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From the ancient temples of Siem Reap to the beaches of the Gulf of Thailand to the personal histories of ordinary people, Cambodia is a surprising, and sometimes confronting, destination.


All About Cambodia

Cambodia is still emerging from the socio-political effects of the Khmer Rouge regime and its genocidal "Killing Fields". Corruption is endemic at all levels of government and civilian life and the country's tourism trade has a reputation for the exploitation of children.  However, there is still much to discover about the ancient Khmer culture and the resilience of its people.


Cambodia is a largely rural country with a diverse array of village life.  You may find yourself riding through the Cham villages of the south, floating past fishing villages, wandering around a dusty town market or amongst the stilted or floating homes of Tonle Sap. For those looking for beachside recreation or lazy pampering Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville have you covered.  The capital, Phnom Penh, is an eclectic mix of the modern and the ancient as well as being the site of the museums and memorials to the recent dark history of the Khmer Rouge.   And little really needs to be promoted about the magnificent temple ruins of Siem Reap, which draw millions of visitors a year.  


Positive impact tourism initiatives abound, from green accommodation to community-based tours and organisations partnering with locals to develop skills and capacity.  However, you must do your research beforehand as not all are ethically run.


90% of Cambodians are Khmer, a culture derived not from neighbouring China, but from India. The Indian influences, brought through trade links, are recognisable in the country's script, its temples and its food. 


In the 15th Century, after 600 years of growth in power and wealth, the Angkor-based Khmer empire fell to Ayutthaya.  Cambodia was subsequently ruled by Siamese and Vietnamese until it became a French colony in 1863. 90 years later, under King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia gained back its independence. However, the King's neutrality in the Vietnam War put him at odds with both the North Vietnamese and the United States. In 1970, he was ousted by a US-backed coup.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took power and its Maoist leader, Pol Pot, lead a 4-year reign of terror that still haunts the country today.  The Khmer Rouge were ousted by the Vietnamese who installed the People's Republic of Kampuchea. In 1991, as part of the Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia was governed by a UN Mission until the general elections could take place.  In 1997, former Khmer Rouge leader, Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples Party took power in a coup and has ruled the nation ever since.  

The effect of the Khmer Rouge on the population has been inter-generational. An estimated 2 million were killed, with many more imprisoned or removed from their family. Even children were forced to become child soldiers or work in labour camps. Unlike other civil wars or instances of genocide, the Khmer Rouge acted indiscriminately. They targeted rich and poor; Khmer and other ethnic groups; political opponents, their own supporters and the apolitical. Their economic principle of turning back the clock to "year zero" destroyed their modern and intellectual society. The loss of community, family, land ownership and education eroded a stable society.


Although significant in-roads have been made in the way of infrastructure, health and development - much of which is funded by international aid - Cambodia continues to suffer severe socio-political disadvantage. There is widespread corruption and poverty as well as a lack of education, healthcare and political freedom.   


Like its neighbours, Cambodia's countryside is littered with unexploded ordnance, the result of heavy bombing by the US and landmines planted by the Khmer Rouge.  Although landmine clearing has been a priority, it will take many more years to complete. In the meantime, rural villagers and children continue to be killed or left as amputees, often forced to beg in the streets.


Cambodia is a mostly landlocked country carved in half by the Mekong River and with the enormous Tonle Sap lake at its centre.  The country has vast alluvial plains and was once heavily forested. Elephants and tigers were plentiful.


Unfortunately, habitat destruction and poaching have reduced forest wildlife to almost extinct levels.  Agriculture, particularly rice cultivation, dominates the rural economy accounting for 80-90% of the workforce and GDP.  More recently logging has been authorised in the forests - including national parks - meaning the drone of chainsaws is never far away.


The socio-economic and political turmoil of the late 20th Century and ongoing government corruption has made environmental protection and rehabilitation difficult. But recently there have been plans to reintroduce tigers to Cambodia in protected habitats which is great news.



Cambodia has a dual currency system: the Cambodian Riel and the US Dollar. The tourism industry is the main source of "hard" (US) currency. 


Cambodia suffers a reputation for sex tourism and orphan tourism.  Both involve exploiting children. While paedophiles clearly intend to abuse minors, there are many visitors to Cambodia with altruistic motives who are unaware they may be participating in the grim trade in children.


There are many "orphanages" that operate solely to profit from the donations of tourists. Parents are enticed to give their children to these "orphanages" on false pretences such as giving them an education (which is not usually forthcoming).  Tourists are encouraged to donate money to the operating costs of the orphanage, or, for a fee, they can 'volunteer' to work or play with the children.  However, the children often do not receive the benefits of these donations and the practice of allowing unvetted and inexperienced foreigners to teach or care for vulnerable children can be extremely detrimental and is generally frowned on. 


There are legitimate charities helping children and activities that you can be involved in. However, anyone considering working with children or donating money should research not only the charity but also whether this will result in a positive outcome for the children. Remember: Children are not tourist attractions.  



Cambodia is affected by the Southwest Monsoon season May-October while hot, dry and dusty conditions persist for much of the remaining year. Interestingly, both seasons can be good or bad for tourists, depending on what people specifically want to experience and whether they find 'wet' or 'dry' season conditions more preferable. Angkor Wat in flood is unusually beautiful but easier to navigate in the dry. The Stilt and Floating Villages of Tonle Sap are a completely different experience in each season where water levels can vary by 10m. 


The season may also affect where and how you travel. While river transport to Battambang is only possible in the wet season when the river runs high, in other parts of the country the heavy, constant rain causes road transport difficulties.  For the 'best of both' seasons try going during the transition period, October-December.



Phnom Pehn, Sihanoukville and Siem Reap have international air connections with Asia, then onwards to other regions.


When getting around it is worth noting that domestic air transport can be as cheap as, and more convenient than, long-distance coach road transport. Road travel around Cambodia is a long, arduous process. Distances between places of interest are not all that far but can take many more hours than expected as roads are not direct and are of poor quality. While buses generally leave on time they are notoriously late at arriving.  


It is possible to take a slow, scenic boat to Battambang (10 hrs) but only in the wet season when the river is full. The trip is scenic, passing fishing villages and river life. Travel on the rooftop is recommended - both for scenery and safety as the boats are a bit of a death trap - but don't forget the sunscreen as the sun is strong in Cambodia. The same journey by bus will take 4 hours (48 km).  It's important to check the river level and not make the run too early or too late into the wet season. If the river has insufficient water in it your boat may not be able to continue and you'll be left stranded and have to make your own arrangements, which can be difficult. 


Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and many people combine holidays to those countries. If travelling in or out of Cambodia, particularly overland, know that not all points of exit/entry can issue visas on arrival nor accept "e.visas". Always check the latest information before travel.  

History & Culture
Sustainable Tourism
When to Go
Getting There & Around
Fishing Boats in Kep Cambodia | From Elsewhere

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