Cambodia, officially the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country on the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. A country with a big history, Cambodia was once the seat of one of Asia’s most glorious and influential civilizations. Much of Cambodia’s appeal derives from its pristine forests, emerald paddy fields, diverse wildlife, and fascinating people. Here are some interesting facts about Cambodia.
Facts about Cambodia
1. Cambodia is the 88th largest country in the world.
Cambodia has a total area of 181,035 km² (69,898 sq mi). Comparatively, Cambodia is about one and a half times the size of England or virtually the same size as the US state of Oklahoma.
2. Cambodia shares a land border with three countries.
Cambodia is bordered by Thailand (817 km/508 mi) to the north and west, Laos (555 km/345 mi) to the northeast, and Vietnam (1158 km/720 mi) to the east and southeast.
3. Cambodia has a 443 km (275 mi) long coastline.
All of Cambodia’s 443 km (275 mi) long coastline is along the Gulf of Thailand in the south and southwest of the country.
4. Phnom Aural is the highest peak in Cambodia.
Located in the center of the country, Phnom Aural is Cambodia’s highest peak at 1810 m (5,940 ft).
5. The capital of Cambodia is Phnom Penh.
Situated at the confluence of the Tonlé Sap, Bassac, and Mekong rivers, the capital of Cambodia is also the country’s economic hub. Phnom Penh (lit. ‘Penh’s Hill’), derives its name from the legend of an old lady, Penh, who found four Buddha statues washed up on the shore of the Mekong River and set them on a hill.
From the 1920s to the 1970s, Phnom Penh was considered one of the most beautiful cities in Indochina and commonly known as the “Pearl of Asia”. It earned this moniker due to its broad tree-lined boulevards, rustic temples, ramshackle old colonial villas, and graceful Art Deco architecture.
6. Cambodia is home to the only river in the world that flows both ways naturally at different times of the year.
This is one of the coolest facts about Cambodia. Tonlé Sap is the name of a lake and a river in Cambodia, which boasts the unique aspect of flowing in two different directions at different times of the year. During the dry season (between November and May), the Tonlé Sap River meets the Mekong River in Phnom Penh.
The Mekong is one of the world’s largest rivers. During the monsoon season (between June and October), the Mekong swells into a raging torrent. Its water level rises so fast that not all of the water can escape to the sea. Instead, some of its water runs into the Tonlé Sap River, which joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh.
The sheer force of the water causes the river to flow upstream instead of down, north towards Tonlé Sap lake. During this unique hydrological phenomenon, the surface area of Tonlé Sap quadruples to cover 15,000 km² which briefly becomes the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.
7. The first urban civilizations in Cambodia were the Indianized states of Funan and its successor Chenla.
The origins of the state of modern Cambodia date back to the Indianized kingdom of Funan. This trading nation flourished from the 1st to the 6th century AD. At its height, Funan and its related states stretched across Vietnam, Laos, and as far as the Malay Peninsula. Funan was succeeded by the Khmer rebel entity of Chenla which oversaw Cambodia between the 6th and 8th centuries.
Unfortunately, no reliable written records from this era have survived and virtually all that’s known about ancient Funan is what can be gleaned from the scant writings of Chinese merchants. During this time, however, elements of Indian culture, such as the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, concurrently, Buddhism., the Sanskrit language, a writing system, a centralized administration, were absorbed by the Khmer.
8. Cambodia was home to the once-mighty Khmer Empire.
The Khmer empire was a powerful state in South East Asia, formed by people of the same name, lasting from 802 CE to 1431 CE Jayavarman II was the first of a long succession of kings who ruled over the rise and fall of the greatest empire Southeast Asia has ever seen. At its peak, the empire covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam.
The key to the meteoric rise of Angkor was an elaborate system of reservoirs and canals – for irrigation, trade, and travel. Several reasons have been cited as the cause of the Empire’s decline such as ecological failure, infrastructure breakdown, and a large series of migrations of Thai people in the 13th and 14th centuries. Though it can’t be definitely pinpointed, the fall of the Khmer Empire was probably due to a combination of social, political, religious, and ecological factors.1
9. Cambodia is home to the largest religious structure ever built.
The Angkor Wat (City Temple) temple complex in Cambodia is the largest religious monument in the world by land area. The site measures a whopping 1,626,000 m² (162.6 hectares) and was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II from 1113-50 to honor the Hindu god Vishnu.
The gigantic, five-towered temple represents Mount Meru, the sacred mythical abode of the Hindu gods and a land of creation and destruction. Angkor Wat is famous for its intricate wall carvings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls), bas-reliefs, and statues of Buddhas and Hindu deities that adorn its walls.
10. Cambodia is a former French protectorate.
Cambodia was a colony of France for 90 years from 1863 to 1953. In 1863, France guaranteed the Cambodian king to protect Cambodia from Siam (Thailand) in exchange for certain economic privileges. With the French gunboats making their way up the Mekong River, King Norodom had no option but to sign a treaty of a protectorate.
