For over five hundred years, Angkor was at the core of one of humankind’s greatest civilizations. The mighty “Devaraja” or God-kings ruled a vast swathes of what is now Southeast Asia from their heartland in the northern plains of Cambodia. They built immense and dazzling cities and temples decorated with intricate stone carvings to honour both their gods and themselves. At its height in the late 12th century , Angkor is believed to have been home to about one million people. One of the largest cities on earth at that time
Like other great empires before and since, the mighty Khmer civilization eventually declined. In the 15th century, the Ayutthaya Thais sacked the city several times until eventually it was abandoned and entire population, including the Royal Court moved to current day Phnom Penh. Once abandoned, the jungle quickly reclaimed the temples and they remained lost to the outside world until their rediscovery in 1860 by the French explorer Henri Mahout.
It has been said the temples of Angkor represent the finest architectural artistry in human history. To comprehend their grandeur and magnificence requires imagination. Imagine the Great Egyptian Pyramids at Giza if every stone were carved with portrayals of fantastic myths and legends. To better grasp the sheer scale, both St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London would fit easily inside the perimeter walls of Angkor Wat.
The country of Cambodia itself remained a quiet, undisturbed backwater for much of the last century. Now emerging from years of isolation, the country offers a true taste of Southeast Asia before the arrival of mass tourism and rampant commercialisation.
Together with the other countries of Indochina, Cambodia has had its fill of tragedy. Yet its people are nothing if not pragmatic and forward looking. Cambodia today has much to offer the curious and adventurous traveller.
Cambodia’s history begins in the first century A.D with the establishment of the state of Funan. Many modern day Khmer customs and language can be traced back to this period. For example Sanskrit, which is part of the Mon Khmer family dialect, was the written and spoken language of that time. The State of Funan lasted for a period of 600 years and was in effect the precursor to the great Khmer Empire. Early in the 9th century king Jayavarman II claimed independence from the Javanese who had been overseeing the affairs of the Funan kingdom for several hundred years and founded the Khmer kingdom at Angkor. This great dynasty reigned for 650 years and their empire covered much of Southeast Asia. Over the next 150 years the kingdom grew in stature, culminating with King Suryavarman I who extended the kingdom’s territories into southern Thailand and Laos.
Shortly after his death in 1050 however the state fell into disarray. The nearby Cham (from present day Vietnam) seized their opportunity and captured the capital. The Cham conquest was short-lived and within 50 years the Khmer Empire was to reach its zenith under the leadership of Suryavarman II. Widely accepted as the greatest of the Khmer rulers, he oversaw the construction of Angkor’s centerpiece Angkor Wat. Under Suryavarman II the arts flourished and the empire rapidly expanded to include most of Thailand, Laos, southern Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula. Angkor was sacked again by the Cham in 1177, only 25 years after Angkor Wat’s completion. In 1181 King Jayavarman VII fought back and seized the Cham capital at Vijiya, effectively eliminating them as a force in the region. He then embarked on Angkor’s boldest building program with the creation of a massive walled citadel – Angkor Thom, with the Bayon as its centerpiece, characterized by its giant sculptured heads. He also officially made Buddhism the religion of the Khmer Empire. In addition to building the most majestic ceremonial structures Jayavarma VII was also responsible for huge feats of Typeering which included sophisticated irrigation systems, great reservoirs and countless canal systems that guaranteed the transport of goods and food. Some of these systems are still in use today.
Angkor became the capital of a great kingdom and the centre for government, education, religion, and commerce. However, in the late 13th century a sudden shift of power took place. Angkor was invaded and eventually overrun. Mankind’s most predominant creation on earth at that time was plunged into total chaos. The entire population and wealth of a once proud civilization was abandoned and covered by tropical forest. Following the abandonment of Angkor, its population migrated south to Long Vek, then further to Ou Dong before eventually settling in Phnom Penh. From the 15th to 17th century Cambodia was periodically encroached upon by neighboring Thai and Vietnamese forces. Eventually in 1863 King Norodom signed a Protectorate Treaty with France consequently placing Cambodia under French rule for the next 90 years.
