In the world we live, there are more than 200 countries, each has unique characteristics. No matter where they are, whether north or south of the equator, they are unique in ways that the world should not overlook and it is possible to clear any misconceptions the world has for any country. That way, we aim for one thing: Peace.
Have you ever heard of Cambodia or do you know anyone from Cambodia?
We, Vilayvann and Chhaileang, are representing Cambodia by writing this article to describe Cambodia as much as possible and to clear any misconceptions that the world has.
To start with, Cambodia is a relatively small country in South-East Asia with an area of 181,035 km2. However, there is a huge population of about 14.5 million people. As seen in the picture, it is bordered to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and the Gulf of Thailand, which almost every Cambodians are proud of because at least we can enjoy our days at the beach. There are 23 provinces and one municipality city (24 in total). Cambodia also has Tonle Sap lake as our water source, which originally flows from the Mekong river. Having a tropical climate, Cambodia is dry and wet with an average temperature of 22oC in rainy season (May-October) and 35oC in dry season (November-April).
To understand the present, sometimes you have to look back to the past. Therefore, before understanding the current events and situations in Cambodia, it is important to know some highlights of Cambodian history. Khmer and Cambodia/Cambodian are the same. Only the way people use the word is different. If you ever come across people mentioning Khmer or Cambodia, they have basically the same meaning.
Khmer kingdom appeared in the first century and was the most ancient country after China and India in Indochina. According to inscriptions, Khmer already had their own culture, tradition, religion, infrastructure to rule the country before getting the huge influence from India. Between the 6th and 8th century, calamities ruined the Khmer empire in politics and trade situation became poorer. This divided the whole country into two parts (Land Chenla and Water Chenla) but Water Chenla was interfered by Java (Indonesia).
Until the end of the 8th century, King Jayavaraman II, who was arrested by Java, came back and united all Khmer people to fight against them. After gaining victory, he was crowned to rule the country. Between 802 and 1431 AD, the period called Angkor era, was the most prosperous time of the Khmer history, which was started by King Jayavaraman II. The following Kings were very vigorous that the enemies could not invade or fight against Khmer. During the era, sea of big buildings was constructed, ruling infrastructure was changed, culture and the power of the empire spread throughout Southeast Asia. The Angkor Wat temple was built by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and were finished by King Jayavaraman VII. It was dedicated solely to the Hindu god Vishnu. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia that it appears on the national flag, and it is Cambodia’s prime attraction for visitors.
Though Cambodia was the strongest country, Champa (later lost its territory to Vietnam) often invaded Cambodia and tried many times to occupy Angkor. King Jayavaraman VII was known as the greatest king in Cambodian history. He was crowned in 1181 when he was 56 years old. Before being crowned, he had spent 4 years fighting with Champa and chasing them out of Angkor. Under the reign of King Jayavaraman VII, lots of temples, hospitals, roads, schools, pagodas were built and especially Cambodian territory was bigger than ever and it became the most powerful country in Southeast Asia. People lived very happily and the country was very peaceful. King Jayavaraman VII was the greatest hero for Cambodian, who led the country to the golden age. 944 to 1219 AD was the most affluent area and what makes Cambodians proud.
After King Jayavaraman VII’s reign, the country’s reputation started to go bad. Between 1218 and 1336 AD, Cambodia was no longer powerful enough for other countries, but rich resources and the great civilization still remained. In the 13th century, Siam (present-day Thailand) reinforced its power and rebelled against Khmer while Mongolia also sent the force to invade China and Southeast Asia. Lansan (present-day Lao) was formed and finally Daiviet or Youn (present-day Vietnam) became Khmer’s biggest enemy. Champa was lost to Youn and disappeared from the world map. Khmer empire started to lose its power and became the weak state.
Meanwhile, there were a lot of arguments of Power-Division and civil wars that caused Siam and Youn to be interfered in these problems and started to compete against each other to occupy Khmer. Though the Khmer became poorer and poorer, there were many strong and good kings who struggled to protect Khmer territory. Until 1963, considering that Khmer had no more ability to resist the invasions of Siam and Youn, King Norodom signed an agreement with France to allow this country to colonize Cambodia. After the treaty of agreement had been signed, the French did not only take Kampuchea Kraom (some of Cambodia’s provinces) back from Vietnam but gave two more provinces to Thailand. France broke the promise and revoked all the power from the king to expand its domination. They increased all kinds of tax and if people did not have the ability to pay, they would have arrested and punished them. There was much unrest against French colonization in Cambodia. However, after King Sisowath was crowned, Siam gave back some provinces in Cambodia and France started to cut a few small provinces of Vietnam to Khmer. In 1939 the World War II exploded in Europe, which caused the situation in France worse while Japan was very successful in Asia. Japan chased France out of Cambodia and Japan itself began to colonize Cambodia. In 1945, Japan was seriously beaten and decided to leave Cambodia. France came back again but its situation got worse, which was a good opportunity for the Khmer Liberation Movement to riot complaining for independence. King Norodom Sihanouk Varaman struggled very hard in order to get back the independence. He led the Khmer people to form the liberation Groups across the country and his diplomatic affairs in the USA, Canada, France, Japan were very important and helpful.
