General Information About Cambodia
For more than 2,000 years, Southeast Asian civilizations absorbed influences from India. The Khmer Empire grew out of this influence and became established in 802 when Jayavarman II declared himself a Devaraja (God King). He began a series of conquests that formed a powerful empire which flourished in Southeast Asia from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries. Sometime around the 13th century, monks from Sri Lanka introduced Theravada Buddhism (current religion in Cambodia) to Southeast Asia. Theravada Buddhism spread and eventually displaced Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the popular religion.
The Khmer Empire was Southeast Asia’s largest empire during the 12th century. The empire’s centre of power was Angkor. In 2006 and 2012, an international team of researchers using LIDAR concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world!
The ancient hidden city of Mahendraparvata (Mountain of the Great Indra), could have supported a population of up to one million people and Angkor Wat, the famous and best-preserved religious temple on-site, still serves as a reminder of Cambodia’s past as a major regional power.
After a long series of wars with neighboring kingdoms, Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom (Ancient Thai Kingdom) and abandoned.
The court moved the capital to Longvek where the kingdom sought to regain its glory through maritime trade. The first mention of Cambodia in European documents was in 1511 by the Portuguese. Portuguese travelers described the city as a place of flourishing wealth and foreign trade. The attempt was short-lived as continued wars with Ayutthaya and the Vietnamese resulted in the loss of more territory and Longvek being conquered and destroyed by King Naresuan the Great of Ayutthaya in 1594.
In 1863, King Norodom sought the protection of Thailand from French rule. In 1867, the Thai king signed a treaty with France, renouncing suzerainty over Cambodia in exchange for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces which officially became part of Thailand. The provinces were ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Thailand in 1907.
Cambodia continued as a protectorate of France from 1867 to 1953. It was occupied by the Japanese empire during World War II from 1941 to 1945.
After King Norodom’s death in 1904, Sisowath, Norodom’s brother, was placed on the throne. The throne became vacant again in 1941 and Norodom Sihanouk was enthroned. Under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953.
Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated to participate in politics and was elected prime minister. In 1960, Sihanouk again became head of state, taking the title of prince.
Sihanouk allowed the Vietnamese communists to use Cambodia as a sanctuary and a supply route for their arms and other aid to their armed forces fighting in South Vietnam. This policy was perceived as humiliating by many Cambodians.
While visiting Beijing in 1970, Sihanouk was ousted by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were desperate to retain their sanctuaries and supply lines inside of Cambodia. To do so, they immediately launched attacks on the newly established government. Norodom Sihanouk urged his followers to also help in overthrowing this government.
Soon, Khmer Rouge rebels began using him to gain support. As the Vietnamese communists gained control of Cambodian territory, they imposed a new political infrastructure, eventually taken over by the Khmer Rouge. Between 1969 and 1973, the Republic of Vietnam and US forces bombed Cambodia in an effort to disrupt the Viet Cong (Vietnamese Communists) and Khmer Rouge. However, the Communist insurgency inside Cambodia continued to grow, aided by supplies and military support from North Vietnam.
On New Year’s Day in 1975, the Communist troops (Khmer Rouge) launched an offensive attack resulting in the Lon Nol governments surrender on 17 April 1975.
They changed the official name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. The new regime, led by Pol Pot, modeled itself on Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward. They immediately evacuated the cities and sent the population on forced marches to rural work projects. The Khmer Rouge attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century. At the same time they discarded Western medicine, destroyed temples, libraries, and anything else considered influenced by the West.
The estimates of people killed by the Khmer Rouge range from one to four million. The most commonly cited figure is two million which was a quarter of the population. This tragic era gave rise to the term Killing Fields, and the prison Tuol Sleng became notorious for its history of mass killing. Hundreds of thousands fled across the border into Thailand.
Many of the Khmer Rouge victim were educated professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and teachers. A quote from Robert Kaplan, “eyeglasses were as deadly as the yellow star”. Wearing glasses was seen as a sign of intellectualism.
Religious institutions were not spared by the Khmer Rouge either. Religion was also viciously persecuted by the Khmer Rouge to such a terrifying extent that the vast majority of Cambodia’s historic architecture and 95% of Cambodia’s Buddhist temples, were completely destroyed.
Vietnamese Occupation & Resolution
In November 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). It was fully beholden to the occupying Vietnamese army and under the direction of the Vietnamese ambassador to Phnom Penh.
Peace efforts began in Paris in 1989 under the State of Cambodia, culminating two years later in October 1991 in the Paris Peace Accord.
In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as King of Cambodia, but as a symbolic figurehead. All power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. The stability established was shaken in 1997 by a coup d’état led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government.
Cambodia’s Major Cities
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap
Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city is the most populous in the country with more 1.5 million residents. The ‘Pearl of Asia’ is located at the meeting point of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in the southern region of the kingdom.
Battambang, the second largest Cambodian city is located in the northwestern region along the banks of the Sangkae River. Established in the early 18th century, Battambang is now home to over 196,700 Khmer.
Siem Reap is the ever-growing touristic city also located in the northwest region of Cambodia. The city has a population of close to 189,300 residents along with a large expat community.
Sihanoukville is Cambodia’s beach getaway located in the southwestern region. From here, it’s easy to make your way along the coast to Kampot and Kep or to explore Cambodia’s islands. The city has a growing population of 100,856 residents.
Tourism in Cambodia
In 2017, Cambodia’s tourism sector earned $3.63 billion in revenue. That’s an increase of 13.3 percent from 2018, according to the latest figures published by the Ministry of Tourism.
The ever-growing tourist increase is bringing in revenue to the country and is attributed to the increasing number of air connections.
China tops the list for most travelers by nationality, with 1.2 million Chinese tourists visiting the kingdom of Wonder. Runner-ups are travelers from Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Korea.
The Ministry of Tourism expects Cambodia to welcome 7 million international tourists by 2020 and 10 million by 2025!
Learn how to travel safely through Cambodia
The Cambodian Riel (KHR) is the official currency in Cambodia. A cool thing about Cambodia is that they accept US dollars just about everywhere, meaning that you don’t have to exchange money upon arrival to the Kingdom. Near borders, many businesses will also accept the neighboring countries currency (Thai Baht / Vietnamese Dong).
The KHR to USD trading rate may vary from location to location, but you can expect it to trade around 4,000 riel to the US dollar.
They don’t use coins in Cambodia, that goes for American coins as well, so expect to receive the local currency as change.
Quick Trading Reference: 1000 KHR ~ $0.25 USD | 4000 KHR ~ $1 USD | 10000 KHR ~ $2.50 USD | 20000 KHR ~ $5 USD | 50000 ~ $12.50 USD
Please Note: Don’t expect small businesses to change your $20, $50, or $100 bill for a $0.50 (2000 KHR) purchase. Also, your US dollars will most likely be rejected if they’re ripped, torn, or overly abused. Always keep cash on hand as most businesses do not take cards yet. Atm’s are common and dispense USD and KHR.
What is the best currency to take to Cambodia?
We recommend bringing US dollars as you can spend them almost everywhere. You may want to check your countries trading rates with the USD to perhaps secure a better rate before arriving in Cambodia. Any Cambodian bank will trade your currency into KHR, but if you know how to haggle, you could secure a better deal in local markets.