Cambodia, officially the Kingdom of Cambodia, is a country located in the southern portion of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is 69,898 square miles in area, bordered by Thailand to the northwest, Laos to the northeast, Vietnam to the east and the Gulf of Thailand to the southwest.
The sovereign state of Cambodia has a population of over 16 million. The official religion is Theravada Buddhism, practised by approximately 95 percent of the population. The country’s minority groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Chams and 30 hill tribes. The capital and largest city is Phnom Penh, the political, economic and cultural center of Cambodia. The kingdom is an elective constitutional monarchy with a monarch, currently Norodom Sihamoni, chosen by the Royal Throne Council as head of state. The head of government is the Prime Minister, currently Hun Sen, the longest serving non-royal leader in Southeast Asia, ruling Cambodia since 1985.
In 802 AD, Jayavarman II declared himself king, uniting the warring Khmer princes of Chenla under the name “Kambuja”. This marked the beginning of the Khmer Empire, which flourished for over 600 years, allowing successive kings to control and exert influence over much of Southeast Asia and accumulate immense power and wealth. The Indianised kingdom facilitated the spread of first Hinduism and then Buddhism to much of Southeast Asia and undertook many religious infrastructural projects throughout the region, including the construction of more than 1,000 temples and monuments in Angkor alone. Angkor Wat is the most famous of these structures and is designated as a World Heritage Site.
After the fall of Angkor to Ayutthaya in the 15th century, a reduced and weakened Cambodia was then ruled as a vassal state by its neighbors. In 1863, Cambodia became a protectorate of France, which doubled the size of the country by reclaiming the north and west from Thailand.
Cambodia gained independence in 1953. The Vietnam War extended into the country with the US bombing of Cambodia from 1969 until 1973. Following the Cambodian coup of 1970 which installed the right-wing pro-US Khmer Republic, the deposed king gave his support to his former enemies, the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge emerged as a major power, taking Phnom Penh in 1975 and later carrying out the Cambodian genocide from 1975 until 1979, when they were ousted by Vietnam and the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea, supported by the Soviet Union in the Cambodian–Vietnamese War (1979–91).
Following the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, Cambodia was governed briefly by a United Nations mission (1992–93). The UN withdrew after holding elections in which around 90 percent of the registered voters cast ballots. The 1997 factional fighting resulted in the ousting of the government by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party, who remain in power as of 2019.
Cambodia is a member of the United Nations since 1955, ASEAN, the East Asia Summit, the WTO, the Non-Aligned Movement and La Francophonie. According to several foreign organisations, the country has widespread poverty, pervasive corruption, lack of political freedoms, low human development and a high rate of hunger. Cambodia has been described by Human Rights Watch’s Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a “relatively authoritarian coalition via a superficial democracy”.
While per capita income remains low compared to most neighboring countries, Cambodia has one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, with growth averaging 7.6 percent over the last decade. Agriculture remains the dominant economic sector, with strong growth in textiles, construction, garments and tourism leading to increased foreign investment and international trade. The US World Justice Project’s 2015 Rule of Law Index ranked Cambodia 76 out of 102 countries, similar to other countries in the region.
There exists sparse evidence for a Pleistocene human occupation of present-day Cambodia, which includes quartz and quartzite pebble tools found in terraces along the Mekong River, in Stung Treng and Kratié provinces, and in Kampot Province, although their dating is unreliable. Some slight archaeological evidence shows communities of hunter-gatherers inhabited the region during Holocene: the most ancient archaeological discovery site in Cambodia is considered to be the cave of L’aang Spean, in Battambang Province, which belongs to the Hoabinhian period. Excavations in its lower layers produced a series of radiocarbon dates around 6000 BC. Upper layers in the same site gave evidence of transition to Neolithic, containing the earliest dated earthenware ceramics in Cambodia.
