Pol Pot & the Khmer Rouge Trials

The Khmer Rouge controlled Cambodia for three years, eight months and 20 days, a period etched into the consciousness of the Khmer people. The Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge on 7 January 1979, but Cambodia’s civil war rumbled on for another two decades before drawing to a close in 1999. More than 20 years after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime, trials commenced to bring those responsible for the deaths of about two million Cambodians to justice.

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal

Case 001

Case 001, the trial of Kaing Guek Eav, aka Comrade Duch, began in 2009. Duch was seen as a key figure as he provided the link between the regime and its crimes in his role as head of S-21 prison. Duch was sentenced to 35 years in 2010, but this was reduced to just 19 years in lieu of time already served and his cooperation with the investigating team. For many Cambodians this was a slap in the face, as Duch had already admitted overall responsibility for the deaths of about 17,000 people. Convert this into simple numbers and it equates to about 10 hours of prison time per victim. However, an appeal verdict announced on 3 February 2012 extended the sentence to life imprisonment.

Case 002

Case 002 began in November 2011, involving the most senior surviving leaders of the Democratic Kampuchea (DK) era: Brother Number Two Nuon Chea (now in his 90s), former DK head of state Khieu Samphan (in his 80s) and former DK Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, who died on 14 March 2013. Ieng Sary's wife and former DK Minister of Social Affairs Ieng Thirith was ruled unfit to stand trial due to the onset of dementia (she later died as well). Both Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan received life sentences for crimes against humanity in August 2014 and are currently facing additional charges of genocide.

Case 003

Case 003 was lodged in 2009 against head of the DK navy, Meas Muth, and head of the DK air force, Sou Met. The latter died in 2014, leaving Meas Muth as the lone accused in this case. Case 003 has been politically charged from the get-go and threatened to derail the entire tribunal during 2011. Investigations into this case stalled almost immediately back in 2009 under intense pressure from the Cambodian government, which wanted to draw a line under proceedings with the completion of Case 002. Prime Minister Hun Sen made several public statements objecting to the continuation of Case 003 and the subsequent impasse has led to criticism from many quarters, including Human Rights Watch. Meas Muth was eventually charged with crimes against humanity and genocide in late 2015 and the case remains under investigation.


Around US$300 million has been spent to date, against a backdrop of allegations of corruption and mismanagement on the Cambodian side. Some Cambodians feel the trial will send an important political message about accountability that may resonate with some of the Cambodian leadership today. However, others argue that the trial is a major waste of money, given the overwhelming evidence against surviving senior leaders, and that a truth and reconciliation commission may have provided more compelling answers for Cambodians who want to understand what motivated the average Khmer Rouge cadre.

Pol Pot & His Comrades

Pol Pot: Brother Number One

Pol Pot is a name that sends shivers down the spines of Cambodians and foreigners alike. It is Pol Pot who is most associated with the bloody madness of the regime he led between 1975 and 1979, and his policies heaped misery, suffering and death on millions of Cambodians.

Pol Pot was born Saloth Sar in a small village near Kompong Thom in 1925. As a young man he won a scholarship to study in Paris, where he came into contact with the Cercle Marxiste and communist thought, which he later transformed into a politics of extreme Maoism.

In 1963, Sihanouk’s repressive policies sent Saloth Sar and his comrades fleeing to the jungles of Ratanakiri. It was from this moment that Saloth Sar began to call himself Pol Pot. Once the Khmer Rouge was allied with Sihanouk, following his overthrow by Lon Nol in 1970 and subsequent exile in Beijing, its support soared and the faces of the leadership became familiar. However, Pol Pot remained a shadowy figure, leaving public duties to Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary.

When the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, few people could have anticipated the hell that was to follow. Pol Pot and his clique were the architects of one of the most radical and brutal revolutions in the history of humankind. It was Year Zero and Cambodia was on a self-destructive course to sever all ties with the past.

Pol Pot was not to emerge as the public face of the revolution until the end of 1976, after he returned from a trip to see his mentors in Beijing. He granted almost no interviews to foreign media and was seen only on propaganda movies produced by government TV. Such was his aura and reputation that, by the last year of the regime, a cult of personality was developing around him.

After being ousted by the Vietnamese, Pol Pot spent much of the 1980s living in Thailand and was able to rebuild his shattered forces and once again threaten Cambodia. His enigma increased as the international media speculated on his real fate. His demise was reported so often that when he finally died on 15 April 1998, many Cambodians refused to believe it until they had seen his body on TV or in newspapers. Even then, many were sceptical and rumours continue to circulate about exactly how he met his end. Officially, he was said to have died from a heart attack, but a full autopsy was not carried out before his body was cremated on a pyre of burning tyres.

For more on the life and times of Pol Pot, pick up one of the excellent biographies written about him: Brother Number One by David Chandler or Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare by Phillip Short.

Nuon Chea: Brother Number Two

Long considered one of the main ideologues and architects of the Khmer Rouge revolution, Nuon Chea studied law at Bangkok’s Thammasat University before joining the Thai Communist Party. He was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea upon its secretive founding in 1960 and remained Pol Pot’s second in command throughout the regime’s rule, with overall responsibility for internal security. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014, a verdict that was upheld on appeal in November 2016, and he now awaits further trial at the ECCC for additional charges of genocide as part of Case 002.

Ieng Sary: Brother Number Three

One of Pol Pot’s closest confidants, Ieng Sary fled to the jungles of Ratanakiri in 1963, where he and Pol Pot both underwent intensive guerrilla training in the company of North Vietnamese communist forces. Ieng Sary was one of the public faces of the Khmer Rouge and became foreign minister of Democratic Kampuchea. Until his death in 2013, he maintained that he was not involved in the planning or execution of the genocide. However, he did invite many intellectuals, diplomats and exiles to return to Cambodia from 1975, the majority of whom were subsequently tortured and executed in S-21 prison. He helped hasten the demise of the Khmer Rouge as a guerrilla force with his defection to the government side in 1996 and was given an amnesty for his earlier crimes.

Khieu Samphan: Brother Number Nine

Khieu Samphan studied economics in Paris and some of his theories on self-reliance were credited with inspiring Khmer Rouge economic policies. During the Sihanouk years of the 1960s, Khieu Samphan spent several years working with the Sangkum government and putting his more moderate theories to the test. During a crackdown on leftists in 1967, he fled to the jungle to join Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. During the Democratic Kampuchea period, he was made head of state from 1976 to 1979. Along with Nuon Chea, he was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014, a verdict that was upheld on appeal in November 2016. He now awaits further trial for genocide charges as part of Case 002.

Comrade Duch: Commandant of S-21

Born Kaing Guek Eav in Kompong Thom in 1942, Duch initially worked as a teacher before joining the Khmer Rouge in 1967. Based in the Cardamom Mountains during the civil war of 1970–75, he was given responsibility for security and political prisons in his region, where he refined his interrogation techniques. Following the Khmer Rouge takeover, he was moved to S-21 prison and was responsible for the interrogation and execution of thousands of prisoners. He fled Phnom Penh as Vietnamese forces surrounded the city, and his whereabouts were unknown until he was discovered living in Battambang Province by British photojournalist Nic Dunlop. The first to stand trial and be sentenced in Case 001, Comrade Duch cooperated through the judicial process. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in early 2012.

