A Portrait of Cambodia

Buddha statues sit side by side in Cambodia.

Welcome to our comprehensive portrait of Cambodia. Below you will find lots of information on Cambodia’s land, ecology, society, religion, culture and arts to prepare you for your trip to the Kingdom of Wonder.

Cambodia’s Land and Ecology

Covering an area of 69,900 sq miles (181,035 sq km), Cambodia is bordered by Laos to the north, Thailand to the north and west, and Vietnam to the east. To the southwest lie the Cardamom Mountains, rising to almost 5,787 ft (1,764 m), while in the north are the dramatic 1,804-ft (550-m) high Dangkrek Mountains.

The most dominant feature of the country, however, is the mighty Mekong River, which runs its course from Tibet and floods the Tonlé Sap during the monsoon, swelling its waters to make it the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. The northeast lays claim to be the wildest and most remote region, with forests and mountains inhabited by tigers and wild elephants. In the northwest, fertile Battambang enjoys the sobriquet “the rice bowl of Cambodia.” The south, with its archipelago of deserted islands and perfect beaches, is a pleasant tropical retreat and is well worth visiting. Cambodia’s pristine landscape, forests, and wildlife, however, are under threat from oil-drilling companies and logging. The habitats of the Asian tiger and other endangered species such as the banteng, wild Asian elephant, and Asian golden cat are visibly shrinking. Deforestation is also contributing to the flooding of the Mekong, while gradual siltation threatens the existence of the Tonlé Sap Lake. Fortunately, the government is actively promoting conservation with the setting up of several national parks and other areas to protect wildlife and forest cover.

Economy

Emerald paddy fields, a rich diversity of wildlife, powder-fine beaches, and the magnificence of the temples of Angkor – Cambodia has an alluring mix of romantic escapes and exhilarating outdoor pursuits, as well as world-renowned archaeological wonders. All this, combined with the warmth of its people, have helped put the country firmly on the tourist map.

The country is making steady headway, with economic growth at around 5 percent. While oil, rubber, and the availability of cheap labour are fueling this growth, Cambodia has also found a niche as an international garment producer, and tourism remains one of its highest foreign exchange earners.

Society and Religion

According to official records, Cambodia is the most homogenous country in Southeast Asia, with almost 95 percent of its 15 million people ethnic Khmer. In reality, however, the population also includes 100,000 Vietnamese, about half a million Chinese and around 250,000 Cham Muslims, as well as the Khmer Lue, the ethnic minorities that live in the northeast. Khmer society lays stress on the importance of the family.

While elders are respected and obeyed, women are expected to be models of restraint and to treat their husbands with deference. Nevertheless, women are dominant figures in society, providing moral and financial succour to the family. Although fidelity is a given for them, it is normal for husbands to have extramarital affairs – a problem that has led to the country having the highest incidence of HIV infection in Southeast Asia.

While a majority of Khmers today are Buddhists – the religion came from India during the 13th and 14th centuries – Hinduism was the dominant state religion during the Angkor period. Most men spend at least a few weeks in a wat (temple) as a monk, learning the teachings of Theravada Buddhism. Most ethnic minorities, however, practice animism, while the Chams are followers of Islam.

Culture and the Arts

Although all traces of Cambodia’s culture were erased during the years of the Khmer Rouge, the country now seems to have rediscovered its artistic edge, with exiled artists returning to their roots. Traditional dance, particularly ballet, is also making a glorious return through the University of Fine Arts. Musical instruments such as khsae muoy (single-stringed bowed instrument) and tro khmae (three-stringed fiddle), used by apsara dancers in Angkor, are popular even today. Cambodia is also renowned for its fine silk weaving, silver-smithing, sculpting, wood carving, and ceramics made in traditional kilns in Siem Reap.

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