Archaeological records for the period between Holocene and Iron Age remain equally limited. A pivotal event in Cambodian prehistory was the slow penetration of the first rice farmers from the north, which began in the late 3rd millennium BC. The most curious prehistoric evidence in Cambodia are the various “circular earthworks” discovered in the red soils near Memot and in the adjacent region of Vietnam in the latter 1950s. Their function and age are still debated, but some of them possibly date from 2nd millennium BC.
Iron was worked by about 500 BC, with supporting evidence coming from the Khorat Plateau, in modern-day Thailand. Also, among the artifacts from the Iron Age, glass beads are important evidence. Different kinds of glass beads recovered from several sites across Cambodia, such as the Phum Snay site in northwest and the Prohear site in southeast, show that there were two main trading networks at the time. The two networks were separated by time and space, which indicate that there was a shift from one network to the other at about 2nd–4th century AD, probably with changes in socio-political powers.
Pre-Angkorian and Angkorian Era:
During the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries, the Indianised states of Funan and its successor, Chenla, coalesced in present-day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. For more than 2,000 years, what was to become Cambodia absorbed influences from India, passing them on to other Southeast Asian civilisations that are now Thailand and Laos. Little else is known for certain of these polities, however Chinese chronicles and tribute records do make mention of them. It is believed that the territory of Funan may have held the port known to Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy as “Kattigara“. The Chinese chronicles suggest that after Jayavarman I of Chenla died around 690, turmoil ensued which resulted in division of the kingdom into Land Chenla and Water Chenla which was loosely ruled by weak princes under the dominion of Java.
The Khmer Empire grew out of these remnants of Chenla, becoming firmly established in 802 when Jayavarman II (reigned c790-850) declared independence from Java and proclaimed himself a Devaraja. He and his followers instituted the cult of the God-king and began a series of conquests that formed an empire which flourished in the area from the 9th to the 15th centuries. During the rule of Jayavarman VIII the Angkor empire was attacked by the Mongol army of Kublai Khan, however the king was able to buy peace. Around the 13th century, monks from Sri Lanka introduced Theravada Buddhism to Southeast Asia. The religion spread and eventually displaced Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism as the popular religion of Angkor; however it was not the official state religion until 1295; when Indravarman III took power.
The Khmer Empire was Southeast Asia’s largest empire during the 12th century. The empire’s center of power was Angkor, where a series of capitals were constructed during the empire’s zenith. In 2007 an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world with an urban sprawl of 1,151 square miles. The city, which could have supported a population of up to one million people and Angkor Wat, the best known and best-preserved religious temple at the site, still serves as a reminder of Cambodia’s past as a major regional power. The empire, though in decline, remained a significant force in the region until its fall in the 15th century.
Dark Ages of Cambodia:
After a long series of wars with neighboring kingdoms, Angkor was sacked by the Ayutthaya Kingdom and abandoned in 1432 because of ecological failure and infrastructure breakdown. This led to a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation when the kingdom’s internal affairs came increasingly under the control of its neighbors. By this time, the Khmer penchant for monument building had ceased. Older faiths such as Mahayana Buddhism and the Hindu cult of the god-king had been supplanted by Theravada Buddhism.
The court moved the capital to Longvek where the kingdom sought to regain its glory through maritime trade. The first mention of Cambodia in European documents was in 1511 by the Portuguese. Portuguese travelers described the city as a place of flourishing wealth and foreign trade. The attempt was short-lived however, as continued wars with Ayutthaya and the Vietnamese resulted in the loss of more territory and Longvek being conquered and destroyed by King Naresuan the Great of Ayutthaya in 1594. A new Khmer capital was established at Oudong south of Longvek in 1618, but its monarchs could survive only by entering into what amounted to alternating vassal relationships with the Siamese and Vietnamese for the next three centuries with only a few short-lived periods of relative independence.
In the nineteenth century a renewed struggle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia resulted in a period when Vietnamese officials attempted to force the Khmers to adopt Vietnamese customs. This led to several rebellions against the Vietnamese and appeals to Thailand for assistance. The Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–1845) ended with an agreement to place the country under joint suzerainty. This later led to the signing of a treaty for French Protection of Cambodia by King Norodom Prohmborirak.