The Future

It remains to be seen whether the wheels of justice will turn fast enough to deliver a verdict on the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. However, that justice has already been served in the case of Comrade Duch (and at least partially for Brothers Two and Nine) has provided a measure of closure for some victims. Keep up to date with the latest developments in the trial by visiting the official website of the Cambodian Tribunal Monitor (www.cambodiatribunal.org) and the official ECCC site (www.eccc.gov.kh/en).

Sidebar: 1

To learn more about the origins of the Khmer Rouge and the Democratic Kampuchea regime, read How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985) and The Pol Pot Regime (1996), both written by Yale University academic Ben Kiernan.

Sidebar: 2

Pol Pot travelled up the Ho Chi Minh Trail to visit Beijing in 1966, at the height of the Cultural Revolution there. He was obviously inspired by what he saw, as the Khmer Rouge went even further than the Red Guards in severing links with the past.

Sidebar: 3

Brother Number One (2011) is a feature-length documentary that follows New Zealand rower Rob Hamill on a personal journey to discover who was responsible for the murder of his brother Kerry Hamill in S-21 prison in 1978.

Sidebar: 4

Enemies of the People (2010) follows Cambodian journalist and genocide survivor Thet Sambath as he wins the confidence of Brother Number Two in the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea, eventually coaxing him to give new testimony on his role in the genocidal regime.

Sidebar: 5

Khieu Samphan tries to exonerate himself in his 2004 publication, Cambodia’s Recent History and the Reasons Behind the Decisions I Made.

Sidebar: 6

The Khmer Rouge period is politically sensitive in Cambodia, due in part to the connections the current leadership has with the communist movement − so much so that the history of the genocide was not taught in high schools until 2009.

Sidebar: 7

Pick up a copy of When Clouds Fell From the Sky (2015) by Robert Carmichael, a book that tells the story of a Cambodian diplomat's disappearance on his return to Cambodia in 1977 and his family's search for justice more than 30 years later.

People & Culture

A tumultuous history, an incredible heritage of architecture, sculpture and dance, a modern arts scene, and a fascinating mosaic of people and faiths all go towards making Cambodia's rich national character.

The National Psyche

Since the glory days of the Angkorian empire, the Cambodian people have been on the losing side of many a battle – their country all too often a minnow amid the circling sharks – and popular attitudes have been shaped by this history. At first glance, Cambodia appears to be a nation of shiny, happy people, but look deeper and it is a country of evident contradictions. Light and dark, rich and poor, love and hate, life and death – all are visible on a journey through the kingdom. Most telling of all is the evidence of the nation’s glorious past set against the more recent tragedy of its present.

Angkor is everywhere: on the flag, the national beer, cigarettes, hotels and guesthouses – anything and everything. It’s a symbol of nationhood and fierce pride – no matter how ugly things got in the bad old days, the Cambodians built Angkor Wat and it doesn’t get bigger than that.

Contrast this with the abyss into which the nation was sucked during the years of the Khmer Rouge. 'Pol Pot' is a dirty word in Cambodia due to the death and suffering he inflicted on the country.

As for Cambodian attitudes towards their regional neighbours, these are complex. Thais aren’t always popular, as some Cambodians feel they fail to acknowledge their cultural debt to Cambodia and generally look down on their less affluent neighbour. Cambodian attitudes towards the Vietnamese are more ambivalent. There is a certain level of mistrust, as many feel the Vietnamese aspire to colonise their country. (Many Khmers still call the lost Mekong Delta ‘Kampuchea Krom’, meaning ‘Lower Cambodia’.) However, this mistrust is balanced with a grudging respect for the Vietnamese role in Cambodia’s ‘liberation’ from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. But when liberation became occupation in the 1980s, the relationship soured once more.

The Cambodian Way of Life

For many older Cambodians, life is centred on family, faith and food, an existence that has stayed the same for centuries. Family is more than the traditional nuclear family, it’s the extended family of third cousins and obscure aunts – as long as there is a bloodline, there is a bond. Families stick together, solve problems collectively, listen to the wisdom of the elders and pool resources. The extended family comes together during times of trouble and times of joy, celebrating festivals and successes, mourning deaths and disappointments. Whether the Cambodian house is big or small, there will be a lot of people living inside.

For the majority of the population still living in the countryside, these constants carry on as they always have: several generations sharing the same roof, the same rice and the same religion. But during the dark decades of the 1970s and 1980s, this routine was ripped apart by war and ideology, as the peasants were dragged into a bloody civil war and later forced into slavery. The Khmer Rouge organisation Angkar took over as the moral and social beacon in the lives of the people. Families were forced apart, children turned against parents, brothers against sisters. The bond of trust was broken and is only slowly being rebuilt today.

For the younger generation, brought up in a postconflict, postcommunist period of relative freedom, it’s a different story – arguably thanks to their steady diet of MTV and steamy soaps. Cambodia is experiencing its very own ’60s swing, as the younger generation stands ready for a different lifestyle to the one their parents had to swallow. This creates plenty of friction in the cities, as rebellious teens dress as they like, date whoever they wish and hit the town until all hours. More recently this generational conflict has spilled over into politics as the Facebook generation helped deliver some shock results that has seen the governing Cambodian People's Party (CPP) grip on power much weakened.

Cambodia is set for major demographic shifts in the next couple of decades. Currently, just 25% of the population lives in urban areas, which contrasts starkly with the country’s more developed neighbours, such as Malaysia and Thailand. Increasing numbers of young people are likely to migrate to the cities in search of opportunity, forever changing the face of contemporary Cambodian society. However, for now at least, Cambodian society remains much more traditional than that of Thailand and Vietnam, and visitors need to keep this in mind.

The Population of Cambodia

Cambodia’s second postwar population census was carried out in 2008 and put the country’s population at about 13.5 million. The current population is estimated at around 16 million and, with a rapid growth rate of about 2% per year, it's predicted to reach 20 million by 2025.

Phnom Penh is the largest city, with a population of about two million. Other major population centres include the boom towns of Siem Reap, Sihanoukville, Battambang and Poipet.

The much-discussed imbalance of men to women due to years of conflict is not as serious as it was in 1980, but it's still significant: there are about 95 males to every 100 females, up from 86.1 to 100 in 1980. There is, however, a marked imbalance in age groups: more than 40% of the population is under the age of 16.

Sport in Cambodia

The national sport of Cambodia is pradal serey (Cambodian kickboxing). It’s similar to kickboxing in Thailand (don’t make the mistake of calling it 'Thai boxing' over here, though) and there are regular weekend bouts on CTN and TV5. It’s also possible to go to the TV arenas and watch the fights live.

Football is another national obsession, although the Cambodian team is a real minnow, even by Asian standards. Many Cambodians follow the English Premier League religiously and regularly bet on games.

The French game of pétanque, also called boules, is also very popular here and the Cambodian team has won several medals in regional games.

Cambodian Greetings

Cambodians traditionally greet each other with the sompiah, which involves pressing the hands together in prayer and bowing, similar to the wai in Thailand. The higher the hands and the lower the bow, the more respect is conveyed – important to remember when meeting officials or the elderly. In recent times this custom has been partly replaced by the handshake but, although men tend to shake hands with each other, women usually use the traditional greeting with both men and women. It is considered acceptable (or perhaps excusable) for foreigners to shake hands with Cambodians of both sexes.


