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Cambodia

  • OVERVIEW
  • GETTING THERE AND AROUND
  • WHEN TO GO AND WEATHER
  • PRACTICAL INFORMATION / VISAS
  • HISTORY

OVERVIEW

There’s a magic about Cambodia that casts a spell on many who visit this charming yet confounding kingdom. Ascend to the realm of the gods at the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat, a spectacular fusion of symbolism, symmetry and spirituality. Descend into the hell of Tuol Sleng and come face to face with the Khmer Rouge and its killing machine. Welcome to the conundrum that is Cambodia: a country with a history both inspiring and depressing, an intoxicating place where the future is waiting to be shaped.

Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples. The chaotic yet charismatic capital of Phnom Penh is a hub of political intrigue, economic vitality and intellectual debate. All too often overlooked by hit-and-run tourists ticking off Angkor on a regional tour, the revitalised city of Siem Reap is finally earning plaudits in its own right thanks to a gorgeous riverside location, a cultural renaissance, and a dining and drinking scene to rival the best in the region. And don’t forget the rest of the country: relax in the sleepy seaside town of Kampot and trek the nearby Bokor National Park; take an elephant ride in the jungles of Mondulkiri Province; ogle the Mekong dolphins at Kratie or simply choose a beach nearSihanoukville.

The years of fear and loathing are finally over and Angkor is once more the symbol of the nation, drawing pilgrims from across the globe. Peace has come to this beautiful yet blighted land after three decades of war, and the Cambodian people have opened their arms to the world. Tourism has well and truly taken off, yet a journey here remains an adventure as much as a holiday.

Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire, which, during the Angkor period, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivalled in scale and grandeur in Southeast Asia. The traveller’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is simply staggering and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.

Siem Reap and Phnom Penh may be the heavyweights, but to some extent they are a bubble, a world away from the Cambodia of the countryside. This is the place to experience the rhythm of rural life and timeless landscapes of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms. Spend some time in the srok (provinces), as Cambodians call them, enjoying a dar leng(walkabout) to discover the true flavour of the country.

The south coast is fringed by tropical islands, with barely a beach hut in sight. The next Ko Samui or Gili Trawangan awaits discovery and, for now, visitors can play Robinson Crusoe. Inland from the coast lie the Cardamom Mountains, part of a vast tropical wilderness that provides a home to elusive wildlife and is the gateway to emerging ecotourism adventures. The mighty Mekong River cuts through the country and is home to some of the region’s last remaining freshwater dolphins; cyclists or dirt bikers can follow the river’s length as it meanders through traditional communities. The northeast is a world unto itself, its wild and mountainous landscapes a home for Cambodia’s ethnic minorities and an abundance of natural attractions, including thundering waterfalls and pristine crater lakes.

Despite this beautiful backdrop, life is no picnic for the average Cambodian. It remains one of the poorest countries in Asia and it’s a tough existence for much of the population, as they battle it out against the whims of nature and, sometimes, of their politicians. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP; www.undp.org), Cambodia remains poorer than Mongolia and El Salvador, just scraping in ahead of Mauritania, while Transparency International (www.transparency.org), the anticorruption watchdog, rates the country a lowly 151 out of the 163 countries ranked. Income remains desperately low for many Khmers, with annual salaries in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands, and public servants such as teachers unable to eke out a living on their meagre wages.

Cambodia’s pristine environment may be a big draw, but much of it is currently under threat. Ancient forests are being razed to make way for plantations, rivers are being sized up for major hydroelectric power plants and the south coast is being explored by leading oil companies. All this helps add up to an ever-stronger economy, which is growing at an incredible 10% a year, but it’s unlikely to encourage the ecotourism that is just starting to develop.

Cambodia is like the teen starlet who has just been discovered by an adoring public: everyone wants something from her but not everyone wants what is best for her. The government, long shunned by international big business, is keen to benefit from all these newfound opportunities. Contracts are being signed off like autographs and there are concerns for the long-term interests of the country.

Tourism has brought many benefits to Cambodia: it provides opportunity and employment for a new generation of Khmers, has helped to spark a rebirth of the traditional arts, and has given the country a renewed sense of pride and optimism as it recovers from the dark decades of war and genocide. However, not all tourism has been good for the country and there is the dark side of sex tourism, human exploitation and a casino culture. Cambodia is in a great position to benefit from the mistakes of other countries in the region and follow a sustainable road to tourism development. However, it may be that the government is more focused on the short-term gain that megabucks investments can provide. Can Cambodia be all things to all visitors? So far, so good, but a new era is about to begin and the beaches are the next battleground.

There are two faces to Cambodia: one shiny and happy, the other dark and complex. For every illegal eviction of city dwellers or land grab by a general, there will be a new NGO school offering better education, or a new clean-water initiative to improve the lives of the average villager. Such is the yin and yang of Cambodia, a country that inspires and confounds. Like an onion, the more layers you unravel, the more it makes you want to cry, but these are spontaneous tears, sometimes of sorrow, sometimes of joy.

Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s greatest treasure is its people. The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact; no visitor comes away from Cambodia without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.

Cambodia: beaches as beautiful as Thailand but without the tourist tide; wilds as remote as Laos but even less explored; cuisine as subtle as Vietnam but yet to be discovered; and temples that leave Burma and Indonesia in the shade. This is the heart of Southeast Asia, with everything the region has to offer packed into one bite-sized country. If you were only planning to spend a week in Cambodia, it’s time to think again.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

Passport: Not only is a passport essential but you also need to make sure that it’s valid for at least six months beyond the end of your trip – Cambodian immigration will not issue a visa if you have less than six months’ validity left on your passport. It’s also important to make sure that there is plenty of space left in your passport. Do not set off on a six-month trek across Asia with only two blank pages left – a Cambodian visa alone takes up one page. It is sometimes possible to have extra pages added to your passport, but most people will be required to get a new passport. This is possible for most foreign nationals in Cambodia, but it can be time consuming and costly, as many embassies process new passports in Bangkok. Losing a passport is not the end of the world, but it is a serious inconvenience. To expedite the issuing of a new passport, keep a copy of your passport details somewhere separate from your passport.

Tickets: When buying airline tickets, it is always worth shopping around. Buying direct from the airline is usually more expensive, unless the airline has a special promotion. As a rule, it is better to book as early as possible, as prices only get higher as the seats fill up. The time of year has a major impact on flight prices. Starting out from Europe, North America or Australia, figure on prices rising dramatically over Christmas and between July and August, and dropping significantly during lax periods of business like February, June and October.

Thailand is the most convenient gateway to Cambodia when travelling from outside the region. In Bangkok, the Banglamphu area, especially Khao San Rd, is a good place to buy tickets to Cambodia. Those who are travelling into Cambodia by air through Vietnam can easily pick up tickets in Ho Chi Minh City. When buying tickets in Cambodia, the biggest agents are in Phnom Penh, although many now operate branch offices in Siem Reap. Agents can normally save you a few dollars on the airline price, much more for long-haul flights or business-class seats.

To research and buy a ticket on the internet, try these services:
River: There is a river border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam on the banks of the Mekong. There are regular fast passenger boats plying the route between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc in Vietnam, via the Kaam Samnor–Vinh Xuong border crossing. There are also a couple of luxurious river boats ­running all the way to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. There is also a river crossing on the Mekong border with Laos, although most travellers use the road these days.

Land: For years overland travellers were restricted to entering or exiting Cambodia at the Bavet–Moc Bai border crossing with Vietnam. However, lots of new land crossings between Cambodia and its neighbours have opened, offering overland connections with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. However, many of the newly opened borders are in relatively off-the-beaten path destinations and are aimed at promoting trade more than serving tourists. For the latest on Cambodian border crossings, check out the Immigration Department website at cambodia-immigration.com.

