Cambodia Travel Tips

1- Cambodia Facts

  • Government: Democracy (Constitutional Monarchy)
  • King: Norodom Sihamoni, head of stat (Born: May 14, 1953)
  • Prime minister: Hun Sen, head of government (Born: August 5, 1952)
  • Area: 181,035 square kilometer.
  • Population: 16 million.
  • Bordering countries: Thailand to the west, Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east, Thailand Gulf to the south.
  • Region: Buddhism (95% of the population), the rest are Christianity, Muslim, and others.
  • Visa: Get upon arrival at airport Siem Reap/Phnom Penh and land borders, tourist visa = US$30 for 30 days.

2- When to travel

  • Nov – Feb: the so-called windy season is the best all-round time to explore the country.
  • Apr – May: Khmer Year fall in mid-April and the mercury regularly hits 40C.
  • Jul – Sep: Green season, when rice paddies shimmer and downpours bring relief from the humidity.

3- History

Cambodia’s history is inextricably linked with that of its neighbours. In recent centuries Vietnam and Thailand have been richer and more powerful, but during the Angkorian period, the Khmer empire was the regional power, its culture dominant and its creativity unrivalled.

  • Funan and Chenla

The Indianisation of Cambodia began in the 1st century AD as traders plying the sea route from the Bay of Bengal to southern China brought Indian ideas and technologies to what is now southern Vietnam. The largest of the era’s nascent kingdoms, known to the Chinese as Funan, embraced the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism, and was crucial in the transmission of Indian culture to the interior of Cambodia.

From the 6th to 8th centuries Cambodia seems to have been ruled by a collection of competing kingdoms. Chinese annals refer to ‘Water Chenla’, apparently the area around the modern-day town of Takeo, and ‘Land

Chenla’, further north along the Mekong and around Sambor Prei Kuk.

  • The Rise and Fall of Angkor

The Angkorian era lasted from AD 802 to 1432, encompassing periods of conquest, tur- moil and retreat, revival and decline, and fits of remarkable productivity.

In 802, Jayavarman II (reigned c 802–50) proclaimed himself a devaraja (god-king). He instigated an uprising against Javanese domin- ation of southern Cambodia and, through alliances and conquests, brought the country under his control, becoming the first monarch to rule most of what we now call Cambodia. The Angkorian empire was made possible by baray (reservoirs) and irrigation works sophisticated and massive enough to sup- port Angkor’s huge population. The first records of such works date from the time of Indravarman I (r 877–89), whose rule was marked by the flourishing of Angkorian art, including the construction of temples in the Roluos area.

In the late 9th century Yasovarman I (r 889–910) moved the capital to Angkor, creat- ing a new centre for worship, scholarship and the arts. After a period of turmoil and conflict, Suryavarman II (r 1113–1150) unified the kingdom and embarked on another phase of territorial expansion, waging successful but costly wars against both Vietnam and Champa (an Indianised kingdom that occupied what is now southern and central Vietnam). His devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu inspired him to commission Angkor Wat.

The tables soon turned. Champa struck back in 1177 with a naval expedition up the Mekong, taking Angkor by surprise and putting the king to death. But the follow- ing year a cousin of Suryavarman II – soon crowned Jayavarman VII (r 1181 to c 1219) – rallied the Khmers and defeated the Chams in another epic naval battle. A devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism, it was he who built the city of Angkor Thom.

Scholars believe that Angkor’s decline was already on the horizon when Angkor Wat was built – and that the reasons were partly environmental. The 1000-sq-km irrigation network had begun silting up due to deforest- ation and erosion, and the latest climate data from tree rings indicates that two prolonged droughts also played a role.

During the twilight years of the empire, re- ligious conflict and internecine rivalries were rife. The Thais made repeated incursions into Angkor, sacking the city in 1351 and again in 1431, and making off with thousands of intellectuals, artisans and dancers from the royal court whose profound impact on Thai culture can be seen to this day.

From 1600 until the arrival of the French, Cambodia was ruled by a series of weak kings whose intrigues often involved seeking the protection of either Thailand or Vietnam – granted, of course, at a price.

  • French Colonialism

The era of yo-yoing between Thai and Vietnamese masters came to a close in 1864, when French gunboats intimidated King Norodom I (r 1860–1904) into signing a treaty of protectorate. An exception in the annals of colonialism, the French presence really did protect the country at a time when it was in danger of being swallowed by its more power- ful neighbours. In 1907 the French pressured Thailand into returning the northwest prov- inces of Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon, bringing Angkor under Cambodian control for the first time in more than a century.

Led by King Sihanouk (r 1941–55 and 1993–2004), Cambodia declared independ- ence on 9 November 1953.

  • Independence and Civil War

The period after 1953 was one of peace and prosperity, and a time of creativity and op- timism – Cambodia’s golden years. Phnom Penh grew in size and stature and the temples of Angkor were the leading tourist destination in Southeast Asia. Dark clouds were circling, however, as the war in Vietnam began sucking in neighbouring countries.

As the 1960s drew to a close, the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were using Cambodian territory in their battle against South Vietnam and US forces, prompting devastating American bombing and a land invasion into eastern Cambodia.

In March 1970 Sihanouk, now serving as prime minister, was overthrown by General Lon Nol, and took up residence in Beijing. Here he set up a government-in-exile that allied itself with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that Sihanouk had dubbed the Khmer Rouge. Violence engulfed large parts of the country.

