You've trusted your eyes your whole life, but visit Cambodia and you just may start doubting them.

How else to explain the unthinkable splendour of the 9th- to 13th-century Khmer temples, the tropical islands with barely a beach hut in sight and the untold adventures lurking in northern forests?

Cambodia promises a rollercoaster of emotions and experiences to the intrepid traveller. Your heart will race at Angkor Wat, one of the world's greatest achievements, only to haltingly derail when faced with the impact of humankind's darkest moments. After two decades of war and isolation, only now is Cambodia truly starting to recover from the Khmer Rouge's genocidal 1975-79 rule.

When to go:
The ideal months to be in Cambodia are December and January, when humidity is bearable, temperatures are cooler and it's unlikely to rain. From early February temperatures start to rise until the killer month, April, when temperatures often exceed 40°C (104°F). Come May and June, the southwestern monsoon brings rain and high humidity, cooking up a sweat for all but the hardiest of visitors.

The wet season (May-Oct), though very soggy, can be a good time to visit Angkor, as the moats will be full and the foliage lush - but steer clear of the northeast regions during those months, as the going gets pretty tough when the tracks are waterlogged.

The country's biggest festival, Bon Om Tuk, is held in early November, and is well worth catching. Others you might like to plan around include the water festival in Phnom Penh, or Khmer New Year.

From December to April the climate in Cambodia is at its driest with abundant sunshine and temperatures often reaching 40ºC (104ºF) in April, the hottest month. The humid southwestern monsoon from May to October sees rain fall mostly in the afternoon, accounting for 70-80% of annual rainfall. The highest temperatures around this time average just above the 30ºC mark (around 88ºF).

Health Conditions
As memories of war grow ever more distant, Cambodia has become a much safer country in which to travel, remembering the golden rule - stick to marked paths in remote areas! Check on the latest situation before making a trip off the beaten track, particularly if travelling by motorbike.

Never, ever touch rockets, artillery shells, mortars, mines, bombs or other war material. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world with an estimated four to six million of these 'enemies within' littering the countryside. Do not stray from well-marked paths under any circumstances, as even stepping from the roadside in some places could have very nasty consequences. Mine-clearing organisations are working throughout the country to clear these arbitrary assassins, but even so, the most common way a landmine is discovered is when someone loses a limb.

Given the number of guns in Cambodia, there's less armed theft than one might expect. Still, hold-ups and motorcycle theft are a potential danger in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. There's no need to be paranoid, just cautious. Walking or riding alone late at night is not ideal, certainly not in rural areas. Pickpocketing isn't a huge problem, but it pays to be careful.

Your health is more at risk in Cambodia than most other parts of Southeast Asia, due to poor sanitation and a lack of effective medical treatment facilities. Once you venture into rural areas you should consider yourself very much on your own, as even where pharmacies and hospitals are available you may have trouble making yourself understood. If you feel particularly unwell, try to see a doctor rather than visit a hospital; hospitals are pretty primitive and diagnosis can be hit and miss.


Time & Place
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +7()

Weights Measures System: Metric

Cambodia is bounded on the west by Thailand, on the north by Laos, on the east by Vietnam and to the south by the Gulf of Thailand. It's about half the size of Vietnam or Italy. Topographically, the country is dominated by the mighty Mekong River, which cuts a swathe through the country from north to south; the fish-filled Tonlé Sap (Great Lake); the Elephant and Cardamom mountains in the southwest; the Dangkrek Mountains along the Thai border; and the Eastern Highlands in the northeast. Most Cambodians live on the fertile central plains of the Mekong-Tonlé basin.

The average Cambodian landscape is a patchwork of cultivated rice paddies guarded by numerous sugar palms, the national tree. Elsewhere are grasslands, lush rainforest cloaking the remote areas and, at higher elevations, unlikely clumps of pines.

