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Geography of Cambodia - History
Pol Pot in Cambodia 1975-1979 2,000,000 Deaths
An attempt by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot to form a Communist peasant farming society resulted in the deaths of 25 percent of the country's population from starvation, overwork and executions.
Pol Pot was born in 1925 (as Saloth Sar) into a farming family in central Cambodia, which was then part of French Indochina. In 1949, at age 20, he traveled to Paris on a scholarship to study radio electronics but became absorbed in Marxism and neglected his studies. He lost his scholarship and returned to Cambodia in 1953 and joined the underground Communist movement. The following year, Cambodia achieved full independence from France and was then ruled by a royal monarchy.
By 1962, Pol Pot had become leader of the Cambodian Communist Party and was forced to flee into the jungle to escape the wrath of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of Cambodia. In the jungle, Pol Pot formed an armed resistance movement that became known as the Khmer Rouge (Red Cambodians) and waged a guerrilla war against Sihanouk's government.
In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted, not by Pol Pot, but due to a U.S.-backed right-wing military coup. An embittered Sihanouk retaliated by joining with Pol Pot, his former enemy, in opposing Cambodia's new military government. That same year, the U.S. invaded Cambodia to expel the North Vietnamese from their border encampments, but instead drove them deeper into Cambodia where they allied themselves with the Khmer Rouge.
From 1969 until 1973, the U.S. intermittently bombed North Vietnamese sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia, killing up to 150,000 Cambodian peasants. As a result, peasants fled the countryside by the hundreds of thousands and settled in Cambodia's capital city, Phnom Penh.
All of these events resulted in economic and military destabilization in Cambodia and a surge of popular support for Pol Pot.
By 1975, the U.S. had withdrawn its troops from Vietnam. Cambodia's government, plagued by corruption and incompetence, also lost its American military support. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army, consisting of teenage peasant guerrillas, marched into Phnom Penh and on April 17 effectively seized control of Cambodia.
Once in power, Pol Pot began a radical experiment to create an agrarian utopia inspired in part by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution which he had witnessed first-hand during a visit to Communist China.
Mao's "Great Leap Forward" economic program included forced evacuations of Chinese cities and the purging of "class enemies." Pol Pot would now attempt his own "Super Great Leap Forward" in Cambodia, which he renamed the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.
He began by declaring, "This is Year Zero," and that society was about to be "purified." Capitalism, Western culture, city life, religion, and all foreign influences were to be extinguished in favor of an extreme form of peasant Communism.
All foreigners were thus expelled, embassies closed, and any foreign economic or medical assistance was refused. The use of foreign languages was banned. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage curtailed. Money was forbidden. All businesses were shuttered, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated, and parental authority revoked. Thus Cambodia was sealed off from the outside world.
All of Cambodia's cities were then forcibly evacuated. At Phnom Penh, two million inhabitants were evacuated on foot into the countryside at gunpoint. As many as 20,000 died along the way.
Millions of Cambodians accustomed to city life were now forced into slave labor in Pol Pot's "killing fields" where they soon began dying from overwork, malnutrition and disease, on a diet of one tin of rice (180 grams) per person every two days.
Workdays in the fields began around 4 a.m. and lasted until 10 p.m., with only two rest periods allowed during the 18 hour day, all under the armed supervision of young Khmer Rouge soldiers eager to kill anyone for the slightest infraction. Starving people were forbidden to eat the fruits and rice they were harvesting. After the rice crop was harvested, Khmer Rouge trucks would arrive and confiscate the entire crop.
Ten to fifteen families lived together with a chairman at the head of each group. All work decisions were made by the armed supervisors with no participation from the workers who were told, "Whether you live or die is not of great significance." Every tenth day was a day of rest. There were also three days off during the Khmer New Year festival.
Throughout Cambodia, deadly purges were conducted to eliminate remnants of the "old society" - the educated, the wealthy, Buddhist monks, police, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and former government officials. Ex-soldiers were killed along with their wives and children. Anyone suspected of disloyalty to Pol Pot, including eventually many Khmer Rouge leaders, was shot or bludgeoned with an ax. "What is rotten must be removed," a Khmer Rouge slogan proclaimed.
In the villages, unsupervised gatherings of more than two persons were forbidden. Young people were taken from their parents and placed in communals. They were later married in collective ceremonies involving hundreds of often-unwilling couples.
Up to 20,000 persons were tortured into giving false confessions at Tuol Sleng, a school in Phnom Penh which had been converted into a jail. Elsewhere, suspects were often shot on the spot before any questioning.
Ethnic groups were attacked including the three largest minorities the Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cham Muslims, along with twenty other smaller groups. Fifty percent of the estimated 425,000 Chinese living in Cambodia in 1975 perished. Khmer Rouge also forced Muslims to eat pork and shot those who refused.
