The cultural heritage of the Khmer dynasties is very important in South East Asian art and architecture and is reflected in many facets of contemporary Cambodia. Many buildings, such as the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, are decorated in the Khmer architectural style and use such motifs as the Garuda, a mythical symbolic bird in Hinduism. Handicraft items, often in woven gold or silver lamé, also reflect ancient motifs. The classical Cambodian dance mimes in the most traditional style the legendary lives of ancient religious deities.
The ruins of the ancient Khmer empire, found in north-western Cambodia, constitute one of the richest and most remarkable archaeological sites in the world. Particularly noteworthy are the ruins of the Khmer capital of Angkor Thom, built about 850, and to the south, the temple of Angkor Wat (or Angor Vat), built between 1112 and 1152.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Cambodian economy. Before the onset of warfare and civil disorder during the 1970s and 1980s, Cambodia was largely self-sufficient in food products, and in spite of low yields per unit area and the planting of only one crop a year, the country exported sizeable amounts of rice. By 1974 rice had to be imported. Production of rubber, the other major crop, also fell. In 1975 the new Khmer Rouge government nationalized all means of production, and agriculture was collectivized. Crop production rose slightly until warfare in 1978 and 1979 disrupted the harvesting and planting of rice. Widespread famine followed. Disruption was also severe in the country’s small manufacturing sector, and many transport and communication links were destroyed. By the mid-1980s both agriculture and manufacturing had begun to recover from the effects of years of warfare. Nevertheless, Cambodia remained one of the world’s poorest countries; in 2004, the gross national product was US$4,808 million (World Bank figure) and the per capita GNP was about US$490, among the lowest in the world.
Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing
Rice is the most important crop of Cambodian agriculture. Some 80 percent of the cultivated land is planted with rice; production in 2006 was estimated at 6.26 million tonnes. Rubber, the other leading crop, is primarily grown on the eastern plateaux. Other important agricultural products include maize, cassava, soya beans, sesame, palm sugar, and pepper. Mangoes, bananas, and pineapples are grown for local consumption.
Of the extensive, potentially valuable forests, only a small proportion has been exploited, mainly because of Cambodia’s poor transport facilities. Roundwood removals were about 9 million cum (330 million cu ft) in 2006.
Fishing is an important economic activity; most of the annual fish catch (426,000 tonnes in 2005) is consumed locally. Lake Sap provides one of the largest freshwater fishery resources in South East Asia. Carp, perch, and smell are the principal varieties of fish caught.
Zircons, sapphires, and rubies are mined in limited amounts in the west, and salt is found in the central provinces. Other mineral resources include bauxite and phosphates.
Cambodia’s limited industry was severely damaged during the 1970s and has been only partially rebuilt since that time. Industrial products in the early 1990s included 50,000 tonnes of cement and 35,000 tonnes of processed rubber annually.
Most of Cambodia’s electricity generating and distribution capacity was lost during the Vietnam War and the Pol Pot years. Electricity generation was estimated at 123.7 million kWh in 2003.
Currency and Banking
The monetary unit of Cambodia is the riel of 100 sen (4,039 riels equalled US$1; early 2008). The exchange rate for the riel has been unstable. The average exchange rate in 1991 was 700 riels per US$1; by late December 1993, more than 3,000 riels equalled US$1. The National Bank of Cambodia (1980) is the sole bank of issue. Money, which had been officially abolished in 1978, was reintroduced in 1980.
Commerce and Trade
In peacetime, the principal Cambodian exports are rice and rice products, rubber, maize, and wood products. The total annual value of exports dropped from about US$60 million in the early 1970s to about US$12 million in the mid-1980s. By 1995, however, exports had risen to about US$855 million, although this dropped to US$2,798 million in 2004. The chief imports were metals, machinery, textiles, mineral products, and foodstuffs; their total value was about US$2,063 million in 2004.
Around 68 percent of the Cambodian labour force is engaged in agriculture. The Cambodian Federation of Trade Unions is the leading labour organization.
In 1995 Cambodia had about 12,300 km (7,640 mi) of roads of all types; some one-third of these were paved. A modern highway links Phnom Penh with the port of Kompong Som. In 1996 Cambodia had around 36,920 cars and 10,700 larger vehicles, around 1 vehicle for every 206 people. A railway between the capital and Battambang also extends north-east to the Thai frontier. Another rail line connects Phnom Penh and Kompong Som. The entire railway system extended about 610 km (380 mi) in 1995. In October 2000 the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) approved plans for the Trans-Asia Railway Project, a 5,513 km (3,420 mi) rail link, costing US$2.5 billion. The link, which is scheduled for completion in 2006, will connect Cambodia and six other ASEAN countries (Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) with Kunming, in Yunnan Province, China. Inland waterways, including navigable sections of the main rivers, total about 1,400 km (870 mi) in the rainy season and less than 650 km (400 mi) at other times. Pochentong International Airport lies near Phnom Penh.
All major Cambodian communications systems are controlled by the government. Radio services link the large cities; telephone, telegraph, and postal services were resumed in 1979. Cambodia had only around 5,900 main telephone lines in use in 1993. In 1995 the country had some 1.5 million radios and 70,000 television sets.
In April 1975 Cambodia came under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, as Democratic Kampuchea, though its 600-year-old monarchy had been in abeyance since the toppling of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1972 by General Lon Nol. In 1979 a rebel organization, the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (KNUFNS), deposed the Khmer Rouge government with the backing of Vietnamese troops and established the People’s Republic of Kampuchea; the country’s official name was changed to the State of Cambodia in 1989.
The KNUFNS established a 14-member People’s Revolutionary Council to govern the country. A draft constitution was promulgated in March 1981, and in May elections were held for the 117 seats of the National Assembly. Executive power was vested in the chair of the Council of State and the chair of the Council of Ministers (the premier). Remnants of the Khmer Rouge and other groups organized the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea in opposition to the Vietnamese-backed regime and were able to retain Cambodia’s seat at the UN. A continued armed conflict between these factions made it virtually impossible to govern the country effectively.
In October 1991 an agreement was signed providing for the UN and a 12-member Supreme National Council to share power until the election of a constituent assembly. Prince Norodom Sihanouk was elected Council Chairman. The popular election, in May 1993, resulted in a new coalition government. In September 1993 the government ratified a new constitution that provided for a pluralistic democratic government with a limited monarchy.