Asia

Cambodia

A map of CambodiaA map of CambodiaA thousand years ago, Cambodia was at the centre of the vast Khmer kingdom which stretched across most of mainland Southeast Asia. Gently rolling lowlands, the Cambodian Plain, cover much of the country. The Mekong River winds north to south across this plain. Its fertile valley has been used for rice farming for around 4000 years. The thickly forested Cardamom Mountains rise in the southwest, while in the north, the low Dangrek Range forms a natural border with Thailand. Cambodia has a hot, tropical climate with a rainy monsoon season between May and October.


A map of CambodiaA map of Cambodia

A street food market in the city of Siem ReapA street food market in the city of Siem Reap

People

Around a quarter of Cambodia’s population died during the Civil War (1967–75), the regime of Pol Pot (1975–79) and the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1977–91). As a result, today Cambodia has a young population: half of its people are under 24 years old. Nine out of ten Cambodians are Khmer, a people who have lived in Southeast Asia for millennia. Around 80% of people live in villages in the countryside, farming and fishing.

Novice monks (bhikkhus)Novice monks (bhikkhus)Nearly all Cambodians follow Theravada Buddhism (the oldest branch of Buddhism), and Buddhism is an important part of Cambodian life. The centre of a Cambodian village is the wat, or Buddhist monastery-temple. Traditionally, wats provided education for boys and medical services, and were used as courts. Today, many boys and young men spend some time living as novice monks (bhikkhus) within a wat. A few of them go on to become monks permanently.


Stepping on rice to remove the grain from the stalkStepping on rice to remove the grain from the stalk

Economy

Cambodia is still recovering from decades of war, which severely damaged the economy. Around 1 in 5 people lives below the poverty line (on less than $1.25 or 70p per day). More than half work in agriculture. A major export is rice, grown in the Mekong Valley. On rubber plantations in the southeast, liquid latex is harvested from trees and exported to neighbouring Vietnam to be processed.

A silk weaverA silk weaverCambodia’s biggest manufacturing industry is the production of clothing. Around half a million people—most of them women—work in the garment industry, cutting patterns and sewing clothes. As Cambodia’s cities become modernized, tourism is increasing. Every year, around 2 million people visit its beaches, Phnom Penh and the ancient temple city of Angkor Wat.

 

Tonlé Sap

Tonlé Sap during the rainy seasonTonlé Sap during the rainy seasonThe Tonlé Sap, in central Cambodia, is an unusual freshwater lake and river system. During the dry season, the lake is around 1 metre (3 feet) deep, and drains into the Mekong River. But when the Mekong floods during the monsoon season, water rushes back up into the lake from the river, flooding it to a depth of 9 metres (30 feet) and increasing its size by around 13,000 square kilometres (5000 sq miles). The floods bring water to the surrounding rice paddies and creates ideal breeding grounds for fish. When the floodwaters go down once more, the fish are left in smaller pools and the fishing season begins. Cambodians hold a Water Festival every year in October or November to celebrate the reversal of the river’s flow.



Consultant: Nicholas Harris

Facts about Cambodia

  • Population 16,000,000
  • Area 181,035 sq km (69,898 sq miles)
  • Highest point Phnum Aoral 1810 m (5938 ft)
  • Capital Phnom Penh (population 2.2 million)
  • Other major cities Battambang (196,000), Siem Reap (148,000)
  • Languages Khmer (official language), Cambodian French
  • Religions Buddhist 96%, Muslim 2%, Christian 1%, other 1%
  • Ethnicity Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%
  • Currency Cambodian riel (KHR)
  • Chief exports Clothing and shoes, rubber, fish, rice, timber
Angkor Wat Angkor Wat Flag of CambodiaFlag of Cambodia

History of Cambodia

  • 2000 BC
    People are growing rice and domesticating animals in the Mekong Valley.
  • 1st century AD
    The Funan civilization grows up in the Mekong Delta.
  • Early 6th century
    The Khmer kingdom of Chenla starts to take over Funan’s territory.
  • 802
    Following the disintegration of the Chenla kingdom, Jayavarman II and his followers begin to conquer surrounding regions, marking the start of the Khmer Empire.
  • 9th–15th centuries
    The Khmer Empire flourishes in Cambodia, with the city of Angkor as its capital. The kingdom includes much of modern-day Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam.
  • Mid-15th century
    Wars with the Vietnamese and Siamese (Thai) kingdoms lead to the breakup of the Khmer Empire.
  • 1861
    French naturalist Albert Henri Mouhot discovers the temples of Angkor in the Cambodian jungle.
  • 1867
    Cambodia comes under French control and protection as part of the colony of French Indochina.
  • 1941–5
    Cambodia is occupied by Japan during World War II, but is reclaimed by France at the end of the war.
  • 1953
    Cambodia gains independence from France.
  • 1967–75
    The Cambodian Civil War: the Communist Party (known as the Khmer Rouge) and their allies, Communist North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, battle Cambodia’s government, which is supported by the United States and South Vietnam, for control of the country. The Khmer Rouge are victorious and rename the country Democratic Kampuchea.
  • 1975–79
    During the regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, around 2 million people die. Many are executed while others die from malnutrition, forced labour or poor medical care.
  • 1978
    Vietnam invades Cambodia.
  • 1979
    Vietnamese forces overthrow Pol Pot, ending his regime.
  • 1989
    Vietnamese forces withdraw from Cambodia.
  • 1991
    A peace agreement is signed between Cambodia and Vietnam. Cambodia is partially governed by the United Nations.
  • 1993
    Elections are held, the monarchy is restored and the United Nations withdraw.
  • 1997
    A coup places power solely in the hands of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who remains in power today.
  • 1998
    Pol Pot dies in his jungle hideout
  • 2014
    A UN-backed court in Cambodia sentences two senior Khmer Rouge leaders to life in prison for their role in the 1970s terror

Cambodia’s flag is the world’s only national flag with a building on it: the temple of Angkor Wat.

In Cambodia, fried tarantulas are a delicacy. The spiders are bred in holes in the ground then fried in oil. The practice of spider-eating may have started during the regime of Pol Pot, when food was in short supply.

Between 3 and 5 million unexploded landmines are buried in Cambodia, left over from the Civil War in the 1970s. Every year, people are injured by them, many of them children.

Martial arts are very popular in Cambodia, including bokatur, which dates back possibly 2000 years. It involves kicks, elbow and knee strikes, and wrestling. Ancient temple carvings show people practising the art.

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