You've trusted your eyes your whole life, but visit Cambodia
and you just may start doubting them.
How else to explain the unthinkable splendour of the 9th- to
13th-century Khmer temples, the tropical islands with barely a
beach hut in sight and the untold adventures lurking in northern
Cambodia promises a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences
to the intrepid traveller. Your heart will race at Angkor Wat,
one of the world's greatest achievements, only to haltingly derail
when faced with the impact of humankind's darkest moments. After
two decades of war and isolation, only now is Cambodia truly starting
to recover from the Khmer Rouge's genocidal 1975-79 rule.
When to go:
The ideal months to be in Cambodia are December and January, when
humidity is bearable, temperatures are cooler and it's unlikely
to rain. From early February temperatures start to rise until
the killer month, April, when temperatures often exceed 40°C
(104°F). Come May and June, the southwestern monsoon brings
rain and high humidity, cooking up a sweat for all but the hardiest
The wet season (May-Oct), though very soggy, can be a good time
to visit Angkor, as the moats will be full and the foliage lush
- but steer clear of the northeast regions during those months,
as the going gets pretty tough when the tracks are waterlogged.
The country's biggest festival, Bon Om Tuk, is held in early
November, and is well worth catching. Others you might like to
plan around include the water festival in Phnom Penh, or Khmer
From December to April the climate in Cambodia is at its driest
with abundant sunshine and temperatures often reaching 40ºC
(104ºF) in April, the hottest month. The humid southwestern
monsoon from May to October sees rain fall mostly in the afternoon,
accounting for 70-80% of annual rainfall. The highest temperatures
around this time average just above the 30ºC mark (around
As memories of war grow ever more distant, Cambodia has become
a much safer country in which to travel, remembering the golden
rule - stick to marked paths in remote areas! Check on the latest
situation before making a trip off the beaten track, particularly
if travelling by motorbike.
Never, ever touch rockets, artillery shells, mortars, mines,
bombs or other war material. Cambodia is one of the most heavily
mined countries in the world with an estimated four to six million
of these 'enemies within' littering the countryside. Do not stray
from well-marked paths under any circumstances, as even stepping
from the roadside in some places could have very nasty consequences.
Mine-clearing organisations are working throughout the country
to clear these arbitrary assassins, but even so, the most common
way a landmine is discovered is when someone loses a limb.
Given the number of guns in Cambodia, there's less armed theft
than one might expect. Still, hold-ups and motorcycle theft are
a potential danger in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. There's no
need to be paranoid, just cautious. Walking or riding alone late
at night is not ideal, certainly not in rural areas. Pickpocketing
isn't a huge problem, but it pays to be careful.
Your health is more at risk in Cambodia than most other parts
of Southeast Asia, due to poor sanitation and a lack of effective
medical treatment facilities. Once you venture into rural areas
you should consider yourself very much on your own, as even where
pharmacies and hospitals are available you may have trouble making
yourself understood. If you feel particularly unwell, try to see
a doctor rather than visit a hospital; hospitals are pretty primitive
and diagnosis can be hit and miss.
Time & Place
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +7()
Weights Measures System: Metric
Cambodia is bounded on the west by Thailand, on the north by Laos,
on the east by Vietnam and to the south by the Gulf of Thailand.
It's about half the size of Vietnam or Italy. Topographically,
the country is dominated by the mighty Mekong River, which cuts
a swathe through the country from north to south; the fish-filled
Tonlé Sap (Great Lake); the Elephant and Cardamom mountains
in the southwest; the Dangkrek Mountains along the Thai border;
and the Eastern Highlands in the northeast. Most Cambodians live
on the fertile central plains of the Mekong-Tonlé basin.
The average Cambodian landscape is a patchwork of cultivated
rice paddies guarded by numerous sugar palms, the national tree.
Elsewhere are grasslands, lush rainforest cloaking the remote
areas and, at higher elevations, unlikely clumps of pines.