According to official statistics, more than 90% of the people who live in Cambodia are ethnic Khmers, making the country the most ethnically homogeneous in Southeast Asia. However, unofficially, the figure is probably smaller due to a large influx of Chinese and Vietnamese in the past century. Other ethnic minorities include Cham, Lao and the indigenous peoples of the rural highlands.

Ethnic Khmers

The Khmers have inhabited Cambodia since the beginning of recorded regional history (around the 2nd century), many centuries before Thais and Vietnamese migrated to the region. Over the centuries, the Khmers have mixed with other groups residing in Cambodia, including Javanese and Malays (8th century), Thais (10th to 15th centuries), Vietnamese (from the early 17th century) and Chinese (since the 18th century).

Khmer Krom

The Khmer Krom people of southern Vietnam are ethnic Khmers separated from Cambodia by historical deals and Vietnamese encroachment on what was once Cambodian territory. Nobody is sure just how many of them there are and estimates vary from one million to seven million, depending on who is doing the counting.

The history of Vietnamese expansion into Khmer territory has long been a staple of Khmer textbooks. King Chey Chetha II of Cambodia, in keeping with the wishes of his Vietnamese queen, first allowed Vietnamese to settle in the Cambodian town of Prey Nokor in 1623. It was obviously the thin end of the wedge, as Prey Nokor is now better known as Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

The Vietnamese government has pursued a policy of forced assimilation since independence, which has involved ethnic Khmers taking Vietnamese names and studying in Vietnamese. According to the Khmer Kampuchea Federation (KKF), the Khmer Krom continue to suffer persecution, including lack of access to health services, religious discrimination and outright racism. Several monks have been defrocked for nonviolent protests in recent years and the Cambodian government has even assisted in deporting some agitators, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many Khmer Krom would like to see Cambodia act as a mediator in the quest for greater autonomy and ethnic representation in Vietnam, but the Cambodian government takes a softly, softly approach towards its more powerful neighbour, perhaps born of the historic ties between the two political dynasties.

For more about the ongoing struggles of the Khmer Krom, visit www.khmerkrom.org.

Ethnic Vietnamese

The Vietnamese are one of the largest non-Khmer ethnic groups in Cambodia. According to government figures, Cambodia is host to around 100,000 Vietnamese, though unofficial observers claim the real figure may be somewhere between half a million and one million. The Vietnamese play a big part in the fishing and construction industries in Cambodia. There is still some distrust between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese, though, even of the Vietnamese who have been living in Cambodia for generations.

Ethnic Chinese

The government claims there are around 50,000 ethnic Chinese in Cambodia, however informed observers estimate half a million to one million in urban areas. Many Chinese Cambodians have lived in Cambodia for generations and have adopted the Khmer culture, language and identity. Until 1975, the ethnic Chinese controlled the economic life of Cambodia and in recent years they have re-emerged as a powerful economic force, mainly due to increased investment by overseas Chinese.

Ethnic Cham

Cambodia’s Cham Muslims (known locally as the Khmer Islam) officially number around 200,000. Unofficial counts put the figure higher at around 500,000. The Cham live in villages on the banks of the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, mostly in the provinces of Kompong Cham, Kompong Speu and Kompong Chhnang. They suffered vicious persecution between 1975 and 1979, when a large part of their community was targeted. Many Cham mosques that were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge have since been rebuilt.

Ethno-Linguistic Minorities

Cambodia’s diverse Khmer Leu (Upper Khmer) or chunchiet (ethnic minorities), who live in the country’s mountainous regions, probably number around 100,000.

The majority of these groups live in the northeast of Cambodia, in the provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, Stung Treng and Kratie. The largest group is the Tompuon (many other spellings are also used), who number nearly 20,000. Other groups include the Bunong, Kreung, Kavet, Brau and Jarai.

The hill tribes of Cambodia have long been isolated from mainstream Khmer society, and there is little in the way of mutual understanding. They practise shifting cultivation, rarely staying in one place for long. Finding a new location for a village requires a village elder to mediate with the spirit world. Very few of the minorities retain the sort of colourful traditional costumes found in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.



Buddhism arrived in Cambodia with Hinduism but only became the official religion from the 13th and 14th centuries. Most Cambodians today practise Theravada Buddhism. Between 1975 and 1979 many of Cambodia’s Buddhist monks were murdered by the Khmer Rouge and nearly all of the country’s wats (more than 3000) were damaged or destroyed. In the late 1980s, Buddhism once again became the state religion and today young monks are a common sight throughout the country. Many wats have been rebuilt or rehabilitated and money-raising drives for this work can be seen on roadsides across the country.

The ultimate goal of Theravada Buddhism is nirvana – ‘extinction’ of all desire and suffering to reach the final stage of reincarnation. By feeding monks, giving donations to temples and performing regular worship at the local wat, Buddhists hope to improve their lot, acquiring enough merit to reduce their number of rebirths.

Every Buddhist male is expected to become a monk for a short period in his life, optimally between the time he finishes school and starts a career or marries. Men or boys under 20 years of age may enter the sangha (monastic order) as novices. Nowadays men may spend as little as 15 days to accrue merit as monks.


Hinduism flourished alongside Buddhism from the 1st century AD until the 14th century. During the pre-Angkorian period, Hinduism was represented by the worship of Harihara (Shiva and Vishnu embodied in a single deity). During the time of Angkor, Shiva was the deity most in favour with the royal family, although in the 12th century he was superseded by Vishnu. Today some elements of Hinduism are still incorporated into important ceremonies involving birth, marriage and death.


Both Hinduism and Buddhism were gradually absorbed from beyond the borders of Cambodia, fusing with the animist beliefs already present among the Khmers before Indianisation. Local beliefs didn’t disappear but were incorporated into the new religions to form something uniquely Cambodian. The concept of Neak Ta has its foundations in animist beliefs regarding sacred soil and the sacred spirit around us. Neak Ta can be viewed as a mother-earth concept, an energy force uniting a community with its earth and water. It can be represented in many forms, from stone or wood to termite hills – anything that symbolises both a link between the people and the fertility of their land. The sometimes phallic representation of Neak Ta helps explain the popularity of Hinduism and the worship of the lingam (phallic symbol).


Cambodia’s Muslims are descendants of Chams, who migrated from what is now central Vietnam after the final defeat of the kingdom of Champa by the Vietnamese in 1471. Like Buddhists in Cambodia, the Cham Muslims call the faithful to prayer by banging a drum, rather than with the call of the muezzin.


Christianity has made limited headway into Cambodia compared with neighbouring Vietnam. There were a number of churches in Cambodia before the war, but many of these were systematically destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, including Notre Dame Cathedral in Phnom Penh. Christianity made a comeback of sorts throughout the refugee camps on the Thai border in the 1980s, as a number of food-for-faith-type charities set up shop dispensing religion with every meal. Many Cambodians changed their public faith for survival, before converting back to Buddhism on their departure from the camps, earning the moniker ‘rice Christians’.

