Pia Ranada
Cambodia is a country of centuries-old temples and a growing economy

The majesty of Angkor Wat’s stones under the spotlight of a tropical sun. Orange robes in silent prayer, bald heads their own suns. Roots of an ancient tree, prying their way through ancient walls, making the perfect backdrop for a treasure hunter Hollywood blockbuster.

These are the images that come to mind when we hear about Cambodia, an ancient kingdom once known as Kambuja.

We see a world still ruled by Jayavarman II who began the 600-year-old Khmer Empire. It left a legacy of monumental temples and helped spread Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia.

Fast forward a couple of millennia and Kambuja is now a developing country with a population of more than 15 million people, composed of native Cambodians and ethnic minorities of Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and some 30 tribes.

Theravada Buddhism commands the faith of 96% of the population. Rice, fish, timber, garments and rubber are its biggest exports.

But even in the 21st century, Cambodia’s ancient temples play a vital role. They are partly responsible for making tourism the second greatest source of hard currency after the textile industry. More than half of tourists enter the country through temple-rich Siem Reap. The capital city of Phnom Penh and the beaches of Sihanoukville are also big attractions for vacationers.

The Khmer Rouge’s rule of terror remains alive in the consciousness of Cambodians today. Many of the regime’s victims and suspects are still living. Members of the Communist Part of Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge controlled much of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

They orchestrated the Cambodian genocide which saw to the death of around two million people from political executions, disease, starvation and forced labor.

The government has created a special task force just to bring the living leaders of the organization to trial for war crimes.

The country is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy in which a monarch acts as head of state while bound to follow the constitution. The present king, Norodom Sihamoni, was chosen by the Royal Throne Council. But all political decisions are made by Prime Minister Hun Sen, the longest-ruling non-royal leader in Southeast Asia, who acts as head of government. 

The legislative branch of the parliamentary representative democracy is composed of a lower house (123-seat National Assembly) and the upper house (61-seat Senate).

The biggest political parties are the Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition, Cambodian National Rescue Party.

The country is divided into 24 khaet or provinces and one capital or reach thani. The provinces are further subdivided into 159 districts and 26 municipalities. Within these are communes (khum) and quarters (sangkat).

Cambodia lies entirely within the tropics and experiences a climate dominated by monsoons. The rainy season lasts from May to October when temperatures can fall to 22 degrees Celsius. The dry season runs from November to April when it can get as hot as 40 degrees Celsius. 

The country is made up of a central plain bordered by uplands and low mountains. The Tonle Sap or Great Lake, the biggest body of water in the country, is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Mountain rainforests, evergreen forests and swamp forests give rise to an astonishing amount of biodiversity. 

Biggest issues

Corruption remains one of the biggest issues confronting Cambodia today. The country consistently appears in lists of the most corrupt governments in the world. Journalists covering political disputes have experienced harassment and violence from police. Land rights issues continue to create discontent among farmers and villagers evicted from vast areas of land which were sold, allegedly by the government, to foreign investors. Cambodia’s oil reserves and minerals are also at the mercy of government officials who reportedly accept bribes from foreign companies hoping to exploit these resources.

The country’s infamous child-sex trade is also on the rise. Cambodians worry that the influx of more tourists brought about by the ASEAN Economic Community will only spur the industry. The United Nations said the country’s weak law enforcement and lack of child protection mechanisms attracts pedophiles.

Cambodia joined ASEAN on April 30, 1999. It was supposed to join in 1997, along with Laos and Burma, but the process was delayed because of the 1997 coup in which then co-Prime Minister Hun Sen ousted co-Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh.

Cambodia is a key ally of China in the region, and they go a long way.  

China then supported the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge leadership surrendered to Hun Sen in 1998, China also supported the new government through loans, aid, and investments.

In 2012, when Cambodia hosted the ASEAN summit, the organization failed to release its customary joint statement, largely since the talks tackled the South China Sea dispute.

The Philippines had insisted ASEAN refer to a stand-off with China over a rocky outcrop known as the Scarborough Shoal, but Cambodia, a Beijing ally, resisted. –

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at