Inside Asia Tours: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

The History of Cambodia

Cambodia's history has been grand, prosperous, turbulent and bloody in equal measures. From the days when it ruled Southeast Asia from the heart of the Khmer Empire, the country has gone through colonial subjugation, independence, and the devastation of the Khmer Rouge before emerging, battered but not broken, into the modern era.

Below is our introduction to the different periods of Cambodian history, and how these interlock with that of its neighbours: Laos and Vietnam.

Ancient Cambodia

From around the 1st to the 5th century, the state of Funan occupied the area of present day Cambodia and southwestern Vietnam. The Funanese were and affluent people, speaking Khmer but writing Sanskrit, with many influences from India - including advanced engineering skills and Hinduism. Despite its success, Funan eventually began to fragment, and by the sixth century had given way to the Kingdom of Chenla - previously a Funanese dependency. Little is known about Chenla, but by the eighth century the kingdom had divided into two states, "Land Chenla" and "Water Chenla", and was ruled by separate princes.

In the late eighth century Jayavarman II appeared on the scene, declaring himself ruler of the Kingdom of Kambujadesa in 795. After moving his capital a total of five times, he eventually settled in Phnom Kulen, northeast of Siem Reap, in 802. It was at this point that the seeds of the Khmer Empire were sown, and the great Angkorian Period of Cambodian history began.

Until the 11th century, the Khmer kings were Hindus and it was a major part of their religious duty to build temples. Each successive king would begin his own building project, and thus a vast number of great temples were erected across Cambodia over the course of several centuries.

The 12th century in particular brought a golden age for Angkor. At this time the Khmer Empire was the largest empire in Southeast Asia, extending all the way from Champa in the east to Pagan (modern-day Burma) in the west, and from the north of Siam (modern-day Thailand) into the Malay peninsula. It was during this period that King Suryavarman II ordered the construction of Angkor Wat - the most impressive of all the Khmer temples. It was also during this period that the Khmer Empire saw its first Buddhist king, Dharanindravarman II, although it seems that he made no attempt to convert his Hindu subjects.

The Khmer Empire retained its ascendancy until its fall to the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 15th century, the result of internal instability and a series of wars with neighbouring kingdoms. It is thought that the massive building projects instigated by Jayavarman VII, which depleted the empire's resources considerably, may have played a part in the eventual fragmentation of the state after his death in the late 12th century.

Throughout the next four centuries, sometimes called the "Dark Ages of Cambodia", the Khmers fought for control, succumbing to various takeover attempts from Thailand and Vietnam until the French came onto the scene in the mid-19th century.

The French Protectorate

In 1863, King Norodom (put in place by Thailand) signed a treaty with France, establishing Cambodia as a French protectorate. Protection by the French was exchanged for mineral and timber rights, and freedom for the French to preach Christianity in Cambodia. Despite the treaty, however, Norodom continued to treat secretly with Bangkok. This double-dealing was eventually discovered, his administrative position gradually eroded and his power finally assumed by the French. By the time of Norodom's death in 1904, hastened by his opium addiction, the French were in full control of the country.

World War II & Independence

After the fall of France in 1940, Cambodia and the rest of French Indochina were ruled by the Vichy Government, which was allowed to retain nominal control of the region under Japanese supervision. At this time, the Thais (allies with Japan) launched attacks on Cambodia in a failed attempt to reclaim the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap - which they had lost to the French earlier in the century. Though the French easily overcame these attacks, they were later forced by the Japanese to hand the two provinces back to Thailand for a nominal sum.

In 1945, King Norodom Sihanouk demanded independence from France. Although the request was refused, France did begrudgingly allow elections to be held for the first time in Cambodia's history, and the party who emerged victorious was the democratic, anti-royalist party Krom Pracheathipodei. In 1949 the French retreated further, but retained control over the Cambodian judiciary, customs and foreign policy. Finally, in 1952, Sihanouk staged a coup, dismissed the cabinet, suspended the constitution and declared himself prime minister - lobbying the French to relinquish their hold on the country until full independence was finally granted on the 9th of November 1953.

