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Cambodiaan Overview


Cambodia covers an area of some 181, 035 square km (slightly smaller than Oklahoma) and is bordered by Thailand to the West, by Vietnam to the East, by Laos to the North, and by the Gulf of Siam to the South.  The country’s terrain mostly consists of low and flat plains, which are fertile thanks to the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers.  Highlands and mountains surrounded by evergreen forests can be found in the North and South of the country.  The Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers merge in Phnom Penh, forming a wonderfully unique site for celebrating cultural and social activities throughout the year.  The Tonle Sap River is the only river in the world that has a current, which changes direction depending on the time of year.  Cambodia hosts three mountain ranges:  The Dangreks to the North, the Cardamoms to the NE, and the Elephant Mountains to the South.  These mountains benefit the Kingdom a great deal.  They provide a secure habitat for many rare animals as well as species of tropical trees, streams, and waterfalls.   

The People  
The population of Cambodia is around 12.5 million people.  Of those, 90% are of ethnic Khmer heritage.  The remaining 10% of the population is made up of Vietnamese (5%), Chinese (1%) and other small minority groups (4%).  Cambodia is a largely agrarian nation—80% of its people spend their lives farming.  The Vietnamese are known for being skilled workers and the Chinese dominate business ownership.  In general, the Cambodian people are kind and welcoming to Americans who visit their country.  

 The Language   

"Thank You" in Khmer

The Cambodian language is Khmer (pronounced K’mai, as in ‘my’ dog).  The Khmer language was derived from the Indic languages of Pali and Sanskrit from India.  The Khmer language of today shares many characteristics with written and spoken Thai.  Some technical terms are borrowed from the French.  However, English is commonly communicated in hotels and business compounds at present day.  Almost all Khmer have at least a very basic vocabulary of English.   


Situated in a tropical zone, Cambodia is bathed in sun almost all year around.  There are two main seasons:  the rainy season and the dry season.  Each season brings about refreshing change.  The humid, rainy season lasts from April to November.  During the monsoon season temperatures generally range from 81- 95 degrees Fahrenheit.  The hottest month is April when the temperature can reach above 106 degrees Fahrenheit.  The cool, dry season lasts from December to March, with temperatures ranging from 63 – 81 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Local Cuisine 

Rice and fish are the main staples in the Cambodian diet.  Rice is eaten fried, steamed, or in the form of noodles.  Fish is eaten fresh, dried, or salted.  Beef, chicken, and Pork are eaten on special occasions.  Seasonings include hot peppers, lemon grass, ginger, and mint.  There are a plentiful variety of exotic fruits that are incorporated into the diet as well.  Some of these fruits are Coconut (very important in many Khmer dishes), Dragon Fruit, Bananas, Durian (a national favorite) and Angkunh Fruit.  Tea is the National drink and Betel nuts are often chewed in much the same way tobacco is chewed in other countries.  Local specialty dishes include: Prahoc, a lightly spiced and fermented fish paste; Nhaom, a popular dish comprised of vinegar, dried fish, herbs and vegetables; Kor Kor, cooked with fish and a mix of vegetables; Amok, fish cooked in coconut; and Samlor Machu, vinegar soup cooked with fish and mixed with a variety of vegetables.  Chinese and Western menus are commonly available in the cities of Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and Sihanoukville.   


Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Cambodia and is practiced by 95% of the population.  [Theravada Buddhism is also the predominating religion in Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka.]  However, Christianity and Cham Muslim groups are active and growing among large numbers of people in the cities.  Daoism and Confucianism are also commonly practiced among the Chinese people in Cambodia.

A typical Phnom Penh
street scene of a monk.

A "Spirit House" on the grounds
of the Cambodiana Hotel


The Khmer society places great importance on family.  Khmer families consist of a husband, a wife, and their unmarried children.  The husband is the head of the family, but the wife is expected to take care of the financial matters in the home.  In rural areas men and women’s work is divided.  Children receive a great deal of freedom and affection.  They are taught to show respect toward their elders and Buddhist monks.  Children are supposed to memorize the Chbap, a collection of moral proverbs.  Every village has a Wat, a Buddhist temple.  Most Cambodian males become Buddhist monks for about six months to a year, usually at the age of sixteen.  In the villages parents often choose their children’s spouses.  A representative investigates each side for good social and economic standing.  The wedding ceremony follows the Buddhist tradition.  Many Cambodians believe in charms to ward off evil.


Traditional Khmer dress consists of a white shirt or blouse and a knee-length sarong.  Farmers wear a collarless black shirt and baggy trousers.  A long checkered scarf, or Krama, is often worn around the head.  Today most Khmer people wear Western-style pants and shirts, although traditional clothing is still seen as well.  

Clockwise from top left:  Sampot Chang Kben (skirt rolled in front and pulled up to waistband in back, common attire); Dressy attire including "temple sashes"; Royal and/or Wedding Attire.


Houses on the Tonle Sap River - © Manfred Leiter

Most village houses are built on stilts to avoid rising water resulting from torrential monsoon rains.  Sugar palm trees are used for building the walls and roofs of the rural houses.  Walls are made of woven bamboo and the floors are made of wooden planks.  A smaller house may consist of only one room with no windows.  Most Khmer houses have a statue of Buddha; the furniture is usually simple and practical.  Some houses use mosquito netting as protection while sleeping.  Cooking is done in a separate kitchen near the house.  Livestock and farming equipment are kept in the space under the stilts of the home.  Urban houses are several stories high and are made of brick, masonry, or wood—resembling western apartment buildings.  

Sports and Recreation 

Most Cambodian festivals are associated with either the agricultural cycle or with Buddhism.  The Water Festival or Festival of the Reversing Current, is perhaps the most joyous holiday of the year.  Many boat races are held for three days.  Music is the most popular art from in Cambodia.  Popular instruments are drums, flutes, gongs, violins, and wooden xylophones.  The stylized Romwong (also spelled Ramvang) is the national dance.


The government publishes around 15 daily newspapers, mostly in the Khmer language.  As of the early 1990’s there was one radio per 36 persons, one television set per 141 persons, and one telephone per 790 persons.  It is expected that those numbers have increased dramatically in recent years.  Because land telephone lines are still somewhat unpredictable, many people are now choosing to use only cellular phones—especially in larger cities such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. 


One of the major health problems in Cambodia is the lack of sanitation.  Water-born diseases such as hepatitis are common.  Other widespread diseases are pneumonia and tuberculosis.  There is a shortage of trained medical personnel, as the Khmer Rouge murdered most of the country’s doctors and nurses in the 1970’s.  Land mines still pose a major problem for people who live in rural areas.  Some estimates suggest that as much as 1/3 of the population has been maimed or killed by a land mine in the last 30 years.  However, land mines have now been cleared in the major cities and on most major highways.  The life expectancy is now up to 56 years for the general population.  The infant morality rate is at 6.5%.


Primary education is compulsory for six years, between the ages of 6 and 12.  Children go to school in either the early session or the late session for six days a week.  The early session runs from 7:30am-11:30 am and the late session runs from 1:00pm-5:00pm.  Secondary education is comprised of two cycles; the first lasting four years, and the second lasting two years.  Prince Norodom Sihanouk greatly expanded Cambodia’s school system, which was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge.  The country still suffers from a high percentage of adult illiteracy. High schools and colleges suffer from chronic shortages of textbooks, laboratories, and equipment.  Only 35% of the adult population was able to read and write as of 1990.     


Information collected by Anita Gillispie from various websites and the CIA World Fact Book 2001.  Click on images to enlarge.




(c) 2004 CambodiaAdoptionConnection.com