There is scant information about the inhabitants of Cambodia prior to 1000 B.C.E. It is believed that the earliest peoples subsisted on a diet of fish and rice and lived in houses built on stilts. However, war, vandalism, looting, and the violence since the 1960s have destroyed many archaeological sites and made continued excavations impossible. From the first to the fourth centuries C.E. major parts of Cambodia were integrated into the Southeast Asian kingdom of Funan, which played a vital role in developing the political institutions, culture, and art of later Khmer states. Starting with the leadership of Fan Shih-man (r. 205–25), the Funanese extended their control and by the third century inhabited the region around the lower Mekong River. An Indian Brahmin, however, gained control of Funan in the fourth century, bringing Hinduism, the Indian legal code, and a central Indian alphabet to the region. Khmers from a rival northern state retook Funan in the sixth century and, as the Khmer Empire grew more powerful, Cambodia once again dominated Southeast Asia. The capital of the new empire was Angkor, which remains among the world’s greatest architectural accomplishments. The Angkor Borei region in Takeo province, for example, is famous as the cradle of one of the earliest civilizations in mainland Southeast Asia, and it is said to have contained multiple urban centers. Among these are Oc Eo (in modern Vietnam) and Angkor Borei (in modern Cambodia). Brief excavations at Oc Eo in the 1950s revealed a complex system of water control and rich material culture, but vandalism has largely destroyed the site. Angkor Borei faces the same threat of destructive vandalism seen at Oc Eo. It was the Angkorian era, which began in the eighth century, that raised the kingdom to the height of its artistic and religious power. The Thai kingdom of Ayudhya sent troops to Angkor in 1431; for the next century and a half, the Khmers were plagued by dynastic rivalries and continual warfare with the Thais. The Spanish and Portuguese, who had recently become active in the region, also played a part in these wars until resentment over their power led to the massacre of the Spanish garrison at Phnom Penh in 1599. A series of weak kings ruled Cambodia from 1600 until the French arrived in 1863. Since 1802 Cambodia had been subordinated and jointly governed by Vietnam and Siam (now Thailand), and Cambodian kings could not be crowned without representatives of both kingdoms present. In 1860 King Ang Duong (1796–1860) died and his eldest son Norodom (1834–1904) was to succeed him, but the royal family nearly destroyed itself and the country was torn by rebellions. In 1861 Norodom, still uncrowned, fled the capital Oudong and a year later fled to Bangkok. After some political manipulation and the signing of a treaty that made Cambodia a French protectorate in 1863, the French forced King Norodom to sign another treaty in 1884 that turned his country into a colony. The next four decades were generally peaceful. In 1941 the French installed 19-year-old Prince Sihanouk (b. 1922) on the Cambodian throne, a mistake on their part. The years after 1945 were filled with violence, strife, and considerable political turmoil. Around this time French colonial power was waning due to the Franco-Viet Minh War raging in Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia seized the opportunity and declared its independence from France in 1949, which became official in 1953, and King Norodom Sihanouk ascended the throne. The Geneva Conference of 1954 led to an armistice providing for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Cambodia. An agreement between France and Cambodia in December of that year severed the last strings of French control over Cambodian policy. Cambodia withdrew from the French Union in 1955 and was admitted into the United Nations later that year. King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated in March 1955 in favor of his father Norodom Suramarit (1896–1960). Sihanouk subsequently formed the Popular Socialist party and served as premier. After Suramarit’s death in 1960, Sihanouk’s mother Queen Kossamak Nearireak assumed power, and Norodom Sihanouk assumed the new office of chief of state. (Interestingly, although other queens are listed, most “king lists” for Cambodia indicate that during the period between Suramarit’s death and the first democratic elections (1960–93), the throne was unoccupied.) Throughout the 1960s Norodom Sihanouk struggled to keep Cambodia neutral as the neighboring countries of Laos and South Vietnam came under increasing Communist attack (due to the ongoing Vietnam War). Sihanouk permitted the use of Cambodian territory as a supply base and refuge by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, while accepting military