The Arts

The Khmer Rouge’s assault on the arts was a terrible blow to Cambodian culture. Indeed, for a number of years the consensus among Khmers was that their culture had been irrevocably lost. The Khmer Rouge not only did away with living bearers of Khmer culture but also destroyed cultural artefacts, statues, musical instruments, books and anything else that served as a reminder of a past it was trying to efface. The temples of Angkor were spared as a symbol of Khmer glory and empire, but little else survived. Despite this, Cambodia is witnessing a resurgence of traditional arts and a growing interest in experimentation in modern arts and cross-cultural fusion.


Khmer architecture reached its peak during the Angkorian era (9th to 14th centuries). Some of the finest examples of architecture from this period are Angkor Wat and the structures of Angkor Thom.

Today, most rural Cambodian houses are built on high wood pilings (if the family can afford it) and have thatched roofs, walls made of palm mats and floors of woven bamboo strips resting on bamboo joists. The shady space underneath is used for storage and for people to relax at midday. Wealthier families have houses with wooden walls and tiled roofs, but the basic design remains the same.

The French left their mark in Cambodia in the form of some handsome villas and government buildings built in neoclassical style, Romanesque pillars and all. Some of the best architectural examples are in Phnom Penh, but most of the provincial capitals have at least one or two examples of architecture from the colonial period. Battambang and Kampot are two of the best-preserved colonial-era towns, with handsome rows of shophouses and the classic governors' residences.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Cambodia’s so-called golden era, a group of young Khmer architects shaped the capital of Cambodia in their own image, experimenting with what is now called New Khmer Architecture. Vann Molyvann was the most famous proponent of this school of architecture, designing a number of prominent Phnom Penh landmarks such as the Olympic Stadium, the Chatomuk Theatre and Independence Monument. The beach resort of Kep was remodelled at this time, as the emergent Cambodian middle class flocked to the beach, and there are some fantastic if dilapidated examples of New Khmer Architecture around the small town. Boutique hotels Knai Bang Chatt and Villa Romonea in Kep are both restored examples from this period.

To discover examples of New Khmer Architecture, visit the website of Khmer Architecture Tours (www.ka-tours.org) or sign up for one of its walking tours of Phnom Penh or Battambang. The website includes downloadable printouts for DIY tours of each city.


Back in the 1960s, the Cambodian film industry was booming. Between 1960 and 1975, more than 300 films were made, some of which were exported all around Asia, including numerous films by then head-of-state Norodom Sihanouk. However, the advent of Khmer Rouge rule saw the film industry disappear overnight and it didn't recover for more than a quarter of a century.

The film industry in Cambodia was given a new lease of life in 2000 with the release of Pos Keng Kong (The Giant Snake). A remake of a 1960s Cambodian classic, it tells the story of a powerful young girl born from a rural relationship between a woman and a snake king. It's an interesting love story, albeit with dodgy special effects, and achieved massive box-office success around the region.

The success of Pos Keng Kong heralded a minirevival in the Cambodian film industry and local directors now turn out several films a year. However, many of these are amateurish horror films of dubious artistic value.

At least one overseas Cambodian director has enjoyed major success in recent years: Rithy Panh. His The Missing Picture, which used clay figurines to tell his personal story of survival under the Khmer Rouge, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2014. His success goes back to 1995, when People of the Rice Fields was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. His other films include One Night after the War (1997), the story of a young Khmer kickboxer falling for a bar girl in Phnom Penh; and the award-winning S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), a powerful documentary in which survivors from Tuol Sleng are brought back to confront their guards.

The definitive film about Cambodia is The Killing Fields (1985), which tells the story of American journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran. Most of the footage was actually shot in Thailand, as it was filmed in 1984 when Cambodia was effectively closed to the West.

Quite a number of international films have been shot in Cambodia in recent years, including Tomb Raider (2001), City of Ghosts (2002) and Two Brothers (2004), all worth seeking out for their beautiful Cambodian backdrops. Angelina Jolie returned to Cambodia in 2015–16 to film First They Killed My Father, a full-length feature film based on the book by Luong Ung, available on Netflix since September 2017.

For more on Cambodian films and cinema, pick up a copy of Kon: The Cinema of Cambodia (2010), published by the Department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Cambodia. Also look out for the Cambodia International Film Festival (www.cambodia-iff.com), held in Phnom Penh every year.

Sihanouk & the Silver Screen

Between 1965 and 1969 Sihanouk (former king and head of state of Cambodia) wrote, directed and produced nine feature films, a figure that would put the average workaholic Hollywood director to shame. Sihanouk took the business of making films very seriously, and family and officials were called upon to play their part: the minister of foreign affairs acted as the male lead in Sihanouk’s first feature, Apsara (1965), and his daughter, Princess Bopha Devi, the female lead. When, in the same movie, a show of military hardware was required, the air force was brought into action.

Sihanouk often took on the leading role himself. Notable performances saw him as a spirit of the forest and as a victorious general. Perhaps it was no surprise, given the king’s apparent addiction to the world of celluloid dreams, that Cambodia should challenge Cannes with its Phnom Penh International Film Festival. The festival was held twice, in 1968 and 1969. Also perhaps unsurprisingly, Sihanouk won the grand prize on both occasions. He continued to make movies in later life and made around 30 films during his remarkable career.


More than any of the other traditional arts, Cambodia’s royal ballet is a tangible link with the glory of Angkor. Its traditions stretch long into the past, when the dance of the apsara (heavenly nymph) was performed for the divine king. Early in his reign, King Sihanouk released the traditional harem of royal apsara that came with the crown.

Dance fared particularly badly during the Pol Pot years. Very few dancers and teachers survived. In 1981, with a handful of teachers, the University of Fine Arts was reopened and the training of dance students resumed.

Much of Cambodian royal dance resembles that of India and Thailand (the same stylised hand movements, the same sequined, lamé costumes and the same opulent stupa-like headwear), as the Thais incorporated techniques from the Khmers after sacking Angkor in the 15th century. Although royal dance was traditionally an all-female affair (with the exception of the role of the monkey), more male dancers are now featured. Known as robam preah reachtrop in Khmer, the most popular classical dances are the Apsara dance and the Wishing dance.

Folk dance is another popular element of dance performances that are regularly staged for visitors in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Folk dances draw on rural lifestyle and cultural traditions for their inspiration. One of the most popular folk dances is robam kom arek, involving bamboo poles and some nimble footwork. Also popular are fishing and harvest-themed dances that include plenty of flirtatious interaction between male and female performers.

Other celebrated dances are only performed at certain festivals or at certain times of the year. The trot is very popular at Khmer New Year to ward off evil spirits from the home or business. A dancer in a deer costume runs through the property pursued by a hunter and is eventually slain.

Chinese New Year (Tet to the Vietnamese in Cambodia) sees elaborate lion dances performed all over Phnom Penh and other major cities in Cambodia.

Contemporary dances include the popular rom vong or circle dance, which is likely to have originated in neighbouring Laos. Dancers move around in a circle taking three steps forward and two steps back. Hip-hop and breakdancing is fast gaining popularity among urban youngsters and is regularly performed at outdoor events.


The bas-reliefs on some of the monuments in the Angkor region depict musicians and apsara holding instruments similar to the traditional Khmer instruments of today, demonstrating that Cambodia has a long musical tradition all of its own.

