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The Just Student Jobs Country guide for gap year travel in South East Asia - Cambodia

Where to Go - South East Asia

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Population : 14.2m

Literacy rate : 73%

Life expectancy at birth : 61.69 yrs

Infant mortality rate : 56.59 deaths /1,000 live births

Population growth rate : 1.75%

GDP growth rate : 9.6%

GDP per capita : £909

Unemployment : 2.5%

Inflation : 5.9%

Climate : tropical; rainy, monsoon season (May to November); dry season (December to April); little seasonal variation in temperature.

Time : GMT + 7

Electricity : 220 volts AC, 50Hz. Power cuts are frequent. Outside Phnom Penh, electrical power is available only in the evenings from around 1830-2130.

Capital city : Phnom Penh

Currency : Riel (Riel/£: 8000 as of 03/06/08)

Language : Khmer (95%), English speaking widespread especially by the younger generation, limited French.

Websites :

The Cambodian information centre is at

The official website for tourism is at

If you die before you have soaked in the wonders of Angkor Wat you have probably made a mistake. Glowing immense and resplendent in the sunlight, this enchanted Buddhist temple complex was built by the Khmer Civilisation between 802 and 1220 AD and was designed to honour the Hindu supreme god Vishnu as well as provide a symbolic representation of Hindu cosmology. Interestingly, the temple structures appear to perfectly mirror the stars present in the Draco constellation at the time of spring equinox in 10,500 BC and there is much debate in archaeological circles surrounding the meaning of the structure's cosmic alignment. Unlike any other building in the world it is hard to describe it's awesome majesty. On arrival by tuk tuk from nearby town Siem Reap any visitor will be overwhelmed by the sight of the iconic lotus bud temples depicting tales of Hindu battles and mythology. Set in the middle of the Cambodian jungle Angkor Wat literally pulses with tropical energy, with several of the temples now clamped by the roots of silk cotton trees as well as the chirping of crickets and frogs providing a perfect backdrop to the experience.

Swallowed by the jungle Angkor Wat was lost for many centuries. Local Buddhist monks rediscovered the ancient sites in the 19th century and the French colonial powers began to excavate and repair Angkor Wat in the early 1900s. The painstaking reconstruction of the temples involved numbering and cataloging each stone block before setting it back to its original position. Nowadays repairs and maintenance are still performed by internationally sponsored foreign archaeological groups although the temples are a great source of national pride to Cambodians who visit to be blessed by the resident saffron clad monks. Indeed, in 2003 riots erupted in the capital Phnom Penh when a rumour circulated that it had been claimed the temples belonged to neighbouring Thailand!

Ta Prohm Temple built between the 12th and 13th century in the Bayon style appears to have been consumed by the jungle. Here the reptilian like roots of a silk cotton tree grip the roof of the 2nd enclosure.

Cambodia is in a period of recovery from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Based on an 11th Century Maoist agricultural model their blood thirsty reign took place between 1975 to 1979 during which time the country's economic infrastructure was decimated and an estimated 25-30% of the population died of starvation or at the hands of the increasingly paranoid Pol Pot. The effects of the US army's secret bombing raids of Viet Cong over the Cambodian border have been much debated and whether the fleeing of 2 million agricultural people to Phhom Penh did assist the Khmer Rouge's seizure of power is far from clear but it certainly helped increase support for the communist onslaught. Under the Khmer Rouge the country's socio-economic and political system resembled George Orwell's 1984. All institutions were banned in favour of Angka (the Organisation), including shops, banks, hospitals, schools, family life and religion. The cities were emptied as people were taken to work in the fields - 12 to 14 hours a day. Children, men and women were regularly murdered for not working sufficiently hard, showing sympathy to those being killed or beaten. Children were used to punish and maintain the environment of fear as they were brainwashed into performing great cruelty on their elders. "History" was banned and the day of the Khmer Rouge's accession to power became 'Year Zero'. Food was scarce and the majority faced great hardship without even the basic essentials for survival. After years of guerrilla fighting with the Khmer Rouge on the Eastern Thai border with Cambodia the Thai army invaded in 1979 and discovered millions of starving victims of the Khmer Rouge regime.

At the height of the regime an interrogation centre in a sub district of Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, saw the deaths of an estimated 20,000 men, women and children (including some western journalists). To date many moving photographs of the victims and their identification numbers can be seen at a gallery inside the converted school - whose open spaces were shrouded by barbed wire to prevent suicides jumping from the upper levels. Those who were discovered as having former links to pre-revolutionary Cambodia, even French speakers, were tortured and killed by the S-21 secret police and there is still a tree standing stained in blood and gashed with axe wounds where the victims were slaughtered.

The horrific impact of the Khmer Rouge years is still very visible in Cambodia and the country is in a process of healing. Prosecution of the regime's leaders has been long coming and unfortunately Pol Pot died without trial in 1998 and there is the constant danger other key figures will die before trial.

More than 10 million land mines were left in the ground after the end of the skirmishes with the Thai army - almost one for every person in Cambodia and although many have been removed there is a long way to go. Losing a limb in a country where subsistence farming is the dominant way to stay alive is disastrous and maimed victims are often reduced to begging. Organisations such as the Siem Reap land mine museum, a family of orphans who teach tourists about the dangers of land mine ordnance led by a remarkable ex Khmer Rouge soldier, Aki Ra, (visit are a major step forwards. Economically Cambodia is very poor with very little infrastructure in rural areas. Environmentally the challenges are significant. Illegal logging in the forests is prevalent and strip-mining for gems is caused sedimentary buildup in waterways. The Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers sustain many Cambodians and fish constitutes over 60% of protein intake so any danger to the rivers and breeding grounds of the mangrove swamps has a profound effect on subsistence fishing villages.

With the average age of the population only 21.7 years old the lost generation of the Khmer Rouge years resulted in a dearth of teachers and other skilled people capable of regenerating the country. Tourism is growing and provides a significant injection of wealth with the garment industry which constitutes 70% of export income. However, opening up the the rest of the world has also led to an industry in human trafficking for forced labour and sex as well. More positively, in recent years gas and oil have been detected in Cambodian waters and it is hoped , when production begins in 2011, that this may profoundly improve the economy. Significant investment in the country's dilapidated infrastructure is required and the World Bank and the IMF are active within Cambodia.

Life in Cambodia is not easy yet spending time here will be very fulfilling and the country has a magical feel. Despite the sad history the population is optimistic and friendly. The bustling capital Phnom Penh throbs with families bartering small food stuffs (try the big barbeque prawns and 1000 year old vinegared eggs) and each night the banks of the Tonle Sap is picnic ground to the locals. The FFC's (Foreign Correspondents Clubs used by journalists pre Khmer Rouge) in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are great for a beer and Khmer cuisine is hot and tasty. Architecturally the country offers a historical colonial era opulence from French occupation which contrasts strongly with the water buffaloes and paddy fields of the rural economy. The terrain ranges from lush jungle, mountains in the Southwest and North and flat plains which flood during the monsoonal swelling of the Tonle Sap river. If you need a break from the hustle and bustle a visit to the south coast town of Sihanoukville offers pristine white sands lapped by the turquoise waters of the Bay of Thailand.

Entry requirements

Don’t try working on a tourist visa – the punishment may be unpleasant.


Yellow Fever, Polio, Hepatitis A, Malaria and Typhoid.

Tax and Insurance

No information on income tax. Get health insurance with a repatriation clause.

Gap Year Programmes

Click here to find gap year programmes and placements in Cambodia

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