On December 25, 1978, Vietnam launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia seeking to end Khmer Rouge border attacks. On January 7, 1979, Phnom Penh fell and Pol Pot was deposed. The Vietnamese then installed a puppet government consisting of Khmer Rouge defectors.
Pol Pot retreated into Thailand with the remnants of his Khmer Rouge army and began a guerrilla war against a succession of Cambodian governments lasting over the next 17 years. After a series of internal power struggles in the 1990s, he finally lost control of the Khmer Rouge. In April 1998, 73-year-old Pol Pot died of an apparent heart attack following his arrest, before he could be brought to trial by an international tribunal for the events of 1975-79.
Khmers rouges - more commonly known in English as 'Khmer Rouge', was the name given to the followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. It was formed in 1968 as an offshoot of the Vietnam People's Army from North Vietnam. It was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, led by Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan. Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the state as controlled by the government of the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. It allied with North Vietnam, the Viet Cong, and Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War against the anti-Communist forces.
The organization is remembered especially for orchestrating the Cambodian genocide, which resulted from the enforcement of its social engineering policies. Its attempts at agricultural reform led to widespread famine, while its insistence on absolute self-sufficiency, even in the supply of medicine, led to the death of thousands from treatable diseases such as malaria. Arbitrary executions and torture carried out by its cadres against perceived subversive elements, or during purges of its own ranks between 1975 and 1978, are considered to have constituted genocide.
By 1979, the Khmer Rouge had fled the country, while the People's Republic of Kampuchea was being established. The governments-in-exile (including the Khmer Rouge) still had a seat in the UN at this point, but it was later taken away, in 1993, as the monarchy was restored and the country underwent a name change to the Kingdom of Cambodia. A year later thousands of Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrendered themselves in a government amnesty. In 1996, a new political party, the Democratic National Union Movement, was formed by Ieng Sary, who was granted amnesty for all of his roles as the deputy leader of the Khmer Rouge. The organization (Khmer Rouge) was largely dissolved by the mid-1990s, and finally surrendered completely in 1999. In 2014 two Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Kheiu Samphan were jailed by a UN backed court for life, which found them guilty of crimes against humanity and responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000,000 Cambodians (Khmer), nearly a quarter of the country's then population, during the "Killing Fields" era between 1975-1979.
Life under the Khmer Rouge
In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from all foreign influences, closing schools, hospitals, and factories, abolishing banking, finance, and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labour was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into "Old People" through agricultural labour.
In Phnom Penh and other cities, the Khmer Rouge told residents that they would be moved only about "two or three kilometers" outside the city and would return in "two or three days". Some witnesses say they were told that the evacuation was because of the "threat of American bombing" and that they did not have to lock their houses since the Khmer Rouge would "take care of everything" until they returned. People who refused to evacuate would have their homes burned to the ground and would be killed immediately. The evacuees were sent on long marches to the countryside, which killed thousands of children, elderly people, and sick people. These were not the first evacuations of civilian populations by the Khmer Rouge similar evacuations of populations without possessions had been occurring on a smaller scale since the early 1970s.
The Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society by depopulating cities and forcing the urban population ("New People") into agricultural communes. The entire population was forced to become farmers in labour camps. Cambodians were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare before the Khmer Rouge era, the average was only one ton per hectare. The total lack of agricultural knowledge by the former city dwellers made famine inevitable. Rural dwellers were often unsympathetic or too frightened to assist them. Such acts as picking wild fruit or berries was seen as "private enterprise" and punished by death. The Khmer Rouge forced people to work for 12 hours non-stop, without adequate rest or food. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation. They did not believe in western medicine but turned to traditional medicine instead because of the famine, forced labour, and the lack of access to appropriate services there was a high number of human losses.
Money was abolished, books were burned, teachers, merchants, and almost the entire intellectual elite of the country were murdered to make the agricultural communism, as Pol Pot envisioned it, a reality. The planned relocation to the countryside resulted in the complete halting of almost all economic activity: even schools and hospitals were closed, as well as banks, and even industrial and service companies. Banks were raided and all currency and records were destroyed by fire thus eliminating any claim to funds.
During their four years in power, the Khmer Rouge overworked and starved the population, at the same time executing selected groups who they believed were enemies of the state or spies or had the potential to undermine the new state. People who they perceived as intellectuals or even those who had stereotypical signs of learning, such as glasses, would also be killed. People would also be executed for attempting to escape from the communes or for breaching minor rules. If caught, offenders were taken quietly off to a distant forest or field after sunset and killed.
