LAND, GEOGRAPHY, WEATHER AND CLIMATE OF CAMBODIA

GEOGRAPHY IN CAMBODIA

Located in Southeast Asia and bordered by Laos to north, Thailand to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, and the Gulf of Thailand to southwest, Cambodia covers 70,238 square miles (181,035 square kilometers), and is roughly the same size as Mississippi and is about half the size of Germany. The Gulf of Thailand connects to the Indian Ocean.

Most of Cambodia is occupied by a lowland plain that slopes slightly to the southwest. The Mekong River Basin and Tonle Sap lake in the south central part of the country lie in this plain. There are mountains in the southwest (the Cardamom Mountains), the south (the Elephant Range), the northwest (the Dangrek range) and a high plateau in the northeast. An escarpment separates northeast Thailand from Cambodia.

The mountains in Cambodia are not very high. The highest peak in the Cardamom Mountains is 1,772 meters (5,814 feet). The highest peak in the Elephant Range is 915 meters (3,002 feet). The highest peak in the Dangreks is only 488 meters (1,600 feet).

About 18 percent of the country is good for agriculture (compared to 21 percent in the U.S.) and most of this arable land is found in the fertile Mekong River basin and around Tonle Sap, where in some cases two or three crops of rice can be grown a year. About two thirds of Cambodia is covered by tropical forests and jungles, but these forests are disappearing as a result of deforestation. Large areas of Cambodia have savannah rather that rain forests as their natural vegetation. Open forest and savannah occupy about a quarter of the country. The remainder of the land is covered by course grass and marshes.

Cambodia lies completely within the tropics; its southernmost points are only slightly more than 10̊ above the equator. Roughly square in shape, the country is administratively composed of 20 provinces, three of which have relatively short maritime boundaries, 2 municipalities, 172 districts, and 1,547 communes. The country has a coastline of 435 kilometers and extensive mangrove stands, some of which are relatively undisturbed. Much of the country's area consists of rolling plains. Dominant features are the large, almost centrally located, Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Mekong River, which traverses the country from north to south. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The dominant features of the Cambodian landscape are the large, almost generally located, Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Bassac River Systems and the Mekong River, which crosses the country from North to South. Surrounding the Central Plains which covered three quarters of the country’s area are the more densely forested and sparsely populated highlands, comprising: the Elephant Mountains and Cardamom Mountain of the southwest and western regions; the Dangrek Mountains of the North adjoining of the Korat Plateau of Thailand; and Rattanakiri Plateau and Chhlong highlands on the east merging with the Central Highlands of Viet Nam.

BGN Name (Common Name): 1) Batdambang (Battambang); 2) Kampong Cham (Kompong Cham); 3) Kampong Chhnang (Kompong Chnang); 4) Kampong Saom (Kompong Som); 5) Kampong Spoe (Kompong Speu); 7) Kampong Thum (Kompong Thom); 8) Kaoh Kong (Koh Kong); 9) Kracheh (Kratie); 10) Mondol Kiri (Mondolkiri); 11) Otdar Meanchey (Oddar Meanchey); 12) Pouthisat (Pursat); 13) Rotanokiri (Ratanakiri); 14) Stoeng Treng (Stung Treng); 15) Takev (Takeo).

Topography of Cambodia

Brendan Borrell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “Cambodia and Thailand have been colliding in one way or another since the middle of the Cretaceous period, when geologic forces thrust Thailand’s Khorat Plateau above the surrounding plains. The exposed bands of sedimentary rock here and elsewhere became the chief building material for the ancient Khmer Empire. [Source: Brendan Borrell, Archaeology magazine, February 11, 2013 |~|]

Cambodia falls within several well-defined geographic regions. The largest part of the country--about 75 percent of the total-- consists of the Tonle Sap Basin and the Mekong Lowlands. To the southeast of this great basin is the Mekong Delta, which extends through Vietnam to the South China Sea. The basin and delta regions are rimmed with mountain ranges to the southwest (the Cardamom Mountains the Elephant Range) and to the north (Dangrek Mountains). Higher land to the northeast and to the east merges into the Central Highlands of southern Vietnam. *

The Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands region consists chiefly of plains with elevations generally of less than 100 meters. As the elevation increases, the terrain becomes more rolling and dissected. The Mekong Valley, which offers a communication route between Cambodia and Laos, separates the eastern end of the Dangrek Mountains and the northeastern highlands. To the southeast, the basin joins the Mekong Delta, which, extending into Vietnam, provides both water and land communications between the two countries. *

The Cardamom Mountains in the southwest, oriented generally in a northwest-southeast direction, rise to more than 1,500 meters. The highest mountain in Cambodia--Phnom Aural, at 1,771 meters--is in the eastern part of this range. The Elephant Range, an extension running toward the south and the southeast from the Cardamom Mountains, rises to elevations of between 500 and 1,000 meters. These two ranges are bordered on the west by a narrow coastal plain that contains Kampong Saom Bay, which faces the Gulf of Thailand. This area was largely isolated until the opening of the port of Kampong Saom (formerly called Sihanoukville) and the construction of a road and railroad connecting Kampong Saom, Kampot, Takev, and Phnom Penh in the 1960s. *

The Dangrek Mountains at the northern rim of the Tonle Sap Basin consist of a steep escarpment with an average elevation of about 500 meters, the highest points of which reach more than 700 meters. The escarpment faces southward and is the southern edge of the Korat Plateau in Thailand. The watershed along the escarpment marks the boundary between Thailand and Cambodia. The main road through a pass in the Dangrek Mountains at O Smach connects northwestern Cambodia with Thailand. Despite this road and those running through a few other passes, in general the escarpment impedes easy communication between the two countries. Between the western part of the Dangrek and the northern part of the Cardamom ranges, however, lies an extension of the Tonle Sap Basin that merges into lowlands in Thailand, which allows easy access from the border to Bangkok. *

Cambodian Rivers and Waterways

Major Rivers and Lakes: Mekong River runs north to south through the heart of Cambodia. The Tonle Sap is a huge lake and river in the west-central part of the country. Part of the Mekong River system, it varies greatly in size depending on whether it is the wet or dry season. Many smaller rivers and streams crisscross the lowlands.

Except for the smaller rivers in the southeast, most of the major rivers and river systems in Cambodia drain into the Tonle Sap or into the Mekong River. The Cardamom Mountains and Elephant Range form a separate drainage divide. To the east the rivers flow into the Tonle Sap, while on the west they flow into the Gulf of Thailand. Toward the southern end of the Elephant Mountains, however, because of the topography, some small rivers flow southward on the eastern side of the divide. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The country's lakes and rivers also affect the economy. They are an abundant source of fish, a mainstay of the Cambodian diet, and they make possible irrigated agriculture, on which the country depends for its livelihood. The principal waterway, the Mekong River, is an important trade route and avenue of communication. Since ancient times, the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), the Tonle Sab and the Mekong rivers, and their tributaries have been centers of economic and political power. Phnom Penh--the site of the royal residence, the administrative capital, and, in general, the locus of power, of culture, and of business--is situated at the junction of the Tonle Sab and the Mekong. *

The Mekong River flows in from the northeast and the Tonle Sab--a river emanating from the Tonle Sap--flows in from the northwest. They divide into two parallel channels, the Mekong River proper and the Basak River, and flow independently through the delta areas of Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. *

The flow of water into the Tonle Sab is seasonal. In September or in October, the flow of the Mekong River, fed by monsoon rains, increases to a point where its outlets through the delta cannot handle the enormous volume of water. At this point, the water pushes northward up the Tonle Sab and empties into the Tonle Sap, thereby increasing the size of the lake from about 2,590 square kilometers to about 24,605 square kilometers at the height of the flooding. After the Mekong's waters crest--when its downstream channels can handle the volume of water--the flow reverses, and water flows out of the engorged lake. *

As the level of the Tonle Sap retreats, it deposits a new layer of sediment. The annual flooding, combined with poor drainage immediately around the lake, transforms the surrounding area into marshlands unusable for agricultural purposes during the dry season. The sediment deposited into the lake during the Mekong's flood stage appears to be greater than the quantity carried away later by the Tonle Sab River. Gradual silting of the lake would seem to be occurring; during low-water level, it is only about 1.5 meters deep, while at flood stage it is between 10 and 15 meters deep. *

Mekong River in Cambodia

The Mekong River Cambodia’s largest river, dominates the hydrology of the country. The river originates in mainland China, flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand before entering Cambodia. At Phnom Penh, with alternative arms, the Bassak River from the south, and the Tonle Sab River linking with the " Great Lake " itself –Tonle Sap – form northwest. It continues further southeastward to its lower delta in Viet Nam and to the South China Sea.

