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Gap year in Cambodia



Bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam and with a coast on the Gulf of Thailand, Cambodia sits at the very heart of South East Asia. In terms of geography, the country is dominated by the Mekong River. However, those on a gap year in Cambodia will more likely be struck by the poverty that exists there.


Since the fall of the mighty Khmer Empire in 1431 Cambodia has been plundered by all of its neighbours, colonised by the French, bombed by the Americans and suffered at the hands of a brutal civil war. According to UNDP figures Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in South East Asia with over 75% of the population living on less than US $2 per day.


Despite these problems security, stability and tourism are all steadily improving. Increasing numbers of visitors are rediscovering the country’s magnificent temples and beaches, and gap year travel in Cambodia is definitely on the rise. Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor Wat now boasts luxury hotels, vibrant nightlife and a good network of flight connections, making it much more accessible to travellers.



While those who gap travel Cambodia or volunteer in Cambodia may be more familiar with the country’s turbulent 20th century history, Cambodians enjoy a long and often triumphant history. The magnificent temples at Angkor Wat stand as testament to the wealth and power of the mighty Khmer Empire, which dominated South East Asia in the 12th and 13th centuries. At this time the Empire stretched from modern day Thailand to Malaysia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam.


The fall of this empire led to the ‘dark ages’ of Cambodia’s history when it engaged in a series of power struggles with neighbouring Ayutthaya and Vietnam. Gap year travellers who have studied History will be more familiar with Cambodia’s modern era, in which the French ruled large parts of South East Asia, known then as Indochina.


For much of this colonial period the French paid little attention to the plight of Cambodia and following Japanese occupation during WWII, it gained independence in 1953. Prince Sihanouk became a key figure thereafter and his rule was characterised by a Buddhist revival and an emphasis on education.


However, this turned out to be a mixed blessing, as Sihanouk created an increasingly disenchanted educated elite who would later be attracted to the Indochinese Community Party and later the Khmer Rouge. When Sihanouk was overthrown during the Second Indochina War he put his support behind the Communist Khmer Rouge, who fought against the US-backed government.


In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, captured Phnom Penh and ordered the evacuation of all cities and towns. Millions were sent on forced marches to rural work projects while indiscriminate mass killings became commonplace. An estimated 1-3 million people died from execution or enforced hardships, with ethnic minority groups such as Cham Muslims being persecuted particularly harshly. Those on a gap year in Cambodia can visit the so-called ‘Killing Fields’ where these atrocities took place.


The Khmer Rouge were finally overthrown in 1978 following an invasion by the Vietnamese, though by this point Cambodia had virtually no infrastructure left. Institutions of higher education, money and commerce had all been destroyed meaning the country had to be built from scratch. UN-sponsored elections in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy, but poverty is still endemic. In these circumstances gap year volunteers can have a real impact.

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