Early Years -- The history of what is now Cambodia is largely about the roller-coaster sweep of empire across the whole of the region including Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. They are all related.
The earliest recognizable national entity in what is now Cambodia was the Indianized kingdom of Funan. This trading nation flourished from the 1st to the 6th century A.D. and probably existed between Prey Veng Province in Cambodia and Kien Giang Province in Vietnam. As most Khmers will tell you, they still regard southern Vietnam, or "Kampuchea Krom," as rightfully Cambodian and historically they have a pretty strong case. Although Cambodia was at the time a patchwork of small fiefdoms sometimes at peace and sometimes at war with one another, it was through its position as a major seaport that Funan imported the Indian religion and culture that would be so important in shaping the future of the region. At its height Funan and its related states stretched across Vietnam, Laos, and as far as the Malay Peninsula. The kingdom is said to have employed Indians in the administration of the state. Sanskrit was the court language, and the Funanese advocated initially Hindu and, after the 5th century, Buddhist religious practice. Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu were the focus of worship and the Lingam (or Indian phallic totem and temple focus) seems to have played a central role in religious practice.
By the 6th century, Funan was weakening as trade diminished due to historical shifts in faraway places. The population largely shifted from the coastal areas inland to the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, moving from oceangoing trade to wet rice production. Power shifted from the Kingdom of Funan to the more specifically Khmer rebel entity of Chenla. Chenla later divided into separate north and south, referred to by contemporary Chinese sources as "Chenla of the Land" and "Chenla of the Sea," respectively. What is now Champasak in Laos was the center of the north, while the lands around the Mekong Delta and the coast belonged to the south. By the 8th century, Chenla too was weakening as various vassal states broke away.
The Rise of Angkor -- Jayavarman I was the first king of what historians consider to have been the Khmer empire. It emerged from the Kingdom of Kambuja, after which Cambodia is named. He ruled from approximately 657 to 681 but died without an heir. Over the course of his reign, he consolidated power over the lands around him. However, Jayavarman left no male heirs, which led to a return to the chaotic conditions that previously held sway.
These events preceded the rise of the mightiest empire in all of Southeast Asia. It was Jayavarman II, the "god-king" or devaraja, who set off the train of events that would lead to Khmer rule encompassing all of what is now Cambodia, most of what now makes up Thailand and Laos, and large parts of present-day Vietnam. The physical remains of this empire are dotted around the region as far west as Kanchanaburi and as far north as Sukhothai in Thailand, and as far east as the South China Sea. Most historians concur that Jayavarman II rose to power in about A.D. 802. Inscribed on the sacred temple of Sdok Kak Thom on Phnom Kulen Mountain north of Angkor is an account of how Jayavarman had himself made "chakravartin" or universal monarch. It was this dawn of the age of god-kings that saw the creation of Angkor.
Although Hinduism had arrived, original feudal and animist practices survived. One such belief was the blurring of definition between God and feudal lords. This feudal reverence is imbued in the Khmer psyche and in mutated forms continues to this day. Through alliance and conquest, Jayavarman first subjugated nearby Khmer local warlords. He then turned his attention further afield. Not much is actually known about Jayavarman II except the fact that he consolidated the lands that are now Cambodia and laid the groundwork for the empire that was to follow.
Angkor is the surviving representation of hugely ambitious construction. Indravarman I (A.D. 877 -- 89) initiated incredible irrigation projects (an obsession with irrigation was revisited under Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge centuries later, inspired by Angkorian supremacy). These projects were vastly complex and allowed the production of up to three rice harvests a year. Angkor was a power built on water and rice. Indravarman also presided over a flowering of the arts.
The Decline of Angkor & Battles with Siam -- By the end of the 10th century, the empire was in trouble. A usurper, Suryavarman, pushed the boundaries of empire further by annexing Lopburi in what is now central Thailand. The town is still home to some impressive Khmer ruins (largely inhabited by monkeys). The rise and fall of Angkor was not one unified process. It ebbed and flowed with periods of near collapse followed by triumphal renewal, with new additions as a symbol of triumph.