Customarily, music was an accompaniment to a ritual or performance that had religious significance. Musicologists have identified six types of Cambodian musical ensemble, each used in different settings. The most traditional of these is the areak ka, an ensemble that performs at weddings. The instruments of the areak ka include a tro khmae (three-stringed fiddle), a khsae muoy (single-stringed bowed instrument) and skor areak (drums), among others. Ahpea pipea is another type of wedding music that accompanies the witnessing of the marriage and pin peat is the music that is heard at ballet performances and shadow-puppet displays.

Much of Cambodia’s golden-era music from the pre-war period was lost during the Pol Pot years. The Khmer Rouge targeted singers, and the great Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea and Pen Ron, Cambodia’s most famous songwriters and performers, all disappeared in the early days of the regime.

After the war, many Khmers settled in the USA, where a lively Khmer pop industry developed. Influenced by US music and later exported back to Cambodia, it has been enormously popular. Cambodians are now returning to the homeland raised on a diet of rap in the US or France, and lots of artists are breaking through, such as the KlapYaHandz collective started by Sok ‘Cream’ Visal.

There’s also a burgeoning local pop industry, many of whose stars perform at outdoor concerts in Phnom Penh. It’s easy to join in the fun by visiting one of the innumerable karaoke bars around the country. Preap Sovath is the Robbie Williams of Cambodia and if you flick through the Cambodian channels for more than five minutes chances are he will be performing. Meas Soksophea is the most popular female singer, with a big voice, but it’s a changeling industry and new stars are waiting in the wings.

Dengue Fever is the ultimate fusion band, rapidly gaining a name for itself beyond the USA and Cambodia. Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol fronts five American prog rockers who dabble in psychedelic sounds. Another fusion band fast gaining a name for itself is the Cambodian Space Project, comprising a mix of Cambodians and expats. They regularly play in Phnom Penh and are well worth catching if you're in town at the same time.

One form of music unique to Cambodia is chapaye, a sort of Cambodian blues sung to the accompaniment of a two-stringed wooden instrument, similar in sound to a bass guitar played without an amplifier. There are few old masters, such as Kong Nay (the Ray Charles of Cambodia), left alive, but chapaye is still often shown on late-night Cambodian TV before transmission ends. Kong Nay has toured internationally in countries such as Australia and the US, and has even appeared with Peter Gabriel at the WOMAD music festival in the UK.

For more on Cambodian music, pick up a copy of Dontrey: The Music of Cambodia (2011), published by the Department of Media and Communication at the Royal University of Cambodia. There is also an excellent rockumentary feature called Don't Think I've Forgotten, which is about Cambodia's lost rock-and-roll era; watch it at www.dtifcambodia.com.


The Khmer empire of the Angkor period produced some of the most exquisite carved sculptures found anywhere on earth. Even in the pre-Angkorian era, the periods generally referred to as Funan and Chenla, the people of Cambodia were producing masterfully sensuous sculpture that was more than just a copy of the Indian forms on which it was modelled. Some scholars maintain that the Cambodian forms are unrivalled, even in India itself.

The earliest surviving Cambodian sculpture dates from the 6th century AD. Most of it depicts Vishnu with four or eight arms. A large eight-armed Vishnu from this period is displayed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Also on display at the National Museum is a statue of Harihara from the end of the 7th century, a divinity who combines aspects of both Vishnu and Shiva but looks more than a little Egyptian with his pencil moustache and long, thin nose – a reminder that Indian sculpture drew from the Greeks, who in turn were influenced by the Pharaohs.

Innovations of the early Angkorian era include freestanding sculpture that dispenses with the stone aureole that in earlier works supported the multiple arms of Hindu deities. The faces assume an air of tranquillity, and the overall effect is less animated.

The Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is commonly regarded as a high point in the evolution of Southeast Asian art. The National Museum has a splendid piece from this period: a sandstone statue of Shiva holding Uma, his wife, on his knee. Sadly, Uma’s head was stolen some time during Cambodia’s turbulent years. The Baphuon style of the 11th century was inspired to a certain extent by the sculpture of Banteay Srei, producing some of the finest works to have survived today.

The statuary of the Angkor Wat period is felt to be conservative and stilted, lacking the grace of earlier work. The genius of this period manifests itself more clearly in the immense architecture and incredible bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat itself.

The final high point in Angkorian sculpture is the Bayon period from the end of the 12th century to the beginning of the 13th century. In the National Museum, look for the superb representation of Jayavarman VII, an image that projects both great power and sublime tranquillity.

As the state religion swung back and forth between Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism during the turbulent 13th and 14th centuries, Buddha images and bodhisattvas were carved only to be hacked out by militant Hindus on their return to power. By the 15th century stone was generally replaced by polychromatic wood as the material of choice for Buddha statues. A beautiful gallery of post-16th-century Buddhas from around Angkor is on display at the National Museum.

Cambodian sculptors are rediscovering their skills now that there is a ready market among visitors for reproduction stone carvings of famous statues and busts from the time of Angkor.

Sidebar: 1

Even the destructive Khmer Rouge paid homage to the mighty Angkor Wat on its flag, with three towers of the temple in yellow, set against a blood-red background.

Sidebar: 2

Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist who directed his faith towards improving the lot of his people, with the construction of hospitals, universities, roads and shelters.

Sidebar: 5

Among Cambodia’s 25 provinces, Kandal has the densest population, with more than 300 people per sq km. Mondulkiri has the sparsest population, with just four people per sq km.

Sidebar: 6

The Cambodian and Lao people share a close bond, as Fa Ngum (1316–74), the founder of the original Lao kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), was sponsored by his Khmer father-in-law.

Sidebar: 7

Lowland Khmers are being encouraged to migrate to Cambodia’s northeast where there is plenty of available land. But this is home to the country’s minority peoples, who have no indigenous concepts of property rights or land ownership, so this may see their culture marginalised in coming years.

Sidebar: 8

Look out for Chinese and Vietnamese cemeteries dotting the rice fields of provinces to the south and east of Phnom Penh. Khmers do not bury their dead, but practise cremation, and the ashes may be interred in a stupa in the grounds of a wat.

Sidebar: 9

The purest form of animism is practised among the minority people known as Khmer Leu. Some have converted to Buddhism, but the majority continue to worship spirits of the earth and skies and their forefathers.

Sidebar: 10

Friends of Khmer Culture (www.khmerculture.net) is dedicated to supporting Khmer arts and cultural organisations, and Meta House, an exhibition space in Phnom Penh, promotes Khmer arts and culture.

Sidebar: 11

To learn more about New Khmer Architecture, pick up a copy of Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953–1970 by Helen Grant Ross and Darryl Collins.

Sidebar: 12

The first major international feature film to be shot in Cambodia was Lord Jim (1964), starring Peter O’Toole.

Sidebar: 13

The famous Hindu epic the Ramayana is known as the Reamker in Cambodia. Reyum Publishing issued a beautifully illustrated book, The Reamker (1999), telling the story.

Sidebar: 14

Rithy Panh’s 1996 film Bophana tells the true story of Hout Bophana, a beautiful young woman, and Ly Sitha, a regional Khmer Rouge leader, who fall in love and are executed for their ‘crime’.

Sidebar: 15

Cambodia’s great musical tradition was almost lost during the Khmer Rouge years, but the Cambodian Master Performers Program is dedicated to reviving the country’s musical tradition. Visit its website at www.cambodianmasters.org.

