About Cambodia : Introduction
Cambodia is a country that is firmly putting its past behind to embrace the 21st century. It is emerging as a vibrant, exciting tourist travel destination, offering an opportunity to step back into ancient history, get off the beaten track into a lush yet unpredictable rural countryside and to immerse in a kind and charming culture. It is a country where crumbling colonial buildings and tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) are juxtaposed with 5 star boutique hotels and trendy restaurants and spas.
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and in its turbulent past, was invaded by two of its neighbors several times. It shares the powerful Mekong River with Laos and Vietnam. The river enters the country from Laos in the North, and in its southbound journey almost divides Cambodia into halves.
The Mekong splits off into two at Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital, before ending in Vietnam. One of its tributaries feeds Tonle Sap (Great Lake), the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia, which lies south of Siem Reap, the town closest to the Angkor temple complex.
Waterfall, Mondulkiri – by Heico
The Land of Smiles
Known as the Land of Smiles, Cambodia’s gentle culture is influenced by Theravada Buddhism practiced by the bulk of its 13 million ethnic Khmer who live alongside substantial minorities of Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham Muslims and hill tribes. Angkor Wat, the ancient temple at the heart of a sprawling, monumental complex of stone block structures in Angkor, is a testimony to the power of the Khmer kingdom, which peaked during the 11th century.
At that stage, the Khmer kingdom included parts of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. However, with the decline of the Khmer kings and in a slow weakening of power marked by incursions from the Thais, Vietnamese and later the French and Japanese, the country was slowly chipped away to its present size, which is one half of Germany.
Angkor Wat, a Megawatt Tourist Must
Inspired by the rapid modernization of it neighbors, Cambodia is shedding its painful and devastating recent history of genocide and foreign occupation and is opening its doors to tourism and development. Its economy grew around 11% a year between 2004-2007, spurred by garment manufacturing, tourism, construction and real estate development.
Tourists stream to the wondrous, megalithic temples of Angkor Wat, its intricately carved bas reliefs of gods and asparas, giant carved heads, sky-touching spires on giant temples and wide water moats. Mysterious and enigmatic, it is no surprise that Angelina Jolie’s movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was filmed on Ta Prohm, a temple still overrun by the jungle.
Ten years ago, Cambodia attracted only 300,000 tourists a year but the number went up to 2 million in 2008. Seeing Angkor Wat is a once in a lifetime dream trip for many and is such a prominent part of Cambodia that its image is on the national flag. Yet, there is a wide variety of experiences to be relished in Cambodia.
An unspoiled countryside, pristine and uncrowded beaches, boat cruises down the Tonle Sap and Mekong, views of floating villages and rural riverside towns and traditional handicrafts drawing from a rich and ancient culture are just a few of innumerable attractions.
A wonderful cuisine, based on a unique blend of Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cooking is putting Cambodia on the culinary map. The French cultural influence is present, not just in French colonial architecture and wide, tree-lined boulevards, but also in strong espressos, tasty French pastries, croissants and baguettes in cafes and bread street carts.
For the diehard shopper, Cambodia has home-grown silk and cotton, some still woven on traditional looms. The savvy shopper buys jewelry in Cambodia because it is significantly cheaper than those found in neighboring Thailand. There is also a movement to revive traditional Khmer ceramic and bronze art and to teach the skills of an almost lost art to younger Cambodian artisans.
Exuberant Water Festival
The best time of the year to visit Cambodia is during the dry season from November to March. The Water Festival in Phnom Penh in November features hundreds of brightly colored boats from Cambodia’s villages battling for winning honors over 3 days of intense competition. This is an exuberant and festive time in Phnom Penh as millions flock in from all round the country to enjoy the live concerts, hundreds of food stands, nightly fireworks and, of course, the opportunity to cheer more than twenty thousand rowers on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers.
Travel is getting easier. There are two international airports, English is increasingly widely spoken, the roads are getting better and accommodation ranges from backpacker budget guest houses to unrivalled drop dead luxury.
Cambodia has a rich and ancient heritage. While remembering more modern hardship and struggle, do now forget this is home to a most powerful Kingdom.