aid from the United States to strengthen his forces against Communist infiltration. In 1975 the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot (1925–98), seized control of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea and established Pol Pot as the premier. Immediately following the takeover, Phnom Penh was evacuated, and the populations of the country’s urban areas were forced to move to rural areas and pursue agriculture. About a million and a half people died from harsh treatment, starvation, and execution by the Khmer Rouge over the next four years. Members of the upper, middle, and educated classes, as well as suspected enemies of the Khmer Rouge, were victims of the genocide. This destruction came to an end only with an invasion and occupation by Vietnam in December 1978, which drove the Khmer Rouge into the countryside but also started a civil war. In 1987 talks began in Paris to try to settle this conflict. A peace treaty was signed by all of Cambodia’s warring factions (including the Khmer Rouge, a Vietnamese-supported government led by Premier Hun Sen [b. 1952], and the followers of Norodom Sihanouk) on October 23, 1991. Sihanouk denounced the Khmer Rouge, who had resumed guerrilla warfare, aligned himself with Premier Hun Sen, and again became head of state. Cambodia’s first democratic elections were held in May 1993, supervised by a large United Nations peacekeeping mission. Royalists won most of the seats. Hun Sen’s party came in second, and a coalition government with co-premiers—Prince Norodom Ranariddh (b. 1944), Norodom Sihanouk’s second son, and Hun Sen—was formed. The Khmer Rouge, who had boycotted the elections, continued armed opposition, retaining control of substantial territory in the northern and western parts of the country. A new constitution reestablished the monarchy, and in September 1993 Sihanouk once more became king. In 1996 the Khmer Rouge split into two factions, one of which came to an agreement with the government. Pol Pot was ousted and imprisoned by the remaining Khmer Rouge in 1997 and died in 1998; the Khmer Rouge subsequently lost most of its power. After fighting arose in July 1997 between the factions of Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh, Hun Sen’s forces declared victory and Ranariddh fled the country. He was replaced by Ung Huot (b. 1947). Prince Ranariddh returned to Cambodia in March 1998 and became an opposition candidate in the legislative elections held in July. Hun Sen’s party (the Cambodian People’s party) was the official winner of the disputed election, so he became the sole premier, while Prince Ranariddh became the president of the national assembly. Hun Sen has since continued to consolidate his control of the country. Cambodia joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1999. Elections in July 2003 failed to give Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party the two-thirds majority needed to form a government, but the liberal and royalist opposition parties denounced the results, rejected a two-party coalition, formed the Alliance of Democrats, and insisted that the alliance be the basis for a threeparty coalition. At present H. M. Preah Bat Samdech Preah Baromneath Norodom Sihamoni (b. 1953) is the titular ruler of the country.
About 20 percent of the land area of Cambodia is used for agriculture. It lies completely within the tropics with its southernmost points slightly more than 10° above the equator. Cambodia shares international borders with Thailand and Laos on the west and the north, and Vietnam on the east and the southeast. The Gulf of Thailand lies to the southeast of the country. It has a coastline of 270 miles. The dominant features of the Cambodian landscape are the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the Bassac River systems and the Mekong River, which crosses the country from north to south. The central plains are surrounded by densely forested and sparsely populated highlands, comprising the Elephant and Cardamom Mountains of the southwest and western regions; the highest mountain in Cambodia is Phnom Aural. It is 5,810 feet high and lies in the eastern part of this range. The Mekong, Cambodia’s largest river, dominates the geography of the country. The river originates in mainland China, flows through Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand before entering Cambodia. After traversing the country it continues further southeastward to its lower delta in Vietnam and to the South China Sea. Cambodia has a typical monsoon type of climate. There are two distinct seasons—a dry season from November to April, followed by six months of rain. Rainfall is highest between May and June and September and October. Temperatures may soar up to 104°F in April, while January is the coldest month of the year.
Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest nations. Even before being plunged into civil conflict in the 1970s, Cambodia lacked significant industrial development and was largely dependent on agriculture. The country was self-sufficient with respect to food and produced exportable surpluses of its principal crops of rice and corn. Civil unrest, however, not only disrupted Cambodia’s fledgling manufacturing industries, it severely damaged road and rail networks, virtually destroying every aspect of Cambodia’s economy. Rice had to be imported, and production of its most profitable export crop, rubber, fell sharply. The Khmer Rouge government had nationalized all means of production in Cambodia. Money and private property were abolished, and agriculture was collectivized. (Ownership was transferred to the people as a group, represented by the state.) The Khmer Rouge Four-Year Plan was a fiasco. Rice production rose slightly, but between 1976 and 1978 hordes of people died from malnutrition, overwork, and mistreated or misdiagnosed diseases. The Khmer Rouge executed almost anyone whom they suspected of being an enemy of the regime. The atrocities of the Khmer Rouge period nearly obliterated Cambodia’s labor force. After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in early 1979, conditions gradually started improving. By the mid-1990s Cambodia had again achieved self-sufficiency in rice production and began to export small quantities. The country’s infrastructure improved gradually in the 1990s, largely due to massive infusions of foreign assistance. Other sectors of the economy were less fortunate, however. By 1995 the country’s economy as a whole was performing at only 40 to 50 percent of its pre-1970 capacity. The poor, however, remain vulnerable to traffickers. In the 21st century Cambodia is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor.
Cambodia’s population consists of many ethnic groups, but the Khmer are the largest segment. Other groups include Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, and Burmese, as well as various hill tribes. The Khmer account for 80 percent of agricultural workers, while the Vietnamese and Chinese dominate the business sector of the economy. Cambodia’s official language is Khmer. The Khmer language is nontonal but has incorporated many words from Sanskrit and Pali. The Khmer alphabet uses 33 consonants, 24 dependent vowels, 12 independent vowels, and diacritic markers. Vowels may be written before, after, over, or under a consonant symbol. Vietnamese and Chinese dialects are also spoken. There is interpolation from European languages, particularly French, into Chinese terms and phrases. Fifty percent of Cambodia’s population is illiterate. The state religion of Theravada Buddhism was first introduced to Cambodia during the days of the great Angkor kingdom. It prospered, and for centuries monks were the only literate people. They resided in rural communities and performed the role of teachers. During the Khmer Rouge regime, Buddhism, including its architecture and its monastic communities, was almost totally wiped out and many of the temples and monasteries were destroyed. It was only after the political turmoil subsided that Buddhism was restored to its former importance in Cambodia although the days of architectural splendor may be over. Cambodians greet each with a bow and a prayerlike gesture called a sompeah, which is initiated by the younger or lower-ranking person. Handshakes are also becoming more acceptable for greeting Cambodians. Level-headedness and calm behavior during a critical situation are extolled as virtues. Displays of bad temper or getting involved in brawls in public are frowned on. Because they are Buddhists, Cambodians do not celebrate their birthdays, and most people do not even know when they were actually born. Cambodia’s classical dance is derived from Indian court dance, which traces its origins to the apsaras (dancers). The traditions of Thailand and Java (in Indonesia) also influenced the music and dance of Cambodia. In the classical Cambodian dance, women, dressed in brightly colored costumes with elaborate headdresses, execute graceful movements accompanied by a local percussive ensemble known as the pinpeat. These orchestras include drums, gongs, and bamboo xylophones. In Cambodia’s villages, the locals attend dramas performed by masked actors. Young and old enjoy traditional shadow plays performed by using black leather puppets to enact scenes from legendary tales. Folk dancing, popular in rural Cambodia, is performed to the accompaniment of drumbeats.