All religion was banned by the Khmer Rouge. Any people seen taking part in religious rituals or services would be executed. Several thousand Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians were killed for exercising their beliefs. Family relationships not sanctioned by the state were also banned, and family members could be put to death for communicating with each other. Married couples were only allowed to visit each other on a limited basis. If people were seen being engaged in sexual activity, they would be killed immediately. Almost all freedom to travel was abolished. Almost all privacy was eliminated during the Khmer Rouge era. People were not allowed to eat in privacy instead, they were required to eat with everyone in the commune. All personal utensils were banned, and people were given only one spoon to eat with. In any case, family members were often relocated to different parts of the country with all postal and telephone services abolished.
Cambodia: A Historical Overview
Cambodia's history is marked with periods of peace and of great calamity. From its early cities to the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism, the great kingdom of Angkor, colonialism, and the Khmer Rouge, this essay tries to put its current rebuilding of civil society in context of its incredible history and the challenges it faces today.
When Communist insurgents known as the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in 1975, a spokesman claimed that in the process "2,000 years of history" had come to an end. What he meant was that the Khmer Rouge intended to break with the past and to overthrow Cambodia’s social relationships. The spokesman was also boasting that Cambodia's recorded history stretched back for two millennia.
In fact, archaeological data has revealed that the area we now call "Cambodia" was inhabited by human beings at least 40,000 years ago. Cities developed along the coast in the centuries before and after the birth of Christ. Indian and Chinese pilgrims and traders passed through these cities, and for the first centuries of the Christian era sources for Cambodian history that survive are almost entirely written in Chinese. Elements of Indian culture, in the meantime, took root among Cambodia’s elite, and by the 5th and 6th centuries several Hinduized kingdoms sprang up in southern Cambodia. We know about them from the remains of small religious monuments in brick, laterite and stone, from massive stone sculptures, and from inscriptions in Sanskrit and Cambodian, or Khmer. The earliest dated inscription comes from the 4th century CE.
In the late 8th century, a Khmer prince later crowned as Jayavarman II returned to Cambodia from "exile" in Java, and began to consolidate the kingdom. In 802, in a ceremony near the site we now call Angkor, north of Cambodia's Great Lake, he declared himself a universal monarch, and founded a dynasty that lasted until Angkor was abandoned in the 16th century.
In its heyday, Angkor was a powerful kingdom that dominated much of mainland Southeast Asia. Its capital, Yasodharapura, probably housed as many as a million people—most of them farmers—making it one of the most populous cities in the world. The city's temples, dedicated to the Buddha or to Hindu gods, are among the artistic wonders of the world. An image of the most famous of these, Angkor Wat, has appeared on every Cambodian flag (there have been five of them) since the country gained its independence from France in 1953.
In the 13th century, Cambodians converted en masse to Theravada Buddhism, the variant practiced by the Khmer today. State-sponsored Hinduism, and the temples inspired by that religion, lost their importance, but for many years the kingdom remained strong and prosperous, as the Chinese emissary Zhou da guan reported in 1296. Over the next 200 years, the empire shrank, as tributary states in what is now Thailand declared their independence and invaded Cambodian territory. By 1450 or so, the capital had shifted southward to the region of present-day Phnom Penh, where it has remained ever since.
Over the next four centuries, Cambodia became a small Buddhist kingdom dependent on the goodwill of its neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, In the mid-19th century, conflict between these kingdoms spilled onto Cambodian soil, and Cambodia almost disappeared.
In 1863 the Cambodian king, fearful of Thai intentions, asked France to provide protection for his kingdom. France kept Cambodia from being swallowed up, but the protectorate developed into a full-scale colonial relationship that the king had not foreseen.
French rule lasted until the 1950s, and was less harsh than in neighboring Vietnam. The Khmer elite was treated well and French policies had a relatively light impact on the population, while improvements in infrastructure strengthened the economy and brought Cambodia to the edges of the developed world. France's greatest contribution to Cambodia was probably its restoration of the temples at Yasodharapura. French scholars deciphered Angkorean inscriptions and rebuilt many of the temples, providing Cambodians with a glorious, precisely dated past that had been largely forgotten.
After Cambodia gained its independence from France, it entered a short period of peace and prosperity which many older Khmer now look back on as a golden age. By the late 1960s, however, Cambodia was drawn inexorably into the Vietnam War. In 1975, Communist forces, known to the outside world as Khmer Rouge or Red Khmers, overthrew the pro-American regime that had seized power five years before. In the Khmer Rouge era that followed , at least 1.2 million Cambodians died of malnutrition, overwork, executions, and mistreated diseases as the Maoist-inspired regime sought to achieve total communism overnight. Responding to Cambodian attacks, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and established a protectorate there that lasted for 10 years.