Bus: It is possible to use buses to cross into Cambodia from Thailand or Vietnam. The most popular way to or from Vietnam is a cheap bus via Bavet on the Cambodian side and Moc Bai in Vietnam. From Thailand, many travellers take the nightmare ‘scam bus’ from Bangkok to Siem Reap via the Poipet–Aranya Prathet border crossing.

Car & motorcycle: Car drivers and motorcycle riders will need registration papers, insurance documents and an International Driving Licence to bring vehicles into Cambodia. It is complicated to bring in a car, but relatively straightforward to bring in a motorcycle, as long as you have a carnet de passage (vehicle passport). This acts as a temporary import-duty waiver and should save a lot of hassles when dealing with Cambodian customs. Increasing numbers of international bikers are crossing into Cambodia, while most of the foreign cars that tend to make it are Thai-registered.

Border crossings:
Cambodia shares one border crossing with Laos, six crossings with Thailand and eight with Vietnam. Visas are now available at all the land crossings with Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. There are now international ATMs near the Cham Yeam and Poipet borders with Thailand. However, at the rest of the borders, there are very few money-changing facilities at any of these crossings, so be sure to have some small-denomination US dollars handy or baht if crossing from Thailand. The black market is also an option for local currencies – Vietnamese dong, Lao kip and Thai baht. Remember that black marketeers have a well-deserved reputation for short-changing and outright theft. Cambodian immigration officers at the land border-crossings have a bad reputation for petty extortion. Travellers are occasionally asked for an ‘immigration fee’ of some kind, particularly when entering or exiting via the Lao border. Other scams include overcharging for the visa in Thai baht (anywhere between 1000B and 1200B instead of 700B) and forcing tourists to change US dollars into riel at a poor rate. Hold your breath, stand your ground, don’t start a fight and remember that not all Cambodians are as mercenary as the men in blue.

Senior government officials in Phnom Penh are trying to crack down on overcharging for visas and general petty extortion at the borders, as it gives Cambodia a bad image. In order to help bring an end to this, we suggest you ask for the name of any official demanding extra money at the border and mention you will pass it on to the Ministers of Interior and Tourism.

Laos: Cambodia and Laos share a remote frontier that includes some of the wildest areas of both countries. There is only one border crossing open to foreigners and given the remoteness of the region, it is unlikely any more will open in the near future. The border between Cambodia and Laos is officially open from 7am to 5pm daily. It is very popular as an adventurous and cheap way to combine travel to northeastern Cambodia and southern Laos. On the Cambodian side of the border, there are confusingly two possible places to cross the border: one on the river (Koh Chheuteal Thom) and one on the old road from Stung Treng (Dom Kralor). Few travellers use the original Koh Chheuteal Thom crossing as the speedboats to Stung Treng are overpriced. More prefer to travel by minibus via the road border at Dom Kralor. To enter Cambodia using this route, visas are available on arrival. Those exiting Cambodia for Laos should arrange a Lao visa in advance in Phnom Penh. Both sides of the border seem to charge an overtime fee for those crossing at lunch time or after dark, although the exact sum (usually US$1 to US$5) depends on gentle but persuasive bargaining.

To leave Cambodia, travel to the remote town of Stung Treng. From Stung Treng there are regular minibuses (US$5 per person) heading north to the border. Longtail rocket boats (US$30 for the boat, US$5 per person, one hour) can be chartered up the Mekong and take up to six people. The road crossing is more straightforward, as on the Mekong, Cambodian immigration is on the west bank and Lao immigration is on the east bank. Once in Voen Kham in Laos, there are outboards running up to the island of Don Khone (US$5, 20 minutes), although they drop you on the wrong side of the island, as they can’t traverse the falls. Those heading further north can take a motorcycle taxi for about US$5 to Nakasong, where it is possible to arrange a boat to Don Det or Don Khone, or arrange a jamboh (three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) on to Hat Xai Khun for the boat across to Don Khong.

Coming to Cambodia from Laos, the options outlined above can be run in reverse. The cheapest way is to take one of the dirt-cheap boat trips advertised on Don Khone and Don Khong, costing just a few dollars, which include the waterfalls and dolphin viewing. Once you get back to Voen Kham from viewing the dolphins, jump ship and arrange a seat in a Cambodian taxi or minibus, costing about US$5 to Stung Treng. There are also plenty of Cambodian outboards hanging around the dock at Voen Kham for the run to Stung Treng, but they seem to have fixed the price at US$10 per person, which is double what it costs to travel in the other direction.

Thailand: Cambodia and Thailand share a lengthy border and there are now six legal international border crossings, and many more options for locals. Land borders with Thailand are open from 7am to 8pm daily. Tourist visas are available at all crossings for US$20. There are now clear signs displaying the US$20 charge, but many people are still charged 1000B. For the latest sagas on land crossings between Thailand and Cambodia.

Poipet–aranya prathet:
The original land border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, with scams galore to help tourists part with their money. The ‘scam bus’ promoted on Khao San Rd in Bangkok is now legendary throughout Asia, but many travellers still succumb to the charms of cheap tickets. There are two slow trains a day from Hualamphong train station in Bangkok to the Thai border town of Aranya Prathet (48B, six hours); take the 5.55am service unless you want to spend the night in a border town. There are also regular bus services from Bangkok’s Mo Chit northern terminal to Aranya Prathet (200/160B 1st/2nd class, four to five hours). From Aranya Prathet, take a tuk tuk (motorised three-wheeled pedicab) for the final six kilometres to the border for about 80B.

Avoid the touts when crossing into Cambodia and don’t listen to any offers of help securing a visa. Once across, try not to get roped into the ‘free’ tourist shuttle to the ‘Tourist Lounge’. This place arranges transport to major cities, but at inflated prices: Phnom Penh (US$15, seven to eight hours); Siem Reap (US$10, five hours); Battambang (US$8, 2½ hrs). Stick solo and walk to the bus company offices for cheaper fares. Almost all buses run by all the companies depart very early in the morning (before 8am). It is also possible to negotiate taxis if you can avoid the taxi mafia. Try to pay no more than US$40 to Siem Reap or US$30 to Battambang. Finally, there is the independent option of climbing aboard a pick-up truck hanging out in front of the market near the central roundabout. It’s just 50B for a spot in the back to Sisophon from where there is onward transport to Battambang or Siem Reap.

The road to Siem Reap is still unsurfaced and gets very, very ugly during the wet season. It should be the number one priority for trade and tourism, and it should finally be rebuilt over the next few years. Leaving Cambodia, it is easy enough to get to Poipet from Siem Reap, Battambang or even Phnom Penh. By land there is no departure tax to leave Cambodia. From Poipet, take a tuk tuk to Aranya Prathet, from where there are regular buses to Bangkok between 4am and 10pm or the slow train at 1.55pm.

Cham yeam–hat lek:
The Cham Yeam–Hat Lek border crossing between Cambodia’s Krong Koh Kong and Trat in Thailand is popular with travellers linking the beaches of Cambodia and Thailand. Coming from Bangkok, take a bus to Trat (210B, five to six hours) from the city’s Eastern bus station. Buses depart regularly from 6am until 11.30pm. The 11.30pm bus arrives in Trat early enough to get to Krong Koh Kong in time to catch the 8am fast boat to Sihanoukville. Another convenient option for travellers staying in the Khao San Rd area is to take one of the minibuses bound for Koh Chang, getting off at Trat. From Trat, take a minibus straight to the Thai border at Hat Lek for 110B. The border opens at 7am so it is possible to stay the night in Trat and, with an early enough start, still make the boat to Sihanoukville – but it’s tight. Alternatively, cross later in the day and stay the night in Krong Koh Kong and see the waterfalls and islands around there. Once on the Cambodian side of the border you can take a moto (motorcycle with driver; 50B plus 11B toll) or taxi (200B plus 44B toll) to Krong Koh Kong.