In 1863, King Norodom, who had been installed by Thailand, sought the protection of Thailand from French rule. In 1867, the Thai king signed a treaty with France, renouncing suzerainty over Cambodia in exchange for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces which officially became part of Thailand. The provinces were ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Thailand in 1907.
Cambodia continued as a protectorate of France from 1867 to 1953, administered as part of the colony of French Indochina, though occupied by the Japanese empire from 1941 to 1945. Between 1874 and 1962, the total population increased from about 946,000 to 5.7 million. After King Norodom’s death in 1904, France manipulated the choice of king, and Sisowath, Norodom’s brother, was placed on the throne. The throne became vacant in 1941 with the death of Monivong, Sisowath’s son, and France passed over Monivong’s son, Monireth, feeling he was too independently minded. Instead, Norodom Sihanouk, a maternal grandson of King Sisowath was enthroned. The French thought young Sihanouk would be easy to control. They were wrong, however, and under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia gained independence from France on 9 November 1953.
Independence and Vietnam War:
Cambodia became a constitutional monarchy under King Norodom Sihanouk. When French Indochina was given independence, Cambodia lost hope of regaining control over the Mekong Delta as it was awarded to Vietnam. Formerly part of the Khmer Empire, the area had been controlled by the Vietnamese since 1698, with King Chey Chettha II granting the Vietnamese permission to settle in the area decades before. This remains a diplomatic sticking point with over one million ethnic Khmers (the Khmer Krom) still living in this region. The Khmer Rouge attempted invasions to recover the territory which, in part, led to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and deposition of the Khmer Rouge.
In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his father to participate in politics and was elected prime minister. Upon his father’s death in 1960, Sihanouk again became head of state, taking the title of prince. As the Vietnam War progressed, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality in the Cold War. Sihanouk allowed the Vietnamese communists to use Cambodia as a sanctuary and a supply route for their arms and other aid to their armed forces fighting in South Vietnam. This policy was perceived as humiliating by many Cambodians. In December 1967 Washington Post journalist Stanley Karnow was told by Sihanouk that if the US wanted to bomb the Vietnamese communist sanctuaries, he would not object, unless Cambodians were killed.
The same message was conveyed to US President Johnson’s emissary Chester Bowles in January 1968. However, in public Sihanouk refuted the right of the U.S. to use air strikes in Cambodia, and on 26 March he said “these criminal attacks must immediately and definitively stop”. On 28 March a press conference was held and Sihanouk appealed to the international media: “I appeal to you to publicise abroad this very clear stand of Cambodia—that is, I will in any case oppose all bombings on Cambodian territory under whatever pretext.” Nevertheless, the public pleas of Sihanouk were ignored and the bombing continued. Members of the government and army became resentful of Sihanouk’s ruling style as well as his tilt away from the United States.
Khmer Republic (1970–75):
While visiting Beijing in 1970 Sihanouk was ousted by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak. US support for the coup remains unproven. However, once the coup was completed, the new regime, which immediately demanded that the Vietnamese communists leave Cambodia, gained the political support of the United States. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces, desperate to retain their sanctuaries and supply lines from North Vietnam, immediately launched armed attacks on the new government. The king urged his followers to help in overthrowing this government, hastening the onset of civil war.
Soon Khmer Rouge rebels began using him to gain support. However, from 1970 until early 1972, the Cambodian conflict was largely one between the government and army of Cambodia, and the armed forces of North Vietnam. As they gained control of Cambodian territory, the Vietnamese communists imposed a new political infrastructure, which was eventually dominated by the Cambodian communists now referred to as the Khmer Rouge. Between 1969 and 1973, Republic of Vietnam and US forces bombed Cambodia in an effort to disrupt the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Republic’s leadership was plagued by disunity among its three principal figures: Lon Nol, Sihanouk’s cousin Sirik Matak, and National Assembly leader In Tam. Lon Nol remained in power in part because neither of the others was prepared to take his place. In 1972, a constitution was adopted, a parliament elected, and Lon Nol became president. But disunity, the problems of transforming a 30,000-man army into a national combat force of more than 200,000 men, and spreading corruption weakened the civilian administration and army.
