Why Cambodia?

Cambodia is a tropical land of densely forested hills, small scattered villages of thatched-roof houses, and emerald-green rice paddies (walled fields that can be filled with water for growing rice). It is bordered by Thailand on the west and northwest, Laos on the north and northeast, and Vietnam on the east and southeast. On the southwest is Cambodia's only outlet to the sea, a short stretch of coastline on the Gulf of Thailand.


The country is about 280 miles (450 kilometers) from north to south at its greatest extent, and about 360 miles (580 kilometers) from east to west. Its total area, including a number of small offshore islands, is 69.898 square miles (181,035 square kilometers), making it about the size of the state of Washington in the United States.


The center of the country is the flattest, most fertile, and most heavily populated and cultivated region. It consists of a moist lowland plain that lies between Cambodia's two major bodies of water: the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Mekong River.


The Tonle Sap is a long, narrow lake in the west central part of the country. During the dry season (November to April), it covers an area of 1.200 square miles (3.120 square kilometers) and is nowhere deeper than 7 feet (2 meters). But during the rainy season (May to October), when it is fed by the waters of many rivers and streams. the Tonle Sap swells to about three times its normal area and reaches a depth of 35 feet (10.5 meters). This annual shallow flooding covers the surrounding countryside with a layer of moist, nutrient-rich mud, ideal for growing rice.


In addition to being the center of Cambodia's rice-growing provinces, the Tonle Sap also provides the country's second main food item: fish. Its warm, shallow waters teem with carp, lake chub, eels, and other species. In fact, the Tonle Sap is one of the richest freshwater fish hatcheries in the world, yielding as much as 26 tons of fish for each square mile. Dried or salted fish is a staple of the Cambodian diet, along with rice. Because of its richness in these two foods, the central plain around the Tonle Sap has been populated since ancient times. Angkor, the old capital and religious center of the Khmer Empire, is located near the northern end of the Tonle Sap.


The Mekong River is one of the longest rivers in Asia. It flows out of the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet (now part of China) and then winds through Laos, along the Laotian-Thai border, and into Cambodia. Within Cambodia, the river runs for approximately 315 miles (494 kilometers) from the northern border with Laos to the southern border with Vietnam. It then crosses southern Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. Fed by the melting snows of the Himalayan peaks and by the torrential downpours of the tropical rainy season, the Mekong reaches its deepest and fastest flow during August and September.


he Mekong is connected to the Tonle Sap by a short channel-like river called the Tonle Sap. This channel joins the Mekong about 65 miles (104 kilometers) south of the lake, where the river sweeps from westward to southward in a huge curve. Just below the junction with the Tonle Sap, a smaller river called the Bassac branches off from the Mekong and flows southward into Vietnam. The curve of the Mekong, together with the Tonle Sap flowing in and the Bassac flowing out, forms a watery X in south-central Cambodia, on the southern edge of the fertile, crowded central lowland. This crossing of rivers is the center of Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital since the 15th century and its only sizable city.

Plant and Animal Life

Cambodia is shaped something like a bowl. The flat center of the bowl is the central lowland, and its rising sides are formed by the narrow ring of savannah around the lowland and the steeper highlands toward the country's borders. Each of these regions has its own characteristic vegetation.


Since the beginning of history, the central lowland has been given over to cropland. Rice is grown in flooded paddy fields, and corn, tobacco, and other crops are grown in dry fields. Marshy areas around the Tonle Sap and other waterways are often covered with reeds and lotuses (blossoming water plants). The nearby savannahs are covered with grass, which can reach heights of 5 feet (1.5 meters) in the better-watered districts. The lowland and the savannahs have many varieties of fruits and flowers, both wild and cultivated.


The eastern and northern forests have a thick undergrowth of bamboo, vines, rattan (a flexible fiber plant from whose stalk furniture can be woven), and palm trees. From this tangled mass of vegetation rise the hardwood giants of the forest mahogany, teak, greenheart, and other woods prized by furniture makers and boat builders. Soaring as much as 100 feet (30 meters) above the forest floor, these hardwoods would be the basis of a profitable timber industry if they were not so difficult to reach and harvest. Some scattered logging and forestry takes place west of Kratie. The harvested timber is floated down the Mekong in giant rafts, with the woodsmen and their families living in huts on top of their harvest.


Pine forests cover the highest parts of the Cardamom and Elephant ranges. Lower down, the mountains are covered with thick tropical rain forests like those of the eastern hills. On the seaward slopes, where the monsoons dump their greatest loads of rain, the forest reaches heights of more than 150 feet (45 meters). The coastal region is largely blanketed in evergreen forests and impenetrable jungles of mangrove trees (low, twisted trees that crowd along the tide line).


Animals native to Cambodia include wild oxen, tigers (now an endangered species), black panthers, spotted leopards (also endangered), bears, numerous species of monkey, and wild boar. Dogs are more common than in neighboring Vietnam, where they are a favorite dish. Centuries ago, the Cambodians domesticated the water buffalo, which is used throughout the country to pull plows and carts.


Elephants are found in the outer districts. Unlike the fierce African elephant, the Asian elephant can be domesticated and trained. Years ago, elephants were used throughout Southeast Asia in heavy labor, such as road making and pulling big loads. Today, they have been largely replaced by tractors, but some elephants and their handlers still find work hauling logs from the eastern forests down to the river at Kratie.


The country has many species of birds, including peacock (whose gorgeous, multicolored tail feathers were a profitable export during the years when they were used in French hats), pheasant, and wild duck. The Tonle Sap area is rich in fish-loving water birds such as egrets, pelicans, and cormorants. Cambodia also has plenty of snakes. Three of the world's most deadly poisonous species _ the cobra, the king cobra, and the banded krait _ are found there. Fortunately for the Cambodians, most of whom go barefoot all the time, all three species are rather rare.



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