One of these periods of renewal was under the reign of Suryavarman II (1112-77), ending a period of disunity marking military victory against the Kingdom of Champa in what is now Vietnam. Above all, Suryavarman will be remembered as the man who initially commissioned the building of Angkor Wat itself as a devotion to the god Vishnu. He was killed in a retaliatory strike by the maritime forces of Champa, who fought their way up the Mekong and the Tonle Sap Lake and took the Khmers by surprise.
Their triumph was not to last long. Suryavarman's cousin Jayavarman VII was crowned in 1181 and defeated the Chams decisively. This king was a Buddhist and it was under his rule that much of what one now sees at Angkor was constructed. It is likely his face that you see serenely staring out of the walls of the Bayon on such an amazingly impressive scale. The bas-reliefs around Angkor show a Buddhist king immersed in Buddhist practices. Other sculptures display an image of warlike ferocity and relentless and brutal killing. This undertaking probably involved a huge amount of suffering for the laborers. His motivation was partly political in an insecure world of war and dispute. It was also partly evangelical. His was the desire to spread the word of Buddhism in a predominantly Hindu world (although he was Mahayana, not part of the Theravada line that dominates in Cambodia today).
Jayavarman VII died around 1215 and by this time, even though the Khmer empire was at its zenith, cracks were beginning to appear and signs of a permanent decline were beginning to show. The massive construction projects were taking a heavy toll on resources. The god-kings destroyed themselves by the effort of maintaining their own physical glory in water and in stone. The Thai empire of Ayutthaya was growing in strength as the Angkorian empire wore itself out. Their raids on the Khmers became ever more successful and ever more aggressive. In 1431, Siam attacked the city of Angkor itself, sacking it wholesale. It was around this period that the Khmer empire started to shrink and the area of what is now Phnom Penh grew in importance, as Angkor came under repeated attack from the warlike Siamese. For the next 150 years, conflict with the Thais largely dictated the agenda. It didn't all go the Thais' way. At one point, Khmer soldiers got very nearly to the walls of Ayutthaya only to discover the Burmese had beat them to it, vanquishing the Thais and occupying their capital. Ayutthaya recovered, however, and the Khmers were crushed by their armies in 1594.
Years of Chaos & Arrival of the French -- From this time on, Cambodia was largely a power vacuum. Weak kings looked to both Vietnam and Siam for protection. The whole of southern Vietnam including the Mekong Delta was ceded to the Vietnamese, including the village of Prey Nokor -- a place now called either Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. The Thais took the northwestern provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, a bitter historical irony since the name Siem Reap means "Defeat of Siam." By the late 18th century, Siam was in total control. The only reason that Cambodia survived at all was because the Thais became preoccupied with fending off the ever-aggressive Burmese and the Vietnamese created their own problems of internal strife.
Then there was a colonial intervention. France had initially established and consolidated its rule in Vietnam as part of a move to protect its valuable trade interests. In 1867, French gunboats made their way up the Mekong and King Norodom I was forced to sign a treaty making Cambodia a protectorate of France. For the king at the time, the choice was one of dominance by either the French or the Thais, and the French were the preferred choice. This move actually reinforced the territorial integrity of Cambodia, since it halted Thai and Vietnamese appropriation of territory. In 1887, Cambodia became a part of the newly formed Federation of French Indochina with the Vietnamese provinces of Annam in the north and Cochin in the south. Laos was ceded to France after the Thai-Franco War of 1893. In Cambodia, Norodom remained on the throne, but it was the French who called the shots as they remained aggressively predatory, making a further series of land grabs against the Thais over the following years.
Cambodia remained very much a backwater and a buffer. The French made their money in Vietnam. The Khmers were also heavily taxed, but all the money was used to develop the neighboring provinces of what is now Vietnam. Cambodia remained undeveloped, even in Phnom Penh where most positions of authority in the colonial administration were held by Vietnamese. The French were clever in that they actually exalted the Cambodian monarchy in a way not seen since the days of Angkor, thus diffusing a lot of anti-French sentiment.
Norodom died in 1904 and was succeeded by King Sisowath, who reigned until 1927. He was followed by King Monivong. On Monivong's death, a 19-year-old named Sihanouk was placed on the throne by the French governor, Admiral Decoux. His life remains intimately intertwined with every step of the following decades of drama.
