What is the terrain and geography like in Cambodia?
Cambodia’s topography consists primarily of flat, low-lying plains that are drained by the Tonle Sap (Lake) and the Mekong and Bassac Rivers. The Mekong River flows more than 500 kilometers through Cambodia; in places it is up to 5 kilometers wide. The rich sediment deposited during the rainy season when the Mekong River swells and floods adds to the fertile growing conditions that exist throughout the Upper Mekong Delta. The Tonle Sap Lake, located in western central Cambodia, connects with the Mekong River at Phnom Penh via a 100-kilometer long natural channel. During the dry season when the water level of the Mekong is low, water flows southeast out of the Tonle Sap Lake into the Mekong River. However, during the rainy season when the level of the Mekong rises, an extraordinary phenomenon takes place. The swollen and swift-moving Mekong River causes the flow of water in the channel linking the Tonle Sap Lake with the Mekong to reverse, forcing water to drain back into the Tonle Sap and, over time, causing the Lake to more than double in size. As a result of this unique occurrence, the Tonle Sap is one of the richest sources of freshwater fish in the world.
The central lowlands are characterized by seemingly endless, flat rice paddies, fields of reeds and tall grass, and fields of cultivated crops such as corn, tobacco, sesame, and tapioca. Sprinkled throughout are tall sugar palm trees and occasional wooded areas. Rice is grown in 90% of the cultivated land. However, only two-thirds of the land cultivated before 1970 is cultivated today, largely as a result of the danger of land mines and a lack of equipment and irrigation.
Historically, heavy forest dominated the landscape in areas away from the Lake and rivers. Nearly a decade of extensive logging, both legal and illegal, has greatly diminished the area covered by mature forests. Cambodia’s significant mountainous areas lie in the southwest (the Cardamom Mountains), the south (the Elephant Mountains), and the north (the Dangrek Mountains). Most of the country lies at an elevation of less than 100 meters above sea level. The highest elevation, Phnom Aoral (100 km northwest of Phnom Penh) is 1,813 meters. The mountains have retained more of its forests than the lowlands, with virgin rain forests in the southwest, evergreen and mangrove forests along the coastal strip and towering broadleaf evergreen forests in the north. Much of the north and northeast is covered by a thick jungle of vines, bamboo, palm trees, and assorted other ground plants. The eastern provinces support large (although old) rubber plantations.
Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia since the mid-15th century and the country’s largest city, has a population estimated at 1 million. The city lies at the confluence of the Mekong River, the Bassac River, and the channel flowing from the Tonle Sap Lake. The city consists of four urban districts and three suburban districts. Phnom Penh is a sprawling city, with a mix of wide, tree-lined boulevards and narrow dirt roads, large French-colonial houses, apartment buildings, and small thatched-roof wooden dwellings. Many recent residents have relocated to the capital from rural provinces, hoping for a better life. The infrastructure of Phnom Penh city has improved dramatically in the last few years, but many basic services are still lacking. For example, Phnom Penh recently put in modern traffic and pedestrian lights on the newly paved main thoroughfares while secondary city roads remain unpaved and in poor condition with large potholes and piles of garbage challenging the motorist.
Upon leaving Phnom Penh, the scenery immediately becomes very rural and no other city rivals Phnom Penh in size and infrastructure. Cambodia’s second largest city, Battambang (population approximately 200,000), is located about 300 kilometers from the capital to the northwest but travel time generally approaches 6 hours. About 4 hours drive to the southwest of Phnom Penh is the port of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand. In the far northeast and several days of difficult driving away lies Ratanakiri province, home to Cambodia’s ethnic minorities.