The biggest threat to Cambodia's natural environment is the logging frenzy which reduced the country's forest coverage from 75% in the mid-1960s to just 30% - and, with the government constantly strapped for cash, there's little reason to believe that the stripping of such assets will come to a halt soon. The number of national parks is slowly growing, but with illegal logging as rife as legal concessions, no tree in Cambodia is safe. The parks include Bokor, on the south coast; Ream, near Sihanoukville; Kirirom, outside Phnom Penh; and Virachay, bordering Laos and Vietnam. A number of endangered species which are elsewhere extinct are thought to be hidden in the more remote habitats, including elephants, tigers, leopards, rhinos, gibbons, bats and crocodiles. The most commonly found fauna are varieties of butterflies, snakes and birds such as cormorants, cranes and ducks

Crossing Borders
A one-month visa, available on arrival at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports, costs CR20 for a tourist visa and CR25 for a business visa.

multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy

People & Society
Ethnic Khmers (96%), Chinese (2%), Vietnamese (1%), Cham and Malay Muslims (1%)

Culture & History

The Khmer Rouge's assault on the arts was a terrible blow to Cambodian culture. Indeed, for a number of years the common consensus among Khmers was that their culture had been irrevocably lost. The Khmer Rouge not only did away with living bearers of Khmer culture, it also destroyed cultural artefacts, statues, musical instruments, books and anything else that served as a reminder of a past it was trying to efface. The temples of Angkor were spared as a symbol of Khmer glory and empire, but little else survived. Despite this, Cambodia is witnessing a resurgence of traditional arts and a growing interest in experimentation in modern arts and cross-cultural fusion. A trip to the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is evidence of the extent to which Khmer culture has bounced back.

Pre 20th Century History

Very little is known about prehistoric Cambodia, although archeological evidence has established that prior to 1000 BC Cambodians subsisted on a diet of fish and rice and lived in houses on stilts, as they still do today. From the 1st to the 6th centuries, much of Cambodia belonged to the southeast Asian kingdom of Funan, which played a vital role in developing the political institutions, culture and art of later Khmer states. However, it was the Angkorian era, beginning in 802, that really transformed the kingdom into a political, cultural and spiritual powerhouse.

Forces of the Thai kingdom of Ayudhya sacked Angkor in 1431, leaving the Khmers plagued by dynastic rivalries and continual warfare with the Thais for a century and a half. The Spanish and Portuguese, who had recently become active in the region, also played a part in these wars until resentment of their power led to the massacre of the Spanish garrison at Phnom Penh in 1599. A series of weak kings ruled from 1600 until the French arrived in 1863. After some gunboat diplomacy and the signing of a treaty of protectorate in 1863, the French went on to force King Norodom to sign another treaty, this time turning his country into a virtual colony in 1884.

Modern History

Following the arrival of the French, a relatively peaceful period followed (even the peasant uprising of 1916 was considered peaceful). In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne, on the assumption that he would prove suitably pliable. This turned out to be a major miscalculation as the years after 1945 were strife-torn, with the waning of French colonial power aided by the proximity of the Franco-Viet Minh War that raged in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodian independence was eventually proclaimed in 1953, the enigmatic King Sihanouk going on to dominate national politics for the next 15 years before being overthrown by the army.

In 1969 the United States carpet-bombed suspected communist base camps in Cambodia, killing thousands of civilians and dragging the country unwillingly into the US-Vietnam conflict. Sihanouk was overthrown in a military coup in March 1970 and his successor General Lon Nol moved closer to the Americans. Sihanouk forged an alliance with the Khmer Rouge communists and the small guerrilla force swelled to an army of thousands in a matter of weeks. American and south Vietnamese troops invaded the country to eradicate Vietnamese communist forces but were unsuccessful; they did manage, however, to push the Vietnamese and their Khmer Rouge allies further into the country's interior. Savage fighting soon engulfed the entire country, with Phnom Penh falling to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975.

Over the next four years the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot's leadership, systematically killed an estimated two million Cambodians (targeting the educated in particular) in a brutal bid to turn Cambodia into a Maoist, peasant-dominated agrarian cooperative. Currency was abolished, postal services were halted, the population became a work force of slave labourers and the country was almost entirely cut off from the outside world. Responding to recurring armed incursions into their border provinces, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, forcing the Khmer Rouge to flee to the relative sanctuary of the jungles along the Thai border. From there, they conducted a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese-backed government throughout the late 1970s and '80s.

In mid-1993, UN-administered elections led to a new constitution and the reinstatement of Norodom Sihanouk as king. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections, rejected peace talks and continued to buy large quantities of arms from the Cambodian military leadership. In the months following the election, a government-sponsored amnesty secured the first defections from Khmer ranks, with more defections occurring from 1994 when the Khmer Rouge was finally outlawed by the Cambodian government.