During World War II, Japanese forces rampaged through all of Southeast Asia. Vichy French cooperation with the Axis powers ensured that the actual physical presence of the Japanese was not that great in Cambodia, although the Cambodians did have to hand over much of Battambang and Siem Reap to Thailand, which was an Axis ally. When Paris fell to Allied forces, the Japanese took more direct control of Cambodian affairs. Once the Japanese were defeated, De Gaulle was very insistent on re-claiming French Indochina, bulldozing aside any claims for independence tacitly agreed to by the U.S. Pacific command in return for active resistance to Japanese occupation on the part of Ho Ch Minh and his allies. The British also acquiesced for fear of setting a precedent with regard to India. Sihanouk sneakily welcomed back the French for fear of being engulfed by the old enemies, Thailand and Vietnam. By this time, however, the independence genie had been let out of the bottle and no European colonial power was in a position to reverse that in the long term. Guerrilla movements demanding independence, such as the Khmer Issarak and the Khmer Serei, grew up in the countryside and battled French control. The French fought back with immense brutality.
The Rebirth of Nationhood -- Curiously, it was the French who re-created a lost sense of Khmer nationhood -- something that had been eroded in the previous centuries by the disintegration of the Khmer empire and centuries of domination by neighboring powers. The French "discovered" Angkor, a place abandoned by the Khmers to slumbering and powerful spirits for 600 years. They resurrected and encouraged the arts, including the Royal Ballet, but adapted it to their own tastes (the Thai ballet is far more authentically Angkorian, since they did not tamper with its borrowed moves). The virulent Khmer nationalism you see today was largely contrived by the French to create a psychological buffer between themselves and the Thais, who were seen as being in the British sphere of influence. It was Theravada Buddhism, the backbone of Khmer culture and society, that often inspired protest against the French, and the monkhood was seen as vulnerable to Thai influence.
Independence -- At this point, King Sihanouk confounded the French who put him on the throne. In 1953, he dissolved parliament and declared martial law in aid of what became known as the "Royal Crusade" for an independent Cambodia. Independence arrived in Indochina in 1954, though this was just the beginning of brand-new conflicts as the whole region became tragically sucked into the vortex of the Cold War.
In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated the throne in order to pursue his aims as a bona fide politician. For better or worse, he was to directly dominate Cambodian politics until his overthrow in 1970 and continues to be a major player until this day -- an ambitious "god-king" who has endorsed tragedy and sanctioned horror, he sees himself as the deliverer of his nation.
During the 1960s, Sihanouk walked a diplomatic tightrope as he maneuvered to keep Cambodia neutral in the conflict raging in Vietnam. He feared the North Vietnamese Communists who had always taken a fairly patronizing and threatening view of Cambodia. He also deeply distrusted the Americans, breaking diplomatic ties in 1965 in the belief that Washington was plotting his removal. He might well have had cause.
He was, however, shortly to fall off the tightrope. In tilting toward Ho Chi Minh, Sihanouk allowed North Vietnamese forces to use Cambodia as a base and for transit. He didn't really have much choice. The Hanoi-based Communists had enough military power to do what they wanted. Sihanouk's rule became increasingly brutal as dissent grew. Opponents "disappeared." The right-wing forces gained more and more power. The army grew resentful and rebellious. The nascent left wing felt pushed to ever greater extremes as the ravages of a corrupt regime seemed to become ever more totalitarian. Cambodia was sliding toward an abyss.
Rebellion broke out in Samlot in the remote western jungles near the Thai border in 1967, and it was brutally suppressed. Photographs still exist of Royalist soldiers brandishing the severed heads of vanquished rebels. At this point, Sihanouk went for the left wingers and even moderate leftists, and fled to the jungle to organize resistance.