The Mekong River in Cambodia flows southward from the Cambodia-Laos border to a point below Kracheh city, where it turns west for about 50 kilometers and then turns southwest to Phnom Penh. Extensive rapids run above Kracheh city. From Kampong Cham the gradient slopes very gently, and inundation of areas along the river occurs at flood stage--June through November--through breaks in the natural levees that have built up along its course. At Phnom Penh four major water courses meet at a point called the Chattomukh (Four Faces).

The section of Mekong River passing through Cambodia lies within the topical wet and dry zone. It has a pronounced dry season during the Northern Hemisphere winter, with about 80 percent of the annual rainfall occurring during the southwest monsoon in May-October. The Mekong River average annual flow at Kratié of 441 km3 is estimated as 93 percent of the total Mekong run-off discharge into the sea. The discharge at Kratié ranges from a minimum of 1,250m3/s to the maximum 66,700m3/s.

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Tonle Sap

The Tonle Sap (north of Phnom Penh in Cambodia) is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia at the end of the wet season but is only a large lake in the dry season when it shrinks to a fraction of its wet season size Stretching almost all the way from Phnom Penh to Angkor Wat, it provides water for half of Cambodia's crops, and yields fish that supplies Cambodia’s population with half its protein It is also one of the country’s most important transportation links.

Tonle Sap lake—which is connected to the Mekong by a short river also called Tonle Sap—alternately feeds, and feeds from, the Mekong River. During raining season from June to October, the lake is fills with water flowing from the northward-flowing Mekong River and becomes 14 meters deep in some places and expands it surface area to around 10,000 square kilometers. In dry season from November to May its shrinks in size to 3,000 square kilometers, with an average depth of only two meters as water flows out from the lake when the Mekong changes course and flows south.

In the Angkor era, Tonle Sap was to the Khmers what the Nile was to the Egyptians: a source of abundance that freed labor to produce grand monuments and create a high level of culture. In the dry season, the Khmers captured the lake’s retreating waters and used them to irrigate crops, and thus were able to grow two or three crops a year. In the wet season, they used the waterway’s advancing waters to carry quarried stones to build Angkor’s great temples. In the Khmer language "Sap" means “lake.”

Flooding Cycle of Tonle Sap

During the rainy season, from June to November the Mekong River reverses its flow into the lake causing it to expand to more than six or seven times its normal size of approximately 2,600 square kilometers. It becomes a vast inland sea. In June, with monsoon rains swelling the Mekong, excess water is pushed into the Tonle Sap that then drains back upstream into the lake, flooding the surrounding low plains. By monsoon's end, in November, the pressure is relieved and the Tonle Sap reverses course and returns to the direction of flow expected of it. However, the waters take several more months before they begin to recede, and it is not until February that Tonle Sap Lake begins its return to normal size.

Tonle Sap is like a big bowl that fills with water when the Tonle River flows into it and empties when the Tonle River changes direction, as it does every year, and flows out of it. The Tonle River is part of the Mekong River system, which swells with monsoon rains and snow melt from the Himalayas in the wet season, reaching a flood discharge of 40,000m3/s at Phnom Penh. By about mid-June, the flow of Mekong and the Bassak River fed by monsoon rains increases to a point where its outlets through the delta cannot handle the enormous volume of water, flooding extensive adjacent floodplains for 4-7 months. At this point, instead of overflowing its backs, its floodwaters reserve the flow of the Tonle Sap River (about 120 kilometers in length), which then has the maximum inflow rate of 1.8m/s and enters the Grate Lake, the largest natural lake in Southeast Asia, increasing the size of the lake from about 2,600 km2 to 10,00 km2 and exceptionally to 13,000 km2 and raising the water level by and average 7m at the height of the flooding. This specificity of the Tonle Sap makes it the only "river with return " in the world.

