History of Cambodia can be recounted in many different ways but a recent focus is the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, easily the most predominant facet of Cambodia’s past and a period that has clearly shaped the lives of Cambodians today. Angkorian perods have also had a huge influence on the country, most obvious since the temple discoveries in 1866. The people and culture have been shaped by many momentous facts but most significantly and personally by the genocide in Cambodia.
Early history reveals that civilization, known as Fu-nan, began in the area around Southern Vietnam about 150AD surrounding the Mekong Delta. Kingdoms developed after societies preceded by small settlements, all growing stronger by trading with the Chinese. A very civilized nation was established by the seventh century AD. A division of rivaling states was transformed into the Khmer Empire under rule of King Jayavarman II by the ninth century.
The Khmer Empire began as a completely agricultural society living on rice. The people of Cambodia believed in animism – a belief that even specific, inanimate objects possess souls – which eventually morphed into a more complex religion that included Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism. The powerful and rich built beautiful stone temples in the 12th century, adorned with ornate carvings which were later discovered to be Angkor and the famous Angkor Wat.
The following years were dominated by wars with neighboring countries; the Khmer invaded Thailand and Thailand invaded Cambodia; this happened several times in the history of Cambodia. The Khmer also went to war with Vietnam many times over a long period. Civil wars were also a dominant historical fact.
In the 19th century, the current king sought protection from the Thais by the Vietnamese. That backfired and inevitably the Vietnamese regained control over Cambodia once again following the death of King Chan in 1834. As the Vietnamese tried to tame the ways of the Cambodians, which they believed to be barbaric, the people rebelled. The Thais cleverly took advantage of the weakened state and invaded once again, just as French missionaries flooded into Cambodia, and the king asked for and received protection from the French in 1863. During the French Protectorate, there was a significant jump in economic status and infrastructure, which greatly modernized the country. The French occupied the country until 1952 when Cambodia declared full independence under King Sihanouk.
The period between 1975 and 1979 was bloodied by the horrific ruler Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who called for the genocide in Cambodia for dozens of unjustified reasons (basically anyone rebelling against them in any way and especially those deemed intellectuals). This period of genocidal history is well documented at the Tuol Sleng S-21 Museum outside of Phnom Penh where the famous Cheoung Ek Killing Fields, home to mass graves, are located.
Today, the people are still recovering from the volatile history of Cambodia, and many surviving generations of Pol Pot’s victims work at or conduct tours of the Killing Fields and other attractions revolving around the 1970s atrocities. With the threat of execution upon them by Pol Pot for various beliefs, many also gave up religion under his regime during the genocide in Cambodia. These types of changes have indeed affected Cambodian culture. Yet Cambodian people are as hospitable, gracious, and kind as their neighbors, who have become famous for their most pleasant and generous ways. A trip through the country pays off in spades with rewards of fetching rural scenery, scenic lakes and rivers, rich culture, and a history that is enlightening, powerful, and completely awe-inspiring.