The Spiral of War -- Things came to a head in 1970. While Sihanouk was at a conference in France, an American-sponsored coup deposed him. Defense minister Lon Nol took power, a move that had terrible reverberations. An occultist right-wing "Buddhist," he was in many ways a mirror of his nemesis, Pol Pot. Like Pol Pot, he was a plodder professionally. He had reached his exalted position through being Sihanouk's enforcer and hatchet man as head of the army, yet as a soldier and tactician he was to prove disastrous, breaking his own army with bizarre campaign strategies that went against all the rules of good generalship. Like Pol Pot, he was also a deranged xenophobe, particularly against the Vietnamese. He had Vietnamese living in Cambodia massacred on a fairly industrial scale, even though his sponsor at this time was largely the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.
Sihanouk went to Beijing. Up to this time there had been a tacit agreement with Hanoi that in return for Cambodia not supporting America, North Vietnam would not actively sponsor the increasingly radical Cambodian left. That agreement was now in shreds and the group that Sihanouk had derided as the "Khmer Rouge" (Red Khmers) became the recipients of massive infusions of military aid and support from Hanoi and China, Sihanouk's previous allies. Effectively, a beast was let off the leash. No one could have guessed the intentions of Pol Pot and his accomplices. The horror to come was unprecedented in the wars of Indochina.
In April 1970, South Vietnamese and American forces invaded Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese forces. Yet the North Vietnamese just retreated farther inside Cambodia. The North Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge acolytes soon controlled vast areas of the countryside. In these "liberated zones," there was a total disregard for human life as the Khmer Rouge started to implement their horrific ideology. These were dark portents for the future.
Just before Sihanouk's overthrow, the U.S. had begun a secret campaign of bombing Cambodia and Laos to try and interdict the NVA and Viet Cong on the Ho Chi Minh trail and destroy their Cambodian bases. It failed to do either. What it did do was kill thousands upon thousands of innocent villagers and send their relatives rushing to join the fight against the American aggressor or scramble for refuge in Phnom Penh -- a city that was increasingly bloated with suffering. Nixon and Kissinger were Pol Pot's greatest friends in terms of recruitment. After 1970 Sihanouk, following the dictum that "my enemy's enemy is my friend," disastrously and naively threw in his lot with the Khmer Rouge, visiting the liberated zones and being photographed with the Khmer Rouge leadership. He was under pressure from China (as was Pol Pot) and his bitterness knew no boundaries. This was a disaster. Even with all the wriggling and squirming that Sihanouk had done to remain in power, he was still revered by Khmers in the countryside and now the Khmer Rouge had his blessing. In his arrogance, Sihanouk thought he could control the Khmer Rouge. It was to prove to be very much the other way around. By 1973, the whole of Cambodia was engulfed in savage fighting, and Phnom Penh was bloated with refugees and was effectively under siege. Pressure continued to build, and the bombs continued to fall. Meanwhile, the Lon Nol government didn't aid its own survival as the practices of brutality and corruption became amplified to operatic proportions.
An Unbelievable Horror: the Khmer Rouge Years -- In April 1975, the Khmer Rouge won the war and entered Phnom Penh. What was to follow was one of the most brutal and evil episodes in the history of Cambodia and, indeed, the history of the whole of mankind. On entering the city the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh completely and drove the entire population, including the sick and the dying, into the countryside. This was proclaimed to be "Year Zero."
The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into one large, starvation-driven, terrorized work camp. Anyone thought to be remotely associated with the old regime was murdered. The Khmer Rouge would torture and kill for acts as subversive as wearing glasses or speaking in a foreign language. Up to two million people died as the result of torture, starvation, and wholesale purges. People were interned and slaughtered on an industrial scale. "Confessions" were extracted from people who generally had no idea why they had been arrested in the first place. The enemies of "Angkar" -- or "the Organization" -- were tortured, starved, beaten, and killed all over the country.
As the movement became more fractured, more paranoid, and more collectively delusional, the killing got worse. The whole of the "Eastern Zone" became suspicious to "Angkar" and thousands were deported to the seemingly loyal Southwestern Zone. The Easterners were issued with blue kramas (traditional Khmer checked scarves), with everyone wearing a blue krama marked for death.