By September the of flow of the Mekong River is ten times what it is in the dry season, with much of the excess water flowing into the Tonle River, which in turn fills up Tonle Sap. After that the monsoon rains stop the amount of water flowing down the Mekong is greatly reduced. At a critical point —after the Mekong’s water crest (when its downstream channels can handle the volume of water)---the water pressure from Tonle Sap exceeds the pressure from the Mekong River and the Tonle River changes direction and begins flowing towards the Mekong River, draining much of the water out of Tonle Sap. By the end of dry season, Tonle Sap has lost most of its water and resembles a swamp crisscrossed by channels.

The Great Lake then acts as a natural flood retention basin. When the floods subside, water starts flowing out of the Great Lake, reaching a maximum outflow rate of 2.0m/s and, over the dry season, increase mainstream flows by about 16 percent, thus helping to reduce salinity intrusion in the lower Mekong Delta in Viet Nam. By the time the lake water level drops to its minimum surface size, a band 20-30 kilometers wide of inundate forest is left dry with deposits of a new layer of sediment. This forest, which is of great significance for fish, is now greatly reduced in size through salvation and deforestation. The area flood around Phnom Penh and down to the Vietnamese border is about 7,000 km2.

The depth of Tonle Sap peaks at around 45 feet in September, when area of the lake covers as much a 4,500 square miles (11,700 square kilometers). In the dry season the depth of the lake can drop to as low as three feet. Depending on the rainfall and snow melt amounts Tonle Sap can be as much as 15 times bigger in the wet season than it is in the dry season. In the wet season vast amounts of farmland and entire forests are submerged and stilted houses and floating villages lie in the middle of the lake. When the water retreats it leaves behind layers of fertile silt and maroons the stilted houses and floating villages on land.

Fishing and Agriculture and Tonle Sap

There are 300 species of fish living in Tonle Sap. These include black fish that breed and spawn when the lake is full and stick round when the lake empties, living in ponds, and sometimes in hollows of unique underwater plants. Migratory whitefish, mostly catfish, enter the lake during the wet season and migrate to the sea or the upper reaches of the Mekong River to spawn. They are caught in great numbers as they enter and leave the lake.

The months of flooding encourages the growth of huge fish stocks and other aquatic life, that become extremely easy to catch once the waters begin to reside. Fishing families string nets and bamboo traps across the lake's mouth and the numerous fish can almost be plucked from the water. The Tonle Sap Lake's level drops so fast that it catches out many of its inhabitants, and its not unlikely to see fisherman picking their catch from the trees.

When the Tonle Sap fills with water it also fills with quick-spawning and -growing fish. During the height of the dry season Tonle Sap becomes one of the easiest lakes in the world to catch fish in, as all the fish that grew and spawned in the wet season get squeezed into shallow pools from the drained lake. The fish are then trapped in bamboo weirs and nets that are strung across channels.

By some estimates fish caught from Tonle Sap provide Cambodians with 60 percent of their protein. Most of the fish caught are small five- to eight-millimeter-long moonlight gourmai which are capable of leaping as high as six feet into the air and are chopped and mashed into fermented fish paste. During the fishing season, Tonle Sap is filled with nets and small boats. One a good day a fisherman may can catch 500 pounds of small fish. Prawns are also drawn from the lake and water is used in crocodile farms.

The mud banks created by the flooding of the Tonle Sap are extremely fertile, and local rice farmers have developed a deepwater rice that is unique to this area. Water from the Tonle Sap also provides rice farmers with water for irrigation. The fresh layers of silt deposited after each flood serves as an ideal fertilizer. The abundance provided by Tonle Sap, some historians have theorized, is one reason why the Angkor civilization was so great and was able to sustain itself for so long.