Under peace agreements signed in Paris in 1991, Cambodia came under United Nations protection for a time in preparation for general elections that were held in 1993. Since then, Cambodia has been a constitutional monarchy ruled by a coalition government that has accepted large infusions of foreign aid. In 1999 Cambodia became a member of ASEAN, and became for the first time, after centuries of isolation, a full-fledged member of the Southeast Asian community.
Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom The giant faces carved on the Bayon temple at the Angkor Thum complex in northwestern Cambodia represent both the Buddha and King Jayavarman VII (ruled about 1130-1219). Although a Buddhist temple, Angkor Thum was modeled after the great Hindu temple complex of Angkor Wat.
In the early 9th century a Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) prince returned to Cambodia from abroad. He probably arrived from nearby Java or Sumatra, where he may have been held hostage by island kings who had asserted control over portions of the Southeast Asian mainland.
In a series of ceremonies at different sites, the prince declared himself ruler of a new independent kingdom, which unified several local principalities. His kingdom eventually came to be centered near present-day Siemreab in northwestern Cambodia. The prince, known to his successors as Jayavarman II, inaugurated a cult honoring the Hindu god Shiva as a devaraja (Sanskrit term meaning "god-king"). The cult, which legitimized the king's rule by linking him with Shiva, persisted at the Cambodian court for more than two hundred years.
Between the early 9th century and the early 15th century, 26 monarchs ruled successively over the Khmer kingdom (known as Angkor, the modern name for its capital city).
King Jayavarman VII
The successors of Jayavarman II built the great temples for which Angkor is famous.
Historians have dated more than a thousand temple sites and over a thousand stone inscriptions (most of them on temple walls) to this era.
Notable among the Khmer builder-kings were Suyavarman II, who built the temple known as Angkor Wat in the mid-12th century, and Jayavarman VII, who built the Bayon temple at Angkor Thum and several other large Buddhist temples half a century later. Jayavarman VII, a fervent Buddhist, also built hospitals and rest houses along the roads that crisscrossed the kingdom. Most of the monarchs, however, seem to have been more concerned with displaying and increasing their power than with the welfare of their subjects.
Ancient City of Angkor This map shows the layout of the ancient city of Angkor, capital of the Cambodian Khmer kingdom from the 9th century to the 15th century. The city's huge stone temples were both civic centers and religious symbols of the Hindu cosmos. Historians believe that Angkor's network of canals and barays (reservoirs) were used for irrigation.
At its greatest extent, in the 12th century, the Khmer kingdom encompassed (in addition to present-day Cambodia) parts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the Malay Peninsula. Thailand and Laos still contain Khmer ruins and inscriptions. The kings at Angkor received tribute from smaller kingdoms to the north, east, and west, and conducted trade with China. The capital city was the center of an impressive network of reservoirs and canals, which historians theorize supplied water for irrigation. Many historians believe that the abundant harvests made possible by irrigation supported a large population whose labor could be drawn on to construct the kings' temples and to fight their wars. The massive temples, extensive roads and waterworks, and confident inscriptions give an illusion of stability that is undermined by the fact that many Khmer kings gained the throne by conquering their predecessors. Inscriptions indicate that the kingdom frequently suffered from rebellions and foreign invasions.
Historians have not been able to fully explain the decline of the Khmer kingdom in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, it was probably associated with the rise of powerful Thai kingdoms that had once paid tribute to Angkor, and to population losses following a series of wars with these kingdoms. Another factor may have been the introduction of Theravada Buddhism, which taught that anyone could achieve enlightenment through meritorious conduct and meditation. These egalitarian ideas undermined the hierarchical structure of Cambodian society and the power of prominent Hindu families. After a Thai invasion in 1431, what remained of the Cambodian elite shifted southeastward to the vicinity of Phnom Penh.
Key Facts & Information
- The word Cambodia comes from the French word “Cambodge,” and “Kampuchea” as its direct translation.
- The Khmer Kampuchea comes from the ancient Khmer kingdom of Kambuja, also referred to as Kambuja Desa.
- Cambodia’s geographical characteristics are the low lying Central Plain that is encircled by land and low mountains including the Tonlé Sap basin (Great Lake), the lower Mekong River floodplains and the Bassac River plain.
- The river plain is surrounded by mountain ranges to the north, east, southwest, and south.
- The central lowlands reach Vietnam to the southeast.
- Cambodia has its roots in the 1st to the 6th Centuries.
- Funan is the oldest Indianised state in Southeast Asia.
- Funan yielded to the Angkor Empire with the rise to power of King Jayavarman II in 802 AD.
- In the next 600 years, Khmer kings ruled much of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to Laos.
- From 900 to 1400 AD, the Khmer Kingdom ruled the area and was Southeast Asia’s largest empire for part of its history.
