Travel Tips And General Information For Your Trip To Cambodia
Cambodia is a small and unique Kingdom with a land area of 181.035 sq. km, making it about the same size as the State of Washington or as England and Wales. The Mekong River is the lifeline of Cambodia and it cuts a path for about 500 km dividing the country into the north and the south.
The Tonlé Sap Lake is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast. During the monsoon season between June and October the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow and runs in the opposite direction filling the Tonlé Sap Lake. The Tonlé Sap River is the only river in the world that flows in both directions.
The central plains account for two-thirds of the country and are mainly agricultural areas that become flooded in the monsoon season. Most of the population lives on the fertile flood plains which are very important for the country’s agricultural production, especially of rice. The plains are sparsely forested, whereas all other parts of the landscape are composed of densely forested hills.
The monsoon with its rhythm of dry and wet seasons builds the rhythm of the Cambodian people and agriculture. The wet season (May – October) transforms the plains into fertile arable land. The pattern of expansion and contraction of the Tonlé Sap Lake is the backbone of Cambodian production of fast growing deep-water rice. The annual flooding covers the surrounding countryside with a nutrient rich layer.
The Fishing Industry
The Cambodian fishing industry also relies on the rhythm of the Tonlé Sap. In the dry season there is large-scale commercial fishing and with the annual replenishment of the waters of the Great Lake with the nutrient-rich waters of the Mekong, fish yields are some of the highest in the world.
Two monsoons set the rhythm of rural life in Cambodia. The cool, dry, northeastern monsoon blows from about November to March and brings little rain. From May to early October, the southwestern monsoon picks up moist air from over the Indian Ocean, bringing strong winds, high humidity, and heavy rains throughout the country. The weather is transitional between the seasons, but even during the wet season it rarely rains in the morning. Most of the rain comes in afternoon downpours.
The Vietnamese language has a reputation for being fiendishly difficult to master. Its origins are still the subject of dispute - at one time thought to be a Sino-Tibetan language (because it is tonal), it is now believed to be Austro-Asiatic and related to Mon-Khmer. During the 9th century, when Vietnam was under Chinese domination, Chinese ideograms were adapted for use with the Vietnamese language. The script - chu nho ('scholar script') was used in all official correspondence and in literature until the 20th century, though whether this replaced an earlier writing system is not known. As early Vietnamese nationalists tried to break away from Chinese cultural dominance in the late 13th century, they devised their own script, based on Chinese ideograms, but adapted to meet Vietnamese language needs. This became known as chu nom or 'vulgar script'. Therefore, while Chinese words formed the learned vocabulary of the intelligentsia - largely inaccessible to the people on the street or in the paddy field - non-Chinese words made up a parallel popular vocabulary. Since World War One the Latin-based quoc ngu script has become widely used.
Cambodian religions are strongly influenced by early Indian and Chinese cultures. As early as the beginning of the Christian era, most Funan people were followers of Brahmanism (a forerunner of Hinduism), which merged with the existing animistic beliefs into a new religion - Hinduism and local deities existing side by side.
Today almost 90% of the population are Theravada Buddhists and the faith has had a formative influence
on everyday life. Theravada Buddhism entered the country in the 13th century and began to spread through the whole country under King Jayavarman VII. It was reintroduced as the national religion in 1989.
At some point during their lives many Cambodian males spend time in a Buddhist monastery, and almost every village has a Buddhist temple - or wat - around which village life centers. Buddhist rituals follow the lunar calendar and there are several significant religious holidays and festivals that are widely observed. Cambodian Buddhism appears an easygoing faith and tolerates the ancestor and territorial spirit worship that is widely practiced.
Art & Architecture
The majority of Khmer art and architecture dates from the Angkor period. All the surviving monuments are built of stone or brick, and all are religious buildings. During the Angkor period architecture and its decoration were governed by a series of mystical and religious beliefs.
Common motifs in Khmer sculpture are apsaras (celestial nymphs), which have become a symbol of the Khmer culture. The apsaras are carved with splendidly ornate jewelry, clothed in the latest Angkor fashion, and represent the ultimate ideal of feminine beauty at that time. Other motifs are nagas (sacred aquatic snakes), which play an important part in Hindu mythology and are possibly more characteristic of South-East Asia than any other motif. Most of these motifs have been taken from Indian art and have been modified into what is now known as traditional Khmer art. Temples were designed to represent the cosmic Mount Meru, the home of the gods of Indian cosmology, surrounded by oceans.