Traditional Cambodian food is in many ways similar to its Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese counterparts with a heavy emphasis on rice, noodles, salads, and spicy soups. There are two basic types of rice: an aromatic one that is used most often and a sticky rice found in many dessert dishes that are made with fruit such as duran. After rice, fish is the second most important food item. Cambodians eat it fresh, dried, smoked, or fermented in fish sauce or a paste (called prahok). When prahok is not used, a fermented shrimp paste (kapik) is often used. People also eat chicken, pork, and beef. A popular Khmer fish dish called amok is made with catfish steamed in a savory curry with a coconut base. Pork is used to make the popular sweet sausages called twah ko. There are a variety of curries (kari), including a sweet green fish curry and a spicy red chicken curry. Cambodians also serve a dish similar to fondue called yao hon, which is made with beef, shrimp, spinach, napa cabbage, and mushrooms that are dipped in a curry sauce instead of melted cheese. The most common condiments and garnishes include ginger, lemongrass, chili, coriander, and mint. Cambodians love desserts, which they prepare with fruit or rice, often cooked in coconut milk and sweetened with palm sugar. People use Western cutlery, chopsticks, and their fingers for eating. Rice flour is often used in cakes and pastries. In the cities the French influence is most evident. A variety of French breads and pastries—even the popular French frogs’ legs—are widely available. Lunch is the main meal of the day and includes soup, which Cambodians consume simultaneously with rice, vegetables, and fish or meat. BIRTH
Since most Cambodians are Buddhists, they practice the Buddhist rituals related to birth. When the expectant mother goes into labor, the family chants and recites passages from the Buddhist scriptures. The recital of prayers is intended to allay her fears. They may be also be uttered by her spouse to relieve his own anxiety.
The Buddhist monasteries and the monks who reside in them play a dominant role in the lives of the people in all Buddhist societies, including Cambodia. It is a common practice among Buddhists to have at least one son in the family (generally the oldest) ordained as a monk. The initiation ceremony of a boy into the monastic order is an important rite of passage, symbolizing the transformation of the boy into an adult. The initiation is accompanied by an eleborate celebration and festivities attended by the boy’s parents, siblings, relatives, and friends. After the guests depart, the boy is tonsured and takes his monastic vows. He leaves home and takes up residence in the monastery (which might last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks), during which time he practices all the rituals of Buddhist monastic life. When the boy returns to his normal domestic life, he is considered an adult. He may relinquish domestic life and enter the monastery again in the future if he so chooses.
In most Buddhist countries, including Cambodia, the couple’s parents traditionally arrange the marriage. The underlying idea is that the parents, drawing from their life experiences, are best qualified to make the most suitable match for their offspring. It is also believed that, because marriages forge longterm links between families, the decision should be made by the elders in the families. Astrologers are consulted by the parents to fix an auspicious day for the formal wedding ceremony. In recent years, particularly in urban areas, young people have begun to rebel against these traditions, preferring to choose their own partners. The wedding ceremony takes place in the bride’s home. Although monks are usually invited to grace the occasion, they do not conduct the ceremony and are not crucial. Instead, a male relative of the bride is in charge of the ceremonies. All the rituals are performed before an image of Buddha profusely adorned with flowers and sticks of incense. The bride and groom exchange vows, promising to honor and respect each other. The couple present rings to each other; then the thumbs of their right hands are tied together. Alternatively, their wrists may be tied together with a silk scarf. This symbolizes their union as husband and wife. At the end of the ceremony, everyone present shares a celebratory feast. Sometimes the wedding celebrations go on for several days. Later at their convenience, the newlyweds visit the nearest monastery to seek blessings from the monks and respectfully listen to a sermon of the Buddha’s teaching about an ideal married life.
A Buddhist funeral is a simple and solemn ceremony. Buddhists are not rigid about whether the body should be buried or cremated. They believe that when a person dies his or her soul is reborn somewhere else very shortly afterward. Only the Arahants, who have conquered all passions, will be released from the perpetual cycle of life, death, and rebirth and attain salvation (moksha or nirvana). In Cambodia, while the dead body is being prepared for the funeral, the monks chant in order to release good energy. They also accompany the family members to the cremation or burial ground. After the ceremonies are over, the members of the bereaved family offer food and candles to the monks. This is done to satisfy the lingering spirit of the dead person, helping him or her toward a good reincarnation. During the 14-day festival of Bonn Dak Ben (September–October), Cambodian families remember their deceased relatives by making offerings at the temples (wats). The 15th day, a full Moon day called Pchum Ben, is the most important day of all. On this day Cambodians go to the monasteries to offer rice cakes (ben) and money to the monks and pray for the appeasement of the dead souls.