After the death of King Norodom in 1904, Sisowath, cousin to King Norodom was crowned king. However, the throne returned to the Norodom family with the coronation of 18 year old Norodom Sihanouk in 1941. The Japanese occupation in 1942 brought home the realization of just how weak France’s grip on the region had become and in March 1945 the Japanese forces evicted the colonial administration and persuaded King Sihanouk to proclaim independence. The French did not accept the proclamation and when the Japanese left in August of that year, the French returned with an army and dissolved the monarchy in 1946, keeping the King as a titular head of state. But the writing was on the wall for French colonial power and Cambodia was granted independence in 1953. From 1950 to 1970, the Kingdom of Cambodia was self-sufficient and prosperous and was regarded by many as the jewel of the Orient. Unfortunately this prosperity was short lived. As war started to escalate in Vietnam, Cambodia was unable to escape the conflict and eventually allied itself to the Communists of northern Vietnam ultimately leading to Sihanouk’s overthrow in 1970 by his former commander-in-chief, Marshal Lon Nol. Lon Nol’s control over Cambodia lasted for barely five years.
Following Sihanouk’s overthrow the United States announced it was going to intervene with its military to bolster the new regime. The intention was to stop arms reaching southern Vietnam via Sihanoukville. This involved carpet-bombing communist controlled parts of the country, usually the rural areas. This, in turn bred resentment among both the rural population and the communist guerillas that they harbored, towards both the Americans and the relatively protected urban middle class and elite. This resentment of the predominantly wealthy city dwellers was to have dramatic and tragic consequences when the Khmer Rouge gained control in 1975.
The Khmer Rouge – a term first used by Prince Sihanouk – were a communist guerilla army, initially backed by the Chinese and on the side of Sihanouk’s exiled National Union of Cambodia. By 1973, when American bombing ceased, they controlled 60% of the country, mostly rural areas. Up to 1975 they steadily eroded Lon Nol’s control and on April first 1975 he fled Cambodia. Just over 2 weeks later the victorious Khmer Rouge marched on Phnom Penh to declare Cambodia as Democratic Kampuchea. Their leader, Pol Pot, set about creating his ideal for a Marxist agrarian society. One of his first moves was to force the population of the capital out into countryside to work in labor camps. This notion of starting from scratch became known as Year Zero. In the Khmer Rouge’s four year reign of terror that followed it is estimated that between 1 and 1.7 million Cambodians perished – a terrifying figure when considering that the entire country’s population in 1975 numbered little more than 7 million. Food became scarce, mainly due to the inefficient techniques used to manage the collective farms. The Khmer Rouge used fear as their means of control; people could be executed for any slight misdemeanor. Many died of starvation and malaria and still many from overwork. Genocide on an unprecedented scale was inflicted upon the middle classes and the educated, seen by the Khmer Rouge as the natural enemy of the peasant worker, whose cause they championed.
On Christmas day 1978 120,000 Vietnamese troops poured into Cambodia to oust the regime and by January 7 Phnom Penh was liberated. Unfortunately this meant a new set of autocratic rulers now controlled the country, although admittedly a vast improvement on what had come before. Further problems were caused due to the huge numbers of refugees and displaced people as a result of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. The superpowers became polarized: the Chinese continuing to support the remaining Khmer Rouge guerillas and the Soviets backed the Vietnamese. It was not until 1989 that the Vietnamese eventually withdrew from Cambodia and the country was re-named “State of Cambodia.” In 1991, a Paris Peace Accord created the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) which was backed by some 22,000 United Nations troops to prepare the first, free and fair general election. In May 1993 UNTAC supervised Cambodia’s first general election. Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk was subsequently re-instated as King. A second general election was held in July 1998.
Today, the Kingdom of Cambodia is once again a peaceful place to visit. It is, at present, in the process of rebuilding. Cambodia now incorporates a Parliamentary Government system with His Majesty Preah Bat Norodom Sihanouk Varman, King and Head of State. His Majesty effectively remains the symbol of national unity for the people of Cambodia who hold him dear to their hearts even after recently stepping down and handing over the throne to little known Norodom Sihamoni.
