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Cambodia History

"A Simple Approach to History of Cambodia"

"Cambodia History" was last updated on April 09, 2012

The history of Cambodia has one of the most intriguing chapters in man's memory.

After Vietnam, it's one of the countries in Southeast Asia which has experienced the most (in my opinion).

Here I've gathered the most important and relevant sections of the history of Cambodia.

These sections are Cambodia facts which should be read because -

  • - when you're visiting the Angkor Cambodia Temples it's easier for you to understand what has happened to these beautiful temple sites, which were abandoned

  • - you'll understand how power struggle and miscalculation have torn Cambodia apart

  • - you'll finally understand what the Cambodians have been through.

... Prepare yourself!

PS! I'm not a historian. This article is based on my understanding of the research I've made from National Geographic (July Issue 2009) and

I've only focused on the historical facts which I think are relevant and interesting. That's the reason you'll discover gaps in the timeline.

AD 68-550 (Funan Kingdom)

Funan Chenla kingdom
Cambodia History - Funan and Chenla Kingdom Image credit:
Little is known of the Funan Kingdom, but it was apparently a Chinese name of an ancient state in Indochina, which is today's lower Cambodia.

Funan was known as a powerful trading state and its borders stretched from Malay Peninsula to Burma.

550-800 AD (Chenla Kingdom)

The Kings of Chenla took over the power after the Funans, and they worshipped the God of Shiva.

500-550 AD: Rudrawarman is the earliest recorded Khmer ruler.

700s AD: The Khmer fiefdoms are controlled by powerful families. This is the period when political tensions and battles for territory are set into motion.

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From around AD 800-1431 (Khmer Empire)

Founder of the Khmer Empire was Prince Jayavarman the 2nd. He unifies the rival fiefdoms and the capital Hariharalaya is established. Its ruins are known as the Rolous Group.

Apsara dancing is believed to be introduced in the 1st century, and is inspired by Indian dancing arts.

According to Princess Buppha Devi (daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk and apparantly the master of Apsara dancing), Apsara dancing was established in Cambodia a long time before Thailand.

But when Angkor fell in the 15th century, the Apsara dancers were taken to Thailand.

Roulous group in Cambodia
Cambodia History - Roulous Group
Image credit:
889-900: Yasovarman establishes Angkor as the capital, and the temple of Phnom Bakheng is born.

Only kings and high priests can worship at the top of the hill temple Phnom Bakheng.

1011-1049: After a decade of wars between rival fiefdoms, Suryavarman the 1st wins the throne.

He expands the empire's territory and starts constructing the West Baray.

Angkor's barays were sacred sites and integral to the city's complex water system.

What's the West Baray?

The real question is:

To prevent drought, how do you ensure water after the monsoon period?

The West Baray is a reservoir that's 5 miles long and 1.5 mile wide long!

To ensure a steady water supply, stabilize the rice production, and control flooding, Khmer engineers built a network of canals, moats, ponds, and reservoirs.

They directed the water through the canals, and into the barays and moats. And then the water finally drained into Tonle Sap -- the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

Today, the baray is fed by water diverted from the Siem Reap River.

From the 1060s: There are periods of territorial rivalries.

1113-1145: Suryavarman the 2nd builds Angkor Watt which he dedicates to the God Vishnu. He wins new land and strengthens diplomatic relations with China.

From 1145/1150: Jayavarman the 7th is considered as the greatest Khmer king in Cambodia history.

Bayon site in Angkor park, Cambodia
Cambodia History - Bayon at Angkor

He rebuilds the empire which has been torn by internal fighting and battle losses to Champa (today's Vietnam)!

This is what he did for his country:

  • He expands the Khmer territory to Southern Malaysia, Northern Laos, Champa, The Menan Valley and Korat Plain.

  • 1200: He builds the 3.5 square-mile walled enclosure of Angkor Thom, in the heart of the capital, with the Bayon temple in the center. He also dedicates the well-known Ta Prohm temple to his mother.

  • He builds roads, hospitals and houses for the people.

  • He makes Mahayana Buddhism the state religion.
Sadly, from 1220 Angkor Wat comes under Chinese pressure in the north and the new kingdoms in Southern Thailand.

13th century: Therevada Buddhism becomes the official religion.