Fast boats from Krong Koh Kong to Sihanoukville (US$20 for foreigners, four hours) leave at 8am and depart Sihanoukville at 9.30am when heading in the other direction. A word of warning: the sea can be dangerously rough at times and these boats were designed for river travel, not sailing the open seas! From Sihanoukville there are cheap air-con buses to Phnom Penh. It is also possible to travel by road from Krong Koh Kong to Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. Virak Buntham and Rith Mony run bus and minibus services to both cities (300B) every morning, or negotiate with a share taxi. It should be 400B for a seat to either destination, but it is probably worth buying two seats for comfort. The road is now surfaced with four new bridges, bringing journey times – and prices – down dramatically.

Leaving Cambodia, take either a taxi or moto across the bridge to the border from Krong Koh Kong. Once in Thailand, catch a minibus to Trat from where there are regular buses to Bangkok. Alternatively, stay the night in Trat and then head to Ko Chang or the surrounding islands the following day.

Other crossings:
Several more out of the way crossings are open for international traffic. The O Smach–Chong Jom crossing connects Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey Province and Thailand’s Surin Province with Siem Reap, but it is very remote. There are five buses per day from Surin to Chong Jom (30B, two hours). Once on the Cambodian side, you can head to Samraong on a miserable road by moto (250B, one hour) or private taxi (1200B, almost two hours), and arrange local transport from there on to Siem Reap. There is no public transport east to Anlong Veng or southwest to Banteay Chhmar.

The Choam–Choam Srawngam crossing, 16km north of Anlong Veng on unexpected paved road, puts you into a pretty remote part of Thailand and hence transport connections are, for once, harder on the Thai side. Pick-up trucks (3000/2000r inside/on the back) leave Anlong Veng early, heading to the Cambodian border town of Choam from 6am. Alternatively, charter a moto (10, 000r) or a taxi (US$20). Once on the Thai side, there are several onward buses a day, but they are quite spaced out. Coming in the other direction from Thailand, the closest major town is Si Saket. From Si Saket there are several buses that make the journey each day to the border. Note that from Anlong Veng there is no public transport east to Prasat Preah Vihear or west to Samraong.

The border near Pailin, 102km southwest of Battambang, is open for business as well. Some foreigners are unexpectedly crossing the border at Psar Pruhm–Ban Pakard, courtesy of the ‘scam bus’. To travel this way independently, take a bus from Bangkok to Chantaburi (160B, four hours) and then a minibus from there to Ban Pakard (150B, 1½ hours). Cross the Cambodian border into the casino area and then arrange a share taxi into Pailin (300B for the whole car, 50B per person). From Pailin it is possible to get to Battambang (200B, 2½ hours) by share taxi on a real joke of a road. Run this route in reverse to exit Cambodia; prices should be the same with a bit of bargaining here and there.

There is another remote border at Kamrieng–Daun Lem in Battambang Province, but it is really just an outpost with a casino catering to Thai gamblers and not very accessible from the Cambodian side. There is also a border at Prasat Preah Vihear , the stunning Cambodian temple perched atop the Dangkrek mountains. This is currently just a day crossing for tourists wanting to visit the temple from the Thai side, but it may be upgraded to a full international crossing during the next few years.

Vietnam: Cambodia and Vietnam share a long frontier with a bevy of border crossings. Foreigners are currently permitted to cross at eight places and there are new crossings opening all the time. Cambodian visas are now available at all crossings. Vietnamese visas should be arranged in advance, as they are not available on arrival. Luckily, Cambodia is the easiest place in the world to pick up Vietnamese visas. It is no longer necessary to stipulate your exact point of entry and exit on the Vietnam visa, or the exact date of arrival, making for the sort of carefree travel overlanders prefer.

Bavet–moc bai, The original land crossing between Vietnam and Cambodia has seen steady traffic for more than a decade. The trip by bus between Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City takes about five to six hours, including the border crossing. There are now several companies offering direct services with no need to change buses. Choose from Capitol Transport, GST, Mai Linh, Mekong Express, Neak Krohorm and Phnom Penh Sorya Transport. All charge between US$9 and US$12.

Kaam samnor–vinh xuong:
Cambodia and Vietnam opened their border on the Mekong back in 2000 and it is now very popular with independent travellers. It is a far more interesting trip than taking the road, as it involves a fast boat on the Mekong in Cambodia and travel along some very picturesque areas of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Coming from Ho Chi Minh City, it is possible to book a cheap Mekong Delta tour through to Chau Doc and then make your own way from there.

Adventurous travellers like to plot their own course. Leaving Cambodia, take a bus from Psar Thmei in Phnom Penh to Neak Luong (4500r, 1½ hours, regular departures) then jump off the bus on the west bank of the Mekong (don’t take the ferry across the river!) and ask around for outboards to Kaam Samnor (one hour). They depart from a small pier about 300m south of the ferry. It costs US$20 to charter the whole boat, but those with a little time on their hands can wait until it fills with locals and pay 16, 000r (US$4) for a place. The border posts at Kaam Samnor are some way apart so hire a moto (US$1) to carry you from building to building to deal with the lengthy bureaucracy. There are separate offices for immigration and customs on both sides of the border, so it can end up taking as much as an hour to navigate. Luggage has to be x-rayed on the Vietnamese side of the border! Once officially in Vietnam at the village of Vinh Xuong, catch a minibus to Chau Doc (US$2, one hour). From Chau Doc, there are frequent buses to Cantho and Ho Chi Minh City. Those entering Cambodia via Vinh Xuong can just run the aforementioned route in reverse.

There are several boat companies offering direct services between Phnom Penh and Chau Doc. The more upmarket Blue Cruiser (016 824343; 93 Sisowath Quay; US$35) departs Chau Doc at 8.30am and Phnom Penh at 1.30pm. Hang Chau (012 883542; US$16) pulls out from Chau Doc at 9am and departs Phnom Penh’s tourist boat dock at 12 noon. Both take about three hours or so. Victoria Hotels (www.victoriahotels-asia.com; US$80) also has a boat making several runs a week between Phnom Penh and its luxury Victoria Chau Doc Hotel.

Lastly, there are two companies offering luxury cruises between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap via the Kaam Samnor-Vinh Xuong border crossing. International player Pandaw Cruises (www.pandaw.com) is an expensive option favoured by high-end tour companies. Cambodian company Toum Teav Cruises (www.cf-mekong.com) is smaller and is well regarded for its personal service and excellent food. It’s open season when it comes to border crossings between Cambodia and Vietnam, but many are a little out of the way for the average traveller. There are rumours that a ferry may soon link Kep or Kampot with Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island. The newly opened Prek Chak–Xa Xia crossing has been long anticipated, connecting Kep and Kampot with the Mekong Delta town of Ha Tien. This also offers the prospect of linking the Cambodian coast with the beautiful Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, formerly the Cambodian island of Koh Tral. As this is a fairly new crossing there is still little in the way of regular transport, but expect bus services to start at some stage. For now, it is possible to take a moto from Kompong Trach (US$3), Kep (US$6) or Kampot (US$9) to the border, cross into Vietnam and take a xe om (moto) to Ha Tien (US$2). It is also possible to charter a taxi from Kampot (US$40), Kep (US$30) and Kompong Trach (US$20) to the border.

The Phnom Den–Tinh Bien crossing has been open for some time now, but is rarely used as most travellers prefer the Mekong crossing at Kaam Samnor or the new Prek Chak crossing to the south. It lies about 60km southeast of Takeo town in Cambodia and offers connections to Chau Doc. A seat in a share taxi will cost about 6000r from Takeo to the border. There is a new border crossing in Ratanakiri province at O’Yadaw–Le Tanh, offering connections between Banlung and Pleiku, in Vietnam’s central highlands. NH19 from Banlung to the O’Yadaw border (five hours) is still in a shameful state, so it may be some time before this border sees regular traffic. Ask around in Banlung or Pleiku about charters or try your luck with a combination of pick-ups and motos. There are a cluster of border crossings in the east of Cambodia that connect obscure towns and are not really on the radar. The Trapaeng Phlong–Xa Mat and Trapaeng Sre–Loc Ninh crossings are both off NH7 and the Xa Mat crossing could be useful for those planning to visit the Cao Dai temple travelling to or from Ho Chi Minh City. Once the roads are all upgraded, this will probably be the favoured route for direct traffic between Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh City. The Banteay Chakrey–Dong Thap crossing is really out of the way and sees almost no foreign travellers.

