Cambodia's History, Beauty and Culture

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This post was written by Simon Gartner

Cambodia’s long and rich history has been marked by times of great achievement and times of unfathomable atrocities. Simon Gartner explores an asean country that is full of history, beauty, and culture, and currently on the economic rise.
The beginnings of Cambodia can be traced back to the 5th millennium BCE with the founding of the Khmer Empire. The Empire, which was the largest and strongest in Southeast Asian history, controlled vast amounts of territory in present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. The golden age, lasting from the 9th to 13th centuries, saw the construction of large palaces and temples all over the territory, most notably Angkor Wat, located just outside Siem Reap. The temples of Angkor show the sheer genius of the Khmer Empire, utilising technology far ahead of its time. A traveller’s first glimpse of these temples is jaw-dropping and matched only by a few other places in the world.

Dark Ages

The golden age in the Khmer Empire, however, took an abrupt turn for the worse. The 15th through 19th centuries were marked by territorial and financial losses due to the growing power of neighbouring empires in Siam and Vietnam. The Vietnamese Empire annexed much of Cambodia’s more prosperous areas, and their settlement of the Mekong Delta cut Cambodia off from the sea, resulting in massive losses from the lack of trade.

King Norodom the First, who came into power in 1834, negotiated a deal with France for Cambodia to become a protectorate in hopes of saving his country from further decline and to protect itself from its increasingly powerful neighbours. In 1863, Cambodia became part of French Indochina, and remained a self-governing protectorate for 90 years, with only a brief interruption of Japanese occupation during World War Two. The French were in Cambodia on a “mission to civilize” as they wanted their Indochinese colonies to be an extension of French culture.

The weak Vichy government in France during World War Two left Cambodia in a dire situation: without any real protection. During this time, Thai Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram took advantage of the unprotected colony and invaded the western provinces. Cambodia gained independence in 1953 with the rest of French Indochina in part through the Geneva Accords, the bankrupt French government and the strong will and negotiating skills of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who later became the country’s first Prime Minister.

During the Vietnam War, the newly crowned King Norodom Sihanouk allowed Cambodia to be a haven for the Northern Vietnamese communists – leading to the US secret bombings in Cambodia. When being interviewed by The Washington Post in 1967, Sihanouk stated that he would not oppose a US involvement in Cambodia so long as the bombing campaign targeted the Vietnamese, and not Cambodians. However, the US incursions lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent Cambodians.

Cambodian Genocide

In 1970, while Sihanouk was on a diplomatic visit to Beijing, the anti-Communist Prime Minister Lon Nol lead the army in a bloodless coup d’état with the help of the Americans.


In exile in China, Sihanouk urged his followers to oppose Lon Nol’s regime, which led to the rise of the Cambodian Communist Party now known as the Khmer Rouge, or Red Khmer. The Khmer Rouge took over the country in 1975, greeted by cheers from people eager for stability. These cheers soon fell silent under the ruthless leadership of Pol Pot, as the Khmer Rouge took Cambodia back to the Stone Age, implementing an anti-intellectual campaign, killing anyone with any form of education. In search of a utopian state, Pol Pot and his army abolished money, religion, and all forms of private property; everyone worked in large, rural labour camps, where food was scarce.

Over two million people died during the four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, representing over a quarter of Cambodia’s then-population of eight million. Many of these deaths came from starvation and exhaustion, while up to a million people were killed by execution at notorious places such as the “Killing Fields” and S-21 (Tuol Sleng) Prison.

With the 1979 Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia, marking the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Norodom Sihanouk returned to the country from exile to begin the rebuilding of a nation.

Upward Swing

Currently benefiting from two decades of stability, Cambodia is on the track to economic progress, having endured civil war and the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge. Foreign investment from China and Vietnam, as well as attempting to reduce the dependence on foreign aid assures that the country is well on its way to recovery.

Despite having the eighth wonder of the world in its backyard, Cambodia’s real treasure is its people. The Cambodians have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty, and political instability. Thanks to an unbreakable spirit and infectious optimism, they have prevailed with their smiles intact, despite a history that is both inspiring and depressing. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.



Size: 181,035 km2 (World rank: 88th)
Population: 14,952,665 (2010 census estimate)
Capital city: Phnom Penh
Largest city: Phnom Penh
Government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic
Official language: Khmer
GDP PPP*: $2,361
HDI**: 0.543, medium (World rank: 138th)
Currency: Cambodian riel (1MYR = 1,247KHR)

*GDP per capita, purchasing power parity, international dollars
**Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life for 187 countries worldwide. (For comparison, Malaysia’s HDI is 0.769, high, and is ranked 64th.)

Notable facts:


Cambodia’s name is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word pronounced as “Kambuja.” It is known as Kâmp..chéa in the Khmer language and is referred to colloquially by Cambodians as Srok Khmer, or “The Land of the Khmers.” Colonized by the French in 1863, Cambodia gained its independence nearly a century later on 9 November 1953. Forty difficult years would then pass before the restoration of the monarchy, beginning Cambodia’s modern era.

One of Cambodian history’s darkest chapters occurred fairly recently with the rise of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s, immediately following the end of the Cambodian Civil War. The communist regime seized power and, led by Pol Pot, was responsible for one of the worst cases of genocide in modern history as it sought to eliminate all traces of capitalism and Western influence from society. Estimates of the number of people exterminated before the Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979 during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War are as high as three million (out of a total population of eight million at the time).

Since the early 1990s, Cambodia has slowly emerged from the shadow of war and genocide under the provisions of a peace accord initiated in Paris in 1989. Today, the Kingdom of Cambodia bears little resemblance to the war-torn nation of the 1970s and tourism is a strong contributor to the economy, the second greatest source of income in the nation (after textiles). Today, Cambodia records some three million tourist arrivals each year, projected to increase to five million by 2015.

Cambodia today has one of the more homogenous populations of the ASEAN nations, with some 90% of Cambodians being of Khmer origin and speaking that language. As a result of the civil wars and genocide of the 1970s, roughly half of Cambodia’s entire population is under 22 years of age.


Source: The Expat August 2013

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