  • Khmer Rouge Rule

Upon taking Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975 – two weeks before the fall of Saigon (see p836) – the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted. Its goal was to trans- form Cambodia – renamed Democratic Kampuchea – into a giant peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative, untainted by anything that had come before. Within days, the entire populations of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, were forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Intellectuals were systematically wiped out – having glasses or speaking a foreign language was reason enough to be killed. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero.

Leading the Khmer Rouge was Saloth Sar, better known as Pol Pot. As a young man, he won a scholarship to study in Paris, where he began developing the radical Marxist ideas that later metamorphosed into extreme Maoism. Under his rule, Cambodia became a vast slave labour camp. Meals consisted of lit- tle more than watery rice porridge twice a day, meant to sustain men, women and children through a back-breaking day in the fields. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery striking down whole families.

Khmer Rouge rule was brought to an end by the Vietnamese, who liberated the almost- empty city of Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979. It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died during the three years, eight months and 20 days of Khmer Rouge rule. The most accepted estimate is that at least 1.7 mil- lion people perished at the hands of Pol Pot and his followers. The Documentation Center of Cambodia (www.dccam.org) documents the horrific events of the period.

  • A Short of Peace

As Vietnamese tanks neared Phnom Penh in early 1979, the Khmer Rouge fled westward with as many civilians as it could seize, taking refuge in the mountains along the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a new government led by several 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 mas- sive famine. The civil war continued throughout the 1980s. In February 1991 all parties – includ- ing the Khmer Rouge – signed the Paris Peace Accords, according to which the  UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) would rule the country for two years. Although UNTAC is still heralded as one of the UN’s success stories – elections with a 90% turnout were held in 1993 – the Khmer Rouge soon re-established a guerrilla network throughout Cambodia. UNTAC is also remembered for causing a significant increase in prostitution and AIDS.

The last Khmer Rouge hold-outs, including Ta Mok, were not defeated until the capture of Anlong Veng and Prasat Preah Vihear by government forces in the spring of 1998. Pol Pot cheated justice by dying a sorry death near Anlong Veng during that year, and was cremated on a pile of old tyres.

When the mercurial King Sihanouk – who resumed his tenure as monarch in 1993 – abdicated in 2004, the throne passed to his low-profile son, King Sihamoni, who has brought renewed credibility to the monarchy. In the July 2008 parliamentary elections, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen – a political survivor if there ever was one – won 72 out of 123 seats in parliament.

4- The Culture & Lifestyle

The National Psyche, on the surface Cambodia appears to be a nation of smiling, happy people, but a deeper look reveals a patchwork of light and dark, old and new, rich and poor, love and hate, life and death. The hellish abyss into which Cambodia was sucked by the Khmer Rouge left an entire people profoundly traumatised; only the generation that grew up after the war seems to have escaped the lingering sadness. Whenever you hear Pol Pot’s name, there’ll be stories of endless personal tragedy, of dead brothers, mothers and babies. Angkor is everywhere: on the flag, the na- tional beer, hotel and guest-house signage, cigarettes – it’s the symbol of Cambodian na- tionhood and a source of fierce pride. No mat- ter how bad things are, the Cambodians built Angkor and it doesn’t get better than that.

Lifestyle, for untold centuries, life in Cambodia has centred on family, food and faith.

Extended families stick together, solving problems collectively, pooling resources and gathering to celebrate festivals and mourn deaths. Ties remain strong despite the fact that increasing numbers of young people are mi- grating to the cities in search of opportunity. Food is extremely important to Cambodians as they have tasted what it is like to be with- out. Famine stalked the country in the late 1970s and, even today, there are serious food shortages in times of drought or inflation. For country folk – still the vast majority of the population – survival depends on what they can grow, and the harvest cycle dictates the rhythm of rural life. Faith is a rock in the lives of many older Cambodians, and Buddhism helped them to survive the terrible years and then rebuild their lives after the Khmer Rouge. See below for more on religion in Cambodia.

5- Arts

The Khmer Rouge regime not only killed the living bearers of Khmer culture, it also destroyed cultural artefacts, statues, musical instruments, books and anything else that served as a reminder of a past it was trying to efface. The Angkorian temples were spared as symbols of Khmer glory and empire, but little else, apart from Phnom Penh’s show- case Royal Palace, survived. Despite this, Cambodia is witnessing a resurgence of trad- itional arts, as well as a growing interest in cross-cultural fusion.

Cambodia’s royal ballet is a tangible link with the glory of Angkor – think of all those dancing apsaras (heavenly nymphs). Cambodian music, too, goes back at least as far as Angkor. To get some sense of the music that Jayavarman VII liked, check out the bas- reliefs at Angkor Wat.

Throughout the mid-20th century a vibrant Cambodian pop-music scene developed, but it was killed off by the Khmer Rouge. After the war, overseas Khmers established a pop industry in the USA and some Cambodian– Americans, raised on a diet of rap,  are  now returning to their homeland. The Los Angeles–based sextet Dengue Fever, inspired by 1960s Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock, is the ultimate fusion band.

The people of Cambodia were producing masterfully sensuous sculptures – much more than mere copies of Indian forms – in the age of Funan and Chenla. The Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is regarded as a high point in the evolution of Southeast Asian art.