Tonle Sap Environmental Concerns

The flooded forest surrounding the edge of Tonle Sap is an important spawning and breeding area for fish. The lake is a vital ecosystem for over 300 species of freshwater fish as well as snakes, turtles and amphibians and perhaps some crocodiles and otters. More than 100 varieties of water birds, including storks and pelicans, thrive in the lake. Each year, millions of fish come to spawn in the seasonally flooded forest surrounding the lake, attracting myriad waterbirds. Villages along the shores live with the rhythm of the season and the floods.

There are problems with fertilizer run off contaminating water supplies. Deforestation produces erosion that silts up the lake. Already there have been notable declines in some species of fish that has probably been caused by overfishing and conversion of traditional spawning grounds to agricultural areas. . There are also concerns that new dams on the Mekong River—notably in China and Laos—that could disrupt the entire Tonle Sap cycle, with catastrophic consequences.

Thus far the Cambodian government has done little to protect the Tonle Sap. Environmentalist say regulations need to be put into effect to prevent overfishing and illegal logging but realize that if more laws and regulation are put in place enforcement is spotty and corruption widespread. Often times politicians and military officers and police have a hand in the illegal fishing operations that sometimes involve connecting metal poles to car batteries to electrocute fish.

Village Life on the Tonle Sap

Five provinces encircle Tonle Sap and more than three million people live in around the lake. Of these about 90 percent of them earn a living from fishing or agriculture. Many people live in distinctive floating villages in stilted houses, and use fish traps to catch fish in a life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.

Reporting from Chong Kneas, Ker Munthit of Associated Press wrote: “Every year, Tonle Sap lake expands into a small sea with the onset of the monsoon season, then shrinks when the rains end. It makes nomads of the people of Chong Kneas, a sprawling community of houseboats and thatched huts at the lake's northern end.When the rains begin, drivers struggle to steady their trucks on muddy trails leading to the villages as they haul away residents and their ramshackle shelters and meager belongings on an unwanted but necessary seasonal journey. [Source: Ker Munthit, Associated Press , July 23, 2006]

Although two of its villages sit on dry land, the other five are floating communities of houseboats on which people live and run businesses. Classrooms sit on floating platforms, and children row themselves to school on small sampans, the same means by which vendors go “door-to-door" to sell vegetables or noodle soup.

But it is the villagers' lives that are really adrift at Chong Kneas. Its 5,800 people, like most of those in rural Cambodia, live at subsistence level, and it is a heavy burden to pay to move every year when the lake's edge pushes north as much as 4.5 miles, then moves back as the waters recede. About 70 percent of the villagers earn only the equivalent of 70 cents to $1.90 a day, said Em Mann, the Chong Kneas community leader. Each move costs a family up to $14.40 to transport their shelter and belongings, leaving many in debt year-round to moneylenders. “Every year, they have to move and buy clothes and kitchenware to replace that blown away by the storms of the monsoon," he said. “We are fed up with this way of life but have no alternative."

“He said life would have changed for the better had Cambodia's government not scrapped a plan conceived by the Asian Development Bank to move Chong Kneas to a permanent settlement on high ground, with a clean water supply, sanitation, roads, schools, and medical clinics. Neou Bonheur, the Environment Ministry's coordinator of the Tonle Sap environmental management project, said the government couldn't afford the move -- which would cost millions of dollars -- or the land acquisition and employment issues it would entail. “All these issues are quite complicated" for the government to pursue, he said.Em Mann, the community leader, complained that some tour companies also argued against moving Chong Kneas because tourists like to visit the floating community. “They must be really thinking we are animals in a zoo here," he said.

The lake long provided enough bounty to sustain those living along its shores. But many villagers say life has become harder because of dwindling fish stocks, tighter government regulation of fishing, and environmental degradation. Pollution is threatening the villagers' health and lifestyle. With no public sewage system, they use the lake -- their traditional water supply -- as a toilet and garbage dump as well.

For safe drinking water, villagers must pay nearly 30 cents for 8 gallons of well water brought in by vendors from other villages miles away on high ground, said Ly Saloeurn, a 51-year-old fisherman who earns roughly $1.20 a day from fishing to support his family of eight. Now that the government has spurned the plan to give them a permanent home, most villagers are resigned to living adrift. Sia Yem Son, 70, said he didn't have the words to adequately describe the hardships. But one thing is certain, he said. “It will never end before I die."

