About Cambodia

Practical Information

Language: Khmer is Cambodia’s official language. English is understood in places, particularly in tourist destinations and among the younger generation, and older Cambodians may understand some French. However, be aware that when you are not with your guide you will more than likely meet people who will not speak any English

Visas: one month single entry visas are required for British and US nationals, which can be obtained upon arrival in Cambodia. Citizens of other countries should obtain advice from their local embassy. Visas at the airport cost US$30 per person in cash and require one passport photo.

Health: there are no compulsory vaccinations for Cambodia, except yellow fever if arriving from an at-risk country. Although not compulsory, boosters and vaccinations such as Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid, Cholera, Tetanus, Rabies, Japanese encephalitis and Diptheria are recommended. Malaria is present throughout the year in all forested, rural areas including coastal areas except Phnom Penh and close to Tonle Sap. The risk in Angkor Wat is negligible. We advise you to visit your doctor or a travel clinic at least a month before you travel to get further advice.

When to go: the temperature in Cambodia is warm to hot year-round. November to February is warm and dry, March to May is very hot and dry, June to August is very hot and rainy and September and October are warm and rainy. The rains during the rainy season are usually heavy and brief during the late afternoons. While it's easy to think the best time to travel is during the dry season, the rainy season has it's advantages. The rice paddies are full of water and green with young rice, the countryside is alive with growing season activity, boat travel on the rivers and lakes is easier with higher water levels, jungle vegetation is green and lush and the stone Angkor temples are at their most photogenic. Additionally, tourist sights are less crowded and prices are lower.

Getting there: flight times from the UK are around 13hrs to Phnom Penh (via Bangkok). Most of the major Airlines travelling to South East Asia will offer connections to Phnom Penh.

Time zone: UTC+7

The Khmer Rouge

The area that is present-day Cambodia came under Khmer rule about 600, when the region was at the center of a vast empire that stretched over most of Southeast Asia. Under the Khmers, who were Hindus, a magnificent temple complex was constructed at Angkor. Buddhism was introduced in the 12th century during the rule of Jayavaram VII. However, the kingdom, then known as Kambuja, fell into decline after Jayavaram's reign and was nearly annihilated by Thai and Vietnamese invaders. Kambuja's power steadily diminished until 1863, when France colonized the region, joining Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam into a single protectorate known as French Indochina.

After World War II, Cambodians sought independence, but France was reluctant to part with its colony. Cambodia was granted independence within the French Union in 1949. But the French-Indochinese War provided an opportunity for the countries leader at the time, Sihanouk, to gain full military control of the country. In 1963, he sought a guarantee of Cambodia's neutrality from all parties in the Vietnam War.

However, North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops had begun using eastern Cambodia as a safe haven from which to launch attacks into South Vietnam, making it increasingly difficult to stay out of the war. An indigenous Communist guerrilla movement known as the Khmer Rouge also began to put pressure on the government in Phnom Penh. On March 18, 1970, while Sihanouk was abroad, anti-Vietnamese riots broke out and Sihanouk was overthrown by Gen. Lon Nol.

Emergence of the Khmer Rouge

Combat climaxed in April 1975 when the Lon Nol regime was overthrown by Pol Pot, leader of the Khmer Rouge forces. The four years of nightmarish Khmer Rouge rule led to the state-sponsored extermination of citizens by its own government. Between 1 million and 2 million people were massacred on the “killing fields” of Cambodia or worked to death through forced labour. Pol Pot's radical vision of transforming the country into a Marxist agrarian society led to the virtual extermination of the country's professional and technical classes.

Pol Pot was ousted by Vietnamese forces on Jan. 8, 1979, and a new pro-Hanoi government led by Heng Samrin was installed. Pol Pot and 35,000 Khmer Rouge fighters fled into the hills of western Cambodia, where they were joined by forces loyal to the ousted Sihanouk in a guerrilla movement aimed at overthrowing the Heng Samrin government. The Vietnamese plan originally called for a withdrawal by early 1990 and a negotiated political settlement. The talks became protracted, however, and a UN agreement was not signed until 1992, when Sihanouk was appointed leader of an interim Supreme National Council convened to run the country until elections could be held in 1993.

Free elections in May 1993 saw the defeat of Heng Samrin's successor, Hun Sen, who refused to accept the outcome of the vote. In early July, Hun Sen took advantage of the country's political turmoil to depose Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the country's only popularly elected leader. Hun Sen later launched a brutal purge, executing more than 40 political opponents. Shortly after the July coup, the Khmer Rouge organized a show trial of their notorious leader, Pol Pot, who had not been seen by the West in more than two decades. He was sentenced to house arrest for his crimes against humanity. He died on April 15, 1998.

In March 2003, the UN and Cambodia announced that after five years they had finally agreed on a special tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge officials on charges of genocide. Among those who were expected to stand trial were Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, and Ta Mok, alias the Butcher, who died in 2006 before his trial took place. In April 2005, the UN agreed to a funding arrangement for the tribunal.

Khmer Rouge Officials Face Trial

Prosecutors trying senior Khmer Rouge officials made their first indictment in July 2007, charging Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, who ran the notorious Tuol Sleng prison where some 14,000 people were tortured and killed, with crimes against humanity. In September 2007, Nuon Chea, who was second-in-command to Pol Pot, was arrested and charged with war crimes. The first trial began in February 2009 in Phnom Penh, with Kaing Guek Eav as the defendant. He was convicted him of war crimes and crimes against humanity in July 2010 and sentenced 35 years in prison. He will only spend 19 years in prison, having already served 16 years.

In September 2010, the UN-backed tribunal indicted four senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge on charges of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and murder. The defendants are Ieng Sary, former foreign minister; Ieng Thirith, former social welfare minister and the wife of Ieng Sary; Khieu Samphan, former head of state; and Nuon Chea, who was arrested in 2007. While the conviction of Duch was considered a milestone for the tribunal, the indictment of these figures is considered more significant considering the rank of the defendants. The trial began in November 2011. Ieng Sary died in March 2013 during his trial. The case against his wife, Ieng Thirith, had previously been suspended.

Because of the glacial pace of the proceedings, the case against the remaining defendants, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, was divided into two trials. One covered the mass purge of Phnom Penh and other cities in an attempt to create an agrarian society; the other focuses on genocide. In August 2014, Khieu Samphan, 83, and Nuon Chea, 88, were found guilty of crimes against humanity and received a life sentence. The conviction and sentence seemed to be a disappointment for family members of victims given the age of the defendants and the uncertainty that the trial of genocide would be seen to completion.