Archaeologists have found traces of human presence in the area now known as Cambodia from as early as 40,000 BC. The oldest structures are in the form of the circular earthworks of a Neolithic culture currently thought to have migrated from Southeastern China and settled in the area from around 2,000 BC.

By the time of the 1st century AD, these peoples had developed a stable and technically accomplished society, living in stilt houses and enjoying the fruits of an agrarian lifestyle, utilising domesticated animals, cultivating rice and fishing.

With the adoption and absorption of Hindu beliefs and social structures from India, leading up to 6th century AD, this culture began to coalesce into a highly active political entity with all the accoutrements of a state, known as the Kingdom of Funan, whose rule extended over much of Southeast Asia, and had trade links with Rome, India and China.

Funan was in turn later subsumed by the emergent Chenla Kingdom (a former vassal state centred in modern-day Laos) between 612 – 628 AD, and these conquering Khmer people, in an irony common to history, imbibed much of Funan's cultural traditions into their own, and ruled over the ever fractious kingdom until 790 AD.

A transformational shift occurred under the rule of an ambitious Khmer prince, having returned from a related Hindu / Buddhist culture in Java, Indonesia, a culture still evident today in Bali which alone has survived the Islamisation of the rest of that region, who outmanoeuvred his rivals, declaring himself King (Jayavarman II) and founded a new empire in 790 AD, which he named Kambuja (Cambodia), giving rise to the Angkor era.

ANGKOR, 790 AD – 1431 AD

The artistic influence which accompanied Jayavarman II and his companions from Java, exemplified by structures such as the magnificent Javanese Borobudur temple, led to the beginnings of highly ambitious building works, that would culminate in the vast temple complexes we see today at the empire’s capital of Angkor, the most beautiful of which is considered to be Banteay Srei, built by Jayavarman V (968-1001 AD).

The largest, most famous and now most visited of these building projects is the mighty Angkor Wat, thirty seven years in the making, and commissioned by Suryavarman II (1113 – 1150 AD).

In 1177, Kambuja was briefly overthrown by the neighbouring Champa Kingdom of Vietnam, before being regained in 1203 by Suryavarman VII (1181-1219), during whose reign the new capital of Angkor Thom was built. Among its many temples is the distinctive Bayon illustrating the marked change of architectural style, reflecting the arrival of Mahayana Buddhism to the Khmer empire.

Following the death of Suryavarman VII, the vassal Thai people successfully rebelled in the empire's southern lands and set up their own capital at Sukhothai (Thailand). The shrinking Angkorian empire witnessed a brief resurgence of Hindu beliefs, as a result of which a great many Mahayana Buddhist monuments were deliberately destroyed, before the eventual succession of Theravada Buddhism in the reign of Srindravarman (1295-1309), which also marks the decline and eventual end of the monumental building period of Cambodian history.

The decline of the Khmer empire of Angkor was finally sealed when the Thai Kingdom, now based in Ayuthaya invaded Angkor in 1431, leaving a considerably reduced Khmer Kingdom centred around the modern day capital of Phnom Penh and the Mekong river.

THE DARK AGES 1431 – 1863

Little is known of the history of Cambodia following the abandonment of Ankor, which is referred to by historians as the dark ages of Cambodia, but access to the Mekong River certainly facilitated an expansion of trading links with the outside world, principally China, before the arrival of Europeans began to make its influence felt throughout the region.

After periods of internal strife and civil war, King Ang Chan (1516-1566) removed the capital to Lovek, on Tonle Sap river, which became a significant trading post, with the first European traders joining an already strong Asian mercantile presence.

However, Cambodia’s fortunes were eclipsed further when Lovek fell to Thai invasion forces, and would remain under their control for nearly three hundred years. The misery for the Khmer people was further compounded by the encroachment of Vietnamese ambitions on their eastern flank, and the resultant flood of Champa refugees pouring across the border.

By 1841, the battle for control of this formerly great state eventually led to the governance of Cambodia being divided between these two neighbouring nations. In 1863, in order to protect his country from further erosion, King Norodom invited the French to protect Cambodia, which whilst rescuing the state from competing neighbours, ultimately led to Cambodia’s absorption into the colonial rule of France which, by 1887, also annexed Vietnam and, six years later, Laos.


Following the French usurpation, Cambodian Nationalism was, unlike neighbouring Vietnam, slow to foment, but was given a boost when the colonial power embarked upon a restoration project at Angkor, revealing to the Khmer people their once proud but now forgotten magnificence. Sentiment erupted with to a tax revolt in 1916. Further grievance over French favouritism toward the Vietnamese population in Cambodia led to renewed strife in the 1930’s.

Following the fall of France in 1940, during the second world war, Japanese forces occupied much of Southeast Asia, but were content to let their Vichy allies administer Cambodia, which at least spared the long-suffering Cambodian people of the additional brutality of Japanese rule.

After France was restored to liberty in Europe, the country continued to govern Cambodia, but consistent with the movement toward the abandonment of empire taking place elsewhere at this time, Cambodia was given a measure of self-governance, with elections and a constitutional role for the Cambodian monarchy. The subsequent history of Indochina might have played out very differently if the French had shown similar deference to the ambition of Vietnamese self-rule across the border.