WEATHER AND CLIMATE OF CAMBODIA

Equidistant between the Tropic of Cancer and the equator, Cambodia is a hot and humid the year round with the highs generally in the 90s F in the day and lows in the 70s F at night. The average temperature around 27 degrees C (80 degrees F). Most areas gets around 50 to 75 inches (127 centimeters to 190 centimeters) of rain a year, most of which falls in the rainy season. The humidity is higher at night, when it generally is around 90 percent, than in the day, when it is around 80 percent.

Cambodia's climate—like that of the rest of Southeast Asia---is dominated by the monsoons, which are known as tropical wet and dry because of the distinctly marked seasonal differences. The monsoonal airflows are caused by annual alternating high pressure and low pressure over the Central Asian landmass. In summer, moisture-laden air—the southwest monsoon--is drawn landward from the Indian Ocean. The flow is reversed during the winter, and the northeast monsoon sends back dry air. The southwest monsoon brings the rainy season from mid-May to mid-September or to early October, and the northeast monsoon flow of drier and cooler air lasts from early November to March.

The southern third of the country has a two-month dry season; the northern two-thirds, a four-month one. Short transitional periods, which are marked by some difference in humidity but by little change in temperature, intervene between the alternating seasons. Temperatures are fairly uniform throughout the Tonle Sap Basin area, with only small variations from the average annual mean of around 25̊C. The maximum mean is about 28̊C; the minimum mean, about 22̊C. Maximum temperatures of higher than 32̊C, however, are common and, just before the start of the rainy season, they may rise to more than 38̊C. Minimum temperatures rarely fall below 10̊C. January is the coldest month, and April is the warmest. Typhoons--tropical cyclones--that often devastate coastal Vietnam rarely cause damage in Cambodia. *

The total annual rainfall average is between 100 and 150 centimeters, and the heaviest amounts fall in the southeast. Rainfall from April to September in the Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands area averages 130 to 190 centimeters annually, but the amount varies considerably from year to year. Rainfall around the basin increases with elevation. It is heaviest in the mountains along the coast in the southwest, which receive from 250 to more than 500 centimeters of precipitation annually as the southwest monsoon reaches the coast. This area of greatest rainfall, however, drains mostly to the sea; only a small quantity goes into the rivers flowing into the basin. The relative humidity is high at night throughout the year; usually it exceeds 90 percent. During the daytime in the dry season, humidity averages about 50 percent or slightly lower, but it may remain about 60 percent in the rainy period. *

The wet and dry seasons in Cambodia are of relatively equal length, with dry season being divided into two sub-seasons, cool and hot in many parts of the country. 1) The rainy season is from June until October with temperatures ranging from 27 to 35 degrees C (80-95 degrees F) with humidity up to 90 percent. 2) The dry season (cool) is from November to February with temperatures ranging from 17 to 27 degrees C (80-95 degrees F). 3) the dry season (hot) is from March to May with temperatures ranging from 29 to 38 degrees (84-100 degrees F). The city experiences the heaviest precipitation from September to October with the driest period occurring from January to February.

The rainy season is triggered by the southwest monsoons winds which blow from the southwest inland, bringing moisture-laden clouds winds from the Gulf of Thailand and Indian Ocean. Rains tend to fall in short afternoon downpours. At this time of the year the countryside is lush, green and beautiful but the jungles contain leeches and dirt roads are often in nasty condition. Traveling extensively by road should be avoided the last two months of the rainy season when some countryside roads may be impassable.

The northeast monsoon ushers in the dry season, which lasts from November to March. In the dry season road travel is easier but the countryside is often brown and dusty. December, January and February are cooler than the other months. This is the best time to travel in Cambodia.. The temperatures are reasonably comfortable; the days are bright and sunny, and humidity is relatively low. Sometimes it can be cool at night. The months before the rainy season, April and May, are especially hot. The temperatures often exceed 100°F for several days in a row.