The uneasy coalition of Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec and Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party fell violently apart in July 1997, and when the dust settled Hun Sen assumed sole leadership of Cambodia. Elections in mid-98 returned Hun Sen to this position, despite grumbling from opposition candidates about dodgy electoral practices. While his democratic credentials are far from impressive, the one-eyed strong man has proved to be something of a stabilising force for Cambodia.

Pol Pot's death in April 1998 from an apparent heart attack was greeted with anger (that he was never brought to trial) and scepticism (he has been reported dead many times before). The UN has pulled out of trials of other surviving top level Khmer Rouge leaders on war crimes charges because the independence of the tribunals is doubtful.

Recent History

Future stability is tied to improving the country's long-suffering economy, eradicating the entrenched culture of corruption and impunity, reducing the size of the military and creating a democracy that is more than just a ballot.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party won elections in 2003, but political stalemate lasted until June 2004, when Hun Sen found a coalition partner and could resume his prime ministership. In October 2004, King Sihanouk announced his intention to abdicate on account of ill health and annoyance at the country's political infighting. He was succeeded by his son King Sihamoni. Defamation was used as a political tool by the CPP government to clamp down on opposition activity during 2005. 2006 witnessed a turnaround and reconciliation of sorts between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy, while the royalist party Funcinpec imploded with infighting. With elections coming up in 2008, it looks set to be a two-way fight between the CPP and Sam Rainsy.

Cambodia's second-largest city is an elegant riverside town, home to some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the country. Battambang used to be off the map for road travellers, but facilities have been improved and it makes a great base for visiting the nearby temples and villages.

Phnom Penh
TCambodia's capital retains an undeniable charm, despite its tumultuous, often violent past. The crumbling colonial architecture makes an attractive backdrop to bustling streetside cafes and the redeveloped riverfront precinct - a particularly lively part of town on Friday and Saturday nights.

The city has several impressive wats (temple-monasteries), including Wat Ounalom, Wat Phnom and Wat Moha Montrei. Pride of place goes to the spectacular Silver Pagoda, one of the few places in Cambodia where artefacts embodying the richness of Khmer culture were preserved by the Khmer Rouge.

Siem Reap
Siem Reap is the gateway to the temples of Angkor, Cambodia's spiritual and cultural heartbeat. A sleepy backwater until a few years ago, it is fast reinventing itself as a sophisticated centre for the new wave of visitors passing through each year, with restaurant and bar prices climbing weekly.

If Cambodia is hot right now, then Siem Reap is boiling over. It's the one place everyone hits during their visit, mainly due to its proximity to Angkor Wat. Pleasing remnants of the past like French shop-houses, tree-lined boulevards and a gentle winding river nestle up to pointers to the future.

Chaul Chnam (Khmer New Year) is in mid-April and throngs of Khmers flock to Angkor by bus, truck, car or bike. It's absolute madness at most temples, with a lot of water and talc being thrown about. Avoid it if you want a quiet, reflective Angkor experience. Buddha's birth, enlightenment and passing away is celebrated nationwide on Visakha Puja, where many activities are held at the local wats. Angkor Wat sees a candlelit procession of monks during the festival, which falls on the eighth day of the fourth moon: around May or June. Bon Om Tuk (Water Festival) is in late October or November. Boat races are held on Stung Siem Reap and hundreds of people flock to town to cheer on their team.

There are direct international flights to/from Siem Reap to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Demand is high during peak season, so book in advance. Siem Reap International Airport is 7km (4mi) from the town centre. Many hotels have a free airport pick-up service. Official taxis are also available. Buses and share taxis usually drop passengers off at the taxi park about 2km (1.3mi) east of the town centre, from where it is a short moto (small motorcycle with driver) ride to nearby guesthouses or hotels. There are daily express boat services connecting Siem Reap with Phnom Penh and Battambang. Boats leave from the floating village of Chong Kneas.

The roads to Phnom Penh (now surfaced) and west to Thailand and Battambang (still rough in patches) are served by air-con buses and share taxis.

The town is mostly flat, so bicycles are a fun way to get around. Some guesthouses rent bicycles, as do shops around Psar Chaa (Old Market). Most hotels can also organise car hire. Foreigners aren't allowed to rent motorcycles in Siem Reap, but you can bring one from Phnom Penh.

Motos (motorbikes with drivers) are available for trips around town. It's best to negotiate a price before setting off. Remorque motos - sweet little motorbikes with carriages - are a nice way for couples to get about Siem Reap.