Finally, Cambodia gained its full independence from France on 9th November 1953 and it was announced to be the neutral kingdom involved in neither Liberalism bloc nor Communist bloc. After the Independence Day, Cambodia officially joined the United Nations on 14th December 1955.
Two decades later in 1975, Pol Pot started the Khmer Rouge regime, which he called the “Democratic Kampuchea”, but we would rather call it genocide. It wasn’t democratic at all. From 17 April 1975 to 7 January 1979, Pol Pot had been the ruler of Cambodia. He had turned Cambodian people’s expectation for peace and harmony into horror and endless fear. The regime ordered the overnight evacuation of all cities and towns, sending the entire urban population out into the countryside to do agricultural works. These works were a huge burden for most people since they lost their lives because of hunger and heavy loads. Since then, Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, became a ghost city. Everyone was forced to move to the countryside and the government placed a major emphasis on agriculture, though it didn’t work out as expected.
According to the regime, everyone had equal rights and no one owns any possessions. They were not divided into any class either. Everyone was supposed to be equal. Therefore, they were all wearing the same clothes (all black), eating the same meal once a day and doing the same amount of work. Almost 2 million people died because of hunger, overwork, and a lot were killed for political and personal reasons.
The most surprising thing was that all the educated and high-class people were killed, while the uneducated, lower-class people were made leaders of the communities. Children were made soldiers and so they had the authority to kill and treat others as bad as they want to. Not only were the family members killed, they were also separated. They were forced to go to different places and they were to call each other ‘friend’ regardless of age.
However, in mid-1978, the Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and in late December 1978, they successfully took over the country, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. They chased the regime’s army westward towards Thailand. They hid in the jungle and tried making a small scale fight with Vietnam and the new Cambodian army. January 7, 1979 gave new birth to the Cambodian people and we celebrate the day every year to commemorate the victims who were killed and suffered from that inhumane regime. Vietnam troops still occupied a great proportion of Cambodia until 1989.
In 1997, the Khmer Rouge army completely vanished. Cambodia was then working towards peace and stability. For so many years until now, Cambodia has been politically and economically stable.
As written earlier, there are 24 provinces including the municipal city. Now, I will proudly present those provinces along with their uniqueness and the people’s lifestyle.
- Siem Reap: is the most popular tourist destination where there are the Angkor Wat and more than a thousand temples. It is modernized and filled with so many cultural values, decorations, exhibitions and performances.
- Banteay Meanchey: was split up from Battambang in 1983. It is known to be one of the most important border gates for creating commercial trade-offs between Cambodia and Thailand. It is also where Chhaileang comes from.
- Battambang: Province with thousand hectares of rice field. This province has the best soil where good rice, fruits, vegetables and other types of plants are grown prosperous. There are lots of mountains as well.
- Pailin: Abundance of mine.
- Pursat: Agricultural province.
- Kompong Chnang: contains many manual works and old resorts.
- Otdor Meanchey: was a former battlefield.
- Preah Vihear: is also a popular tourist destination. It has the Preah Vihear temple which is located on the top of the mountain, more temples and waterfalls.
- Kompong Thom: exports tons of fish.
- Kompong Cham: has the largest population.
- Kompong Speu: is an old province where old resorts are located.
- Koh Kong: has islands and is an important tourist destination with so many things to explore.
- Preah Sihanouk: has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
- Kandal: is a small province very close to Phnom Penh.
- Takeo: is the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. It is an agricultural province.
- Kompot: has the beautiful sea view and the beach
- Kratie: has dolphin shelters.
- Steung Treng: The border between Cambodia and Lao.
Model Kiri: has a beautiful view of nature (i.e. mountains…)
- Rottanak Kiri: shows the culture of smaller minority groups.
- Svay Rieng: is an important commercial border gate between Cambodia and Vietnam.
- Prey Veng: is an agricultural province.
- Keb: is a tourist city.
Well, if you’re looking for real natural beauty, Cambodia is the right place. There are many natural landscapes in all provinces. But if you like something very green, then Mondulkiri and Rattanakiri are the best ones. They also depict the lifestyle of the minority groups and their traditions.
The beach, waterfalls and aquatic forests can be found in Sihanouk Ville, Kompot, Kep and Koh Kong and to be honest, these provinces seem to be the second most popular after Siam Reap.
Now, Siem Reap, as mentioned earlier, is modernized. There are lots of shops and markets open 24 hours specially for tourists. There are more than a thousand marvelous temples, including the Angkor Wat and Bayon. Siam Reap is the most attractive place since it is all about Cambodian culture and traditions. There are many types of entertainment that make sure you go back understanding a lot about Cambodia.
In Phnom Penh, the capital city, there are museums, the Royal Palace, Koh Pich (the Diamond island), shopping centers, Tuol Sleng Museum (prison during the Khmer Rouge regime) and so many more.
One of the most common misconceptions is that people think Phnom Penh and Cambodia is the same. It is important to distinguish that Phnom Penh is the capital city of Cambodia. Because a lot of people who travel abroad are from Phnom Penh, foreigners usually think they’re both the same.
Another is that some people are afraid of visiting Cambodia because they think the Khmer Rouge army is still in the forest and thus the country is not safe. However, Cambodia is now in a peaceful and stable condition. Also, since tourism is the second most important economic factors after agriculture, tourists are well taken care of.