The French oversaw the establishment of towns, roads, and institutions in Cambodia; its economy flourished, and for the first time in centuries the nation was at peace. However, the French did very little to encourage education or health, and also imposed high taxes on the Cambodians.
11. Cambodia achieved independence in 1953.
In 1941, the French authorities placed 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the Cambodian throne. assuming young Sihanouk would be easily pliable, but this proved to be a serious miscalculation. Although the French granted Cambodia partial independence in 1949, the French still continued to control the judiciary, customs, foreign policy, and the right to maintain military bases in the country.
Fed up by his lack of political power and the residual French grip on the country, Sihanouk staged a coup in the early months of 1953. He dissolved parliament and declared martial law in aid of what became known as the “Royal Crusade” for an independent Cambodia. On 9 November 1953, Cambodia attained full independence from France.
12. Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy.
The King of Cambodia is the head of state of Cambodia. However, the King does not have a say in the day-to-day running of Cambodia and his role is largely a ceremonial one. The real executive power over Cambodia lies in the hands of its prime minister. Since October 2004, Norodom Sihamoni has been the king of Cambodia.
13. Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. dropped 2.75 million tons of explosives on Cambodia, more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II.
This is one of the saddest facts about Cambodia. To maintain his country’s neutrality in the Vietnam War, Prince Sihanouk, Cambodia’s head of state, officially cut diplomatic ties with the US in 1965. Meanwhile, Sihanouk’s policies allowed North Vietnam to send men and arms via Cambodian territory to the communist Viet Cong guerrillas in South Vietnam.
Under Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the US responded with the targeted bombing of military installations and occasional attacks on Cambodian villages by South Vietnamese and American forces. Between 1965 and 1969, the US bombed 83 sites in Cambodia.
The flurry of bombing increased in 1969 as the US began a four-year-long carpet-bombing campaign in the skies over Cambodia, aimed at destroying communist bases and supply lines in the southern provinces of the country along the border with Vietnam. To put this bombardment into perspective, the Allies dropped just over 2 million tonnes of bombs during all of World War II.
The carpet-bombing of Cambodia lasted until August 1973 and devastated the countryside leaving two million Cambodians homeless. The exact number of deaths caused by the US bombing can never be accurately pinpointed, but it is believed that somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 civilians died in the bombing.
14. From 1975 to 1979 the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party in Cambodia, committed genocide against an estimated two million Cambodians.
For many, Cambodia remains synonymous with the bloody excesses of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, whose despotic and maniacal leaders succeeded in killing or causing the deaths of two million or more of their fellow citizens – around 20% of the population. In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge won the Cambodian civil war and entered Phnom Penh.
The goal of the Khmer Rouge was to create a nation of peasants working in an agrarian society where family, wealth, and status were irrelevant. The Khmer Rouge basically turned Cambodia into a huge, starvation-driven, terrorized work camp. Within a few days, the Khmer Rouge forcibly emptied Phnom Penh and provincial towns, including the sick and the dying, driving over two million people into the countryside to take up agricultural work.
Hundreds of thousands perished in the fields, dying of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. Money became worthless, social relations completely overhauled, religion almost eradicated, education suspended, and families.
The killing was run like a mundane bureaucratic procedure and scores of people including senior military officers, monks, the elite, and the educated were executed by the Khmer Rouge leadership. The Khmer Rouge would even torture and kill for acts as subversive as wearing glasses or speaking in a foreign language. Suffering under the Khmer Rouge was finally brought to an end in January 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia.
15. Vietnam ruled Cambodia from 1979 to 1989 through a puppet regime.
In December 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia with a force of more than 100,000 troops and by January 1979 they had ousted the Khmer Rouge from power. They then installed a pliant, pro-Vietnamese government, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).
Life under the Vietnamese was infinitely better than life under Khmer Rouge and markets, schools, freedom of movement, and ownership of private property were re-established immediately, and by the following year, the use of money and religious practice on a limited scale were reintroduced.
However, the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government was a dictatorship that was not shy about using assassination and torture to silence critics. Due to this, more than 300,000 Cambodians sought refuge in neighboring Thailand.
For much of the 1980s, Cambodia remained closed and isolated to the Western world and found itself very much in the Eastern-bloc camp. The economy was in shambles throughout much of this period, as Cambodia, like Vietnam, suffered from the effects of a US-sponsored embargo. Startlingly, even as the news of the Khmer Rouge atrocities surfaced, the US and its allies backed the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia because they were fighting against the pro-Soviet Vietnamese.
The Vietnamese forces withdrew from Cambodia in 1989 as a result of the drastic reduction of aid to the PRK government brought on by the advent of Perestroika in the USSR.
16. The currency of Cambodia is the Cambodian riel (KHR).
Popular belief has it that the nation’s currency is named for the small carp on which much of the population survives. However, the name most likely stems from the Mexican real which was used by the Chinese, and Indian merchants in mid-19th-century Cambodia.