Sidebar: 16

One of the greatest ’70s legends to seek out is Yos Olarang with his screaming vocals and wah-wah pedals. His most famous song, ‘Jis Cyclo’, is an absolute classic.

Sidebar: 17

Check out www.tinytoones.org for info about a hip-hop cooperative seeking to inspire Cambodian youth to adopt a healthier lifestyle free of drugs and exposure to HIV. Keep an eye out for its performances around Phnom Penh.

Sidebar: 18

Amrita Performing Arts (www.amritaperformingarts.org) has worked on a number of ground-breaking dance and theatre projects in Cambodia, including collaborations with French and Japanese performers.

Sidebar: 19

Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture (2013) became the first Cambodian film to be shortlisted for 'Best Foreign Language Film' at the 2014 Oscars.

Sidebar 20

The Last Reel (2014; www.thelastreel.info) is an award-winning film from Cambodia that explores the impact of Cambodia's dark past on the next generation. Michael Moore awarded it his Grand Founder's Prize at the 2016 Traverse City Film Festival.


Cambodia's landscape ranges from the highs of the Cardamom Mountains to the lows of the Tonlé Sap basin, and includes some critically endangered species clinging on in the protected areas and national parks. However, these species and their habitat are under threat from illegal logging, agricultural plantations and hydroelectric dams for electricity. Cambodia faces a challenge to balance the economy and its need for electricity against the desire to develop sustainable ecotourism.

The Land

Cambodia’s borders as we know them today are the result of a classic historical squeeze. As the Vietnamese moved south into the Mekong Delta and the Thais pushed west towards Angkor, Cambodia’s territory, which in Angkorian times stretched from southern Burma to Saigon and north into Laos, began to shrink. Only the arrival of the French prevented Cambodia from going the way of the Chams, who became a people without a state. In that sense, French colonialism created a protectorate that actually protected.

Modern-day Cambodia covers 181,035 sq km, making it a little more than half the size of Vietnam or about the same size as England and Wales combined. To the west and northwest it borders Thailand, to the northeast Laos, to the east Vietnam, and to the south is the Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodia’s two dominant geographical features are the mighty Mekong River and a vast lake, the Tonlé Sap. At Phnom Penh the Mekong splits into three channels: the Tonlé Sap River, which flows into, and out of, the Tonlé Sap lake; the Upper River (usually called simply the Mekong or, in Vietnamese, Tien Giang); and the Lower River (the Tonlé Bassac, or Hau Giang in Vietnamese). The rich sediment deposited during the Mekong’s annual wet-season flooding has made central Cambodia incredibly fertile. This low-lying alluvial plain is where the vast majority of Cambodians live – fishing and farming in harmony with the rhythms of the monsoon.

In Cambodia’s southwest quadrant, much of the landmass is covered by mountains: the Cardamom Mountains (Chuor Phnom Kravanh), covering parts of the provinces of Koh Kong, Battambang, Pursat and Krong Pailin, which are now opening up to ecotourism; and, southeast of there, the Elephant Mountains (Chuor Phnom Damrei), situated in the provinces of Kompong Speu, Koh Kong and Kampot.

Cambodia’s 435km coastline is a big draw for visitors on the lookout for isolated tropical beaches. There are islands aplenty off the coast of Sihanoukville, Kep and Koh Kong.

Along Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand, the plains collide with a striking sandstone escarpment more than 300km long that towers up to 550m above the lowlands: the Dangkrek Mountains (Chuor Phnom Dangkrek). One of the best places to get a sense of this area is Prasat Preah Vihear.

In the northeastern corner of the country, the plains give way to the Eastern Highlands, a remote region of densely forested mountains that extends east into Vietnam’s Central Highlands and north into Laos. The wild provinces of Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri provide a home for many minority (hill-tribe) peoples and are taking off as an ecotourism hot spot.

Tonlé Sap Heartbeat of Cambodia

The Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, is an incredible natural phenomenon that provides fish and irrigation waters for half the population of Cambodia. It is also home to 90,000 people, many of them ethnic Vietnamese, who live in 170 floating villages.

Linking the lake with the Mekong at Phnom Penh is a 100km-long channel known as the Tonlé Sap River. From June to early October, wet-season rains rapidly raise the level of the Mekong, backing up the Tonlé Sap River and causing it to flow northwestward into the Tonlé Sap lake. During this period, the lake surface increases in size by a factor of four or five, from 2500 sq km to 3000 sq km up to 10,000 sq km to 16,000 sq km, and its depth increases from an average of about 2m to more than 10m. An unbelievable 20% of the Mekong’s wet-season flow is absorbed by the Tonlé Sap. In October, as the water level of the Mekong begins to fall, the Tonlé Sap River reverses direction, draining the waters of the lake back into the Mekong.

This extraordinary process makes the Tonlé Sap an ideal habitat for birds, snakes and turtles, as well as one of the world’s richest sources of freshwater fish: the flooded forests make for fertile spawning grounds, while the dry season creates ideal conditions for fishing. Experts believe that fish migrations from the lake help to restock fisheries as far north as China.

This unique ecosystem was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve in 2001, but this may not be enough to protect it from the twin threats of upstream dams and rampant deforestation. Dams are already in operation on the Chinese section of the Mekong, known locally as the Lancang, and the massive new Xayaboury Dam in Laos is now under construction, the first major dam on the Middle or Lower Mekong.

You can learn more about the Tonlé Sap and its unique ecosystem at the Gecko Centre near Siem Reap.


Cambodia’s forest ecosystems were in excellent shape until the 1990s and, compared with its neighbours, its habitats are still relatively healthy. The years of war took their toll on some species, but others thrived in the remote jungles of the southwest and northeast. Ironically, peace brought increased threats as loggers felled huge areas of primary forest and the illicit trade in wildlife targeted endangered species. Due to years of inaccessibility, scientists have only relatively recently managed to research and catalogue the country’s plant and animal life.


Cambodia is home to an estimated 212 species of mammal, including tigers, elephants, bears, leopards and wild oxen. Some of the biggest characters, however, are the smaller creatures, including the binturong (nicknamed the bear cat), the pileated gibbon (the world’s largest populations live in the Cardamoms and the Seima Protected Forest in Mondulkiri) and the slow loris, which hangs out in trees all day. The country also has a great variety of butterflies.

Most of Cambodia’s fauna is extremely hard to spot in the wild. The easiest way to see a healthy selection is to visit the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre near Phnom Penh, which provides a home for rescued animals and includes all the major species.

A whopping 720 bird species find Cambodia a congenial home, thanks in large part to its year-round water resources. Relatively common birds include ducks, rails, cranes, herons, egrets, cormorants, pelicans, storks and parakeets, with migratory shorebirds, such as waders, plovers and terns, around the South Coast estuaries. Serious twitchers should consider a visit to Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary; Ang Trapeng Thmor Reserve, home to the extremely rare sarus crane, depicted on the bas-reliefs at Angkor; or the Tmatboey Ibis Project, where the critically endangered giant ibis, Cambodia’s national bird, can be seen. For details on birdwatching in Cambodia, check out the Siem Reap–based Sam Veasna Center.