The Communist insurgency inside Cambodia continued to grow, aided by supplies and military support from North Vietnam. Pol Pot and Ieng Sary asserted their dominance over the Vietnamese-trained communists, many of whom were purged. At the same time, the CPK forces became stronger and more independent of their Vietnamese patrons. By 1973, the CPK were fighting battles against government forces with little or no North Vietnamese troop support, and they controlled nearly 60% of Cambodia’s territory and 25% of its population. The government made three unsuccessful attempts to enter into negotiations with the insurgents, but by 1974, the CPK were operating openly as divisions, and some of the NVA combat forces had moved into South Vietnam. Lon Nol’s control was reduced to small enclaves around the cities and main transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees from the war lived in Phnom Penh and other cities.
On New Year’s Day 1975, Communist troops launched an offensive which, in 117 days of the hardest fighting of the war, collapsed the Khmer Republic. Simultaneous attacks around the perimeter of Phnom Penh pinned down Republican forces, while other CPK units overran fire bases controlling the vital lower Mekong resupply route. A US-funded airlift of ammunition and rice ended when Congress refused additional aid for Cambodia. The Lon Nol government in Phnom Penh surrendered on 17 April 1975, just five days after the US mission evacuated Cambodia.
Khmer Rouge Regime, 1975–1978:
The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and took power in 1975. Led by Pol Pot, they changed the official name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. The new regime modeled itself on Maoist China during the Great Leap Forward, immediately evacuated the cities, and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century, discarded Western medicine and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western.
Estimates as to how many people were killed by the Khmer Rouge regime range from approximately one to three million; the most commonly cited figure is two million (about a quarter of the population). This era gave rise to the term Killing Fields, and the prison Tuol Sleng became notorious for its history of mass killing. Hundreds of thousands fled across the border into neighboring Thailand. The regime disproportionately targeted ethnic minority groups. The Cham Muslims suffered serious purges with as much as half of their population exterminated. Pol Pot was determined to keep his power and disenfranchise any enemies or potential threats, and thus increased his violent and aggressive actions against his people.
Religious institutions were not spared by the Khmer Rouge either. Religion was so viciously persecuted to such a terrifying extent that the vast majority of Cambodia’s historic architecture, 95% of Cambodia’s Buddhist temples, was completely destroyed.
Vietnamese Occupation and Transition, 1978–1992:
In November 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia in response to border raids by the Khmer Rouge. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), a pro-Soviet state led by the Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party, a party created by the Vietnamese in 1951, and led by a group of Khmer Rouge who had fled Cambodia to avoid being purged by Pol Pot and Ta Mok, was established. It was fully beholden to the occupying Vietnamese army and under direction of the Vietnamese ambassador to Phnom Penh. Its arms came from Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
Peace efforts began in Paris in 1989 under the State of Cambodia, culminating two years later in October 1991 in a Paris Comprehensive Peace Settlement. The UN was given a mandate to enforce a ceasefire and deal with refugees and disarmament known as the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
Restoration of the Monarchy:
In 1993, Norodom Sihanouk was restored as King of Cambodia, but all power was in the hands of the government established after the UNTAC sponsored elections. The stability established following the conflict was shaken in 1997 by a coup d’état led by the co-Prime Minister Hun Sen against the non-communist parties in the government. In recent years, reconstruction efforts have progressed and led to some political stability through a multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy.
In July 2010, Kang Kek Iew was the first Khmer Rouge member found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in his role as the former commandant of the S21 extermination camp and he was sentenced to life in prison. However, Hun Sen has opposed extensive trials of former Khmer Rouge mass murderers.
