On Cambodia

IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT CAMBODIA:                                  

What to Call Cambodia

Khmers have called their country Kampuchea since at least the 16th century.  The name is adapted from Kambu-ja meaning those born of Kambu, a figure of Indian mythology.  After gaining independence in 1953, the country was known as the Kingdom of Cambodia and then the Khmer Republic, but it was the Khmer Rouge who insisted that the outside world use the name Kampuchea.  Changing the country’s official English name back to Cambodia in 1989 was intended to distance the present government in Phnom Penh from the bitter connotations of the name Kampuchea, which Westerners and Khmers living overseas both associate with the murderous Khmer Rouge regime.


Cambodia covers an area of 181,035 sq. Km, which is about half the size of Italy or Vietnam.  Two topographical features dominate the country: the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap (Great Lake).  The Tonle Sap is linked to the Mekong at Phnom Penh by a 100 Km long channel sometimes called the Tonle Sap River.  From mid-May to early October (the rainy season), the level of the Mekong rises, backing up the Tonle Sap River and causing it to flow northwestward into the Tonle Sap Lake.  During this period, the Tonle Sap swells from 3000 sq. km to over 7500 sq. km.  As the water level of the Mekong falls during the dry season, the Tonle Sap River reverses its flow, and the waters of the lake drain back into the Mekong.  This extraordinary process makes the Tonle Sap one of the world’s richest sources of freshwater fish.


The climate in Cambodia is governed by two monsoons, which set the rhythm of rural life. The cool, dry, North Eastern monsoon, which carries little rain, occurs around November to March.  From May to early October, the South Western monsoon brings strong winds, high humidity and heavy rains.  Between these seasons, the weather is transitional.  Even during the wet season, it rarely rains in the morning – most precipitation falls in the afternoons, and even then, only sporadically.

  • June to November.  Rainy season 35oC
  • December to February.  Cooler 26oC to 28oC
  • March to May. Dry and hot, up to & over 40oC

Population & People

Between 90% and 95% of the 11million people who live in Cambodia are ethnic-Khmers (ethnic-Cambodians), making the country the most homogeneous in South-east Asia.  Only about 10% of Cambodia’s population resides in the cities or towns.  In Phnom Penh there are approximately 1,5 to 2 million people, when the capital city was built to accommodate about 0,5 million people.

The most important minority group in Cambodia is the ethnic-Chinese, who until 1975 controlled the country’s economy.  There is a great deal of mutual dislike and distrust between the Khmers and the country’s ethnic-Vietnamese.  Cambodia’s Cham Muslims currently number some 190,000.  They suffered vicious persecution between 1975 and 1979 and a large part of their community was exterminated.  Today, the Cham Muslims still live in abject poverty.


The official language in Cambodia is Khmer.  For most Westerners, writing and pronouncing this language proves confusing and difficult.  For over a century, the second language of choice among educated Cambodians was French, which is still spoken by many people who grew up before the 1970s.  However, English, now recently surging in popularity, is generally spoken in business circles and by attendants at supermarkets and hotels.


Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in Asia – only 20% of the population is officially employed.  The other 80% are involved in the agricultural parts of the country.  All fuel and most raw materials, capital equipment and consumer goods must be imported. The unit of currency is the Riel.  The current exchange rate is approximately US$1.00 to 4000 riel.  To exchange money one may make use of any money- changer on the streets or in the markets.


Buddhism is the dominant religion in Cambodia and was the state religion until 1975.  It was reinstated as the state religion in the late 1980s.  Between 1975 and 1979 the vast majority of Cambodia’s Buddhist monks were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, who also destroyed virtually all of the country’s 3000 + temples (Wats).

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