Cambodia Fisherman on Tonle Sap

Cambodia

Located in the tropics, much of Cambodia’s central area is ancient, fertile alluvial plains that flood seasonally. The rural landscape is a mosaic of rice fields fringed by the national tree Sugar Palms (Borassus flabellifer) and small villages. In the West are the Cardamon Mountains, in the Southwest the Elephant Mountains and in the North the Dangrek Mountain Range. Two distinctive geographical features are the large, almost centrally located, Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Mekong River which traverses the country for approximately 500 km from north to south.

The Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and is connected to the Mekong River by the 100 km Tonle Sap River that – uniquely - reverses its flow seasonally. This extraordinary body of water is home to many Cambodians living in floating villages and is also host to the highest number of breeding large water birds in South East Asia. Fish caught from the Tonle Sap Lake provide 40-70% of the protein intake of Cambodia's population. This eco-system is under serious threat from factors including lack of sanitation, overfishing, deforestation and upstream dams.

UNESCO registered the Tonle Sap on the list of Biosphere Reserve in 1997 in view of its exceptional ecological, economic, social and cultural value.

The society and economy of Cambodia has been dramatically affected by 30 years of political upheaval, dislocation and war from 1970. Often described as one of the least developed countries in the world it has seen rapid (and some would say ad hoc and inequitable) progress in the last decade. International aid has been equal to roughly half of the country's national budget for more than a decade. 60 – 70% of the rural population lives on subsistence farming. With a population of around 14.5 million, of whom 50% are less than 21 years old, the major challenges are lack of education and productive skills, particularly in the countryside where 80% of the population resides.

The main exports are clothing, timber, rubber, rice, fish, and tobacco. The garment industry currently employs more than 280,000 people - about 5% of the work force - and contributes more than 70% of Cambodia's exports. Tourism is now, along with the garment industry, the main foreign exchange earner for Cambodia.

Oil was discovered off the coast of Cambodia in 2005 and is likely to become a major revenue stream in the future and mining exploration for bauxite, gold, iron and gems is taking place in many regions. Cambodia is alleged to have one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world.  In the mid-1960s it was estimated to have 75% rainforest coverage; today around 30% remains.

Culture: The Khmer of Cambodia rightfully claim a rich and varied culture and history dating back many centuries. This is most famously expressed through the hundreds of stone and brick religious temples built during the Angkor Empire (9th – 13th Centuries) found throughout the region including in neighboring countries. The most noted of these is the majestic Angkor Wat, one of the largest religious buildings in the world.

Cambodian culture has been heavily influenced by India and China. Over two millennia Khmer have developed a unique religious belief from the syncreticism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Today over 90% of the population identify as Theravada Buddhists.