In August 2014, a UN-backed war crimes tribunal, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (also known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal), sentenced Khieu Samphan, the regime’s 83-year-old former head of state, and Nuon Chea, its 88-year-old chief ideologue, to life in prison on war crimes charges for their role in the country’s terror period in the 1970s. The trial began in November 2011. Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary died in 2013, while his wife, Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, was deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia in 2012. The group’s top leader, Pol Pot, died in 1998.
Cambodia has an area of 69,898 square miles and lies entirely within the tropics. It borders Thailand to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east and southeast. It has a 275-mile coastline along the Gulf of Thailand.
Cambodia’s landscape is characterised by a low-lying central plain that is surrounded by uplands and low mountains and includes the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the upper reaches of the Mekong River delta. Extending outward from this central region are transitional plains, thinly forested and rising to elevations of about 650 feet above sea level.
To the north the Cambodian plain abuts a sandstone escarpment, which forms a southward-facing cliff stretching more than 200 miles from west to east and rising abruptly above the plain to heights of 600 to 1,800 feet. This cliff marks the southern limit of the Dângrêk Mountains.
Flowing south through the country’s eastern regions is the Mekong River. East of the Mekong the transitional plains gradually merge with the eastern highlands, a region of forested mountains and high plateaus that extend into Laos and Vietnam. In southwestern Cambodia two distinct upland blocks, the Krâvanh Mountains and the Dâmrei Mountains, form another highland region that covers much of the land area between the Tonle Sap and the Gulf of Thailand.
In this remote and largely uninhabited area, Phnom Aural, Cambodia’s highest peak rises to an elevation of 5,949 feet. The southern coastal region adjoining the Gulf of Thailand is a narrow lowland strip, heavily wooded and sparsely populated, which is isolated from the central plain by the southwestern highlands.
The most distinctive geographical feature is the inundations of the Tonle Sap, measuring about 1,000 square miles during the dry season and expanding to about 9,500 square miles during the rainy season. This densely populated plain, which is devoted to wet rice cultivation, is the heartland of Cambodia. Much of this area has been designated as a biosphere reserve.
Cambodia graduated from the status of a Least Developed Country to a Lower Middle Income country in the year 2016. Most rural households depend on agriculture and its related sub-sectors. Rice, fish, timber, garments and rubber are Cambodia’s major exports. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) reintroduced more than 750 traditional rice varieties to Cambodia from its rice seed bank in the Philippines. These varieties had been collected in the 1960s.
In the Cambodia country assessment “Where Have All The Poor Gone? Cambodia Poverty Assessment 2013”, the World Bank concludes: “Over the seven years from 2004 through 2011, Cambodian economic growth was tremendous, ranking amid the best in the world. Moreover, household consumption increased by nearly 40 percent. And this growth was pro-poor—not only reducing inequality, but also proportionally boosting poor people’s consumption further and faster than that of the non-poor. As a result, the poverty rate dropped from 52.2 to 20.5 percent, surpassing all expectations and far exceeding the country’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) poverty target. However, the majority of these people escaped poverty only slightly: they remain highly vulnerable—even to small shocks—which could quickly bring them back into poverty.”
Oil and natural gas deposits found beneath Cambodia’s territorial waters in 2005 yield great potential but remain mostly untapped, due in part to territorial disputes with Thailand.
The garment industry represents the largest portion of Cambodia’s manufacturing sector, accounting for 80% of the country’s exports. In 2012, the exports grew to $4.61 billion up 8% over 2011. In the first half of 2013, the garment industry reported exports worth $1.56 billion. The sector employs 335,400 workers, of which 91% are female.
The tourism industry is the country’s second-greatest source of hard currency after the textile industry. International visitor arrivals in 2018 topped six million, a ten-fold increase since the beginning of the 21st century.
