There’s a magic about Cambodia that casts a spell on many who visit this charming yet baffling kingdom with it's very contrasting elements. Be entranced by the realm of the gods at Angkor Wat, a spectacular fusion of symbolism, symmetry and spirituality. Then descend into the hell of Tuol Sleng and come face to face with the Khmer Rouge and its killing machine. Welcome to the conundrum that is Cambodia: a country with a history both inspiring and depressing, an intoxicating place where the future is waiting to be shaped.
Rebuilding from decades of civil war, Cambodia has seen rapid progress in the economical and human resource areas. The country has had one of the best economic records in Asia, with economic growth growing an average 6.0% for the last 10 years. Strong textiles, agriculture, construction, garments, and tourism sectors led to foreign investments and international trade. In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia's territorial waters, and with commercial extraction in 2011, the oil revenues could profoundly affect Cambodia's economy.
A Closer Look at Cambodia
Cambodia – a name created by the French -- makes up the lower portion of the Indochina Peninsula of Southeast Asia, extending in the southwest into the Gulf of Thailand. It is bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east. The official religion of the country, Theravada Buddhism, is practiced by about 95% of the population of about 14 million people. The religion is widely practiced and there are an estimated 4400 temples throughout the country. The vast majority of ethnic Khmers are Buddhist, and there is a close association between Buddhism, cultural traditions, and daily life. The great majority of the people in the country are Khmer or Kampuchea and they call their country the Kingdom of Khmer. Minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chasm, and 30 different hill tribes. Cambodia is an entirely tropical country with a landscape characterized by a low-lying central plain surrounded by uplands and low mountains and including Tonle Sap – the Great Lake – and the upper reaches of the Mekong River.
A Short History of an Ancient Country
In 802 AD Jayaverman II declared himself king of what was to become the Khmer Empire. Jayaverman and the kings who followed him flourished and with each generation, for over 600 years, increased the power and wealth of the empire which came to dominate much of Southeast Asia. It was they who built the temples and the cities surrounding them, taming the water, making the land rich and profitable. Then, Cambodia slowly came to be ruled as a vassal between its neighbors, until it was colonized by the French in mid-19th century. Although Cambodia gained independence in 1953, the Vietnam War extended into its territory giving rise to the Khmer Rouge, who took control of Phnom Penh and then the rest of the country in 1975. Cambodia reemerged several years later as a socialist country until in 1993, after years of isolation, the war-ravaged nation was reunited under the monarchy in 1993.
The Confounding kingdom
Cambodia is a country of confounding extremes. The kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with a monarch chosen as head of state by a Royal Throne Council -- but the same elected head of the government has ruled Cambodia for 25 years. The government and the administrative center of the country is Phnom Penh, but the cultural capital is Siem Reap with its range of temple complexes. The most well-known of the temples is Angkor Wat – Wat means temple – which is a spectacular fusion of symbolism, symmetry, and spirituality. At Ankgor, high expectations of both worldly and other-worldly beauty are never disappointed, but visitors often walk away raving their favorite minor temple. At Ankgor, visitors can ascend to the realm of the gods. But nearby they can descend into the hell of Tuol Sleng, with its too accurate record of the killing time of the Khmer Rouge….
Visiting the many layers of Cambodia
The conundrum that is Cambodia displays a country with an ancient history that is at one time inspiring and depressing, with a future that is waiting to be shaped, and a multi-layered present that calls out to be experienced.
In one trip you can visit Cambodia’s best known ancient sites and see some of the most alluring off-the-beaten-track temples. A road and river adventure takes you through this fascinating, except for the major sites, little known country. Start at the charming riverside capital Phnom Penh with its world recognized art museum, go overland through picturesque countryside to the mysterious and dramatic, jungle-clad temples of Angkor, take a boat trip across the Tonle Sap Lake where people live in boat towns and the traveler looks down onto the tops of submerged, but living, trees, continue down the Mekong river to the town of Battambang. Relax with a beach break …and then finish in Thailand and a tour of its vibrant capital Bangkok. You will have travelled for miles through country side and cities, centuries and cultures.