- Their capital city was Angkor, where over 1 million people lived at the height of its regime.
- It was during this period that the Khmer kings built the most extensive religious temples in the world, including the famous Angkor Wat temple complex.
- This complex was 400 square kilometers, in the province of Siem Reap.
- There were 100 temples and over 1,080 temples across the country.
- In the 15th century, the Khmer Kingdom collapsed and never regained its glory.
- The Japanese expelled the French in the year 1945.
- King Sihanouk campaigned and succeeded in winning independence for Cambodia in 1953, ending 90 years of the nation under the French regime.
- King Sihanouk became head of state.
- The country gained full independence on November 9, 1953.
- When Cambodia engaged in the Vietnam War, things took a turn for the worst.
- A group called the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot gained control.
- They forced people into horrible work conditions.
- Around 12% of the total population was killed in the early 1970s.
- Throughout nearly two thousand years, Cambodians embodied a unique Khmer belief from indigenous doctrine, that all natural objects and the universe itself, have souls.
- They also developed the beliefs of the Indian religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism.
- Indian culture and civilization became prominent throughout the country, including the language and arts.
- The culture reached mainland Southeast Asia around the 1st century AD.
- Like most Southeast Asian countries, Cambodia is in the tropical zone north of the equator.
- Cambodia has a tropical climate with warm temperatures throughout the year since it is dominated by the annual monsoon that alternates dry and wet seasons.
- The northeast monsoon season runs from December through April, bringing the dry and hot weather in January and February.
- Religion is an essential part of the everyday life of the Cambodians and can be seen by the country’s large number of temples.
- Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion in Cambodia, which is practiced by 95 percent of the population, just like the neighboring countries Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. in Cambodia compose 2 percent of the population.
- As of 2017, there are 16 million people in Cambodia.
- Cambodia is ranked one of the poorest countries in the world.
- The per-capita income in Cambodia is low compared to other neighboring countries.
- Cambodia’s two largest industries are tourism and textiles, while agriculture is the primary source of income for many Cambodians living in rural regions.
- There has never been a McDonalds in Cambodia.
- However, they do have a Burger King, KFC, and their own McDonalds equivalent called the “Lucky Burger.”
- Birthdays are not traditionally celebrated in Cambodia, particularly in the rural regions.
- Some older people may not even know their exact birth date but only their birthday season.
- The Cambodian flag is the only flag in the world that has a building.
- The building in the flag is the country’s famous Angkor Wat.
- According to a Cambodian belief, counting a gecko’s chirp will tell you if you’ll be lucky to marry.
- It is considered good luck if a tokay gecko lets out seven or more calls in the same room as you.
- Cambodians are known for cooking and eating creepy crawlies such as crickets, ants, and even tarantulas.
This is a fantastic bundle which includes everything you need to know about Cambodia across 23 in-depth pages. These are ready-to-use Cambodia worksheets that are perfect for teaching students about the Cambodia which is a country in Southeast Asia spanning from the Mekong Delta to the Gulf of Thailand coastline. Its capital and largest city, Phnom Penh, is the political, cultural, and center of Cambodia.
Complete List Of Included Worksheets
- Cambodia Facts
- Colorful Cambodia
- Qualities of Cambodians
- Chronological Order
- True or False
- Southeast Similarities
- Angkorian Architecture
- Largest Cities
- Once Upon A Time
- Angkor Empire Comics
- Come To Cambodia
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Cambodia is a country in Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Its approximate geographical coordinates are 11°N 104°E. Its 2,572 km border is split among Vietnam (1,228 km), Thailand (803 km) and Laos (541 km), as well as 443 km of coastline. Cambodia covers 181,040 square kilometres in the southwestern part of the Indochina peninsula. It lies completely within the tropics its southernmost points are only slightly more than 10° above the equator. Roughly square in shape, the country is bounded on the north by Thailand and by Laos, on the east and southeast by Vietnam, and on the west by the Gulf of Thailand and by Thailand. Much of the country's area consists of rolling plains. Dominant features are the large, almost centrally located, Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Mekong River, which traverses the country from north to south and is the 12th longest river in the world.
The climate is monsoonal and has marked wet and dry seasons of relatively equal length. Both temperature and humidity generally are high throughout the year. Forest covers about two-thirds of the country, but it has been somewhat degraded in the more readily accessible areas by burning (a method called slash-and-burn agriculture), and by shifting agriculture.
Topography in Cambodia
Cambodia falls within several well-defined geographic regions. The largest part of the country, about 75 percent, consists of the Tonle Sap Basin and the Mekong Lowlands. To the southeast of this great basin is the Mekong Delta, which extends through Vietnam to the South China Sea. The basin and delta regions are rimmed with mountain ranges to the southwest by the Cardamom Mountains and the Elephant Range and to the north by the Dangrek Mountains. Higher land to the northeast and to the east merges into the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam.
The Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands region consists chiefly of plains with elevations generally of less than 100 meters. As the elevation increases, the terrain becomes more rolling and dissected.
The Cardamom Mountains in the southwest, oriented generally in a northwest-southeast direction, rise to more than 1,500 meters. The highest mountain in Cambodia--Phnom Aural, at 1,771 meters&mdashis in the eastern part of this range. The Elephant Range, an extension running toward the south and the southeast from the Cardamom Mountains, rises to elevations of between 500 and 1,000 meters. These two ranges are bordered on the west by a narrow coastal plain that contains Kampong Saom Bay, which faces the Gulf of Thailand. This area was largely isolated until the opening of the port of Kampong Saom (formerly called Sihanoukville) and the construction of a road and railroad connecting Kampong Saom, Kampot, Takev, and Phnom Penh in the 1960s.
The Dangrek Mountains at the northern rim of the Tonle Sap Basin consist of a steep escarpment with an average elevation of about 500 meters, the highest points of which reach more than 700 meters. The escarpment faces southward and is the southern edge of the Korat Plateau in Thailand. The watershed along the escarpment marks the boundary between Thailand and Cambodia. The main road through a pass in the Dangrek Mountains at O Smach connects northwestern Cambodia with Thailand. Despite this road and those running through a few other passes, in general the escarpment impedes easy communication between the two countries. Between the western part of the Dangrek and the northern part of the Cardamom ranges, however, lies an extension of the Tonle Sap Basin that merges into lowlands in Thailand, which allows easy access from the border to Bangkok.
The Mekong Valley, which offers a communication route between Cambodia and Laos, separates the eastern end of the Dangrek Mountains and the northeastern highlands. To the southeast, the basin joins the Mekong Delta, which, extending into Vietnam, provides both water and land communications between the two countries.
Cambodia Climate & Weather
Cambodia's climate, like that of the rest of Southeast Asia is dominated by monsoons, which are known as tropical wet and dry because of the distinctly marked seasonal differences. The monsoonal airflows are caused by annual alternating high pressure and low pressure over the Central Asian landmass. In summer, moisture-laden air&mdashthe southwest monsoon&mdashis drawn landward from the Indian Ocean. . The flow is reversed during the winter, and the northeast monsoon sends back dry air. The southwest monsoon brings the rainy season from mid-May to mid-September or to early October, and the northeast monsoon flow of drier and cooler air lasts from early November to March. The southern third of the country has a two-month dry season the northern two-thirds, a four-month one. Short transitional periods, which are marked by some difference in humidity but by little change in temperature, intervene between the alternating seasons. Temperatures are fairly uniform throughout the Tonle Sap Basin area, with only small variations from the average annual mean of around 25 °C (77.0 °F). The maximum mean is about 28.0 °C (82.4 °F) the minimum mean, about 22.98 °C (73.36 °F). Maximum temperatures of higher than 32 °C (89.6 °F), however, are common and, just before the start of the rainy season, they may rise to more than 38 °C (100.4 °F). Minimum temperatures rarely fall below 10 °C (50 °F). January is the coolest month, and April is the warmest. Tropical cyclones that often devastate coastal Vietnam rarely cause damage in Cambodia.
The total annual rainfall average is between 1,000 and 1,500 millimeters (39.4 and 59.1 in), and the heaviest amounts fall in the southeast. Rainfall from April to September in the Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands area averages 1,300 to 1,500 millimeters (51.2 to 59.1 in) annually, but the amount varies considerably from year to year. Rainfall around the basin increases with elevation. It is heaviest in the mountains along the coast in the southwest, which receive from 2,500 millimeters (98.4 in) to more than 5,000 millimeters (196.9 in) of precipitation annually as the southwest monsoon reaches the coast. This area of greatest rainfall, however, drains mostly to the sea only a small quantity goes into the rivers flowing into the basin. The relative humidity is high at night throughout the year usually it exceeds 90 percent. During the daytime in the dry season, humidity averages about 50 percent or slightly lower, but it may remain about 60 percent in the rainy period.
Drainage of Cambodia
Except for the smaller rivers in the southeast, most of the major rivers and river systems in Cambodia drain into the Tonle Sap or into the Mekong River. The Cardamom Mountains and Elephant Range form a separate drainage divide. To the east the rivers flow into the Tonle Sap, while on the west they flow into the Gulf of Thailand. Toward the southern end of the Elephant Mountains, however, because of the topography, some small rivers flow southward on the eastern side of the divide.