The inevitable drift to full independence was further fuelled when King Sihanouk dismissed the government and suspended the new constitution, taking over the Prime Ministership and agitating for freedom from colonial rule, which was eventually granted by France following the independence declaration of November 9, 1953.


Subsequent to Cambodia’s 1953 declaration of independence, new elections were set for 1955, and in a bold move to retain his power, King Sihanouk renounced the throne to devote himself to defeating his democratic rivals, which he accomplished, albeit aided by much intimidation and fraudulence, and thus the stage was set for the struggle for control that would blight the country’s future, and thus waste the golden dream that independence had promised.

By 1963, Sihanouk was in a position to force a change in the constitution allowing his period of rule to be ‘indefinite’, a move certain to arouse resentment.

Meanwhile, the war in neighbouring Vietnam that would dominate the headlines of western consciousness in the 1960’s increasingly began to destabilise Cambodia, particularly in the northeast of the country, where increasing numbers of communist North Vietnamese fighters sought refuge from the chemical attacks, and from which location they were able to launch raids over the border against the American and South Vietnamese forces.

This situation would become increasingly politically poisonous, fuelled by the illegal secret American bombing of these areas, as Viet Cong troops withdrew ever further into Cambodia, and communism began to become the conduit around which the peoples resentment could find voice, just as it had earlier, in Vietnam itself.

In 1970, whilst Sihanouk was out of the country for medical reasons, General Lon Nol, in a CIA backed coup, took over the government of Cambodia, a move that however had little effect over the Communist insurgency. By 1973, a combination of home-grown and Vietnamese communists controlled over half of Cambodian territory.

Communist ideology had been floating around the region since the 1930’s but unlike Ho Chi Minhs’s party in Vietnam, this had not greatly affected the politics of Cambodia. In 1953, the return from Paris of a Cambodian national, Saloth Sar, a communist proselytiser who, since the 1930’s, had been involved in the French communist Party in that city, began to unify local groups, initially in Phnom Penh, and later in the troubled northeast, bordering Vietnam.

Though his true name is little known outside Cambodia, Saloth Sar would later rise to notorious prominence as ‘Pol Pot'.

THE KHMER ROUGE 1975 - 1979

Despite the considerable historic enmity between the Khmers and Vietnamese there was some, albeit mistrustful, sharing of support and materials in the name of their shared ideology, and the Cambodian communists became increasingly active in fomenting action.

Pol Pot, asserting his dominance over both his own comrades and the localised Viet Cong, many of whom were purged during his rise to prominence, launched an offensive against Lon Nol’s fractious government on January 1st, 1975, with the remaining Viet Cong entering into south Vietnam to help cement their victory in Saigon in the end of the following April.

After 117 days of bitter fighting Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge army entered Phnom Penh on April the 17th, 1975, its streets fringed by a throng of rejoicing, cheering and waving citizens who had little precognition of the terror that would immediately follow. The very next day the entire city, along with many other Cambodian towns and cities, would be forcefully emptied of their populations, driven into the countryside as the agrarian slaves of Pol Pot’s utopian hell.

Over the next four years, hundreds of thousands of Cambodia’s intellectuals, professionals, monks, ethnic Vietnamese and other victims of convenience would be tortured and executed along with their families, whilst the remainder of the population at large would suffer unending brutality in the fields, neglected and left to starvation and disease, with the death toll estimated at around two million people, from a total population of only eight million.

Aside from ranking at the top table in the history of violent insanity, the whole political experiment was as grim a failure as can be imagined.

The traditional enmity and historic wars with Vietnam became the blood-addicted Khmer Rouge regime’s downfall, with its ambition of ruling the Mekong River giving rise to continual skirmishes and eventual warfare along their shared border. Thus it was left to their Vietnamese neighbours to invade Cambodia and raise the hammer of history on this ugly stain of human degradation, taking Phnom Penh on January 7th, 1979.


The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia would last for ten years, during which the Khmer Rouge were pushed back to ever more remote sanctuaries, but not entirely expunged, and persistent fighting would continue throughout. UN involvement in procuring a fruitful independent future for Cambodia was frustrated by the USA who, undoubtedly humiliated by their defeat in Vietnam, refused to acknowledge the new government, insisting the Khmer Rouge were the lawful government of the country.

By 1989, the Vietnamese were finally able to withdraw their troops, which saw the beginning of a serious effort by the UN to establish peace and provide humanitarian assistance, which eventuated in the cease-fire and the elections of 1993, which saw in a new government and King Sihanouk restored to the throne.

Cambodia has in recent times begun the process of bringing former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice, though Pol Pot, during house arrest under the supervision of his former comrades, died just as he was about to be handed over to the authorities on April 15th, 1998. King Sihanouk abdicated due to ill health in 2004 and was succeeded by King Norodom Sihamoni.

Despite occasional periods of unrest, Cambodia has now stabilised, rapidly laying its ghosts to rest and opening itself up to the lucrative tourist market, and is radically shifting its expectations in the light of a peaceful and prosperous future.