Cambodia Country Guide


Cambodian history did not begin with the Khmer Rouge, though Pol Pot's incredibly harsh regime has garnered most attention. Anybody who has witnessed the magnificent temples at Angkor can attest that the Khmer Empire was once wealthy, militarised and a major force in the region. Its zenith came under Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), where the Empire made significant territorial gains and once stretched to encompass parts of modern day Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Laos and Vietnam.
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The French came to dominate Cambodia as a protectorate beginning in the 1860s and part of a wider ambition to control the area then termed Indochina (modern day Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos). Japan's hold on Southeast Asia during the Second world War undermined French prestige and following Allied victory, Prince Sihanouk soon declared independence from France in 1953. This was a relatively peaceful transition since France was too absorbed with its struggle in Vietnam. Prince Sihanouk's rule was characterised with a revival of Buddhism and an emphasis on education. He succeeded in creating an educated elite who would eventually become disenchanted, attracting them to the Communist Party and later Khmer Rouge.

Angkor Wat by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

With the Vietnam War, Cambodia was used by the North Vietnamese as a route to supply and arm its army against the South Vietnamese forces. The US became increasingly concerned and the US Air Force bombed parts of Cambodia from 1964 to 1973. During Sihanouk's visit to Moscow and Beijing in March 1970, he was overthrown by Lon Nol and other generals who were looked upon favorably by the United States. Sihanouk then put his support behind the Khmer Rouge, who eventually ruled Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh in 1975, ordering evacuation of all cities and towns. Over 1 million people (possibly many more) died from execution, starvation or enforced hardships. 

Aerial view of Phnom Penh by KY Geologist

A Vietnamese invasion in 1978 drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside - the economy by then was already destroyed. However, Cold War politics meant that despite the horrendous crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge, they were still the recognized government. UN sponsored election in 1993 helped restore some semblance of normalcy, as did the rapid diminution of the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1990s. A coalition government was formed but political instability remained. Only after the national election in 1998, did Cambodia experienced renewed political stability including the surrender of the remaining Khmer Rouge forces.

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Kampong Cham
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