Cambodia is home to about 240 species of reptile, including several species of snake whose venom can be fatal, including members of the cobra and viper families.

Endangered Species

Unfortunately, it is getting mighty close to checkout time for a number of species in Cambodia. The kouprey (wild ox), declared Cambodia’s national animal by King Sihanouk back in the 1960s, and the Wroughton’s free-tailed bat, previously thought to exist in only one part of India but discovered in Preah Vihear Province in 2000, are on the ‘Globally Threatened: Critical’ list, the last stop before extinction.

Other animals under serious threat in Cambodia include the Asian elephant, banteng, gaur, Asian golden cat, black gibbon, clouded leopard, fishing cat, marbled cat, sun bear, pangolin, giant ibis and Siamese crocodile. Tigers have been declared functionally extinct in Cambodia, although in 2016 conservation groups announced plans to reintroduce the big cats to Mondulkiri Province's eastern plains.

Cambodia has some of the last remaining freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins (trey pisaut in Khmer), instantly identifiable thanks to their bulging forehead and short beak. Viewing them at Kampi, near Kratie, is a popular activity.

In terms of fish biodiversity, the Mekong is second only to the Amazon, but dam projects threaten migratory species. The Mekong giant catfish, which can weigh up to 300kg, is critically endangered due to habitat loss and overfishing.

The following environmental groups – staffed in Cambodia mainly by Khmers – are playing leading roles in protecting Cambodia’s wildlife:

Birdlife International (www.birdlife.org)

Conservation International (www.conservation.org)

Fauna & Flora International (www.fauna-flora.org)

Wildlife Alliance (WildAid; www.wildlifealliance.org)

Wildlife Conservation Society (www.wcs.org)

WWF (www.worldwildlife.org)


No one knows how many plant species are present in Cambodia because no comprehensive survey has ever been conducted, but it’s estimated that the country is home to 15,000 species, at least a third of them endemic.

In the southwest, rainforests grow to heights of 50m or more on the rainy southern slopes of the mountains, with montane (pine) forests in cooler climes above 800m and mangrove forests fringing the coast. In the northern mountains there are broadleaved evergreen forests, with trees soaring 30m above a thick undergrowth of vines, bamboos, palms and assorted woody and herbaceous ground plants. The northern plains support dry dipterocarp forests, while around the Tonlé Sap there are flooded (seasonally inundated) forests. The Eastern Highlands are covered with deciduous forests and grassland. Forested upland areas support many varieties of orchid.

The sugar palm, often seen towering over rice fields, provides fronds to make roofs and walls for houses, and fruit that’s used to produce medicine, wine and vinegar. Sugar palms grow taller over the years, but their barkless trunks don’t get any thicker, hence they retain shrapnel marks from every battle that has ever raged around them.

National Parks

In the late 1960s Cambodia had six national parks, together covering 22,000 sq km (around 12% of the country). The long civil war effectively destroyed this system and it wasn’t reintroduced until 1993, when a royal decree designated 23 areas as national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, protected landscapes and multiple-use areas. Several more protected forests were added to the list in the last decade, bringing the area of protected land in Cambodia to over 43,000 sq km, or around 25% of the country.

This is fantastic news in principle, but in practice the authorities don’t always protect these areas in any way other than drawing a line on a map. The government has enough trouble finding funds to pay the rangers who patrol the most popular parks, let alone to recruit staff for the remote sanctuaries, though in recent years a number of international NGOs have been helping to train and fund teams of enforcement rangers.

The Mondulkiri Protected Forest, at 4294 sq km, is now the largest protected area in Cambodia and is contiguous with Yok Don National Park in Vietnam. The Central Cardamoms Protected Forest, at 4013 sq km, borders the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary to the west and the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary to the east, creating almost 10,000 sq km of designated protected land. The noncontiguous Southern Cardamoms Protected Forest (1443 sq km) is along the Koh Kong Conservation Corridor, whose ecotourism potential is as vast as its jungles are impenetrable.

Cambodia’s Most Important National Parks

ParkSizeFeaturesActivitiesBest Time to Visit
Bokor1581 sq kmhotel-casino, ghost town, views, waterfallstrekking, cycling, wildlife watchingNov–May
Kirirom350 sq kmwaterfalls, vistas, pine forestshiking, mountain biking, wildlife watchingNov–Jun
Seima Protected Forest3000 sq kmwaterfalls, gibbons, elephantstrekking, wildlife watchingNov–May
Southern Cardamoms Protected Forest1443 sq kmrivers, waterfalls, jungle, elephantshiking, cycling, wildlife watchingNov–Jun
Virachey3325 sq kmunexplored jungle, waterfallstrekking, adventure, wildlife watchingNov–Apr

Environmental Issues


The greatest threat to Cambodia’s globally important ecosystems is logging for charcoal and timber and to clear land for cash-crop plantations. During the Vietnamese occupation, troops stripped away swaths of forest to prevent Khmer Rouge ambushes along highways. The devastation increased in the 1990s, when the shift to a capitalist market economy led to an asset-stripping bonanza by well-connected businessmen.

International demand for timber is huge and, as neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam began to enforce much tougher logging regulations, foreign logging companies flocked to Cambodia. At the height of the country’s logging epidemic in the late 1990s, just under 70,000 sq km of the country’s land area, or about 35% of its total surface area, had been allocated as concessions, amounting to almost all of Cambodia’s forest land except national parks and protected areas. However, even in these supposed havens, illegal logging continued. According to environmental watchdog Global Witness (www.globalwitness.org), the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) is the driving force behind much of the recent logging in remote border regions.

In the short term, deforestation is contributing to worsening floods along the Mekong, but the long-term implications of logging are hard to assess. Without trees to cloak the hills, rains will inevitably carry away large amounts of topsoil during future monsoons and in time this will have a serious effect on Tonlé Sap.

From 2002 things improved for a time. Under pressure from donors and international institutions, all logging contracts were effectively frozen, pending further negotiations with the government. However, small-scale illegal logging continued, including cutting for charcoal production and slash-and-burn for settlement.

According to Global Forest Watch (GFW; www.globalforestwatch.org), Cambodia lost a total of 2379 sq km of tree cover in 2010. Since then, the numbers have declined, though the country still recorded a loss of 1780 sq km in 2014.

The latest threat to Cambodia’s forests comes from ‘economic land concessions’ granted to establish plantations of cash crops such as rubber, mango, cashew and jackfruit, or agro-forestry groves of acacia and eucalyptus to supply wood chips for the paper industry. The government argues these plantations are necessary for economic development and counts them as reforestation, but in reality the damage to the delicate ecosystem is irreparable and on a massive scale.


Phnom Penh’s air isn’t as bad as Bangkok’s, but as vehicles multiply it’s getting worse. In provincial towns and villages, the smoke from garbage fires can ruin your dinner or lead to breathing difficulties and dry coughs.

Detritus of all sorts, especially plastic bags and bottles, can be seen in distressing quantities on beaches, around waterfalls, along roads and carpeting towns, villages and hamlets.

Cambodia has extremely primitive sanitation systems in urban areas, and nonexistent sanitary facilities in rural areas, with only a tiny percentage of the population having access to proper facilities. These conditions breed and spread disease: epidemics of diarrhoea are not uncommon and it is the number-one killer of young children in Cambodia.