14th century: Armies from Champa to the east and Ayutthaya (today's Thailand) to the west are continuing to win Khmer land. The Thai army destroys Angkor Thom.

1431: Ayutthaya takes its own control of Angkor and installs a ruler.

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In the mid 1500s it's time to renovate the temples in Angkor, where Angkor Wat has been abandoned and sadly falls into ruin.

1594: Thais take over the Khmer capital.


Alexandre-Henri Mohout
Cambodia History - Mouhot
Image credit:
Along with French missionaries, naturalist Alexandre-Henri Mouhot visits the ruins of Angkor. Publication of his drawings and journals begins the rediscovery of Angkor by the Western world.

But do have in mind that Angkor was already discovered by the Western world since the 16th century...

Mouhot was apparantly the one who made the Angkor temples interesting by sketching and drawing the temples.

1863: King Norodom signs an agreement with France where Cambodia becomes a protectorate. But Cambodia gradually becomes a French colony.


Japan invades Cambodia and Hitler's World War 2 interrupts French control.

This is also the year when King of Cambodia - Norodom Sihanouk becomes king.


The Japanese surrender.

After the Second World War, Norodom Sihanouk starts demanding independence from France.

1953 -- Independence Day!

Cambodia acquires full independence on November 9, 1953.


Sihanouk's party The People's Socialist Community wins every seat in the parliament.

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The dark period of Cambodia history starts...


The Khmer Rouge Party is established as the armed section of Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

From 1960

Viet Cong in Cambodia
Cambodia History - Captured Viet Cong
- image credit:
Did the Vietnam war just affect Vietnam and the US?

- Don't think so.

Sihanouk allows the Vietnamese in the North to use Cambodian soil for supplying the Viet Cong.

Viet Cong was the army which fought the US and the South Vietnamese armies.

The Viet Cong guerillas use sanctuaries in Cambodia to launch attacks on Southern Vietnam. This also means that weapon supply for the communist groups in Southern Vietnam runs through Cambodia! These sanctuaries are a pain in the ass for the Americans.

And ironically, it leads to...

US bombing of Cambodia's Eastern provinces where they believe Viet Cong guerillas are hiding. This means that thousands of Cambodians are killed.

1970 -- Bye, Bye Sihanouk!

Norodom sihanouk in Cambodia
Cambodia History - Sihanouk -
Image credit:
The frustration among the Cambodian people is getting stronger and stronger, because they're tired of the Vietnamese presence in the country. So, a demonstration breaks out in Phnom Penh when Sihanouk is on a vacation in France.

Prince Sihanouk is overthrown in a coup, and General Lon Nol (prime minister) takes over the power.

Sihanouk was not even in the country when Lon Nol convinced the National Assembly to depose Sihanouk as the head of state.

To gain a bigger political support, Khmer Rouge does the "obvious" move: They want Sihanouk to join them.

Sihanouk wants to revenge the betrayal of Lon Nol, and is persuaded to ally with the Khmer Rouge. But he has no idea that the Khmer Rouge has other plans for him... as in betrayal.

The Viet Cong are told to leave, but instead they flee deeper into the jungle of Cambodia and are pursued by US and South Vietnamese troops.

- Lon Nol reacts to the invasion from the Vietnamese communists and start their own fight.

Cambodia turns into a battlefield, while Khmer Rouge are regrouping and taking over large areas because Lon Nol have his focus on chasing the Vietnamese soldiers away.

Lon Nol has problems defeating the North Vietnamese and realises that he needs help from the US. But that doesn't turn out to be a clever move...

The results are -

  • Heavy American bombings of Cambodia which caused numerous casualties, including civilians

    These B-52 bombers are dropped on Khmer Rouge targets, but at the same time civilians' lives are lost. Villages, properties and livestock are destroyed. The bombings are practically making Khmer Rouge stronger, because Cambodians hate the US and joins the Khmer Rouge army, which is the only way to get their vengeance.

    vietnam war b52 during khmer rouge
    The yellow "dots" shows the B52 Bombings in Cambodia
    - image credit:

    So Lon Nol is proved to be a incompetent military leader and the Cambodians are starting to believe that the country should be led by the Khmer Rouge...

  • Corrupt and greedy officers in Lon Nol's army start selling weapons and supplies to Khmer Rouge which eventually wiped out towns in Cambodia.