WHEN TO GO AND WEATHER

Cambodia can be visited at any time of year. The ideal months are December and January, when humidity levels are relatively low, there is little rainfall and a cooling breeze whips across the land, but this is also peak season when the majority of visitors descend on the country. From early February temperatures keep rising until the killer month, April, when the mercury often exceeds 40°C. Some time in May or June, the southwestern monsoon brings rain and high humidity, cooking up a sweat for all but the hardiest of visitors. The wet season, which lasts until October, isn’t such a bad time to visit, as the rain tends to come in short, sharp downpours. Angkor is surrounded by lush foliage and the moats are full of water at this time of year. If you are planning to visit isolated areas, however, the wet season makes for tough travel. Some visitors like to coordinate their trip with one of the annual festivals, such as Bon Om Tuk or Khmer New Year.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION / VISAS

Costs: The cost of travelling in Cambodia covers the whole spectrum, from almost free to outrageously expensive, depending on taste and comfort. Penny- pinchers can survive on as little as US$10 per day, while budget travellers with an eye on enjoyment can live it up on US$25 a day. Midrange travellers can turn on the style with US$75 to US$100 a day, staying in smart places, dining well and travelling in comfort. At the top end, flash US$200 a day or more to live a life of luxury.

Accommodation starts from as little as US$2 to US$5 in popular destinations. Spending US$10 to US$20 will add to the amenities, such as air conditioning, satellite TV, fridge and hot water. Stepping up to US$50, you enter the world of three-star standards and charming boutique resorts. Forking out US$100 or more brings a five-star fling. Don’t be afraid to negotiate for a discount if it is low season or traffic is down.

While Cambodian cuisine may not be as well known as that of its neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, it can certainly compete with the best of them. Snack on the street or chow down in the market, with meals starting at just 1000r or so, or indulge in a banquet for a couple of bucks. Khmer restaurants are a step up in comfort, and a local meal will cost US$1 to US$2. Next are the sophisticated Khmer, Asian and international restaurants. Meals start from about US$3 at the cheaper places, rising to more like US$10 at the smarter ones, and US$50 or more is possible if you go wild with the wine list. Domestic flights link Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Fast boats link several popular destinations in Cambodia and the journey can be more scenic than by road. There is now a healthy selection of bus companies connecting towns and cities throughout Cambodia and prices are rock bottom. On the rougher roads, share taxis and pick-ups take the strain. Train travel is no longer possible, as passenger services have been suspended, but that could be seen as a blessing in disguise given that trains crawl along at an average speed of 20km/h. For ultimate flexibility, rent a car or 4WD and travel with a guide.

Visitors to Angkor (which is surely everybody coming to Cambodia) will have to factor in the cost of entrance fees, which are US$20 for one day, US$40 for three days and US$60 for one week. An additional expense is transport to get to, from and around the ruins; from US$2 for a bicycle, US$6 to US$8 for a moto (small motorcycle with driver), US$10 to US$15 for a remorque (trailer pulled by a bicycle or motorcycle) and US$25 to US$35 for a car. Small budget, big budget, it doesn’t really matter; Cambodia is the place to be. Soak it up in the style that suits.

Cash: The US dollar remains king in Cambodia. Armed with enough cash, you won’t need to visit a bank at all because it is possible to change small amounts of dollars for riel at hotels, restaurants and markets. Hardened travellers argue that your trip ends up being slightly more expensive if you rely on US dollars rather than riel, but in reality there’s very little in it. However, it never hurts to support the local currency against the greenback. It is always handy to have about US$10 worth of riel kicking around, as it is good for motos, remorque-motos and markets. Pay for something cheap in US dollars and the change comes in riel. In remote areas of the north and northeast, locals only deal in riel or small dollar denominations. The only other currency that can be useful is Thai baht, mainly in the west of the country. Prices in towns such as Krong Koh Kong, Poipet and Sisophon are often quoted in baht, and even in Battambang it is as common as the dollar.

There are no banks at any of the land border crossings into Cambodia, meaning credit cards and travellers cheques are effectively useless on arrival, although there will likely be ATMs in Poipet in the near future. In the interests of making life as simple as possible, organise a supply of US dollars before arriving in Cambodia. Cash in other major currencies can be changed at banks or markets in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. However, most banks tend to offer a miserable rate for any nondollar transaction so it can be better to use moneychangers, which are found in and around every major market.

Western Union and MoneyGram are both represented in Cambodia for fast, if more expensive, money transfers. Western Union is represented by SBC and Acleda Bank, and MoneyGram is represented by Canadia Bank.

Credit cards: Top-end hotels, airline offices and upmarket boutiques and restaurants generally accept most major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, JCB, sometimes American Express), but they usually pass the charges straight on to the customer, meaning an extra 3% on the bill. Cash advances on credit cards are available in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Kampot, Battambang and Kompong Cham. Canadia Bank and Union Commercial Bank offer free cash advances, but most other banks advertise a minimum charge of US$5.

Several travel agents and hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap arrange cash advances for about 5% commission; this can be particularly useful if you get caught short at the weekend.

Travellers cheques: Acleda Bank now offers travellers cheque encashment at most branches, bringing financial freedom to far-flung provinces like Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri. It is best to have cheques in US dollars, though it is also possible to change euros at Acleda Bank and most major currencies at branches of Canadia Bank. Generally, you pay about 2% commission to change travellers cheques.

HISTORY

The good, the bad and the ugly is a simple way to sum up Cambodian history. Things were good in the early years, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th century, as ascendant neighbours steadily chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it turned downright ugly, as a brutal civil war culminated in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975–79), from which Cambodia is still recovering.

Cambodia came into being, so the legend says, through the union of a princess and a foreigner. The foreigner was an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya and the princess was the daughter of a dragon king who ruled over a watery land. One day, as Kaundinya sailed by, the princess paddled out in a boat to greet him. Kaundinya shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat, causing the fearful princess to agree to marriage. In need of a dowry, her father drank up the waters of his land and presented them to Kaundinya to rule over. The new kingdom was named Kambuja.

Like many legends, this one is historically opaque, but it does say something about the cultural forces that brought Cambodia into existence, in particular its relationship with its great subcontinental neighbour, India. Cambodia’s religious, royal and written traditions stemmed from India and began to coalesce as a cultural entity in their own right between the 1st and 5th centuries.

Very little is known about prehistoric Cambodia. Much of the southeast was a vast, shallow gulf that was progressively silted up by the mouths of the Mekong, leaving pancake-flat, mineral-rich land ideal for farming. Evidence of cave-dwellers has been found in the northwest of Cambodia. Carbon dating on ceramic pots found in the area shows that they were made around 4200 BC, but it is hard to say whether there is a direct relationship between these cave-dwelling pot makers and contemporary Khmers. Examinations of bones dating back to around 1500 BC, however, suggest that the people living in Cambodia at that time resembled the Cambodians of today. Early Chinese records report that the Cambodians were ‘ugly’ and ‘dark’ and went about naked. However, a healthy dose of scepticism is always required when reading the culturally chauvinistic reports of imperial China concerning its ‘barbarian’ neighbours.

The early Cambodian kingdoms:
Cambodian might didn’t begin and end with Angkor. There were a number of powerful kingdoms present in this area before the 9th century. From the 1st century, the Indianisation of Cambodia occurred through trading settlements that sprang up on the coastline of what is now southern Vietnam, but was then inhabited by the Khmers. These settlements were important ports of call for boats following the trading route from the Bay of Bengal to the southern provinces of China. The largest of these nascent kingdoms was known as Funan by the Chinese, and may have existed across an area between Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province, a site only worth visiting for the archaeologically obsessed today, and Oc-Eo in Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. Funan would have been a contemporary of Champasak in southern Laos (then known as Kuruksetra) and other lesser fiefdoms in the region.