The biggest threat to Cambodia's natural environment is the logging
frenzy which reduced the country's forest coverage from 75% in
the mid-1960s to just 30% - and, with the government constantly
strapped for cash, there's little reason to believe that the stripping
of such assets will come to a halt soon. The number of national
parks is slowly growing, but with illegal logging as rife as legal
concessions, no tree in Cambodia is safe. The parks include Bokor,
on the south coast; Ream, near Sihanoukville; Kirirom, outside
Phnom Penh; and Virachay, bordering Laos and Vietnam. A number
of endangered species which are elsewhere extinct are thought
to be hidden in the more remote habitats, including elephants,
tigers, leopards, rhinos, gibbons, bats and crocodiles. The most
commonly found fauna are varieties of butterflies, snakes and
birds such as cormorants, cranes and ducks
A one-month visa, available on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem
Reap airports, costs CR20 for a tourist visa and CR25 for a business
multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy
People & Society
Ethnic Khmers (96%), Chinese (2%), Vietnamese (1%), Cham and Malay
Culture & History
The Khmer Rouge's assault on the arts was a terrible blow to
Cambodian culture. Indeed, for a number of years the common consensus
among Khmers was that their culture had been irrevocably lost.
The Khmer Rouge not only did away with 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 temples of Angkor were
spared as a symbol of Khmer glory and empire, but little else
survived. Despite this, Cambodia is witnessing a resurgence of
traditional arts and a growing interest in experimentation in
modern arts and cross-cultural fusion. A trip to the Royal University
of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is evidence of the extent to which
Khmer culture has bounced back.
Pre 20th Century History
Very little is known about prehistoric Cambodia, although archeological
evidence has established that prior to 1000 BC Cambodians subsisted
on a diet of fish and rice and lived in houses on stilts, as they
still do today. From the 1st to the 6th centuries, much of Cambodia
belonged to the southeast Asian kingdom of Funan, which played
a vital role in developing the political institutions, culture
and art of later Khmer states. However, it was the Angkorian era,
beginning in 802, that really transformed the kingdom into a political,
cultural and spiritual powerhouse.
Forces of the Thai kingdom of Ayudhya sacked Angkor in 1431,
leaving the Khmers plagued by dynastic rivalries and continual
warfare with the Thais for a century and a half. The Spanish and
Portuguese, who had recently become active in the region, also
played a part in these wars until resentment of their power led
to the massacre of the Spanish garrison at Phnom Penh in 1599.
A series of weak kings ruled from 1600 until the French arrived
in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty
of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom
to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual
colony in 1884.
Following the arrival of the French, a relatively peaceful period
followed (even the peasant uprising of 1916 was considered peaceful).
In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk
on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove
suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation
as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French
colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh
War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was
eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Sihanouk going
on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before
being overthrown by the army.
In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base
camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging
the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. Sihanouk
was overthrown in a military coup in March 1970 and his successor
General Lon Nol moved closer to the Americans. Sihanouk forged
an alliance with the Khmer Rouge communists and the small guerrilla
force swelled to an army of thousands in a matter of weeks. American
and south Vietnamese troops invaded the country to eradicate Vietnamese
communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however,
to push the Vietnamese and their Khmer Rouge allies further into
the country's interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire
country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.
Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership,
systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting
the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into
a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Currency was
abolished, postal services were halted, the population became
a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely
cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed
incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia
in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary
of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted
a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout
the late 1970s and '80s.
In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution
and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge
boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to
buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership.
In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty
secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections
occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed
by the Cambodian government.
The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec and Hun
Sen's Cambodian People's Party fell violently apart in July 1997,
and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia.
Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite
grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices.
While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the
one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising
force for Cambodia.