Sihanouk was celebrated as a national hero, but soon proved himself fickle and obsessed with his own public adulation. Unsatisfied with the level of power he enjoyed as king and unable as to manipulate the constitution to increase the control of the monarchy, Sihanouk abdicated in 1955, bequeathing the throne to his father, King Norodom Suramarit, who had originally been passed over for coronation by the French. Sihanouk then formed his own political party - the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Popular Socialist Community) - rigging the elections to ensure that he took power that same year. On the death of King Suramarit in 1960, the monarchy was dissolved and Sihanouk became head of state.

In the 1960s, Sihanouk continued to make sudden policy shifts, make and break alliances, and generally change direction wildly. At the same time, the conflict between North and South Vietnam began to spill over the border into Cambodia, with the US launching a bombing campaign on the country's border areas in an effort to destroy communist Vietnamese bases and supply lines. This alienated provincial Cambodians, forced communist Vietnamese further into Cambodian territory, and laid the foundations for the eventual victory of the Communist Party of Kampuchea - also known as the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge era

Over three decades after initially declaring independence in 1945, Sihanouk was ousted during a military coup in 1970, which was followed by civil war. Communist forces emerged from the skirmish victorious, unhindered by attempts from both Vietnam and the US to prevent them, and took complete power by 1975.

The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, changed the name of Cambodia to Democratic Kampuchea and began to enforce communist rule. They evacuated cities in favour of the countryside; eradicated all foreign influences; closed schools, hospitals and factories; abolished banking, finance and currency; outlawed all religions; confiscated all private property; and in the process killed an estimated two million of its own citizens. The country's entire intellectual elite was murdered to make way for a proposed agricultural society, but the city-dwellers who were forced to work the land had no farming knowledge, making famine inevitable.

The Khmer Rouge's four years in power were a time of terror, persecution and increasing paranoia that devastated Cambodian culture. At this time even those who displayed stereotypical signs of learning - such as wearing glasses - were killed.

The fall of the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese occupation & the modern era

By 1978, the Vietnamese had invaded Cambodia and established the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), ending three years, eight months and twenty days of Khmer Rouge rule. Though the Vietnamese were almost universally welcomed by Cambodians, opinion continues to be divided as to whether the Vietnamese should be remembered as liberators or occupiers. Pol Pot, meanwhile, escaped to Thailand, where he continued to be supported by China, Thailand and the USA as the rightful leader of Cambodia.

By 1989, the Vietnamese had withdrawn completely from Cambodia, having faced continued opposition from the exiled Khmer Rouge, and from Prince Sihanouk's Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea - established in absentia in Thailand. As Vietnam withdrew, Cambodia was still desperately poor, with struggling infrastructure and wide-ranging corruption.

In 1990, China and the USA finally withdrew their support for the Khmer Rouge and a ceasefire was declared in 1991. In 1993, an election was held in which four million Cambodians participated (though many were prevented from voting by the still-armed Khmer Rouge), resulting in the establishment of a coalition government between the royalist FUNCINPEC Party (which won the majority), the Cambodian People's Party, and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party. King Sihanouk was reinstated after 38 years in politics, a new constitution was drafted, and a multiparty liberal democracy was established.

The Khmer Rouge continued to cause trouble in Cambodia through the early nineties, abducting and murdering several foreign tourists. In 1996, however, Pol Pot denounced his third-in-command, Ieng Sary, splitting Khmer Rouge allegiances and ultimately instigating its demise. The civil war dragged on through the decade, until Pol Pot's death and the defection of two prominent leaders signalled the effective collapse of the Khmer Rouge in 1998. Ever since then, the Cambodian People's Party has been the dominant force in Cambodian politics.

King Sihanouk, meanwhile, abdicated a second time in 2004, passing the throne to his son, King Sihamoni, who rules today. The former king died in 2012, having been at the forefront of Cambodian history since his coronation in 1941.