Funan is a Chinese name, and it may be a transliteration of the ancient Khmer word bnam (mountain). Although very little is known about Funan, much has been made of its importance as an early Southeast Asian centre of power. It is most likely that between the 1st and 8th centuries, Cambodia was a collection of small states, each with its own elites that often strategically intermarried and often went to war with one another. Funan was no doubt one of these states, and as a major sea port would have been pivotal in the transmission of Indian culture into the interior of Cambodia.

The little that historians do know about Funan has mostly been gleaned from Chinese sources. These report that Funan-period Cambodia (1st to 6th centuries AD) embraced the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism. The linga (phallic totem) appears to have been the focus of ritual and an emblem of kingly might, a feature that was to evolve further in the Angkorian cult of the god-king. The people practised primitive irrigation, which enabled successful cultivation of rice, and traded raw commodities such as spices with China and India.

From the 6th century, Cambodia’s population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, where the majority remains today. The move may have been related to the development of wet-rice agriculture. From the 6th to 8th centuries it was likely that Cambodia was a collection of competing kingdoms, ruled by autocratic kings who legitimised their absolute rule through hierarchical caste concepts borrowed from India. This era is generally referred to as the Chenla period. Again, like Funan, it is a Chinese term and there is little to support the idea that Chenla was a unified kingdom that held sway over all of Cambodia. Indeed, the Chinese themselves referred to ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Chenla’. Water Chenla was located around Angkor Borei and the temple mount of Phnom Da, near the present-day provincial capital of Takeo, and land Chenla in the upper reaches of the Mekong River and east of Tonlé Sap Lake, around Sambor Prei Kuk, an essential stop on a chronological jaunt through Cambodia’s history.

The rise of the Angkor Empire:
Gradually the Cambodian region was becoming more cohesive. Before long the fractured kingdoms of Cambodia would merge to become the greatest empire in Southeast Asia. A popular place of pilgrimage for Khmers today, the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen, to the northeast of Angkor, is home to an inscription that tells of Jayavarman II (r 802–50) proclaiming himself a ‘universal monarch’, or devaraja (god-king) in 802. It is believed that he may have resided in the Buddhist Shailendras’ court in Java as a young man. Upon his return to Cambodia he instigated an uprising against Javanese control over the southern lands of Cambodia. Jayavarman II then set out to bring the country under his control through alliances and conquests, the first monarch to rule most of what we call Cambodia today.

Jayavarman II was the first of a long succession of kings who presided over the rise and fall of the greatest empire mainland Southeast Asia has ever seen, one that was to bequeath the stunning legacy of Angkor. The key to the me­teoric rise of Angkor was a mastery of water and an elaborate hydraulic system that allowed the ancient Khmers to tame the elements. The first records of the massive irrigation works that supported the population of Angkor date to the reign of Indravarman I (r 877–89) who built the baray (reservoir) of Indratataka. His rule also marks the flourishing of Angkorian art, with the building of temples in the Roluos area, notably Bakong.

By the turn of the 11th century the kingdom of Angkor was losing control of its territories. Suryavarman I (r 1002–49), a usurper, moved into the power vacuum and, like Jayavarman II two centuries before, reunified the kingdom through war and alliances, stretching the frontiers of the empire. A pattern was beginning to emerge, and is repeated throughout the Angkorian period: dislocation and turmoil, followed by reunification and further expansion under a powerful king. Architecturally, the most productive periods occurred after times of turmoil, indicating that newly incumbent monarchs felt the need to celebrate, even legitimise their rule with massive building projects.

By 1066 Angkor was again riven by conflict, becoming the focus of rival bids for power. It was not until the accession of Suryavarman II (r 1112–52) that the kingdom was again unified. Suryavarman II embarked on another phase of expansion, waging costly wars in Vietnam and the region of central Vietnam known as Champa. Suryavarman II is immortalised as the king who, in his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu, commissioned the majestic temple of Angkor Wat. For an insight into events in this epoch, see the bas-reliefs on the southwest corridor of Angkor Wat, which depict the reign of Suryavarman II.

Suryavarman II had brought Champa to heel and reduced it to vassal status, but the Chams struck back in 1177 with a naval expedition up the Mekong and into Tonlé Sap Lake. They took the city of Angkor by surprise and put King Dharanindravarman II to death. The following year a cousin of Suryavarman II rallied the Khmer troops and defeated the Chams in another naval battle. The new leader was crowned Jayavarman VII in 1181. A devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism, Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219) built the city of Angkor Thom and many other massive monuments. Indeed, many of the temples visited around Angkor today were constructed during Jayavarman VII’s reign. However, Jayavarman VII is a figure of many contradictions. The bas-reliefs of the Bayon depict him presiding over battles of terrible ferocity, while statues of the king depict a meditative, otherworldly aspect. His programme of temple construction and other public works was carried out in great haste, no doubt bringing enormous hardship to the labourers who provided the muscle, and thus accelerating the decline of the empire. He was partly driven by a desire to legitimise his rule, as there may have been other contenders closer to the royal bloodline, and partly by the need to introduce a new religion to a population predominantly Hindu in faith. However, in many ways he was also Cambodia’s first socialist leader, proclaiming the population equal, abolishing castes and embarking on a programme of school, hospital and road building.

Decline & fall of Angkor:
Angkor was the epicentre of an incredible empire that held sway over much of the Mekong region, but like all empires, the sun was to eventually set. A number of scholars have argued that decline was already on the hori­zon at the time Angkor Wat was built, when the Angkorian empire was at the height of its remarkable productivity. There are indications that the irrigation network was overworked and slowly starting to silt up due to the massive deforestation that had taken place in the heavily populated areas to the north and east of Angkor. Massive construction projects such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom no doubt put an enormous strain on the royal coffers and on thousands of slaves and common people who subsidised them in hard labour and taxes. Following the reign of Jayavarman VII, temple construction effectively ground to a halt, in large part because Jayavarman VII’s public works quarried local sandstone into oblivion and had left the population exhausted.

Another challenge for the later kings was religious conflict and internecine rivalries. The state religion changed back and forth several times during the twilight years of the empire, and kings spent more time engaged in iconoclasm, defacing the temples of their predecessors, than building monuments to their own achievements. From time to time this boiled over into civil war. Angkor was losing control over the peripheries of its empire. At the same time, the Thais were ascendant, having migrated south from Yunnan to escape Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes. The Thais, first from Sukothai, later Ayuthaya, grew in strength and made repeated incursions into Angkor before finally sacking the city in 1431 and making off with thousands of intellectuals, artisans and dancers from the royal court. During this period, perhaps drawn by the opportunities for sea trade with China and fearful of the increasingly bellicose Thais, the Khmer elite began to migrate to the Phnom Penh area. The capital shifted several times over the centuries but eventually settled in present day Phnom Penh.

From 1600 until the arrival of the French in 1863, Cambodia was ruled by a series of weak kings beset by dynastic rivalries. In the face of such intrigue, they sought the protection – granted, of course, at a price – of either Thailand or Vietnam. In the 17th century, the Nguyen lords of southern Vietnam came to the rescue of the Cambodian king in return for settlement rights in the Mekong Delta region. The Khmers still refer to this region as Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia), even though it is well and truly populated by the Vietnamese today.

In the west, the Thais controlled the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap from 1794 and held much influence over the Cambodian royal family. Indeed, one king was crowned in Bangkok and placed on the throne at Udong with the help of the Thai army. That Cambodia survived through the 18th century as a distinct entity is due to the preoccupations of its neighbours: while the Thais were expending their energy and resources in fighting the Burmese, the Vietnamese were wholly absorbed by internal strife. The pattern continued for more than two centuries, the carcass of Cambodia pulled back and forth between two powerful tigers.