CULTURE & TRADITION
Traditional arts and crafts are abundant in Cambodia after years of neglect during the years of the Khmer Rouge. Today there has been a revival, due to a great deal of restoration work which has been initiated by foreign governments. Now many centers have been established to keep the ancient methods of the craftsman alive. Examples of this can be seen throughout the country.
There is a wide variety of arts and crafts including silver and gold jewelry, wicker furniture, hardwood furniture, silks, marble sculptures, high quality China, leather ware and much more. There is a sharp eye for detail and many of the products contain intricate carvings.
Area & Geography: South East Asia
Cambodia has an area of about 182,000 square kilometres (70,000 sq mi) and lies entirely within the tropics. It borders Thailand to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east and southeast. It has a 443 kilometre (275 mi) coastline along the Gulf of Thailand.
Time-zone: GMT +7
GMT plus 7 hours
General office hours are ranged from 08:00/08:30 to 17:00/17:30 (with a 01 or 1.5 hour lunch break). Monday to Friday. Some offices also open on Saturday morning. Sunday is holiday.
Shops usually open abit later from about 09:00 and close in evening. Most shops are open seven days a week and many are open later on weekends.
Climate & Seasons: Tropical Monsoon
Cambodia has a tropical monsoon climate defined by its wet and dry seasons. November through February is the cool and dry season, whilst March to May is the hot and dry. The hot and wet season is from June to August, and the period from September to October is the cool and wet monsoon season.
Note: The climate is changing over time due to the world climate changes.
Cambodia’s language, Khmer, is a non-tonal language. Before 1975, many educated, urban citizens mainly spoke French. Today, city dwellers may speak languages including English, Chinese, Vietnamese and French.
Outside the major centers, most local people speak only Khmer but it is usually easy to find one who can communicate in English.
People & Religion: Khmer & Buddhism
About 90 percent of over 15 million population is ethnic-Khmer. The rest of the population is comprised of Chinese; Vietnamese; Cham; and Cambodia’s ethnic minority groups.
Minority groups include the Saoch, the Pear, the Brao, and the Kuy, nearly all of which live in the country’s mountainous regions.
During the Khmer Rouge genocide, all religions were banned. In the 1980s, Theravada Buddhism was reinstated as the national religion, and today, practicing Theravada Buddhist amount to more than 90% of the population, whilst the remaining includes Muslim, Christian, and Animist.
Festivals & Holidays: Bonn Chaul Chhnam
Similar to other countries, Cambodia has scores of unique public holidays and festivals per year. However, Cambodian holidays are celebrated according to the phases of the moon; thus making some of the dates approximately constant each year. Usually, public offices, banks, and some private enterprises are closed on such days.
Some remarkable festivals are the celebration of:
BONN CHAUL CHHNAM (CAMBODIAN LUNAR YEAR) which is amongst the most significant holidays in the county held during mid April, approximately coinciding with the Buddhists celebration of Buddha birthday and enlightenment;
CHRAWT PREAH NEANG KOUL (ROYAL PLOUGHING CEREMONY) held in May where members of the royal family and the royal priests with the royal oxen lead the ceremonial ploughing of the field to jumpstart the rice planting season. The priests make predictions about the upcoming growing season and harvest based on the oxen’s choices of the 7 offerings including corn, rice, sesame, beans, grass, water, or wine;
VISAKA BOCHEA DAY (BUDDHA’S BIRTHDAY), the nationwide festival is held during the sixth full moon of the lunar calendar involving chanting, sermons and a candlelit processions to the monasteries or Wat to commemorate the day of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death;
BONN CHOL VASSA (COMMENCEMENT OF BUDDHIST LENT) held to coincide with the eighth full moon of the lunar calendar, and mark the beginning of the three-months Buddhist lent whereby Buddhist monks fast and meditate (young men consider this festival auspicious for entering the monkhood);
The three PHCUM BEN DAY, CHENG VASSA, and KATHEN events constitute the second major holiday period in Cambodia to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lents;
and BONN OM TOUK – WATER and MOON FESTIVAL taken place during the day of the full moon originally dating back to the times of the Khmer Empire and intended to display the strength of the powerful Khmer marine forces. The festival also marks the changing flow of the Tonle Sap River and thanksgiving to the Mekong River for furnishing fertile land and abundant fish to the country.