Cambodia is generally not directly affected by tropical storms. The typhoon season is from June to October. Although Cambodia sometimes experiences heavy rain this time of the year it is protected from high winds by Vietnam (typhoons approach Southeast Asia from the Pacific). The rainy season in Cambodia coincides more or less with the rainy seasons in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Burma, but is different from the rainy season on the west coast of Malaysia (from September to November) and rainy season in Singapore, Borneo, Indonesia and the east coast of Malaysia (November to January).

Seasonal monsoons and diverse topography significantly influence Cambodia's economy . The southwest monsoon brings the rainy season (May to October), which is suitable for planting and growing the rice seedlings, and the northeast monsoon sends back dry air (November to March), which makes possible the paddy harvest. Forest covers about two-thirds of the country, but it has been somewhat degraded in the more readily accessible areas by burning (a method called slash-and-burn agriculture), and by shifting agriculture.

In 2002, Cambodia suffered a terrible drought after two years of flooding. Only 25 percent of the rice crop was sewn successfully.

Lightning Death Increases Attributed to Superstition

In 2009, AFP reported: “Pang Nop was pedalling his bicycle home through a light drizzle when he paused to pick up some stones for his slingshot. As he did, the sky flashed and he fell to the ground, dead. "Suddenly we saw him lying down," said Uy Saroeurn, the boy's uncle who was planting rice in a nearby field. The 14-year-old had died instantly, a big bruise on the back of his neck.Pang Nop had become one of 95 Cambodians killed by lightning last year, more than double the 2007 total of 45 lightning fatalities and the highest-ever annual tally in the country. [Source: AFP, January 16, 2009 <>]

"Most of the people killed are farmers who continue to work in rice paddies or herd cattle during rainstorms," says Long Saravuth, a weather expert at Cambodia's Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology. "Those people should be highly alert to the problem, but they don't try to find shelter when it rains." <>

“The tropical Southeast Asian country of lazy rivers and lakes is particularly prone to cloud formations which generate intense lightning storms, said Long Saravuth. These formations can hover just 50 metres (164 feet) above the earth, and anyone underneath is vulnerable to lightning strike. As the country's rainy season drew to a close, local newspapers seemed to carry reports on new lightning deaths nearly every day -- farmers, fishermen, and football players have all recently been hit. Cambodia only began compiling lightning statistics in 2007 ago after an increase in reports of deaths. <>

“Some Cambodians have searched science and religion to explain the phenomenon, with many of the country's 14 million people believing lightning is connected to supernatural forces. "The lightning last year was more fierce than ever before. I'm worried I might be the next victim -- but I believe if we do good deeds, we avoid lightning and bad luck," said Cheng Chenda, a housewife in Phnom Penh. In his office at the Buddhist Institute, advisor on mores and customs Miech Ponn said many Cambodians believe people with moles on their calves are susceptible to lightning strikes, as are people who have broken promises. <>

“Cambodians also use mystical cures for those who have been struck. When he found Pang Nop's body, Uy Saroeurn carried it to the boy's mother who quickly covered her son with a white cloth in the hope that it would revive him. "To resuscitate a victim, Cambodian villagers drape the person's body with a white cloth, or jump over it three times, or place the victim in a bed and light a fire under the bed," said Miech Ponn, who believes these techniques can work. <>

“But how to explain the mysterious jump in lightning deaths? Miech Ponn said the surge in fatalities caused by lightning was predicted by Cambodia's chief royal astrologer Kang Ken, and that the country is now prone to more natural disasters. "The increase in lightning deaths was caused by deterioration of nature and a religious prophecy that said it was a bad luck year," Miech Ponn said. <>

“Hard science gives a slightly different explanation. Over the past two years the country has had particularly heavy rainy seasons from May to November, which might be partly explained by global climate change, said Long Saravuth, the weather expert. Meanwhile Anthony Del Genio, a scientist at the US space agency NASA, said the incidence of lightning deaths in 2008 did not point to a climate change cause because the timeframe was too short. The best guess was that warmer and drier weather earlier last year had created conditions for more vigorous lightning storms. "Natural phenomena like lightning are out of control and mostly cannot be predicted," Long Saravuth says. <>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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