Pol Pot's death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was
greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism
(he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled
out of trials of other surviving top level Khmer Rouge leaders
on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals
Future stability is tied to improving the country's long-suffering
economy, eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption and
impunity, reducing the size of the military and creating a democracy
that is more than just a ballot.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won elections
in 2003, but political stalemate lasted until June 2004, when
Hun Sen found a coalition partner and could resume his prime ministership.
In October 2004, King Sihanouk announced his intention to abdicate
on account of ill health and annoyance at the country's political
infighting. He was succeeded by his son King Sihamoni. Defamation
was used as a political tool by the CPP government to clamp down
on opposition activity during 2005. 2006 witnessed a turnaround
and reconciliation of sorts between Prime Minister Hun Sen and
opposition leader Sam Rainsy, while the royalist party Funcinpec
imploded with infighting. With elections coming up in 2008, it
looks set to be a two-way fight between the CPP and Sam Rainsy.
Cambodia's second-largest city is an elegant riverside town, home
to some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country.
Battambang used to be off the map for road travellers, but facilities
have been improved and it makes a great base for visiting the
nearby temples and villages.
TCambodia's capital retains an undeniable charm, despite its tumultuous,
often violent past. The crumbling colonial architecture makes
an attractive backdrop to bustling streetside cafes and the redeveloped
riverfront precinct - a particularly lively part of town on Friday
and Saturday nights.
The city has several impressive wats (temple-monasteries), including
Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom and Wat Moha Montrei. Pride of place goes
to the spectacular Silver Pagoda, one of the few places in Cambodia
where artefacts embodying the richness of Khmer culture were preserved
by the Khmer Rouge.
Siem Reap is the gateway to the temples of Angkor, Cambodia's
spiritual and cultural heartbeat. A sleepy backwater until a few
years ago, it is fast reinventing itself as a sophisticated centre
for the new wave of visitors passing through each year, with restaurant
and bar prices climbing weekly.
If Cambodia is hot right now, then Siem Reap is boiling over.
It's the one place everyone hits during their visit, mainly due
to its proximity to Angkor Wat. Pleasing remnants of the past
like French shop-houses, tree-lined boulevards and a gentle winding
river nestle up to pointers to the future.
Chaul Chnam (Khmer New Year) is in mid-April and throngs of Khmers
flock to Angkor by bus, truck, car or bike. It's absolute madness
at most temples, with a lot of water and talc being thrown about.
Avoid it if you want a quiet, reflective Angkor experience. Buddha's
birth, enlightenment and passing away is celebrated nationwide
on Visakha Puja, where many activities are held at the local wats.
Angkor Wat sees a candlelit procession of monks during the festival,
which falls on the eighth day of the fourth moon: around May or
June. Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival) is in late October or November.
Boat races are held on Stung Siem Reap and hundreds of people
flock to town to cheer on their team.
There are direct international flights to/from Siem Reap to Thailand,
Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Demand is high during peak
season, so book in advance. Siem Reap International Airport is
7km (4mi) from the town centre. Many hotels have a free airport
pick-up service. Official taxis are also available. Buses and
share taxis usually drop passengers off at the taxi park about
2km (1.3mi) east of the town centre, from where it is a short
moto (small motorcycle with driver) ride to nearby guesthouses
or hotels. There are daily express boat services connecting Siem
Reap with Phnom Penh and Battambang. Boats leave from the floating
village of Chong Kneas.
The roads to Phnom Penh (now surfaced) and west to Thailand and
Battambang (still rough in patches) are served by air-con buses
and share taxis.
The town is mostly flat, so bicycles are a fun way to get around.
Some guesthouses rent bicycles, as do shops around Psar Chaa (Old
Market). Most hotels can also organise car hire. Foreigners aren't
allowed to rent motorcycles in Siem Reap, but you can bring one
from Phnom Penh.
Motos (motorbikes with drivers) are available for trips around
town. It's best to negotiate a price before setting off. Remorque
motos - sweet little motorbikes with carriages - are a nice way
for couples to get about Siem Reap.