Posted: Feb 20, 2015 | Updated: Jul 10, 2023

Cambodia or Kampuchea is a small country in Southeast Asia that is home to a rich history, culture, and natural beauty. It is a popular tourist destination but also one with a very dark past, the Cambodian genocide killed 1.5 to 2 million people out of a population of 7.8 million.

History of Cambodia

Pre-French colonisation

The area of modern day Cambodia was heavily influenced by India with Hinduism and later Buddhism spreading from here to the rest of Southeast Asia. The kingdom that once covered modern day Cambodia and Vietnam fragmented around 681 AD and it wasn't until 802 that Jayavarman II started the Khmer Empire by declaring independence from Java. The Empire was Southeast Asia's largest during the 12th century.

Angkor was the capital and largest pre-industrial city in the world. The famous temple, Angkor Wat is well preserved and deservedly world famous.

War with its neighbours led to the 1432 sacking of Angkor by the Ayutthaya Kingdom centred in modern day Thailand. The capital moved to Longvek but the continuation of war with Ayutthaya and war with Vietnam led to further decline and Longvek suffered the same fate in 1594, again at the hands of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

From this point on, Cambodia could only survive as vassals of either the Siamese or Vietnamese, or as eventually happened, became a vassal of both. In the end, Cambodia signed a treaty with France to become a French protectorate, and became part of the colony of French Indochina in 1867.

French colonialism and independence

Cambodia remained as a protectorate of France until 1953 though was occupied 1941 by the Japanese until 1945. Like with all the European powers who had colonies in Asia, World War 2 encouraged nationalists movements that after the defeat of Japan, independence should be the way forward and not a return to European colonial rule.

Under King Norodom Sihanouk, independence from France was gained in 1953, but the communist guerillas resisted the idea of independence under a monarchy. Elections were subject to fraud and intimidation. Opposition leaders were humiliated and hunted down. Opposition to King Sihanouk was driven underground.

With the Vietnam War raging next door, communist North Vietnamese troops were allowed to set up bases in Cambodia in 1969. The US unleashed a campaign against them, and in 1970 is suspected of backing a coup to abolish a monarchy mired in controversy, changing Cambodia into the Khmer Republic.

Khmer Republic

With King Sihanouk on a visit to Beijing, Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak launched a military coup and demanded expulsion of Vietnamese forces, immediately gaining US favour. The North Vietnamese rejected this and launched attacks on the new government. Meanwhile, the ousted king urged the overthrow of the rebel government with civil war the result.

The Cambodian Khmer Rouge used this to gain support and the communists were able to control territory taken over by North Vietnam. A weak government, and small army was unable to effectively fight back. In the end, the Cambodian communists, now strong enough to act independently from North Vietnam were able to overrun government forces by 1975, just five years after the coup that ended the monarchy.

Democratic Kampuchea

Anything but democratic, the Khmer Rouge with Pol Pot, one of the biggest monsters in history at its head, modelled itself on Maoist China with similarly disastrous results. Going further, Pol Pot attempted to turn the clock back to the 11th century, eschewing modernity and religion. Intellectuals were targeted as such regimes always do to ensure their own survival, but in reality, anyone could be an enemy of the state, as testified by the murder of nearly one quarter of the population.

Internal suspicion turned to external suspicion, and to the Khmer Rouge it seemed that their former friends, the Vietnamese were planning a federation of Indochinese states, and that the Vietnamese would dominate. Kampuchea launched minor attacks on the North Vietnamese in 1975 and then a full blown attack on the unified Vietnam in 1977.

Mediation failed between the two sides so in 1978 it was decided by Vietnam to end the Kampuchean government in only 2 weeks, ending the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, but also starting 10 years of occupation.

The return of the monarchy

Under pressure from the international community, and from armed groups, Vietnam agreed to withdraw from Cambodia in 1989. A peace plan was devised with UN support. the Khmer Rouge attempted to disrupt the plan but elections defeated the political wing (CPP) of the Khmer Rouge. The old King's political party joined thein a coalition with its political enemy and shortly after, in 1993 the monarchy was reinstated and the Khmer Rouge was banned. Norodom Sihanouk was King again.

Modern Cambodia

Since that coalition, the leader of the CPP, Hun Sen, took control for himself and turned Cambodia into a one party state. Corruption, the dissolution of opposition parties before elections, and fraud and vote tampering keeps the CPP fully in charge. Some trials have taken place of former senior Khmer Rouge officials, although Hun Sen has opposed extensive investigations. As a former Khmer Rouge member with his hands covered in blood. one can probably guess why extensive investigations might be a little too close to home.

The Highlights

  1. Angkor Wat Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an impressive complex of temples built between the 9th and 15th centuries.
  2. Killing Fields give a frightening view of the recent past when 2 million people were executed and dumped in the ground.
  3. Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum​ is former prison, torture and execution centre used by the Khmer Rouge.
  4. Siem Reap is a bustling town that mixes modernity and tradition, and is the first stop on the way to Angkor Wat.
  5. Phnom Penh the capital hosting the Tuol Sleng and close to the killing fields. It also hosts the Royal Palace and other must see sights.
  6. French colonial architecture in many laid back towns, the floating villages, temples and of course the beaches.

Travel Cambodia

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh

Other Destinations in Asia

After you've experienced my delights or horrors of Cambodia, see what the destinations below may have in store for you.

Cambodia | China | Cyprus | Hong Kong | India | Indonesia | Japan | Macao | Malaysia | Nepal | Philippines | Singapore | South Korea | Taiwan | Thailand | Turkey | United Arab Emirates | Vietnam |



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