Besides Phom Penh and Angkor Wat, other tourist destinations include Sihanoukville in the southwest which has several popular beaches and Battambang in the northwest, both of which are popular stops for backpackers who make up a significant portion of visitors to Cambodia. The area around Kampot and Kep including the Bokor Hill Station are also of interest to visitors. Tourism has increased steadily each year in the relatively stable period since the 1993 UNTAC elections.
Most international arrivals in 2018 were Chinese. Tourism receipts exceeded US$4.4 billion in 2018, accounting for almost ten percent of the kingdom’s gross national product. The Angkor Wat historical park in Siem Reap Province, the beaches in Sihanoukville, the capital city Phnom Penh, and Cambodia’s 150 casinos (up from just 57 in 2014) are the main attractions for foreign tourists.
The civil war and neglect severely damaged Cambodia’s transport system. With assistance from other countries Cambodia has been upgrading the main highways to international standards and most are vastly improved from 2006. Most main roads are now paved.
Cambodia has two rail lines, totaling about 380 miles. The lines run from the capital to Sihanoukville on the southern coast. Trains are again running to and from the Cambodian capital and popular destinations in the south. After 14 years, regular rail services between the two cities restarted recently – offering a safer option than road for travellers. Trains also run from Phnom Penh to Sisophon. As of 1987, only one passenger train per week operated between Phnom Penh and Battambang but a US$141 million project, funded mostly by the Asian Development Bank, has been started to revitalize the languishing rail system that will “(interlink) Cambodia with major industrial and logistics centers in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City”.
Besides the main inter-provincial traffic artery connecting Phnom Penh with Sihanoukville, resurfacing a former dirt road with concrete / asphalt and bridging five major river crossings have now permanently connected Phnom Penh with Koh Kong, and hence there is now uninterrupted road access to neighboring Thailand and its road network.
Cambodia has two major ports, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, and five minor ones.
Cambodia has three commercial airports. In 2018, they handled a record of 10 million passengers. Phnom Penh International Airport is the busiest airport in Cambodia. Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport is the second busiest, and serves the most international flights in and out of Cambodia. Sihanouk International Airport, is in the coastal city of Sihanoukville.
Flag of Cambodia:
The national flag of Cambodia in its present form was originally adopted in 1948 and readopted in 1993, after the Constituent Assembly election in 1993 and restoration of the monarchy.
Since around 1850, the Cambodian flag has featured a depiction of Angkor Wat in the center. The current flag, with a blue border and red central (the stripes are in the ratio 1:2:1) was adopted following Cambodia’s independence in 1948. It was used until 9 October 1970, when a new flag was introduced for Lon Nol’s Khmer Republic that lasted until the takeover of the Khmer Rouge in 1975. The subsequent state of Democratic Kampuchea, which existed from 1975 to 1979, used a red flag with a three-towered Angkor Wat design retained in yellow beginning in 1976. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established in 1979, after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
The Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation (FUNSK) revived the flag adopted by the Khmer Issarak in the days of anti-French resistance for the new state. This flag had the same color pattern as the DK flag, but with a yellow five-towered Angkor Wat silhouette. When the PRK renamed itself as “State of Cambodia” (SOC) in 1989, the flag’s lower half became blue.
In 1993, the 1948 Cambodian flag was readopted. The current Cambodian flag, together with the flag of Afghanistan, the flag of Spain, and the flag of Portugal, are the only four state flags to feature a building. Red and blue are traditional colors of Cambodia.
The flag used today is the same as that established in 1948, although the older flag is sometimes said to have used a red outline for Angkor Wat while the current flag uses black specifically. Since that time, five other intervening designs have been used. Almost all made use of the image of the temple of Angkor Wat in one form or another. This famous temple site, which dates from the 12th century, was built by the Mahidharapura monarchs. It has five towers, but these were not always all depicted in the stylized version used on flags. The monarchy was restored in September 1993, the 1948 flag having been readopted in June of that year.
At least 11 different versions of the Cambodian flag have been recognized and those wishing to learn more about theses versions are encouraged to check here.