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The birth of Cambodia began with the coastal kingdom of Funan in the first century AD. This kingdom became a vital stop on the trade route between India and China. Through this kingdom, the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism into the interior of Cambodia may have begun. Funan and other Cambodian kingdoms formed fragile alliances with each other and at times warred among themselves until the eighth century AD.


In 802 AD, Jayavarman II claimed ultimate power over Cambodia. Then he proceeded to solidify his control through various conquests and alliances. This marked the beginning of the greatest time period in Cambodian history, the Angkor Kingdom. Around one hundred years after Jayavarman II became king, the royal court was moved to Angkor proper. Over time, this kingdom began to lose power and Suryavarman I usurped the throne in 1002. He reunited the kingdom and initiated a time of cultural growth and expansion. The Lopburi Kingdom in Thailand came under the control of Angkor during this time. Despite this time of great influence, the kingdom went into a state of disarray again.

Attacks Against Angkor

In 1112, Suryavarman II reunited the kingdom and initiated a building project that would result in the biggest religious complex in history. During his reign, he also conquered the kingdom of Champa in modern Vietnam. Many years later in 1177, the Chams sent a naval force up the Mekong into Tonle Sap. This force succeeded in a surprise attack against Angkor, which resulted in the death of the Angkor king. After one year, Angkor successfully conquered the Chams with a decisive naval victory. In 1181, Jayavarman VII took the throne in Angkor. He continued the agricultural and temple expansion of the city of Angkor. These projects added more to the Angkor complex than in any other time period. After the reign of Jayavarman VII, the Angkor kingdom began to lose its prestige and influence. Natural resources and income had been taxed by the construction projects in Angkor. Thailand’s kingdom of Ayuthaya grew steadily in power and succeeded in sacking Angkor in 1431. After this time, the seat of power began to shift to Phnom Penh.

French Protectorate

For the next few centuries, Cambodia struggled to survive among the neighboring countries of Thailand and Vietnam. Both countries fought to control Cambodia and would come to the assistance of the Khmer against the opposite nation. During this time, Cambodia lost the Mekong Delta, Battambang, and Siem Riep. In 1864, French gunboats entered the country and Cambodia signed a treaty of protectorate. The French occupation ended Cambodia’s fighting with Thailand and Vietnam, which brought a period of peace and stability. This relative calm endured with little hindrance until World War II.

World War II

In 1941, Prince Norodom Sihanouk ascended the throne with the help of a French general. Around this time, Japanese forces swept into much of Southeast Asia. The French were able to maintain control of Cambodia during this time but the country was attacked by Thailand in an attempt to regain land lost to the French over the years. Japan quickly drew up treaty papers to regain peace in the area and Battambang and Siem Riep were seceded to Thailand once again. In the last year of the war, Japan moved in to administer Cambodia directly. After the war, France reinstated its power in Cambodia.


In 1953, Norodom Sihanouk dissolved the parliament and declared martial law. He was attempting to gain international recognition for his cry of independence. On November 9, 1953, Cambodia officially gained its independence. After two years, Norodom Sihanouk abdicated his throne to his father in an attempt to run parliament. In 1955, Sihanouk’s party gained full control of parliament and he became prime minister. When his father died in 1960, Norodom Sihanouk regained his title as head of state as well.

King Sihanouk Overthrown

With the escalation of the Vietnam War, Sihanouk began to fear the United States and US-backed governments in Southeast Asia. He allied with North Vietnam and China, allowing Viet Cong soldiers to use Cambodia in its fight against the US. People resented how much freedom of movement the Vietnamese soldiers received in Cambodia. While Norodom Sihanouk was in France in 1970, Lon Nol staged a coup to gain control of the government with the help of the United States. In an effort to rebuild his influence, Sihanouk moved to Beijing with his government and began to work with Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese soldiers to fight the new government.

The Fall of Phnom Penh

US and South Vietnamese forces joined in the fight for control of Cambodia. This turmoil resulted in half the country being occupied by Khmer Rouge and Viet Cong forces. For four years, the US government carpet-bombed the eastern part of Cambodia in an effort to route Vietnamese forces. This led to many civilian deaths and mistrust in the US-backed Lon Nol regime. In addition, corruption influenced much of the government’s actions and Lon Nol was viewed as a weak leader. Phnom Penh resisted a siege for two years but eventually fell on April 17, 1975. This marked the beginning of the Khmer Rouge’s control of the country under the head of Pol Pot.

The Pol Pot Regime

The day that the civil war ended many people celebrated because the brutality of war had come to an end. This jubilee ended quickly as every one in all the cities in the country were evacuated at gunpoint by Khmer Rouge soldiers. The country was completely restructured as a socialistic agrarian society. People had to work 12-15 hours a day in the rice fields and on social projects with minimal food. Disobedient workers, former urbanites, educated, politicians, Christians, and others were identified and executed by commune chiefs throughout the country. People were also dying of starvation and disease.

