pointing your feet towards a Buddha statue and dressing respectfully in temples). Islam, Christianity and Hinduism exist harmoniously alongside the main religion.
Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. It is one of the oldest languages in the region and is derived from the Mon-Khmer (Austro-Asiatic) language family. It is notable for its extensive alphabet with 33 consonants, 23 vowels and 12 independent vowels. Unlike other Asian languages, Khmer is not tonal and so is quite approachable for foreigners. While learning simple phrases is appreciated, English, French and Mandarin are widely spoken.
The Cambodian national flag was adopted in its current in 1948 when Cambodia broke with the French protectorate. It was readopted in 1993 following the end of the civil war. The Angkor Wat temple represents the Buddhist religion of the country along with the dignity and heritage of the Khmer people. The blue stripes represent the king and also stand for liberty and co-operation. The red represents the people and also stands for bravery. In short, the flag sums up the slogan: “nation, religion, king.”
ROMDUOL - NATIONAL FLOWER OF CAMBODIA
Romduol (Sphaerocoryne affinis) is the national flower of Cambodia. It is a small, pale yellow flower with a heady fragrance that can travel far and wide in the wind. Cambodian women have often been compared to the Ramduol flower and such is the regard for this pretty thing that several regions have been named after it. The Romduol plant can grow to a height of 12 metres and many have been planted in Cambodia’s public parks.
The modern Khmer people came from a fusion of Mon-Khmer ethnic groups living around the Mekong delta during the first six centuries of the Common Era. While archeologists have found evidence that Cambodia has hosted civillisations since the 4th Century BCE, the first Mon-Khmer civillisation on record was known as Funan. Descriptions of the empire are found in Chinese historical records and so “Funan” is a Chinese transliteration of an ancient Khmer word for “Phnom” meaning “hill.”
Funan was located in the south of present day Cambodia and lasted from the first to the sixth centuries CE. Fan Shih-Man was known as the “Great King of Funan,” who “had large ships built, and sailing all over the immense sea he attacked more than ten kingdoms...he [vastly] extended his territory.” Clearly, Funan was a powerful maritime empire.
In the mid-sixth century Funan was subjugated and eventually absorbed by its upstart of a neighbour to the north, Chenla Kingdom – another Khmer power. Chenla didn’t last too long and, within a century, broke into two: Land Chenla and Water Chenla. Land Chenla was stable but Water Chenla was beset by dynastic rivalries. Eventually the whole thing disintegrated into warring states until the region was united in the 8th Century CE under King Jayavarman II and the famous Angkorian period began.
At the beginning of the 9th Century, the Angkorian Kings set up their capital near modern day Siem Reap and for six hundred years they built one temple after another, each grander than the last. Two hundred such temples survive spread over a 400 square kilometers. Jayavarman II (802-850) set the whole thing off when he built a sumptuous residence on the holy Kulen Mountain in the 8th Century. His nephew, King Indravarman I built a vast irrigation system that is still impressive by modern standards in its efficiency. Indeed, the Angkorian Empire drank from this intricate water system for hundreds of years. King Yasovarman (889- 900) founded a new capital that was to be the heart of Angkor and built the famous Eastern Baray, a 7x2km artificial lake.
Frantic temple building continued with the notable Banteay Srei – the woman’s temple being erected in 967 by Brahman Yajnavaraha, a high priest of royal blood. In the eleventh century, King Suryavarman (1002-1050) seized Angkor and founded a glorious dynasty. During his reign, the Gopura of the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom was completed with the pyramid of Phimeanakas at its centre. Suryavarman II (1113-1150) brought the Angkor (which means “Holy City”) empire to new heights, extending it from the coast of the China Sea all the way to the Indian Ocean. Angkor city, by then, was like a modern megacity supporting 0.1% of the entire human population.
The end of Angkor came around 1431 when the city was sacked by the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom with whom the Angkorians has been fighting a long and draining war. The wars took up more and more resources until the irrigation systems could not be maintained. The King was forced to retreat and form a new capital in the vicinity of modern Phnom Penh and Angkor was abandoned by the 15th Century.
Growing Siamese and Vietnamese empires formed a pincer either side of Cambodia and over the following centuries Cambodia lost more and more land until eventually, King Norodom (1860-1904) requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. Cambodia became a protectorate of France in 1863 and became part of French Indochina in 1887. During this time the capital, Phnom Penh was known as the “Jewel of Asia” and its modern system of grid-patterned roads and boulevards were put in place.
Cambodia broke from French rule in 1948 and gained full independence in 1953. The 1960s saw an artistic explosion under the stewardship of King Norodom Sihanouk, a keen cinematographer, who produced 50 films in his lifetime. There were many hip bands and movie stars during this time. After this came Pol Pot’s genocidal regime about which much has already been written.
The modern Kingdom of Cambodia has been in place since 1993 and has been under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen since 1985 making him one of the longest serving premiers in the world. It is a dynamic country, developing fast with an economic growth rate of 7-8% per year.
Cambodia can be accessed through three international airports (Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanouk International Airport) and two international sea ports (Sihanoukville and the Phnom Penh Autonomous Port). Tourists can also enjoy traveling to Cambodia by land from neighboring Laos, Thailand or Vietnam.
Applying for a Cambodian visa is a simple process which can be done at all points of entry into the country. All nationalities, except for visitors from the ASEAN countries, are required to apply for a visa. Visa on arrival, which is valid for a 30-day stay is available at the above mentioned international airports, sea ports and border checkpoints. However, not all nationalities will be granted a Visa-on-Arrival. It is better to apply at the Royal Cambodian Embassy or Consulate abroad before visiting. A visa application form is usually issued on the airplane or one can be had on arrival. You will need one passport photo to accompany your visa application. A tourist Visa costs U$30 while a business Visa would cost U$35.
A 30-day single entry E-visa, can be applied by visiting www.mfaic.gov.kh; complete an online application form, upload a recent passport-sized photograph in jpeg format and pay U$35 by credit card. Allow at least three business days for processing. Note that an E-visa is only valid for arrival at Phnom Penh or Siem Reap international airports, Cham Yeam (Koh Kong), Poi Pet (Banteay Meanchey) and Bavet (Svay Rieng).