17. Cambodia doesn’t observe daylight saving.
Daylight saving has never been observed in Cambodia.
18. Cambodia has changed its name more frequently than almost any other country in the world.
Since independence, Cambodia’s official name has changed six times, following the troubled history of the country. The following names have been used since 1953:
- Kingdom of Cambodia: From 1953 to 1970 (ruled by a monarchy)
- Khmer Republic: From 1970 to 1975 (ruled by President Lon Nol’s government)
- Democratic Kampuchea: From 1975 to 1979 (under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime)
- People’s Republic of Kampuchea: From 1979 to 1989 (under the rule of the Vietnamese sponsored government)
- State of Cambodia: From 1989 to 1993 (under the United Nations Transitional Assembly)
- Kingdom of Cambodia: Since 1993 (under the restored constitutional monarchy)
19. Cambodia is ethnically very homogenous.
Over 97% of Cambodia’s population identifies as Khmer. The remainder of the Cambodian population consists of ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese, and the Chams.
20. Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia.
Although Hinduism was once the dominant religion in Cambodia, Buddhism displaced Hinduism as the majority religion in the 14th century. Today, Theravada Buddhism is widespread in Cambodia and about 97% of the population identifies as Buddhist.
21. Khmer is the official language of Cambodia.
Khmer is the second most widely spoken Austroasiatic language in the world after Vietnamese. Highly influenced by Sanskrit and Pali, Khmer is written in the Khmer script.
22. Cambodia is a member of The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Cambodia became the tenth member of ASEAN on 30 April 1999.
23. Reamker is the national epic of Cambodia.
One of the lesser-known Cambodia facts is that the nation’s national epic is called Reamker. The popular epic is based on the Sanskrit Ramayana epic of ancient India.
24. The most popular sport in Cambodia is football.
Football is undoubtedly the most popular sport in Cambodia. Unfortunately, the Cambodian men’s national football team has tasted very little success at the international level. Their greatest achievement in an international competition is a fourth-place finish in the 1972 Asian Cup. The team has yet to qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
25. Cambodia has never won a medal at the Olympics.
Despite having participated in the Summer Olympics since 1956, Cambodia has never won a medal. The nation has never participated in the Winter Olympic Games.
26. The national flag of Cambodia is one of only six national flags to feature a building.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s most distinctive building and significant historical site, dominates the Cambodian national flag. The emblem of Angkor Wat is displayed on a horizontal red stripe (double width) that is nestled between two stripes of blue.
The red color represents the virtue of bravery and the people who live in Cambodia while the blue stands for the king of Cambodia and represents the virtues of liberty and cooperation. The Cambodian national flag in its present form was originally adopted in 1948 and readopted in 1993, making it one of the few national flags to have been discarded by the national government and then put back into use at a later date.
27. Tarantulas are eaten in Cambodia as a delicacy.
Seemingly one of the bizarre facts about Cambodia is that spiders are considered a delicacy in the country. It’s worth noting this eight-legged arachnid helped many Cambodians stay alive during one of the worst political reigns in history. Food was often scarce during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s and it was then that many Cambodians developed a taste for the arachnids and they continue to be widely consumed throughout the country.
Known locally as ‘ah pieng’, the tarantulas are around 5 cm across and are eaten deep-fried with a hint of salt and garlic. Apparently, they taste a bit like crunchy fried prawns.
28. Fish amok is the national dish of Cambodia.
Cambodia’s most famous dish is a mild, piquant coconut milk curry traditionally made with fish (chicken is also used) and baked wrapped in banana leaves.
29. Khmer has the largest alphabet of any language in the World.
According to the Guinness Book Of World Records, the Khmer Language has the largest alphabet in the world, with a total of 74 letters, consisting of 33 consonants, 23 vowels, and 12 independent vowels. That’s quite impressive!
30. Cambodia is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cambodia are Angkor, the Temple of Preah Vihear, and the Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk, Archaeological Site of Ancient Ishanapura.
31. The traditional way of greeting and showing respect in Cambodia is called Sampeah.
The “Sampeah” is a traditional Cambodian greeting style or way of showing respect. While performing the salutation or mutual recognition, people make a bow combined with a bringing of the hands together at chest level in a lotus-like fashion while bowing slightly. There are different kinds of sampeah depending on a person’s age, profession, and social status.
32. Bon Om Touk is the most important festival in Cambodia.
The most important and popular festival in the Cambodian calendar is the Bon Om Touk Festival (known as the Water Festival). More than two million visitors are known to flock to Phnom Penh from the provinces each year to celebrate the reversing of the flow of the Tonlé Sap River (late Oct to mid-Nov). Cambodia essentially shuts down for the festival as millions celebrate with boat races, myriad foods, free concerts, and fireworks.
33. The national animal of Cambodia is the kouprey.
Koupreys are probably ancestors of domestic cattle. Large, graceful, and very shy, they live in herds and prefer open, dry, deciduous forests.
34. Cambodia drives on the right.
Vehicles in Cambodia observe right-hand traffic rules.