The Vietnam Occupation

Everyone lived in fear because of the brutality and control of the Khmer Rouge forces. The eastern region presented the most resistance and many who fled from here to Vietnam returned later to run the post Khmer Rouge government. Over the course of the Khmer Rouge control, as many as two million people died due to the brutality of the regime. There are very few families who did not lose a family member during this period. When people had lost all hope, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge lost control of the country at the beginning of 1979.

Refugee Camps

Throughout the Pol Pot regime and the famine that followed, many began to flee to refugee camps in Thailand to get food and to avoid the ongoing fighting between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces. Relief aid did not get distributed effectively during this time and the Khmer Rouge was able to secure many of its supplies from Thailand so that it could continue fighting. This did not bother Thailand because the Khmer Rouge forces served as an effective barrier between the Thai and Vietnamese military.

Land Mines

People from the refugee camps in Thailand were in danger of being recruited by the Khmer Rouge to work for them on some of their more deadly tasks. From the time of Pol Pot’s reign through this period of Vietnamese control, many land mines were placed throughout the country. This is a problem that still plagues Cambodia today since many of the mines remain in place and people are still being maimed by them.

Ten Years Gone

After ten years in control, Vietnam decided to pull out of Cambodia toward the end of 1989. Civil war broke out as the Cambodian coalitions sought to control the government. The UN stepped in and formed the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac). In their efforts, they tried to unify the coalitions under a treaty. Plans were also set in motion to organize free elections in the country. After signing a treaty to end fighting, the Khmer Rouge withdrew from the treaty and chose to continue fighting.

Free Elections

On May 25, 1993, the free elections took place with Sihanouk’s Funcinpec party winning the most seats but Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) came in a close second. The CPP contained many politicians from the communist government controlled by Vietnam. After losing the election, the CPP threatened to split the country and take control of the eastern provinces. Therefore a decision was made to have two joint prime ministers: Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Norodom Sihanouk chose to become king once again and the crowning ceremony occurred during the turmoil of the election.

Hun Sen Prime Minister

Both Funcinpec and CPP began trying to form an agreement with the Khmer Rouge that would finally end the fighting and increase that party’s favor with the public. Just as Funcinpec was nearing an agreement, soldiers loyal to CPP attacked Funcinpec forces in the capital and Hun Sen successfully secured control of the government. Ranariddh lost his position as prime minister and a puppet prime minister took his place. Though there were still two prime ministers, Hun Sen had become the sole leader. Due to his actions, all aid into the country was halted and Cambodia’s seat in the UN was declared vacant.

Elections 1998

In 1998, elections were held again to determine who would control the National Assembly and the government overall. The CPP gained a strong victory but did not have the two-thirds majority to rule alone. Neither Funcinpec nor Sam Rainsy Party agreed to join CPP in a coalition and riots broke out across the nation.


In November 1998, CPP and Funcinpec agreed to form a coalition and the situation stabilized with Hun Sen as prime minister. Peace spread as most of the remaining Khmer Rouge forces surrendered before the end of 1998. The following year, 1999, became the first year of peace in Cambodia in thirty years.

Elections 2003

In 2003, another election was held. Once again CPP earned the most votes but Funcinpec and SRP received a similar number of votes. Still the CPP did not gain the two-thirds majority required to govern alone. After a political deadlock, a coalition was formed between CPP and Funcinpec. The Sam Rainsy Party was excluded from the new government and unconstitutional changes were made to the National Assembly.

Norodom Sihamoni New King

At the end of October 2004, Norodom Sihanouk retired as king and his son Norodom Sihamoni was crowned the new king.

Khmer Culture

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What Makes The Cambodians Cambodians?

People do not just live, they live by values. People do not just do, they do what they think. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to get behind outward appearances and assumed images, to try and understand why they do the things the ways they do them and how they arrive at most of their basic decisions. We do not have time to consider all of the cultural values of Cambodians but I hope we can begin to understand the profile of the Cambodian by looking at certain basic facts about them and their society.

Cambodia is Rural Society

1. They live by events not by the clock. Their lifestyle is not governed by urban industrial mentality that when the 12 noon comes, they stop for lunch. That is not to say that they do not use watches or do not set times for events, but it is to say that they are event conscious. Events become the focus of attention.

2. They place great value on interpersonal relationships. The whole of life is more or less constructed around this principle. Relationships impact their choices and decisions. The importance of relationships will effect loyalties and how to prioritize their time. Their relationships may even be considered of greater value than their own personal well being.

3. They resist change rather than absorbing change. They are slow and reticent to accept new ideas. The strength of their society lies not in newness but rather in the security of forms and influences and yet not changes their cultural heritage.

Cambodia is a Buddhist/Animist Society

Buddhist religious values permeate the fabric of Khmer society. In fact, Buddhism is a total way of life, a mind set, covering all areas of thoughts, words and actions. To the Khmer, to be Khmer is to be Buddhist, to be Buddhist to be Khmer, to be anything else is to betray your country. These Buddhist values affect the average Cambodian in the following ways.

