Cambodia is a country of unique charm and cultural heritage known across the globe for its incredible natural beauty, breath-taking temples, fertile rice fields, and rich and fascinating history. But with so much to see and do outside of Angkor, a vacation to Cambodia can be a lot more than just temples. With a long coastline and rugged countryside, the natural delights of Cambodia are every bit as appealing as those of its neighbors, from jungle treks to beach holidays. Cambodian people are also remarkable, offering a unique warmth and friendliness that is even more special considering their recent dark history.
Phnom Penh, the vibrant capital of Cambodia is situated at the confluence of three rivers, the mighty Mekong, the Bassac and the great Tonle Sap. Phnom Penh still maintains considerable charm and tranquility with French colonial mansions and tree-lined boulevards amidst monumental Angkorian architecture.
Deep in the forests of Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, the elegant spires of an ancient stone city soar skyward above the sprawling complex of Angkor Archaeological Park. By its enormous scale and amazing architecture, Angkor Complex is without a doubt one of the world´s most spectacular sites. The proximity of the Angkorian ruins turned Siem Reap into a boomtown in less than half a decade. Huge, expensive hotels have sprung up everywhere and budget hotels have mushroomed. Despite the massive shift in its economic fortunes, Siem Reap remains a safe, friendly and pleasant town.
The best time to visit Cambodia is between November and April, when it sees very little rain. During this time you'll see clear blue skies making it a great time to enjoy a relaxing getaway on the southern coast.
Currency: Riel (៛) (KHR)
Official language: Khmer is the official language, however English is widely spoken and understood
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.
In Cambodia, a Southeast Asian country overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, the climate is tropical, hot all year round, with a rainy season from May to mid-November due to the south-west monsoon and a dry season from mid-November to April. The dry season can be divided into two periods: the first is the least hot of the year, while the second, from mid-February to May, before the monsoon arrives, is the hottest of the year. The monsoon withdraws in early November in the north and between the middle and the end of the month in the center-south.
The coolest month is December, while the hottest months are April and May, when the heat becomes oppressive; in the rainy season, the temperature is a bit lower, but the humidity is higher, so the weather is hot and muggy. Since the country is not large, the climate is fairly uniform.
Tourists and business travelers may purchase a Cambodian visa valid for one month at the airports in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and borders. Both require a passport valid for at least six (6) months from the expiry date, 01 recent passport-sized photo. A departure tax is charged on all domestic and international flights.
Getting around Cambodia is all part of the adventure. Massive improvements to the national highway network in the past few years have made getting around the country much easier than it once was, with many formerly dirt roads now surfaced and new highways built. Even so, getting from A to B remains time-consuming: roads are still narrow and bumpy, while regular wet-season inundations play havoc with transport (and often wash away large sections of tarmac in their wake).
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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