A Brief Introduction to Cambodia History for Every Traveler

Cambodia history is bloody, gruesome and all the things that you don’t want to tell your children about. However, long before the Khmer Rouge reign brought the country to its knees, Cambodia was a prosperous part of the Angkor Empire. In this blog, we will take a step back in time and see how Cambodia’s past shaped its present.

The Past of the Khmer People: a Past Shrouded in Mystery

The native people of Cambodia are known as the Khmers and to understand the country’s history, we have to understand the Khmers.

Sources of Cambodia history are not very accurate in terms of saying where the Khmers originated from and how they came to settle in the country. However, sources from the period between the 1st and the 5th centuries show that much of Cambodia’s cultural evolution happened through cultural exchanges with India.

The Khmers in the region started to trade with Indian merchants in the 1st century, with the small kingdom of Funan becoming an important port. From a religious perspective, the early Khmers of Funan started following both Buddhism and Hinduism, owing to interaction with Indian traders.

The region became one of Asia’s most renowned rice cultivators, with Khmers using primitive irrigation methods to cultivate rice and trade it with the Indians and the Chinese in exchange for spices.

Read More: Explore Khmer Civilization in Angkor National Museum


Cambodia History Highlights

•  There is very little information regarding the origins of the Khmer people.
•  Modern Cambodia started to take shape through cultural exchanges with Indian traders.
•  People living in the region started following Buddhism and Hinduism.

The Awakening of the Empire of Angkor

In the 9th century, most of modern Cambodia’s southern portions were under the control of the Javanese. To wrestle control away from the Javanese, up stepped Jayavarman II, who sought to end Javanese rule and bring all the small kingdoms together under his monarchy.

Jayavarman II was the first of many rulers that catapulted the Angkor Kingdom towards a place in the history books. The ancient Khmers at this juncture in time had left behind primitive irrigation practices and taken to massive irrigation systems that supported the Angkor Kingdom and its people. During this time, art also started flourishing in the region.

The Angkor Kingdom saw its ups and downs for the next 4 – 5 centuries, but it was during the 12th century that the kingdom was at its peak under the rule of Suryavarman II. Suryavarman II will forever have a place in Cambodia’s history as it was under his rule that the now-famous temple of Angkor Wat was commissioned.

The next prominent ruler in Cambodia history after Suryavarman II was Jayavarman VII, who, being a follower of Buddhism, built many massive Buddhist monuments in various parts of the kingdom. Jayavarman VII also brought about numerous social changes in the Angkor Kingdom, abolishing the then-prevalent caste system and focusing on the development of hospitals, roads, and schools.

Popular Attractions to Visit: East Mebon Temple    Prasat Kravan Temple    Roluos Group of Temples    Bakong Temple


Cambodia History Highlights

•  Jayavarman II’s reign saw the Khmers take to new and improved agricultural practices.
•  In the 12th century, Suryavarman II commissioned the building of the famous Angkor Wat temple complex.
•  Jayavarman VII brought about social changes and focused on building schools, roads, and hospitals.

The Fall of the Angkor Kingdom and French Occupation

As the rulers of the Angkor Kingdom invested rapidly in building monuments and temples, which put an immense strain on the kingdom’s finances. Slowly and steadily, the financial crises, along with the rise of neighboring empires such as the Thais, contributed to the downfall of South-East Asia’s mightiest empire.

By the 19th Century, the area that is now modern Cambodia was firmly under the control of the Thais and the Vietnamese. However, that control was soon to end, as the French showed a keen interest in power in the region. While their attention was initially on Vietnam, they did not take long to shift their gaze towards Cambodia.

French occupation ended only after World War II, which gave rise to the rule of King Sihanouk. During King Sihanouk’s rule, the Cambodian people enjoyed a period of creativity, with the Angkor Wat tourist complex becoming South-East Asia’s most famous tourist destination.

However, the king was deposed in 1970 and he was forced to go into exile. He formed an alliance with a revolutionary group that the king had himself nicknamed the Khmer Rouge and the darkest days in Cambodia history had come to pass.

Cambodia History Highlights

•  The Angkor Kingdom came to an end due to financial crises and the rise of neighboring empires.
•  Till the 19th century, Cambodia was under the control of the Thai and the Vietnamese, which was followed by French occupation.
•  French occupation ended after World War II and King Sihanouk became the new ruler of Cambodia.
•  King Sihanouk was deposed in 1970 and he formed an alliance with a revolutionary movement that he called the Khmer Rouge.

The Reign of the Khmer Rouge

The bloodiest period in Cambodia history came under the Khmer Rouge regime, which was led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge’s hardline agenda led to thousands of killings and the uprooting of populations across the country. Agriculture suffered and as a consequence, thousands were left homeless and without food.

The Khmer Rouge’s brutal reign continued for a long time until Vietnam and the United Nations stepped in. Slowly, the Khmer Rouge leadership was taken apart and the country found its way back to peace slowly in the 90s.

Even to this day, many parts of the country have struggled to recover from the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. However, as peace has returned to the country, Cambodians are now hopeful that slowly but surely, the country will develop and leave its darkest days behind.

Cambodia History Highlights

•  The Khmer Rouge regime controlled Cambodia from the 70s and executed thousands of natives.
•  Peace was restored to the country thanks to Vietnamese and UN interventions.

Cambodia history may be riddled with ambitious rulers and brutal regimes. However, as peace has finally dawned upon the nation, the natives are hopeful for a better future.


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