1. They face life fatalistically. They are resigned whatever lot they face. Let me say it another way: The value placed on personal responsibility is very muted. An illustration or two will help us understand this importance point. When faced with a problem which seems too difficult for them to handle, they will very frequently run away, and in so doing, run from the problem‚ at least from their point of view. Or if facing a decision of serious import, they will seek out a friend or a person to whom they feel responsible and try, if at all possible, to let the decision be made by the other person for them.

2. Decisions are made on the basic of expediency rather than moral principles, primarily because Buddhism does not teach the category of moral absolutes. Moral absolutes in any society are derived from and based on the character of an unchanged God. While Buddha has been deified in poplar Buddhism, Buddha himself made no claim to be god. This has profound implications. It means that almost anything is smiled upon if you do not get caught. In expediency, means justified the end. This is why I have heard parents encourage, even teach, their children to lie. This is why political loyalties can change week by week without any need to give reasons or justify the reasons for change.

3. They have respect for the reality and necessity of spiritual values. They believe in the unseen world. They know the power of the spirit world. It’s not just a part of religious life, its part of their total world view. As a result, you do not need to prove logically anything unseen. You can assume that they accept that as a presupposition of life.

Cambodia reflects its historical background and experience

1. Ethnically they are Malay-Polynesian. But culturally, linguistically, religiously and politically they are strongly related to India. The language base is Sankrit and Pali. Again like India, they have taken a neutrality stance in things politically. Their religion came from India and one of their best cuisine is considered to be curry.

2. Because of being under French rule for more than 90 years of their recent past history, they reflect a definite national inferiority complex. There is a careful distinction between personal and national reaction to their colonial experience.

3. Many possess a deep hated toward the Vietnamese and Thai. This colors everything they think, say and do. This hatred is historically like the Jewish and Arab problem. At one time the Kingdom of Cambodia extended west to Burma, east to the South China Sea and north to China. But through wars over many centuries, their land was whittled down to its present size. The occupation by the Vietnamese in the 1980’s serves only to distill and heighten this hatred and distrust.

Phnom Penh traffic

Cambodia is a Southeast Asian Society

1. Like the whole of Southeast Asia, Cambodians are very sensitive about loss of face. This usually takes place under two conditions: being corrected in the presence of a third party, and when work is given unilaterally without their ability to perform the work assigned. That’s the negative side. The more important side is giving face. This simply means giving honor where honor where honor is due, giving recognition to people because of their title and role.

2. They learn best by rote rather than by discussion. As a result, they develop a fantastic memory skill but generally are weak in creative thinking. However, this does not mean they do not think or have ideas of their own. They do. But they are not used to expressing publicly what they think or feel.

Cambodians are a suffering society

The recent generation of Cambodians has endured suffering that is almost unprecedented in history. This includes the agony of civil war as well as the oppression of being crushed and plagued by outside enemies

1960-1970 Insurgency warfare on their borders

1970-1975 Free Cambodia versus Cambodian communists

1975-1979 Cambodian Communist reigns of horror and homicide

1979-1989 Vietnamese occupation and control

1989-1993 Constant civil unrest nation-wide

When creating a profile of any people group, there are no absolutes. But there are certain core context criteria. When asked what Cambodians are like, keep the following five “R’s” front and center: rural, reticent, resigned, rote and relational.


Cultural Do’s and Don’t’s

The most effective way to blend into the Khmer culture is through observation: Observation i s a key to emulating Khmer culture because it will show you how Khmers do things and what they do.

1. PLEASE watch your temper and try your very best to remain patient!!! Showing emotion in this culture is oftentimes frowned upon. For example, Khmers will cover up their feelings of embarrassment, nervousness, anger, frustration, etc. by smiling or laughing. It is considered really rude to embarrass someone else, because it means that they are losing face. This can even lead to murder in Cambodia!

2. DO NOT draw attention to yourself! When speaking, do so gently and softly as this is considered proper etiquette. And do not draw a crowd.

3. Give proper respect based on age and social status. Elders or people of higher status expect to be greeted first when you enter a room. Additionally, avoid criticizing Khmer elders or people of higher status who you may not know (i.e. government officials).

4. Never make direct eye contact with anyone for any length of time. Direct eye contact suggests aggression for Khmer men, and can easily be mistaken as a romantic overture by Khmer women.

5. The head is regarded as the highest part of the body, so you should avoid touching someone there, not even children. The feet are the considered as the lowest part of the body, so avoid pointing your toes or the soles of your feet directly at someone, and under no circumstances should you use your feet to touch someone or to point something out!!!

6. Khmers generally do not shake hands with people upon meeting them; however, times are changing so if a Khmer woman initiates it is okay. People of the same gender can often be seen holding hands in public, and this is purely seen as an expression of friendship.

7. Take your shoes and hats off when entering a home.

8. If you must walk in between two Khmers in any given situation (usually if engaged in a conversation), it is considered polite to bow slightly when passing.

9. It is considered very rude to beckon someone with your Finger, especially to a Khmer! To them it is the equivalent of calling an animal, particularly a dog. The proper way to get the attention of someone is to use your hand (palm) in a downward position and use your fingers to summon.

Written by Cliff Westergren. Revised by Steve Westergren August 27, 2004.