Can we really blame the fact that the Cambodians wanted the Khmer Rouge to take over the country...?

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Year Zero: 1975

year zero during pol pot in cambodia
Cambodia History - Genocide
The armies of Khmer Rouge are military superior compared to Lon Nol's men. So Lon Nol flees the country.

Khmer Rouge guerillas ally with the Vietnamese communists and overthrow the government by marching into Phnom Penh.

Pol Pot is the new Prime minister and the Communist leader of Khmer Rouge. The massacre of millions of Cambodians was about to begin…

Year Zero basically means that Cambodia was converted into a pure Communist state centered on basic agricultural production.

Churches and temples were destroyed, intellectuals persecuted, currency was abolished etc. Educated persons were killed because they were perceived as the enemies.

What I think is very sad is that young children were recruited as Khmer Rouge child soldiers.

The results were execution and torture of Cambodian peasants and intellectuals, women, men and children. It is said that 1/3 of the Cambodian population was victim to genocide.

Pol Pot starts to believe that cadres in the Eastern provinces are secretly allied to the Vietnamese.

So he starts to execute Khmer Rouge party members of the Eastern Zone, the region bordering Vietnam. One of the men who gets away -- Heng Samrin,a Khmer Rouge military commander, joins the Vietnamese armies.


Vietnamese are tired of what the Khmer Rouge are doing in Cambodia, and feels threatened because of Khmer Rouge attacks on their territory.

So ultimately, 90.000 Vietnamese and 18.000 Cambodians invade Cambodia's borders and overthrow the Khmers. Heng Samrin is now running the government. The Khmer Rouge flees into the jungle near the Thai border.

1979: End of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia history


Cambodia history UN facts
Cambodia History - UN
- image credit:
There's a humanitarian disaster in Cambodia, especially along the border.

Thousands of Cambodians flee to Thailand, and the sights of Pol Pot's brutality remind of the pictures you've seen of the Jews during Second World War...

UN, Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations aid the refugees by the border. The tension builds up between UN and the new government of Heng Samrin, because the international community doesn't recognize Heng's government as the legitimate government of Cambodia, while Heng doesn't appreciate the fact that UN is aiding Khmer Rouge at the border. As a result of this, the aid to the internal Cambodia is proved to be difficult.

The remains of Khmer Rouge are regrouping and launch attacks on the Vietnamese troops.

The Vietnamese troops pull out in 1990.

1991 - UN steps in

UN as well, is worried about the unstable situation in Cambodia, and decides to place 16.000 peacekeeping forces and administrative support. Heng Samrin is replaced by Chea Sim.

The Khmer Rouge doesn't give up: They start kidnapping UN peace keepers, and some of them get killed. And they even step up the attacks on innocent civilians, and plant even more land mines in the rural areas of the country.


Sihanouk is reinstated as king of Cambodia in 1993, but because of his health issues he declares the abdication of his throne.


Rumours that Khmer Rouge leaders want to start peace negotiations begin, and it results in one of Pol Pot's mistakes:

Pol Pot executes his Defense minister, Son Sen and 10 members of Son Sen's family. This execution splits up the remaining fighting spirit in Khmer Rouge.

Pol Pot is later overthrown in an internal rebellion in the fall of 1997, and he's convicted in a Khmer Rouge show trial.

April 15, 1998

Pol Pot dies, and no one really knows how he died. Some say that his former followers killed him, while official reports state that he was ill.

2009 - Ongoing

War crime trials against former Khmer Rouge started in 2009. The first case was opened in February 2009 against Duch - former commander of the S-21 prison. He was convicted of his war crimes in 2010. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but had 11 years shaved off. The sentence was appealed by the prosecutors who thought the sentence was too mild, while Duch thought it was too harsh.

In June 2011, in the second phase of the proceedings, four of the remaining Khmer Rouge leaders went on trial.

In 2011, a conflict arose between foreign judges of the tribunal, prompting at least four of the foreign judges to resign. They said that the government was trying to block prosecutions.

You can read more about it here at NY Times

Look for "Survival in the Killing Fields" through It has received excellent reviews from other readers. Or search for other books on Pol Pot, Killing Fields of Cambodia and Khmer history

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