The Mekong River in Cambodia flows southward from the Cambodia-Laos border to a point below Kracheh city, where it turns west for about 50 kilometers and then turns southwest to Phnom Penh. Extensive rapids run above Kracheh city. From Kampong Cham the gradient slopes very gently, and inundation of areas along the river occurs at flood stage&mdashJune through November&mdashthrough breaks in the natural levees that have built up along its course. At Phnom Penh four major water courses meet at a point called the Chattomukh (Four Faces). The Mekong River flows in from the northeast and the Tonle Sab&mdasha river emanating from the Tonle Sap&mdashflows in from the northwest. They divide into two parallel channels, the Mekong River proper and the Basak River, and flow independently through the delta areas of Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea.
The flow of water into the Tonle Sap is seasonal. In September or in October, the flow of the Mekong River, fed by monsoon rains, increases to a point where its outlets through the delta cannot handle the enormous volume of water. At this point, the water pushes northward up the Tonle Sab and empties into the Tonle Sap, thereby increasing the size of the lake from about 2,590 square kilometers to about 24,605 square kilometers at the height of the flooding. After the Mekong's waters crest&mdashwhen its downstream channels can handle the volume of water&mdashthe flow reverses, and water flows out of the engorged lake.
As the level of the Tonle Sap retreats, it deposits a new layer of sediment. The annual flooding, combined with poor drainage immediately around the lake, transforms the surrounding area into marshlands unusable for agricultural purposes during the dry season. The sediment deposited into the lake during the Mekong's flood stage appears to be greater than the quantity carried away later by the Tonle Sap River. Gradual silting of the lake would seem to be occurring during low-water level, it is only about 1.5 meters deep, while at flood stage it is between 10 and 15 meters deep.
Related: 12 Beautiful Scenes of Cambodia
Dancers in traditional Khmer dress prepare to perform at the Angkor temple complex. Khmer culture almost vanished during the bloody reign of the Khmer Rouge communists in the 1970s, but Cambodians today are reclaiming their inheritance.
One tale Angkor’s artists and scribes did not tell, however, is why the city’s rulers abandoned the site and resettled near modern Phnom Penh. Theories include defeats in battle and shifting religious observances, (because the Khmer’s Hinduism was gradually replaced by Theravada Buddhism during the 13th and 14th centuries), but the mystery has puzzled scientists for centuries.
Angkor is as much about water as it is about stone—the site boasts an enormous system of artificial canals, dikes, and reservoirs, the largest of which (West Baray) is 5 miles (8 kilometers) long and 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) wide. These incredible feats of engineering form an integral part of an overall site design that remains faithful to religious symbolism. Moats, for example, simulate the oceans surrounding Mount Meru, the home of Hindu gods.
But these massive works also served a practical purpose by skillfully harnessing river and rainwater to quench the thirst of some 750,000 residents in the world’s largest preindustrial city. That water also irrigated wealth-producing crops like rice, which served the Khmer as currency.
Some scholars speculate that the downfall of this elaborate water system led to the end of Angkor. A series of weak monsoons and/or the collapse of the water works due to environmental issues, like deforestation, which drove destructive floods and choked the system with sediment, might have tipped the movement of power toward Phnom Penh.
Even after its glory days had passed, Angkor remained popular with Buddhist pilgrims who journeyed from across Southeast Asia and beyond. Today the site also draws secular travelers—almost a million a year.
When Angkor was named a World Heritage site in 1992 it was also added to the List of World Heritage in Danger the incomparable site was threatened by pillaging, plagued by illegal excavations, and even dotted with land mines. In 1993 UNESCO launched a major campaign to restore and safeguard Angkor. Thanks to a textbook case of international cooperation Angkor rebounded so dramatically that it was removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2004. [Related: 25 World Heritage Sites in Danger]
UNESCO continues to be a part of Angkor’s future, working with the Cambodian authorities to ensure that tourism access and development do not compromise this great cultural treasure.
Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a military supply route running from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. The route sent weapons, manpower, ammunition and other supplies from communist-led North Vietnam to their supporters in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
The trail was named after Ho Chi Minh, the president of North Vietnam. During the 1960s, the Ho Chi Minh Trail (actually a network of trails, footpaths and roadways) moved several tons of supplies each day through rugged mountain ranges and dense jungle.
U.S. military forces𠅊ware of the amount of weaponry that the trail supplied to the Viet Cong, its enemies in South Vietnam—had the Ho Chi Minh Trail in its sights as American involvement in Vietnam increased over the 1960s.
In 1965, more than 30 U.S. Air Force jets struck targets along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. This was just one part of several American ground and air strikes against villages and roads along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Since such raids had become common knowledge and were being reported in the American media, the U.S. State Department felt compelled to announce that these controversial missions were authorized by the powers granted to President Lyndon B. Johnson in the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
But the Johnson administration came under increasing criticism at home and abroad because of the bombing raids along the trail in Laos and Cambodia. Congressional opponents of the Johnson administration thought the president was escalating the war without authorization.
