Situated on the Indochinese peninsula, Cambodia is about the size of  the state of Missouri. The geography of Cambodia is dominated by the  Mekong river (great river) and the Tonlé Sap (fresh water lake), an important source of fish. Much of Cambodia (75%) sits near sea level; consequently the Tonlé Sap River reverses its water flow in the wet season, carrying water from the Mekong back into the Tonlé Sap Lake and surrounding flood plain.  This alluvial plain measures about 1,000 sq. miles during the dry season and expands to about 9,500 sq. miles during the rainy season—it is ringed by two small mountain ranges. This densely populated plain, which is devoted to wet rice cultivation, is the heartland of Cambodia. Cambodia experiences tropical monsoons from May to October—it’s temperatures range from 50° to a highly humid 100 °F.


Cambodia has had a pretty difficult history for the last half-millennium or so. Ever since the fall of  Angkor in 1431, the once mighty Khmer (pronounced Km-eye) Empire has been plundered by all its neighbors, plus colonial France as well. After a false dawn of independence in 1953, Cambodia promptly plunged back into the horrors of civil war in 1970 to suffer the Khmer Rouge’s incredibly brutal Reign of Terror —over 1 million people were massacred on the “killing fields” of Cambodia or worked to death through forced labor. Only after UN-sponsored elections in 1993 did the country begin to recover. Much of the population still subsists on less than US$1 a day, 80% of the population still gets by on subsistence farming, the provision of even basic services remains inadequate, and political intrigue remains as complex as ever; but the security situation has improved immeasurably, and increasing numbers of visitors are rediscovering Cambodia’s temples and beaches.


Between 900 and 1200 AD, the Khmer Kingdom of Angkor produced some of the world’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces on the northern shore of the Tonle Sap, near the present town of Siem Reap. Some 72 major temples or other buildings dot the area. During the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned after Siamese attacks. The exception was Angkor Wat, which remained a shrine for Buddhist pilgrims. The great city and temples remained largely cloaked by the forest until the late 19th century when French archaeologists began a long restoration process. France established the Angkor Conservancy in 1908 to direct restoration of the Angkor complex. For the next 64 years, the conservancy worked to clear away the forest, repair foundations, and install drains to protect the buildings from their most insidious enemy: water. After 1953, the conservancy became a joint project of the French and Cambodian governments.  Angkor Wat has since become an international tourist destination, helping to make tourism the second-largest foreign currency earner in Cambodia’s economy.


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