Learn About Cambodia

Cambodia Today
Capital: Phnom Penh
Population: 14 millions 
Ethnic groups: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 4%, Chinese 2%, other 4%
Languages: Khmer (official), English, French
Religions: Buddhist 95%, Muslim 3%, other 2%

Cambodia is still a developing country but its government is much improved under a constitutional monarchy that now welcomes visitors. The economy is growing and transforming Cambodia into a trading partner with the United States, Japan, Korea and China, among others. Cambodia has natural resources that include timber, gemstones, iron ore, manganese, and phosphates. The country is also thought to have excellent hydropower potential.

The Land 

The ancient Khmer kingdom we now call Cambodia is a nation of 14 million people in a country. On its north it is bordered by Thailand and Laos, and by Vietnam on the south and east. The Gulf of Thailand is off the west coast. This is a country of geographical contrasts—the borders of Cambodia are mountainous and rugged, but a rich, alluvial plain dominates the center of the country. Here the Mekong River, the Sap River, and the Tonle Sap create a prosperous farming and fishing region full of rice fields and fishing villages.

Historical Overview
Early History
Cambodia was once the center of the great Khmer empire that ruled much of central Southeast Asia for five centuries. We can trace the history in this region back to at least the 6th century when Cambodia was part of the Kingdom of Funan. The Khmer people broke away from the Funans and established their own state, Chenla, which after centuries of conflict was itself invaded and conquered by warriors from Java. By A.D. 800, under Jayavarman II, the great Khmer temples were built and a centralized government ruled the land from the Tonle Sap to Angkor. The Khmer continued to expand their influence until by the end of the 10th century they controlled what are now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.

The next several centuries brought a succession of wars as the Khmers fought off invaders. During a period of peace and prosperity from 1181 to 1201, the Khmer rulers conceived and built an elaborate capital at Angkor Thom. Perhaps because of the lavish lifestyle and the costs associated with the construction of Angkor Thom, the Khmer empire began a gradual decline from this opulent peak, hastened by a series of wars with the Siamese.

Foreign Influence

As the Khmer empire declined, foreign pressures appeared. In 1596 a Spanish expeditionary force invaded and attacked the capital Phnom Penh. The Spanish presence didn't last; they were in turn defeated and expelled by the Siamese.

The Khmer empire continued its decline after this with various occupations and an almost constant state of war with Thailand and Vietnam, which both claimed lands once ruled by the Khmers.

Asian control over the region ended in 1863 when the French sent gunboats into the area to create a French protectorate. The French succeeded and began a long period of domination of Cambodia by installing French administrative, financial, and education systems.

Modern History

France ruled Cambodia until 1941 when the Japanese army swept across Indochina and, while expelling the French, brought terror of its own. With the defeat of Japan and the end of World War II, the French returned to Cambodia. But now they found opposition. By 1953 a strong local leader, King Sihanouk, had risen to power with the Khmer and sought independence for his country. King Sihanouk was a masterful politician and succeeded in wringing form the French the independence of Cambodia. King Sihanouk also established the People's Socialist Communist Party at this time. After abdicating the throne to pursue a political career, Sihanouk became the country's first prime minister. He managed to keep Cambodia neutral in the Vietnam War until 1965, when he broke with the United States and allowed North Vietnam and the Vietcong to use Cambodian territory. This led to the bombing of Cambodia by United States forces.

Sihanouk was deposed by one of his generals in 1970 and fled the country to China, where he set up a government in exile that supported the Cambodian revolutionary movement known as the Khmer Rouge. Meanwhile, in Cambodia, United States and South Vietnamese forces invaded the country in an attempt to eliminate Vietcong forces hiding there. For the next five years, as savage fighting spread throughout Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge gained land and power. In 1975 the capital at Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge, and their leader, Pol Pot, became the leader of Cambodia.

What followed for the next three years remains one of the most horrific incidents in world history. The Khmer Rouge forced the entire population of Phnom Penh and other cities to evacuate to the countryside where they were placed in slave labor units and forced to do manual work until they dropped from exhaustion. Pol Pot and his followers began a campaign of systematic genocide against their own people, with the aim of returning Cambodia to the agrarian society of centuries before. Great segments of the population were slaughtered senselessly. People with any type of education, those who wore glasses or were doctors and nurses, anybody who had worked at a bank—these people were all mindlessly killed. Banks were blown up, airports closed, and money was abolished. The horror of the Pol Pot regime went unnoticed for several years.

Finally in 1978, Vietnam, which had been watching the persecution and death of its own citizens trapped in Cambodia, liberated Cambodia and chased Pol Pot and his followers out of the cities and back into the remote mountains. By 1979, Pol Pot had been ousted and the Vietnamese installed a new government. Until 1990 civil war continued sporadically in Cambodia, but gradually the murderous followers of Pol Pot were eliminated from power. Pol Pot died under house arrest in 1998. Throughout the 1990's United Nations peacekeeping efforts helped stabilize the country. By 1997, a government amnesty convinced most Khmer Rouge partisans to cease fighting, and on October 4, 2004 the Cambodian National Assembly agreed with the U.N. to set up an international war crimes tribunal to try senior Khmer Rouge officials for the genocide of the 1970s. The first trial began in 2009 against the former head of S-21 prison; more leaders are expected to be tried over the next decade.

Another stabilizing influence during recent decades has been the return of the monarchy in 1993, when King Sihanouk was restored to the throne. In 2004, ill health forced him to abdicate in favor of his son, Norodom Sihamoni, who currently reigns as a constitutional monarch. For further information about trip to Cambodia, please contact Cambodia Tourist Guide Association.