There was also an immediate response in the international community. Not surprisingly, communists roundly criticized Johnson’s actions. In Havana, Premier Fidel Castro condemned the United States and promised that Cuba would aid North Vietnam. On March 4, about 2,000 students attacked the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.
There was also a reaction in non-communist capitals. Prime Minister Lester Pearson of Canada expressed concern about the risk of escalation, but said that Canada understood the U.S. position.
In Britain, however, there was mounting criticism of the government’s support of U.S. policies in Vietnam. In New York City, Women Strike for Peace members demonstrated outside the United Nations to urge an end to the war.
Sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail still exist today, and parts of it have been incorporated into the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a paved road that connects the north and south regions of Vietnam.
Cambodia has a land area of 181,035 square kilometers in the southwestern part of the Indochina peninsula, about 20 percent of which is used for agriculture. It lies completely within the tropics with its southern most points slightly more than 10° above the Equator. The country capital city is Phnom Penh.
International borders are shared with Thailand and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic on the West and the North, and the Social Republic of Viet Nam on the East and the Southeast. The country is bounded on the Southeast by the Gulf of Thailand. In comparison with neighbors, Cambodia is a geographical contact country administratively composed of 20 provinces, three of which have relatively short maritime boundaries, 2 municipalities, 172 districts, and 1,547 communes. The country has a coastline of 435 km and extensive mangrove stands, some of which are relatively undisturbed.
The dominant features of the Cambodian landscape are the large, almost generally located, Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Bassac River Systems and the Mekong River, which crosses the country from North to South. Surrounding the Central Plains which covered three quarters of the country’s area are the more densely forested and sparsely populated highlands, comprising: the Elephant Mountains and Cardamom Mountain of the southwest and western regions the Dangrek Mountains of the North adjoining of the Korat Plateau of Thailand and Rattanakiri Plateau and Chhlong highlands on the east merging with the Central Highlands of Viet Nam.
The Cardamom Mountains in the southwest rise to more than 1,500 meters and is oriented generally in a northwest-southeast direction. The highest mountain in Cambodia –Phnom Aural, at 1.771meters – is in the eastern part of this range.
Change over Time
Islam’s success was primarily due to a process that historians term “localization,” by which Islamic teachings were often adapted in ways that avoided avoid major conflicts with existing attitudes and customs. Local heroes often became Islamic saints, and their graves were venerated places at which to worship. Some aspects of mystical Islam resembled pre-Islamic beliefs, notably on Java. Cultural practices like cockfighting and gambling continued, and spirit propitiation remained central in the lives of most Muslims, despite Islam’s condemnation of polytheism. Women never adopted the full face veil, and the custom of taking more than one wife was limited to wealthy elites. Law codes based on Islam usually made adjustments to fit local customs.
The changes that Islam introduced were often most visible in people’s ordinary lives. Pork was forbidden to Muslims, a significant development in areas like eastern Indonesia and the southern Philippines where it had long been a ritual food. A Muslim could often be recognized by a different dress style, like chest covering for women. Male circumcision became an important rite of passage. Muslims in urban centers acquired more access to education, and Qur’anic schools became a significant focus of religious identity.
Reforming tendencies gained strength in the early nineteenth century when a group known as the Wahhabis captured Mecca. The Wahhabis demanded a stricter observance of Islamic law. Although their appeal was limited in Southeast Asia, some people were attracted to Wahhabi styles of teaching. There was a growing feeling that greater observance of Islamic doctrine might help Muslims resist the growing power of Europeans. Muslim leaders were often prominent in anti-colonial movements, especially in Indonesia. However, the influence of modernist Islamic thinking that developed in Egypt meant educated Muslims in Southeast Asia also began to think about reforming Islam as a way of answering the Western challenge. These reform-minded Muslims were often impatient with rural communities or “traditionalists” who maintained older pre-Islamic customs. Europeans eventually colonized all Southeast Asia except for Thailand. Malaya, Burma, Singapore, and western Borneo were under the British the Dutch claimed the Indonesian archipelago Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were French colonies East Timor belonged to Portugal and the Spanish, and later the Americans, controlled the Philippines.
After these countries gained their independence following World War II, the major question for politically active Muslims has concerned the relationship between Islam and the state. In countries where Muslims are in a minority (like Thailand and the Philippines) this relationship is still causing tension. In Malaysia, Muslims are only around 55 percent of the population and there must be significant adjustments with the largest non-Muslim group, the Chinese. In Indonesia, Muslims are engaged in a continuing debate about different ways of observing the faith, and hether Islam should assume a greater role in government.