A stunning country highlighted by friendly people and amazing landscapes that has weathered a difficult history, Cambodia is home of the magnificent Angkor Wat and other temples.
Visitors may come to see one of the manmade wonders of the world, but end up staying for the delightfully empty beaches, remote jungles, mysterious rivers and the incredible beauty and history of Cambodia. Jewels of the country include dazzling national parks like Bokor on the southern coast and haven to endangered species Virachay bordering Laos and Vietnam.
Cambodia is rich in culture and heritage as the successor-state of the Khmer Empire. Indeed the temple complex at Angkor is a detailed conglomeration of ethereal carvings, towering beams, serene sitting points and decadent archways that can take weeks to explore if you want to see it all. Also charming is the capital Phnom Penh, where ancient French colonial architecture is a draw alongside the Phnom Penh Royal Palace. Cambodia is on the travel map once again after many decades of brutal war and political instability.
The domineering Mekong river cuts through the country north to south, and the Mekong-Tonlé basin’s fertile central plains are the most densely populated areas. Bordered by Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, Cambodia has some unique natural features, including the Tonlé Sap (Great Lake), the Elephant and Cardamom mountains in the southwest, and the Dangkrek mountains along the Thai border.
If these sites aren’t enough, there are a plethora of events and festivals, as well as sports and activities to keep you busy. Among the most popular celebrations is Bom Om Tuk at the end of the wet season in early November, which coincidentally is the best time to visit Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Shopping is an activity in itself at the Battambang Market, where you can view an impressive assortment of antiques and handicrafts.
History Through archaeological finds, it’s believed that life before 1000 BC in Cambodia was not very different than that of life in rural areas of the country today. The people lived on rice and fish, and lived in homes built on stilts. Cambodia was part of the Southeast Asian kingdom of Funan, which was key in the development of art, culture and politics in the later Khmer states, from the 1st to 6th centuries. The kingdom gained religious and artistic power at the start of the 8th century during the Angkorian era.
Angkor was invaded in 1431 by the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, kicking off a century and a half of rivalry and warfare with the Thais. Other players in the warring were the Spanish and Portuguese – until the massacre of the Spanish garrison at Phnom Penh in 1599.
Cambodia’s history is less impressive from 1600 to 1863, when a series of weak kings ruled the land until the arrival of the French, who forced King Norodom to sign a treaty turning the country into what was essentially a colony in 1884. There was peace until 1941, when the French placed Prince Sihanouk on the throne with relatively good intentions.
It probably came as a shock to the French when the prince got rid of the national parliament in 1953 and declared martial law. He then campaigned for independence, which Cambodia declared on 9 November 1953. The Geneva Conference recognised the Kingdom of Cambodia in May 1954. Later, as war raged in Vietnam, Cambodia declared itself neutral. However, with the foresight of the impending Communist victory, Sihanouk broke relations with the USA and allowed North Vietnamese Communist fighters sanctuary as well as permitting the shipment of arms from China through Cambodia.
At the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, suspected Viet Cong base camps in Cambodia were bombed by US troops. The death of thousands of civilians pulled the country into the US-Vietnam conflict. US and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in 1970 to eradicate Vietnamese forces. They were unsuccessful and fighting engulfed the country.
Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge communist party in April 1975. Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge spent four years killing an estimated two million Cambodians in an attempt to turn Cambodia into a Maoist agrarian cooperative. During this time, postal services were stopped, currency abolished and the population was reduced to a workforce of slaves. Cambodia was almost entirely cut off from the rest of the planet.
Then in 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in response to recurring armed incursions into the border provinces. They forced the Khmer Rouge out of the jungles along the Thai border and conducted a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and ‘80s.
The end of the Cold War saw a cut back on Soviet financing of Vietnamese forces in Cambodia at the end of the 1980s. Under Prime Minister Hun Sen the country was suddenly deprived of all foreign aid and left vulnerable to the Khmer Rouge and their allies on the Thai-Cambodian border.
The newly named State of Cambodia (SOC) introduced a range of reforms to bring in foreign investment and privatisation ended collectivised agriculture, opening up free-market economics and increasing the inequities in Cambodian society.
In 1991, the UN and foreign nations with an interest signed an agreement to end the conflict in the country by allowing for temporary power-sharing between the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and the Supreme National Council (SNC) comprised of delegates from various Cambodian factions.
UNTAC sponsored elections for a national assembly in 1993 and FUNCINPEC, a royalist party, won the most seats in the election. Hun Sen’s CPP overthrew the government in 1997 and appointed himself as prime minister. Today, a compromise arrangement with a three-party coalition headed by two prime ministers is in place. The 1993 constitution restored the monarchy and established the Kingdom of Cambodia.
Weather Cambodia has the typical tropical weather of the region with essentially four seasons. The cooler, dry season is from about November to February, and this is the most popular time to visit. December and January in particular are ideal as humidity is low. There’s a lot of walking involved when viewing the temple complexes around Angkor Wat, which is most suitably done in the cooler season.
It is still dry but intensely hot from about March to May. April is the hottest month and the heat can be crippling if you are planning a lot of sightseeing. The rains come in June and last through August, and the weather is still hot albeit wet as well. September and October are still rainy but much cooler. Don’t let monsoons deter you though, as the mornings are usually clear with cooling showers in the afternoons. Monsoon rains account for 70 to 80 per cent of the annual rainfall in Cambodia. Average annual temperatures can range from 21 to 35ºC all the way to 40ºC in April.