Cambodia: Facts and History

A new day dawns over Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia's premiere tourist destination, one of the temples of the Khmer Empire. Kallie Szczepanski

The 20th century was disastrous for Cambodia.

The country was occupied by Japan in World War II and became "collateral damage" in the Vietnam War, with secret bombings and cross-border incursions. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge regime seized power; they would murder approximately 1/5 of their own citizens in a mad frenzy of violence.

Yet not all of Cambodian history is dark and blood-drenched. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, Cambodia was home to the Khmer Empire, which left behind incredible monuments such as Angkor Wat.

Hopefully, the 21st century will be much kinder to the people of Cambodia than the last one was.

Capital: Phnom Pehn, population 1,300,000

Cities: Battambang, population 1,025,000, Sihanoukville, population 235,000, Siem Reap, population 140,000, Kampong Cham, population 64,000

Cambodia's Government

Cambodia has a constitutional monarchy, with King Norodom Sihamoni as the current head of state.

The Prime Minister is the head of government. The current Prime Minister of Cambodia is Hun Sen, who was elected in 1998. Legislative power is shared between the executive branch and the bicameral parliament, made up of the 123-member National Assembly of Cambodia and the 58-member Senate.

Cambodia has a semi-functional multi-party representative democracy. Unfortunately, corruption is rampant and the government is non-transparent.


Cambodia's population is about 15,458,000 (2014 estimate). The vast majority, 90%, are ethnic Khmer. Approximately 5% are Vietnamese, 1% Chinese, and the remaining 4% includes small populations of Chams (a Malay people), Jarai, Khmer Loeu, and Europeans.

Due to the massacres of the Khmer Rouge era, Cambodia has a very young population. The median age is 21.7 years, and only 3.6% of the population is over the age of 65. (In comparison, 12.6% of US citizens are over 65.)

Cambodia's birth rate is 3.37 per woman; the infant mortality rate is 56.6 per 1,000 live births. The literacy rate is 73.6%.


The official language of Cambodia is Khmer, which is part of the Mon-Khmer language family. Unlike nearby languages such as Thai, Vietnamese and Lao, spoken Khmer is not tonal. Written Khmer has a unique script, called abugida.

Other languages in common use in Cambodia include French, Vietnamese, and English.


Most Cambodians (95%) today are Theravada Buddhists. This austere version of Buddhism became prevalent in Cambodia in the thirteenth century, displacing the combination of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism that was practiced previously.

Modern Cambodia also has Muslim citizens (3%) and Christians (2%). Some people practice traditions derived from animism as well, alongside their primary faith.


Cambodia has an area of 181,040 square kilometers or 69,900 square miles.

It is bordered by Thailand to the west and north, Laos to the north, and Vietnam to the east and south. Cambodia also has a 443 kilometer (275 miles) coastline on the Gulf of Thailand.

The highest point in Cambodia is Phnum Aoral, at 1,810 meters (5,938 feet). The lowest point is the Gulf of Thailand coast, at sea level.

West-central Cambodia is dominated by Tonle Sap, a large lake. During the dry season, its area is about 2,700 square kilometers (1,042 square miles), but during the monsoon season, it swells to 16,000 sq. km (6,177 sq. miles).


Cambodia has a tropical climate, with a rainy monsoon season from May to November, and a dry season from December to April.

Temperatures don't vary much from season to season; the range is 21-31°C (70-88°F) in the dry season, and 24-35°C (75-95°F) in the wet season.

Precipitation varies from just a trace in the dry season to over 250 cm (10 inches) in October.


The Cambodian economy is small, but growing quickly. In the 21st century, the annual growth rate has been between 5 and 9%.

The GDP in 2007 was $8.3 billion US or $571 per capita.

35% of Cambodians live below the poverty line.

The Cambodian economy is based primarily on agriculture and tourism- 75% of the workforce are farmers. Other industries include textiles manufacturing, and extraction of natural resources (timber, rubber, manganese, phosphate, and gems).

Both the Cambodian rial and the US dollar are used in Cambodia, with the rial mostly given as change. The exchange rate is $1 = 4,128 KHR (October 2008 rate).

History of Cambodia

Human settlement in Cambodia dates back at least 7,000 years, and probably much farther.

Early Kingdoms

Chinese sources from the first century A.D. describe a powerful kingdom called "Funan" in Cambodia, which was strongly influenced by India.

Funan went into decline in the 6th century A.D., and was supplanted by a group of ethnically-Khmer kingdoms that the Chinese refer to as "Chenla."

The Khmer Empire

In 790, Prince Jayavarman II founded a new empire, the first to unite Cambodia as a political entity. This was the Khmer Empire, which lasted until 1431.

The crown jewel of the Khmer Empire was the city of Angkor, centered around the temple of Angkor Wat. Construction began in the 890s, and Angkor served as the seat of power for more than 500 years. At its height, Angkor covered more area than modern-day New York City.

Fall of the Khmer Empire

After 1220, the Khmer Empire began to decline. It was attacked repeatedly by the neighboring Tai (Thai) people, and the beautiful city of Angkor was abandoned by the end of the 16th century.

Thai and Vietnamese Rule

After the fall of the Khmer Empire, Cambodia came under the control of the neighboring Tai and Vietnamese kingdoms. These two powers competed for influence until 1863, when France took control of Cambodia.

French Rule

The French ruled Cambodia for a century but viewed it as a subsidiary of the more important colony of Vietnam.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied Cambodia but left the Vichy French in charge. The Japanese promoted Khmer nationalism and pan-Asian ideas. After Japan's defeat, the Free French sought renewed control over Indochina.

The rise of nationalism during the war, however, forced France to offer increasing self-rule to the Cambodians until independence in 1953.

Independent Cambodia

Prince Sihanouk ruled newly-free Cambodia until 1970 when he was deposed during the Cambodian Civil War (1967-1975). This war pitted communist forces, called the Khmer Rouge, against the US-backed Cambodian government.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge won the civil war, and under Pol Pot set to work creating an agrarian communist utopia by exterminating political opponents, monks and priests, and educated people in general. Just four years of Khmer Rouge rule left 1 to 2 million Cambodians dead- about 1/5 of the population.

Vietnam attacked Cambodia and captured Phnom Penh in 1979, withdrawing only in 1989. The Khmer Rouge fought on as guerrillas until 1999.

Today, though, Cambodia is a peaceful and democratic nation.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Cambodia: Facts and History." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Cambodia: Facts and History. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Cambodia: Facts and History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).