The French in Cambodia:
The era of yo-yoing between Thai and Vietnamese masters came to a close in 1864, when French gunboats intimidated King Norodom I (r 1860–1904) into signing a treaty of protectorate. Ironically, it really was a protectorate, as Cambodia was in danger of going the way of Champa and vanishing from the map. French control of Cambodia developed as a sideshow to their interests in Vietnam, uncannily similar to the American experience a century later, and initially involved little direct interference in Cambodia’s affairs. The French presence also helped keep Norodom on the throne despite the ambitions of his rebellious half-brothers.

By the 1870s French officials in Cambodia began pressing for greater control over internal affairs. In 1884 Norodom was forced into signing a treaty that turned his country into a virtual colony, sparking a two-year rebellion that constituted the only major uprising in Cambodia until WWII. The rebellion only ended when the king was persuaded to call upon the rebel fighters to lay down their weapons in exchange for a return to the status quo.

During the following decades senior Cambodian officials opened the door to direct French control over the day-to-day administration of the country, as they saw certain advantages in acquiescing to French power. The French maintained Norodom’s court in a splendour unseen since the heyday of Angkor, helping to enhance the symbolic position of the monarchy. In 1907 the French were able to pressure Thailand into returning the northwest provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap and Sisophon in return for concessions of Lao territory to the Thais. This meant Angkor came under Cambodian control for the first time in more than a century.

King Norodom I was succeeded by King Sisowath (r 1904–27), who was succeeded by King Monivong (r 1927–41). Upon King Monivong’s death, the French governor general of Japanese-occupied Indochina, Admiral Jean Decoux, placed 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne. The French authorities assumed young Sihanouk would prove pliable, but this proved to be a major miscalculation.

During WWII, Japanese forces occupied much of Asia, and Cambodia was no exception. However, with many in France collaborating with the occupying Germans, the Japanese were happy to let their new French allies control affairs in Cambodia. The price was conceding to Thailand (a Japanese ally of sorts) much of Battambang and Siem Reap Provinces once again, areas that weren’t returned until 1947. However, with the fall of Paris in 1944 and French policy in disarray, the Japanese were forced to take direct control of the territory by early 1945. After WWII, the French returned, making Cambodia an autonomous state within the French Union, but retaining de facto control. The immediate postwar years were marked by strife among the country’s various political factions, a situation made more unstable by the Franco-Viet Minh War then raging in Vietnam and Laos, which spilled over into Cambodia. The Vietnamese, as they were also to do 20 years later in the war against Lon Nol and the Americans, trained and fought with bands of Khmer Issarak (Free Khmer) against the French authorities.

The Sihanouk years:
The post-independence period was one of peace and great prosperity, Cambodia’s golden years, a time of creativity and optimism. Phnom Penh grew in size and stature, the temples of Angkor were the leading tourist destination in Southeast Asia and Sihanouk played host to a succession of influential leaders from across the globe. However, dark clouds were circling, as the American war in Vietnam became a black hole, sucking in neighbouring countries.

In late 1952 King Sihanouk dissolved the fledgling parliament, declared martial law and embarked on his ‘royal crusade’: his travelling campaign to drum up international support for his country’s independence. Independence was proclaimed on 9 November 1953 and recognised by the Geneva Conference of May 1954, which ended French control of Indochina. In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated, afraid of being marginalised amid the pomp of royal ceremony. The ‘royal crusader’ became ‘citizen Sihanouk’. He vowed never again to return to the throne. Meanwhile his father became king. It was a masterstroke that offered Sihanouk both royal authority and supreme political power. His newly established party, Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community), won every seat in parliament in the September 1955 elections and Sihanouk was to dominate Cambodian politics for the next 15 years.

Although he feared the Vietnamese communists, Sihanouk considered South Vietnam and Thailand, both allies of the mistrusted USA, the greatest threats to Cambodia’s security, even survival. In an attempt to fend off these many dangers, he declared Cambodia neutral and refused to accept further US aid, which had accounted for a substantial chunk of the country’s military budget. He also nationalised many industries, including the rice trade. In 1965 Sihanouk, convinced that the USA had been plotting against him and his family, broke diplomatic relations with Washington and veered towards the North Vietnamese and China. In addition, he agreed to let the communists use Cambodian territory in their battle against South Vietnam and the USA. Sihanouk was taking sides, a dangerous position in a volatile region.

These moves and his socialist economic policies alienated conservative elements in Cambodian society, including the army brass and the urban elite. At the same time, left-wing Cambodians, many of them educated abroad, deeply resented his domestic policies, which stifled political debate. Compounding Sihanouk’s problems was the fact that all classes were fed up with the pervasive corruption in government ranks, some of it uncomfortably close to the royal family. Although most peasants revered Sihanouk as a semidivine figure, in 1967 a rural-based rebellion broke out in Samlot, Battambang, leading him to conclude that the greatest threat to his regime came from the left. Bowing to pressure from the army, he implemented a policy of harsh repression against left-wingers.

By 1969 the conflict between the army and leftist rebels had become more serious, as the Vietnamese sought sanctuary deeper in Cambodia. Sihanouk’s political position had also decidedly deteriorated – due in no small part to his obsession with film-making, which was leading him to neglect affairs of state. In March 1970, while Sihanouk was on a trip to France, General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak, Sihanouk’s cousin, deposed him as chief of state, apparently with tacit US consent. Sihanouk took up residence in Beijing, where he set up a government-in-exile in alliance with an indigenous Cambodian revolutionary movement that Sihanouk had nicknamed the Khmer Rouge. This was a definitive moment in contemporary Cambodian history, as the Khmer Rouge exploited its partnership with Sihanouk to draw new recruits into their small organisation. Talk to many former Khmer Rouge fighters and they all say that they ‘went to the hills’ (a euphemism for joining the Khmer Rouge) to fight for their king and knew nothing of Mao or Marxism.

Descent into civil war:
The lines were drawn for a bloody era of civil war. Sihanouk was condemned to death in absentia, an excessive move on the part of the new government that effectively ruled out any hint of compromise for the next five years. Lon Nol gave communist Vietnamese forces an ultimatum to withdraw their forces within one week, which amounted to a virtual declaration of war, as no Vietnamese fighters wanted to return to the homeland to face the Americans.

On 30 April 1970, US and South Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in an effort to flush out thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops who were using Cambodian bases in their war to overthrow the South Vietnamese government. As a result of the invasion, the Vietnamese communists withdrew deeper into Cambodia, further destabilising the Lon Nol government. Cambodia’s tiny army never stood a chance and within the space of a few months, Vietnamese forces and their Khmer Rouge allies overran almost half the country. The ultimate humiliation came in July 1970 when the Vietnamese occupied the temples of Angkor.

In 1969 the USA had begun a secret programme of bombing suspected communist base camps in Cambodia. For the next four years, until bombing was halted by the US Congress in August 1973, huge areas of the eastern half of the country were carpet-bombed by US B-52s, killing what is believed to be many thousands of civilians and turning hundreds of thousands more into refugees. Undoubtedly, the bombing campaign helped the Khmer Rouge in their recruitment drive, as more and more peasants were losing family members to the aerial assaults. While the final, heaviest bombing in the first half of 1973 may have saved Phnom Penh from a premature fall, its ferocity also helped to harden the attitude of many Khmer Rouge cadres and may have contributed to the later brutality that characterised their rule.

Savage fighting engulfed the country, bringing misery to millions of Cambodians; many fled rural areas for the relative safety of Phnom Penh and provincial capitals. Between 1970 and 1975 several hundred thousand people died in the fighting. During these years the Khmer Rouge came to play a dominant role in trying to overthrow the Lon Nol regime, strengthened by the support of the Vietnamese, although the Khmer Rouge leadership would vehemently deny this from 1975 onwards.