Angkor literally means ‘city’ or ‘capital’, Wat means ‘temple’. Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous of the architectural masterpieces of Cambodia and probably the largest religious building on earth. Conceived by Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took an estimated 30 years to build and is generally believed to have been a funeral temple for the king. It has been continuously occupied by monks and is well preserved. Intricate bas-reliefs surround Angkor Wat on four sides, each telling a different story. The most
celebrated of these is ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’, which is located on the east wing. Again, the central sanctuary of the temple complex represents Mt. Meru, the five towers symbolize Meru's five peaks, and the enclosing wall represents the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat, the ocean beyond. The symmetrical towers of Angkor Wat are stylized on the Cambodian flag and have become a symbol of Khmer culture.
The official Cambodian language, called Khmer, is part of the Mon-Khmer family enriched by the Indian Bali and Sanskrit languages and influenced by Thai and French. Khmer is related to the languages spoken by hill tribe people of Laos, Vietnam, and even Malaysia. It has no tones, and the script, derived from the South-Indian alphabet, is written from left to right and leaves no spaces between the words. English and French are also spoken - French mainly by older people, and the younger generation learn English.
Dance & Theatre
There is a strong tradition of dance in Cambodia, which has its origins in the sacred dances of the apsaras, the mythological seductresses of ancient Cambodia. Dance also became a religious tradition, designed to bring the king and his people divine blessings.
During the Angkor period classical ballet dancers were central to the royal court. The dances are very symbolic, and are subject to a precise order, a strict form, and a prescribed language of movements and gestures. Folk dancing in Cambodia is less structured, with dancers responding to the rhythm of drums. The dancers act out tales from Cambodian folk stories; folk dancing can often be seen at local festivals.
Folk plays and shadow plays (nang sbaek thom) are also a popular form of entertainment in the countryside. They are based on stories from the Ramayana, embroidered with local legends and the characters are cut out of leather and often painted.
The traditional orchestra consists of three xylophones; khom thom (a horseshoe-shaped arrangement with 16 flat gongs); violins; wind instruments including flutes, flageolets and a Khmer version of bagpipes; as well as drums of different shapes and sizes. There are three types of drum: the hand drum, the cha ayam drum and the yike drum. The drummer has the most important role in folk music as he sets the rhythm. There is no system of written notation so the tunes are transmitted orally from generation to generation.
The usual Asian rules of conduct apply. It is unseemly to show too much emotion, losing your temper over problems and delays gets you nowhere; it is better to stay calm at all times.
You should always take your shoes off when entering a pagoda or temple and when you visit private houses, and you should wear appropriate clothing. For men and women it is advisable to cover your shoulders and wear knee-long skirts or trousers. Wearing bathing suits or trunks should be limited to the beach or hotel pool.
The head is regarded as a particularly holy part of the body. You should never touch anybody's head intentionally, and offer an excuse if you do so by chance. Accordingly, the feet are literally the lowest part of the body - do not point your feet at anybody.
Holidays and Festivals
Most of the festivals in Cambodia have a religious origin and are usually celebrated in pagodas or private homes.
According to legend, during the first century AD, Kaundinya, an Indian Brahmin priest following a dream came to Cambodia's Great Lake to find his fortune. He met and married a local princess, Soma, daughter of the Naga king, and founded the first kingdom called the Phnom, introducing Hindu customs, legal traditions and the Sanskrit language. Modern historians refer to it as Funan, the first Khmer kingdom and the oldest Indianized state in the Southeast Asian region, which became a dominant power in the region for more than 600 years.
Jayavarman II, a Khmer king, united all the Khmer people under his leadership in approximately 800 AD. Establishing his capital in the northwestern part of Cambodia, north of the Tonlé Sap Lake, Jayavarman II was crowned as King of Kampuchea and adopted the Hindu religion. With a succession of capitals located in and around the Siem Reap province the Khmer kings exhibited an enormous talent for marshalling the genius of their people.
Although Cambodia had a rich and powerful past under the Hindu state of Funan and the Kingdom of Angkor, by the mid-19th century the country was on the verge of dissolution. After repeated requests for French assistance a protectorate was established in 1863. By 1884, Cambodia was a virtual colony.
France continued to control the country even after the start of World War II through its Vichy government. Full independence came on 9 November 1953, but the situation remained unsettled until a 1954 conference was held in Geneva to settle the French-Indochina war. The Cambodian delegation agreed to the neutrality of the three Indochina states but insisted on a provision in the ceasefire agreement that left the Cambodian government free to call for outside military assistance should the Viet Minh or others threaten its territory.
In February 1969 a new chapter in Cambodian history was opened as the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. On 30 April 1970 American and South Vietnamese government troops invaded southeast Cambodia.