Damming the Mekong

The Mekong rises in Tibet and flows for 4800km before continuing through southern Vietnam into the South China Sea. This includes almost 500km in Cambodia, where it can be up to 5km wide. With energy needs spiralling upwards throughout the region, it is very tempting for developing countries like Cambodia and its upstream neighbours to build hydroelectric dams on the Mekong and its tributaries.

Environmentalists fear that damming the mainstream Mekong may be nothing short of catastrophic for the flow patterns of the river, the migratory patterns of fish, the survival of the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin and the very life of the Tonlé Sap. Plans currently under consideration include the Sambor Dam, a massive 3300MW project 35km north of Kratie. Work is also underway on the Don Sahong (Siphandone) Dam, just north of the Cambodia–Laos border.

Also of concern is the potential impact of dams on the annual monsoon flooding of the Mekong, which deposits nutrient-rich silt across vast tracts of land used for agriculture. A drop of just 1m in wet-season water levels on the Tonlé Sap would result in the flood area decreasing by around 2000 sq km, with potentially disastrous consequences for Cambodia’s farmers.

Overseeing development plans for the river is the Mekong River Commission (MRC; www.mrcmekong.org). Formed by the United Nations Development Programme and involving Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, it is ostensibly committed to sustainable development.

Doing Your Bit

Every visitor to Cambodia can make at least a small contribution to the country’s ecological sustainability.

  • Dispose of your rubbish responsibly.
  • Drink fresh coconuts, in their natural packaging, rather than soft drinks in throwaway cans and bottles.
  • Buy a 'Refill Not Landfill' water bottle in Siem Reap and use it in your travels.
  • Choose trekking guides who respect both the ecosystem and the people who live in it.
  • Avoid eating wild meat, such as bat, deer and shark fin.
  • Don’t touch live coral when snorkelling or diving, and don’t buy coral souvenirs.
  • If you see wild animals being killed, traded or eaten, take down details of what and where, and contact the Wildlife Alliance, an NGO that helps manage the government’s Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team. Rescued animals are either released or taken to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre.

Sand Extraction

Sand dredging in the estuaries of Koh Kong Province, including inside the protected Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, threatens delicate mangrove ecosystems and the sea life that depends on them. Much of the sand is destined for Singapore. For details, see Global Witness’ 2009 report Country for Sale (www.globalwitness.org/reports/country-sale). Sand extraction from the Mekong River is also having an impact on local communities, as many riverbank collapses have been reported in recent years.

Sidebar: 1

The Tonlé Sap provides a huge percentage of Cambodians’ protein intake, 70% of which comes from fish. The volume of water in the Tonlé Sap can expand by up to a factor of 70 during the wet season.

Sidebar: 2

Cambodia’s highest mountain, at 1813m, is Phnom Aural in Pursat Province.

Sidebar: 3

Snake bites are responsible for a similar number of amputations to landmines these days. Many villagers go to their local medicine man for treatment and end up with an infection or gangrene; some even die.

Sidebar: 4

The khting vor (spiral-horned ox), so rare that no one had ever seen a live specimen, was considered critically endangered until DNA analysis of its distinctive horns showed that the creature had never existed – the ‘horns’ belonged to ordinary cattle and buffalo!

Sidebar: 5

For a close encounter with tigers at the temples of Angkor, watch Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 2004 film Two Brothers, the story of two orphaned tiger cubs during the colonial period.

Sidebar: 6

Researchers estimate that there are about 500 wild elephants in Cambodia, mainly concentrated in Mondulkiri Province and the Cardamom Mountains.

Sidebar: 7

Despite responsibility for nearly 20% of the Mekong River’s waters, China is not a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). However, it began discussing its extensive dam developments with downstream MRC members in 2007.

Sidebar: 8

Cambodia became the first Southeast Asian country to establish a national park when it created a protected area in 1925 to preserve the forests around the temples of Angkor.

Sidebar: 9

In September 2005, three enforcement rangers working in the Cardamom Mountains were murdered in two separate incidents, apparently by poachers. Then in 2012, popular environmental activist Chhut Vuthy was shot dead in Koh Kong Province.

Sidebar: 10

In the mid-1960s Cambodia was reckoned to have around 90% of its original forest cover intact. Estimates today vary, but 25% is common.

Sidebar: 11

Banned in Cambodia, the damning 2007 report Cambodia’s Family Trees, by the UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness (www.globalwitness.org), exposes Cambodia’s most powerful illegal-logging syndicates.

Land Mines: Cambodia’s Underground War

Cambodia is a country scarred by years of conflict – and some of the deepest scars lie just inches beneath the surface. The legacy of land mines here is one of the worst anywhere in the world, with an estimated four to six million still dotted about the countryside. Although the conflict ended more than a decade ago, Cambodia’s civil war is still claiming new victims: civilians who have stepped on a mine or been injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO), also known as explosive remnants of war (ERW).

The first mass use of mines came in the mid-1980s, when Vietnamese forces (using forced local labour) constructed a 700km-long minefield along the entire Cambodian–Thai border. After the Vietnamese withdrawal, more mines were laid by the Cambodian government to prevent towns, villages, military positions, bridges, border crossings and supply routes from being overrun, and by Khmer Rouge forces to protect areas they still held. Even more government mines were laid in the mid-1990s in offensives against Khmer Rouge positions around Anlong Veng and Pailin.

Today, Cambodia has one of the highest number of amputees per capita of any country: more than 40,000 Cambodians have lost limbs due to mines and other military explosives. Despite extensive mine risk education (MRE) campaigns, an average of about 15 Cambodians are injured or killed every month. This is a vast improvement on the mid-1990s, when the monthly figure was more like 300, but it’s still wartime carnage in a country officially at peace.

To complicate matters, areas that seem safe in the dry season can become dangerous in the wet, as the earth softens. It’s not uncommon for Cambodian farmers to settle on land during the dry season only to have their lives shattered a few months later when a family member has a leg blown off.

Several groups are working hard to clear the country of mines – one reason the mine-casualty rate has dropped (other reasons include increased awareness and improved roads). When travelling in more remote parts of the northwest you’re likely to see de-mining teams run by the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (www.cmaa.gov.kh), the HALO Trust (www.halotrust.org), and the Mines Advisory Group (www.maginternational.org) in action.

Some sage advice about mines:

  • In remote areas, never leave well-trodden paths.
  • Never touch anything that looks remotely like a mine or munitions.
  • If you find yourself accidentally in a mined area, retrace your steps only if you can clearly see your footprints. If not, stay where you are and call for help – as advisory groups put it, ‘better to spend a day stuck in a minefield than a lifetime as an amputee’.
  • If someone is injured in a minefield, do not rush in to assist even if they are crying out for help – find someone who knows how to safely enter a mined area.
  • Do not leave the roadside in remote areas, even for the call of nature. Your limbs are more important than your modesty.

In 1997 more than 100 countries signed a treaty banning the production, stockpiling, sale and use of land mines under any circumstances. However, the world’s major producers refused to sign, including China, Russia and the USA. Cambodia was a signatory to the treaty, but mine clearance in Cambodia is, tragically, too often a step-by-step process. For the majority of Cambodians, the underground war goes on.

For more on the scourge of land mines, visit the Cambodia Landmine Museum near Siem Reap.