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge, including Paris-educated Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, had fled into the countryside in the 1960s to escape the summary justice then being meted out to suspected leftists by Sihanouk’s security forces. They consolidated control over the movement and began to move against opponents before they took Phnom Penh. Many of the Vietnamese-trained Cambodian communists who had been based in Hanoi since the 1954 Geneva Accords returned down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to join their ‘allies’ in the Khmer Rouge in 1973. Many were dead by 1975, executed on orders of the anti-Vietnamese Pol Pot faction. Likewise, many moderate Sihanouk supporters who had joined the Khmer Rouge as a show of loyalty to their fallen leader rather than a show of ideology to the radicals were victims of purges before the regime took power. This set a precedent for internal purges and mass executions that were to eventually bring the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

It didn’t take long for the Lon Nol government to become very unpopular as a result of unprecedented greed and corruption in its ranks. As the USA bankrolled the war, government and military personnel found lucrative means to make a fortune, such as inventing ‘phantom soldiers’ and pocketing their pay, or selling weapons to the enemy. Lon Nol was widely perceived as an ineffectual leader, obsessed by superstition, fortune tellers and mystical crusades. This perception increased with his stroke in March 1971 and for the next four years his grip on reality seemed to weaken as his brother Lon Non’s power grew.

Despite massive US military and economic aid, Lon Nol never succeeded in gaining the initiative against the Khmer Rouge. Large parts of the countryside fell to the rebels and many provincial capitals were cut off from Phnom Penh. Lon Nol fled the country in early April 1975, leaving Sirik Matak in charge, who refused evacuation to the end. ‘I cannot alas leave in such a cowardly fashion…I have committed only one mistake, that of believing in you, the Americans’ were the words Sirik Matak poignantly penned to US ambassador John Gunther Dean. On 17 April 1975 – two weeks before the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) – Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge revolution:
Upon taking Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge implemented one of the most radical and brutal restructurings of a society ever attempted; its goal was a pure revolution, untainted by those that had gone before, to transform Cambodia into a peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Within days of coming to power the entire population of Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick, elderly and infirm, was forced to march into the countryside and work as slaves for 12 to 15 hours a day. Disobedience of any sort often brought immediate execution. The advent of Khmer Rouge rule was proclaimed Year Zero. Currency was abolished and postal services were halted. The country cut itself off from the outside world.

In the eyes of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge was not a unified movement, but a series of factions that needed to be cleansed. This process had already begun with attacks on Vietnamese-trained Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk’s supporters, but Pol Pot’s initial fury upon seizing power was directed against the former regime. All of the senior government and military figures who had been associated with Lon Nol were executed within days of the takeover. Then the centre shifted its attention to the outer regions, which had been separated into geographic zones. The loyalist Southwestern Zone forces under the control of one-legged general Ta Mok were sent into region after region to purify the population, and thousands perished.

The cleansing reached grotesque heights in the final and bloodiest purge against the powerful and independent Eastern Zone. Generally considered more moderate than other Khmer Rouge factions, the Eastern Zone was ideologically, as well as geographically, closer to Vietnam. The Pol Pot faction consolidated the rest of the country before moving against the east from 1977 onwards. Hundreds of leaders were executed before open rebellion broke out, sparking a civil war in the east. Many Eastern Zone leaders fled to Vietnam, forming the nucleus of the government installed by the Vietnamese in January 1979. The people were defenceless and distrusted – ‘Cambodian bodies with Vietnamese minds’ or ‘duck’s arses with chicken’s heads’ – and were deported to the northwest with new, blue kramas (scarves). Had it not been for the Vietnamese invasion, all would have perished, as the blue krama was a secret party sign indicating an eastern enemy of the revolution.

It is still not known exactly how many Cambodians died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge during the three years, eight months and 20 days of their rule. The Vietnamese claimed three million deaths, while foreign experts long considered the number closer to one million. Yale University researchers undertaking ongoing investigations estimated that the figure was close to two million.

Hundreds of thousands of people were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership, while hundreds of thousands more died of famine and disease. Meals consisted of little more than watery rice porridge twice a day, meant to sustain men, women and children through a back-breaking day in the fields. Disease stalked the work camps, malaria and dysentery striking down whole families; death was a relief for many from the horrors of life. Some zones were better than others, some leaders fairer than others, but life for the majority was one of unending misery and suffering in this ‘prison without walls’.

As the centre eliminated more and more moderates, Angkar (the organisation) became the only family people needed and those who did not agree were sought out and destroyed. The Khmer Rouge detached the Cambodian people from all they held dear: their families, their food, their fields and their faith. Even the peasants who had supported the revolution could no longer blindly follow such madness. Nobody cared for the Khmer Rouge by 1978, but nobody had an ounce of strength to do anything about it…except the Vietnamese.

Enter the Vietnamese:
Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam have historically been tense, as the Vietnamese have slowly but steadily expanded southwards, encroaching on Cambodian territory. Despite the fact the two communist parties had fought together as brothers-in-arms, old tensions soon came to the fore.

From 1976 to 1978, the Khmer Rouge instigated a series of border clashes with Vietnam, and claimed the Mekong Delta, once part of the Khmer empire. Incursions into Vietnamese border provinces left hundreds of Vietnamese civilians dead. On 25 December 1978 Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia, toppling the Pol Pot government two weeks later. As Vietnamese tanks neared Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge fled westward with as many civilians as it could seize, taking refuge in the jungles and mountains along the Thai border. The Vietnamese installed a new government led by several former Khmer Rouge officers, including current Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had defected to Vietnam in 1977. The Khmer Rouge’s patrons, the Chinese communists, launched a massive reprisal raid across Vietnam’s northernmost border in early 1979 in an attempt to buy their allies time. It failed, and after 17 days the Chinese withdrew, their fingers badly burnt by their Vietnamese enemies. The Vietnamese then staged a show trial in which Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were condemned to death for their genocidal acts.

A traumatised population took to the road in search of surviving family members. Millions had been uprooted and had to walk hundreds of kilometres across the country. Rice stocks were destroyed, the harvest left to wither and little rice planted, sowing the seeds for a widespread famine in 1979 and 1980.

As the conflict in Cambodia raged, Sihanouk agreed, under pressure from China, to head a military and political front opposed to the Phnom Penh government. The Sihanouk-led resistance coalition brought together – on paper, at least – Funcinpec (the French acronym for the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia), which comprised a royalist group loyal to Sihanouk; the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a noncommunist grouping formed by former prime minister Son Sann; and the Khmer Rouge, officially known as the Party of Democratic Kampuchea and by far the most powerful of the three. The heinous crimes of the Khmer Rouge were swept aside to ensure a compromise that suited the great powers.

During the mid-1980s the British government dispatched the Special Air Service (SAS) to a Malaysian jungle camp to train guerrilla fighters in land mine–laying techniques. Although officially assisting the smaller factions, it is certain the Khmer Rouge benefited from this experience. It then used these new-found skills to intimidate and terrorise the Cambodian people. The USA gave more than US$15 million a year in aid to the noncommunist factions of the Khmer Rouge-dominated coalition.

For much of the 1980s Cambodia remained closed to the Western world, save for the presence of some humanitarian aid groups. Government policy was effectively under the control of the Vietnamese, so Cambodia found itself very much in the Eastern-bloc camp. The economy was in tatters for much of this period, as Cambodia, like Vietnam, suffered from the effects of a US-sponsored embargo.

In 1984 the Vietnamese overran all the major rebel camps inside Cambodia, forcing the Khmer Rouge and its allies to retreat into Thailand. From this time the Khmer Rouge and its allies engaged in guerrilla warfare aimed at demoralising their opponents. Tactics used by the Khmer Rouge included shelling government-controlled garrison towns, planting thousands of mines in rural areas, attacking road transport, blowing up bridges, kidnapping village chiefs and targeting civilians. The Khmer Rouge also forced thousands of men, women and children living in the refugee camps it controlled to work as porters, ferrying ammunition and other supplies into Cambodia across heavily mined sections of the border. The Vietnamese for their part laid the world’s longest minefield, known as K-5 and stretching from the Gulf of Thailand to the Lao border, in an attempt to seal out the guerrillas. They also sent Cambodians into the forests to cut down trees on remote sections of road to prevent ambushes. Thousands died of disease and from injuries sustained from land mines. The Khmer Rouge was no longer in power, but for many the 1980s was almost as tough as the 1970s, one long struggle to survive.