As Vietnamese troops retreated deeper into Cambodia the Khmer Rouge grew in strength. As the Khmer Rouge grew, they became increasingly independent of their Vietnamese allies. While the Vietnamese and the Americans signed the Paris Peace agreement in 1973, the Khmer Rouge continued to make gains on the battlefields of Cambodia. Soon the territory held by the weak Republic was reduced to little more than a handful of enclaves around the major cities.
On the same day that Lon Nol fled the country the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh. Pol Pot's goal was to transform Cambodia in a completely self-sufficient agrarian communist state. The revolution justified everything; human life was expendable. Until 1979 the Khmer Rouge terrorized the country and more than a million people were killed during their reign. The Khmer Rouge have therefore been accused of genocide - holding an unchallenged record in percentage of the population killed by a revolutionary movement.
On Christmas Day 1978, an invasion force of 90,000 Vietnamese and 18,000 dissident Cambodians poured across the border into Cambodia. The defense of Pol Pot's regime was confronted by a much better-equipped, brilliantly led invasion force. Within a few days the Vietnamese had captured Phnom Penh. The battered remnants of the Khmer Rouge retreated into the mountains and jungles along the Thai border.
A different kind of war began: the Khmer Rouge stepped up guerrilla attacks against the Vietnamese. As the months passed the Vietnamese consolidated their hold on Cambodia and soon a new Cambodian government was formed under Vietnamese supervision. In June 1988 the Vietnamese announced plans to begin a gradual troop withdrawal.
In early 1990 the negotiating process continued. A formal ceasefire was finally adopted in May 1991. On 23 October 1991 a peace agreement was at least signed and formally accepted by all sides.
After the free elections of 1993 Cambodia had a parliamentary system with two prime ministers who shared power. A new constitution was adopted and in 1993, King Norodom Sihanouk assumed the throne once again. It was 52 years since he had been crowned king the first time. The official name of the country today is ‘Kingdom of Cambodia’.
Since the end of the Pol Pot Regime, Cambodia is now a relatively safe country to travel in (as with any overseas travel, normal travel precautions still apply). Many of the provinces that were once ‘off-limits’ to foreigners are now safe for travel.
During the 1980s Cambodia became the most heavily mined war zone in the world. There were thought to be more than 7 million anti-personnel mines buried around the country. The number of mines has been greatly reduced and tourist areas are mainly mine-free. You should however stick to the paths and hire a local guide in rural areas. Never touch any artillery shells, bombs, rockets, and mines you may come across. In Vietnam and Laos, these are likely to be twenty years old, but in Cambodia, they may have been put there more recently. Avoid walking through jungle areas, even on paths.
GMT plus seven hours.
Getting Around by Air
As a result of the Open Skies Policy numerous airlines have added services to Cambodia. It is also possible to fly between the major towns within Cambodia.
Getting Around by Train
Cambodia has two rail lines and if you want to travel around by train it is possible to do so in Cambodia, however the trains are extremely slow. The northwest line goes as far as Battambang, while the southwest line links Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville. Much of the rail network was destroyed during the civil war and at present service is irregular.
Getting Around by Bus
There is a basic road network, but bridges and roads are in a poor state of repair.
Getting Around by Boat
The most popular route is between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and on an express boat this takes four hours.
Getting Around on Foot
Phnom Penh is safe for walking during the day and it can be one of the best ways of getting to know the city unless you visit during summer when it is just too hot.
The Cambodian currency is the Riel, officially denoted by the prefix - R. The US dollar is widely used in all major centers and circulates along side the local currency. Many hotels, shops and restaurants list their prices in US dollars and seem to prefer that currency. The Thai Baht is also widely accepted. Riel notes come in denominations of 100, 200 and 500, 1000, 5000, 10000. Coins are no longer used.
Travelers cheques can be exchanged in the main cities at large banks or hotels. All major brands are accepted.
Credit cards are becoming more widely recognized. Bring your American Express, Mastercard, or Visa on your travels, but outside the main hotels, shopping centers and banks, prepared to pay in cash. If in doubt or there is no credit card logo visible, ask first.
Banks cash travelers cheques at the daily exchange rate. This can fluctuate depending on the current economic and political situation but is currently around 3800R - US$1. (April 2001)
There is a thriving unofficial money exchange system in Cambodia. The rate received from moneychangers may be better than the bank rate but there may be some risk involved. Gold shops may offer an exchange service.
When changing travelers cheques be sure to ensure that the notes received are of good quality. Damaged notes are often unacceptable to Cambodians.
Most banks are open from 8.30 to 3.30 during the week and possibly open on Saturday morning.
You are not supposed to take riel into or out of the country and all foreign currency should be declared on arrival. Keep all exchange slips in case you need to submit these on departure.
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