Cambodia Remains a Fascinating Destination Despite A Brutal History
Located on the mainland of Southeast Asia, the Kingdom of Cambodia, as it is formally know, is bordered by Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Modern day Cambodia, particularly around the capital of Phnom Penh, belies the country’s brutal history of war, poverty and genocide.
While archeologists document human colonies much earlier, the first sophisticated citizenry, known as Fu-nan, arose from the area around 150 A.D. As the Fu-nan people traded with the Chinese, the region began to prosper, forming settlements and eventually kingdoms. Still, Cambodia remained deeply fractured until the 9th Century when a united dynasty was created under the rule of King Jayavarman II.
Cambodia flourished during the Khmer Empire, which lasted into the mid-13th century. With its capital in Angkor, most of the society remained agrarian. It was during this period that the wealthy, influenced by the spiritual beliefs of animism, Hinduism and Buddhism, built enormous stone temples, elaborately decorated with intricate carvings and statues. Angkor Wat, the most notorious of these temples, remains a must-see destination for every world traveler.
The Khmer Empire was extinguished for good in the 15th century when Thailand captured Angkor and moved the capital to Phnom Penh. The 16th through 19th centuries were marked by further decline and strife for Cambodia when it was occupied in turn by Thailand, Vietnam, France and Japan. Incessant warring and corrupt leadership crippled Cambodia from developing a sound political structure and left them vulnerable to what would be one of the most murderous reigns in world history.
In 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge came to power with designs to reclaim Cambodia’s glory years. By 1978, when the Vietnam mercifully invaded and ran Pol Pot from the land, millions of people were dead at the hands of this dictator. Those who survived weren’t much better off. In the 1990s, Cambodia abandoned communism and began to make the transition to democracy.
Today, approximately 13 million people reside in Cambodia, a testament to the human capacity for survival and renewal. In contrast to many surrounding countries, the population is unusually homogonous. The vast majority of citizens are Khmer. Buddhism is the primary religion.
More than half the country is covered with resplendent forests, and there is much to see and do. The temples are always a popular attraction. Days could be spent exploring the majestic artistry of Angkor Wat and Angkor Tom – the gates of each a bike ride away from each other. Travelers can hike through the jungle to the River of 1,000 Lingas and check out the intricate carvings in rocks that line the creek bed.
Elephant rides and tours are available in several cities, and the capitol of Phnom Penh has a bustling and fascinating shopping district. Water lovers can take a boat cruise down the Tonle Sap River and experience the verdant wetlands or head over to Krati to check out the frolicking, freshwater dolphins. The regional cuisine, delicious and cheap, is a fantastic introduction to the fresh, healthy food of Southeast Asia.
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