The Un comes to town:
As the Cold War came to a close, peace began to break out all over the globe, and Cambodia was not immune to the new spirit of reconciliation. In September 1989 Vietnam, its economy in tatters and eager to end its international isolation, announced the withdrawal of all of its troops from Cambodia. With the Vietnamese gone, the opposition coalition, still domin­ated by the Khmer Rouge, launched a series of offensives, forcing the now-vulnerable government to the negotiating table.

Diplomatic efforts to end the civil war began to bear fruit in September 1990, when a peace plan was accepted by both the Phnom Penh government and the three factions of the resistance coalition. According to the plan, the Supreme National Council (SNC), a coalition of all factions, would be formed under the presidency of Sihanouk. Meanwhile the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) would supervise the administration of the country for two years with the goal of free and fair elections.

Untac undoubtedly achieved some successes, but for all of these, it is the failures that were to cost Cambodia dearly in the ‘democratic’ era. Untac was successful in pushing through many international human-rights covenants; it opened the door to a significant number of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) who have helped build civil society; and, most importantly, on 25 May 1993, elections were held with an 89.6% turnout. However, the results were far from decisive. Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, took 58 seats in the National Assembly, while the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which represented the previous communist government, took 51 seats. The CPP had lost the election, but senior leaders threatened a secession of the eastern provinces of the country. As a result, Cambodia ended up with two prime ministers: Norodom Ranariddh as first prime minister, and Hun Sen as second prime minister.

Even today, Untac is heralded as one of the UN’s success stories. The other perspective is that it was an ill-conceived and poorly executed peace because so many of the powers involved in brokering the deal had their own agendas to advance. To many Cambodians, it must have seemed a cruel joke that the Khmer Rouge was allowed to play a part in the process.

The UN’s disarmament programme took weapons away from rural militias who for so long provided the backbone of the government’s provincial defence network against the Khmer Rouge. This left communities throughout the country vulnerable to attack, while the Khmer Rouge used the veil of legitimacy conferred upon it by the peace process to re-establish a guerrilla network throughout Cambodia. By 1994, when it was finally outlawed by the government, the Khmer Rouge was probably a greater threat to the stability of Cambodia than at any time since 1979.

Untac’s main goals had been to ‘restore and maintain peace’ and ‘promote national reconciliation’ and in the short term it achieved neither. It did oversee free and fair elections, but these were later annulled by the actions of Cambodia’s politicians. Little was done during the UN period to try to dismantle the communist apparatus of state set up by the CPP, a well-oiled machine that continues to ensure that former communists control the civil service, judiciary, army and police today.

The slow birth of peace:
When the Vietnamese toppled the Pol Pot government in 1979, the Khmer Rouge disappeared into the jungle. The guerrillas eventually boycotted the 1993 elections and later rejected peace talks aimed at creating a ceasefire. The defection of some 2000 troops from the Khmer Rouge army in the months after the elections offered some hope that the long-running insurrection would fizzle out. However, government-sponsored amnesty programmes initially turned out to be ill-conceived: the policy of reconscripting Khmer Rouge troops and forcing them to fight their former comrades provided little incentive to desert.

In 1994 the Khmer Rouge resorted to a new tactic of targeting tourists, with horrendous results for a number of foreigners in Cambodia. During 1994 three people were taken from a taxi on the road to Sihanoukville and subsequently shot. A few months later another three foreigners were seized from a train bound for Sihanoukville and in the ransom drama that followed they were executed as the army closed in.

The government changed course during the mid-1990s, opting for more carrot and less stick in a bid to end the war. The breakthrough came in 1996 when Ieng Sary, Brother No 3 in the Khmer Rouge hierarchy and foreign minister during its rule, was denounced by Pol Pot for corruption. He subsequently led a mass defection of fighters and their dependants from the Pailin area, and this effectively sealed the fate of the remaining Khmer Rouge. Pailin, rich in gems and timber, had long been the economic crutch which kept the Khmer Rouge hobbling along. The severing of this income, coupled with the fact that government forces now had only one front on which to concentrate their resources, suggested the days of civil war were numbered.

By 1997 cracks were appearing in the coalition and the fledgling democracy once again found itself under siege. But it was the Khmer Rouge that again grabbed the headlines. Pol Pot ordered the execution of Son Sen, defence minister during the Khmer Rouge regime, and many of his family members. This provoked a putsch within the Khmer Rouge leadership, and the one-legged hardline general Ta Mok seized control, putting Pol Pot on ‘trial’. Rumours flew about Phnom Penh that Pol Pot would be brought there to face international justice, but events dramatically shifted back to the capital.

A lengthy courting period ensued in which both Funcinpec and the CPP attempted to win the trust of the remaining Khmer Rouge hard-liners in northern Cambodia. Ranariddh was close to forging a deal with the jungle fighters and was keen to get it sewn up before Cambodia’s accession to Asean, as nothing would provide a better entry fanfare than the ending of Cambodia’s long civil war. He was outflanked and subsequently outgunned by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. On 5 July 1997 fighting again erupted on the streets of Phnom Penh as troops loyal to the CPP clashed with those loyal to Funcinpec. The heaviest exchanges were around the airport and key government buildings, but before long the dust had settled and the CPP once again controlled Cambodia. The strongman had finally flexed his muscles and there was no doubt as to which party was running the show.

Following the coup, the remnants of Funcinpec forces on the Thai border around O Smach formed an alliance with the last of the Khmer Rouge under Ta Mok’s control. The fighting may have ended, but the deaths did not stop there: several prominent Funcinpec politicians and military leaders were victims of extrajudicial executions, and even today no-one has been brought to justice for these crimes. Many of Funcinpec’s leading politicians fled abroad, while the senior generals led the resistance struggle on the ground.

As 1998 began, the CPP announced an all-out offensive against its enemies in the north. By April it was closing in on the Khmer Rouge strongholds of Anlong Veng and Preah Vihear, and amid this heavy fighting Pol Pot evaded justice by dying a sorry death on 15 April in the Khmer Rouge’s captivity. The fall of Anlong Veng in April was followed by the fall of Preah Vihear in May, and the big three, Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, were forced to flee into the jungle near the Thai border with their remaining troops.

The 1998 election result reinforced the reality that the CPP was now the dominant force in the Cambodian political system and on 25 December Hun Sen received the Christmas present he had been waiting for: Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea were defecting to the government side. The international community began to pile on the pressure for the establishment of some sort of war-crimes tribunal to try the remaining Khmer Rouge leadership. After lengthy negotiations, agreement was finally reached on the composition of a court to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The CPP was suspicious of a UN-administered trial as the UN had sided with the Khmer Rouge–dominated coalition against the government in Phnom Penh and the ruling party wanted a major say in who was to be tried for what. The UN for its part doubted that the judiciary in Cambodia was sophisticated or impartial enough to fairly oversee such a major trial. A compromise solution – a mixed tribunal of three international and four Cambodian judges requiring a super majority of two plus three for a verdict – was eventually agreed upon.

Early 2002 saw Cambodia’s first ever local elections to select village and commune level representatives, an important step in bringing grassroots democracy to the country. Despite national elections since 1993, the CPP continued to monopolise political power at local and regional levels and only with commune elections would this grip be loosened. The national elections of July 2003 saw a shift in the balance of power, as the CPP consolidated their grip on Cambodia and the Sam Rainsy Party overhauled Funcinpec as the second party. After nearly a year of negotiating, Funcinpec ditched the Sam Rainsy Party once again and put their heads in the trough with the CPP for another term.

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To all Aaradhana Teams! Its been an absolute pleasure to meet you all and I am very greatful for your hospitality and all the help I have received during my stay in Nepal. I hope you will continue this …

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