Today historians, journalists, and commentators are still trying to understand this horror. No one really does. The movement was led by a clique of committed leftists, the head of which was a soft-spoken former teacher with royal connections. His real name was Saloth Sar, but he is known to the world now as Pol Pot. Many of these leftists had been educated in Paris and became part of a wider Communist movement known as the "Circle Marxiste." As Sihanouk's regime became more brutal this group became more consolidated and, after the Lon Nol coup, better equipped and more effective. Their philosophy was a weird mixture of mangled Maoist thinking and traditional Khmer xenophobic arrogance.
Some blame their brutalization on the American bombing of the countryside. This is far too simple and trite. The Americans bombed Laos and Vietnam as well, yet neither of those countries descended into the carnage that ravaged Cambodia. No one knows why, and although there are UN trials in process, that doesn't mean the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders will be prompted to start telling the truth.
This particular episode in the Cambodian collective nightmare was ended in 1979. Pol Pot and his gruesome henchmen had been increasingly attacking the old enemy and their former sponsors, the Vietnamese. The North Vietnamese had won their war as the Khmer Rouge had won their own at roughly the same time. By 1978, Pol Pot was sending Khmer Rouge soldiers into South Vietnam where, not content with murdering Cambodian innocents, they perpetrated massacres of Vietnamese villagers. The Vietnamese had had enough and invaded Cambodia, successfully evicting the Khmer Rouge in a blitzkrieg. This may have ended one episode of horror, but the nightmare was certainly not ended.
A Victim of the Cold War: the 80's -- Cambodia was to suffer 2 more decades of war and suffering, a hopeless pawn in Cold War politics. Vietnam may have gotten rid of a regime where inhumanity was honed to a fine art, but in the mind-set of America and its allies this masked an uncomfortable reality. The Vietnamese were pro-Soviet Communists and their invasion of Cambodia marked a major extension of Soviet power. What to do? The answer that the U.S. came up with was to arm and support the Khmer Rouge in the full knowledge of what this movement had done to its own people.
The Khmer Rouge continued to fight under the not very convincing guise of a royalist alliance, with Sihanouk continuing to provide the endorsement (this despite the fact that the Khmer Rouge had confined him and come close to killing him during their rule). They carried Chinese guns largely paid for with American money, but they carried on killing Cambodian people in huge numbers. Historians ask themselves how this could have happened. Who should now be on trial? The answers remain complex and certainly have little to do with justice.
The Vietnamese installed a pliant, puppet government in Phnom Penh consisting mainly of former Eastern Zone Khmer Rouge rebel defectors headed at first by Heng Samrin (a man who remains justifiably popular even among his political opponents) and then Hun Sen. The war continued and there was a massive exodus of refugees to both Thailand and Vietnam, and as the rice fields went untended people began to starve on a massive scale. Huge permanent refugee camps came into existence in Thailand as the agendas of outside players were forced upon a people for whom war had become the never-ending and tragic norm.
Amazingly, the UN still recognized the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, and it was a Khmer Rouge representative who held the Cambodian seat at the UN The war sputtered on through the '80s, the refugee camps became cities, and all this only diminished with the advent of Perestroika in Russia, the collapse of Soviet support for satellite states, and Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989. There was no longer an imperative for the West to support the Khmer Rouge and they were left only with Chinese support. The government of Hun Sen was forced to look to the outside world now that their Soviet and Vietnamese patrons had quit the scene. The Khmer Rouge adapted their game but not their capacity for the murder of their own people. They continued to plant mines (as did the Vietnamese-backed government forces) around the mountains and forest areas where they continued to hold sway and launch new offensives every year.
UN Intervention -- With the Cold War imperative gone, diplomatic efforts to put a stop to the fighting started to become effective in 1990 with the Paris peace accords, implemented by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. A deal was hammered out that suited both Hun Sen's government and the forces of the Sihanouk "alliance." The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) would create and oversee the conditions under which elections could be held. Sihanouk was rewarded for all his years of politicking and plotting by being put back on the throne.
There was a merciful break in the fighting, but the period saw an influx of foreign troops and money into the country. Phnom Penh became a Wild West -- like boomtown awash with money, four-wheel-drives, and rampant prostitution. As Hun Sen darkly quipped years later, UNTAC should really stand for "United Nations Takes AIDS to Cambodia." Originally the Khmer Rouge were included in the peace process following the delusional and criminal logic that caused the international community to support them through the '80s. They soon realized that this would not suit their ends (largely because no one would vote for them) and they returned to their jungle bases and went back to what they knew best -- killing and war.
The election took place in 1993 and Sihanouk's FUNCINPEC party very narrowly won the vote. This didn't suit Hun Sen, who remains to this day a Machiavellian strongman. The UN, in its wisdom, caved in to Hun Sen, appointing him and FUNCINPEC's Prince Norodom Ranariddh as joint prime ministers. They both had armies, they both wanted exclusive power, and they both hated each other with a vengeance.
Meanwhile, the UN left town thinking Cambodia was now a job well done. All that effort and money left Cambodia in continued chaos, and once again the wider world had failed ordinary Cambodians. The inevitable happened -- conflict between the two prime ministers worsened and the Khmer Rouge went on the offensive yet again.
The End of the Khmer Rouge -- The key to the beginning of the end came from the Khmer Rouge itself. In 1996, Ieng Sary, former head of the Cambodian Cercle Marxiste and Pol Pot's foreign minister, broke with Pol Pot's center. Ieng's forces were in the Western town of Pailin where they were becoming very rich as a result of logging and gem mining. Pol Pot's center was based in the northern area of Anlong Veng, and they felt that not enough of the money was making it their way. In the end, what broke this murderous Marxist movement was a squabble about cash. The issue of Khmer Rouge defections exacerbated the already fragile peace between the two prime ministers as both attempted to attract enough former Khmer Rouge forces to their own cause and wipe out their rival.
This came to a head in 1997 when Hun Sen seized absolute power in what was wrongly called a "coup," but was actually simply a stand-up fight and settling of scores. FUNCINPEC forces were defeated and Prince Ranariddh fled.
Meanwhile things started to look bleak for Pol Pot. He murdered his old and close friend, Son Sen (and his wife and children) by having them run over by a tank. Pol Pot was in turn ousted by his own brutal one-eyed lieutenant, Ta Mok, dubbed "The Butcher." Ta Mok, quite rightly, probably thought he was next and decided to get in his retaliation first. Pol Pot was convicted in a Khmer Rouge show trial and put under house arrest. He died in a malarial jungle hovel in 1998 and his body was burned on tires with no autopsy being done. A long and painful era of Cambodian history died with him.
A Measure of Stability -- There were elections in 1998 and in 2003. Hun Sen and the CPP won both times and his grip on power remains almost total. Whether that's a good thing or not is often a point of debate, but the fact is that since 1998 the hard-won stability that now exists has benefited ordinary Cambodian people.
There have been problems. In 2003, an enraged mob torched the Thai embassy over a misquote from a Thai soap opera star claiming that Angkor Wat was Thai. She never said it, but the Thai ambassador had to flee for his life as the mob rampaged through Phnom Penh, burning anything that smacked of Thailand. The Thais simply closed their borders and Khmers suffered the devastating economic effect. There has also been simmering tension around the temples of Preah Vihear (or Khao Phra Viharn in Thai). In 2008, the two countries came close to war as soldiers of both nations died in firefights.
The general trend, however, is positive. Having had two elections that have taken place largely without violence, Cambodia is now politically stable. From 2001 to 2004, the economy grew at a rate of 6.4%. In 2005, oil and natural gas deposits were found beneath Cambodia's territorial waters, representing a new revenue stream for the government if drilling begins. Arrivals in tourism topped two million in 2008. Cambodia's garment industry employs more than 350,000 people and contributes to more than 70% of Cambodia's exports. The major challenge for Cambodia over the next decade will be creating an economic environment in which enough jobs can be created to handle Cambodia's demographic imbalance. Rural poverty is still a major concern, as the infrastructure in the countryside remains patchy or nonexistent. Levels of education are also woeful and that inevitably holds the country back.
In 2004, the mercurial King Sihanouk abdicated in favor of his son, Norodom Sihamoni, who has gained respect for his quiet dignity in the way he fulfills his duties, although Sihanouk, or "Papa" as many Cambodians refer to him, remains a seminal figure.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.