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Cambodia has a very long history dating back to thousands of years ago. It used to be a very powerful country in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, Khmer empire declined in 13th century, but its magnificent structures still remain to be seen today.

Cambodia is in the south western part of the Indochinese peninsula of Southeast Asia. Also known as Kampuchea, Cambodia is what remains of the Khmer Empire that ruled over large parts of Southeast Asia from the ninth century to the fifteenth century.

Cambodia has a glorious past from the ancient Khmer Empire which used to be the great state in Southeast Asia for more than a thousand years. Around the time of Christ, Indian traders crossed into China through the Mekong Delta area, bringing not only goods but also aspects of their own culture including languages and religion. Hinduism was Cambodia’s first formalised religion, introduced by Brahman priests who accompanied Indian traders.

Under Indian influence, two principal centers of civilization grew up. The older in the extreme south of the peninsula was called “Funan” (the name is a Chinese transliteration of the ancient Khmer form of the word “Phnom”, which means “hill”).

In the mid-6th century, the Kambuja, who lived in the middle Mekong (north of present day Cambodia), broke away from Funan. Within a short time, this new power known as Chenla absorbed the Funanese Kingdom. In the late 7th century, after the death of King Jayavarman I, Chenla broke into two parts: land Chenla (to the north) and water Chenla (to the south along the Gulf of Thailand) dominated by the Chinese. Land Chenla was fairly stable during the 8th century, whereas water Chenla was beset by dynastic rivalries. During this period, Java probably invaded and controlled part of the country.

The period that follows is known as the golden age of Cambodia history. In 9th century, the new history of this territory was recorded when King Jayavarman II concluded land Chenla and water Chenla in 802 together with the establishment of Hariharalaya, an ancient capital in the region of what is now Roluos, to be the centre of his kingdom. Finally, he also established the renowned Devaraja ‘the god who is king’, who was the counterpart of the Khmer ‘king of kings ‘cult.

Around 889, Yasovarman I decided to move his capital to Angkor. In his ambitious plan, he selected the hill of Bakheng as the centre of the new city of Yasodharapura, and as the site of his state temple, first levelling the top.

In the early of 12th century, another great king of the ancient Khmer empire who commanded many military campaigns to expand the empire, King Suryavarman II. His rule from 1112 to about 1150 marks the peak of Angkor’s power and influence. He converted himself to pay homage to Vishnu god according to Vishnuism, and had the greatest, most beautiful and most mysterious sanctuary built to dedicate to Vishnu God. This sanctuary is Angkor Wat, the largest sanctuary that the world has ever known.

In 1165 the throne was taken by a usurper, Tribhuvanadityavarman, who was killed 12 years later when a Cham and Khmer group mounted a surprise navel attack from the Great Lake and took Angkor.

The last major king was Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1220). He undertook a massive building programme and is accredited for construction more monuments roads, bridges, and rest houses than all the other kings put together. He was a devout follower of Mahayana Buddhism and this spiritual dedication permeated every aspect of his reign. He lived outside of Angkor for several years before he became king and then returned, perhaps to prepare to assert his claim to the throne some years later.

Before he took power, the Chams launched a naval battle 1177 that destroyed the royal capital – the Khmers’ worst defeat in history. After four years of fighting, he succeeded in driving out the Chams, beginning his reign in 1181 as the last great king of Angkor.

A fervent Buddhist, unlike his predecessors who worshipped Hindu gods, Jayavarman VII crammed into his 30-year rule the largest building programme ever undertaken. His new city is the surviving Angkor Thom, centred on the Bayon with its two hundred stone faces. He was also responsible of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei and Preah Khan, among others, not to mention hundreds of temples, hospital and other buildings across the empire.
The decline of the Angkor era began after the death of King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century. Due to the Siamese invasion and the limitation of the irrigation system, Khmer power declined so much that the king was finally obliged to move to the vicinity of Phnom Penh in 1431.



Devastated by frequent wars

With the Siamese and the Viet, Khmer kings established a succession of temporary capitals, constantly moving on as a result of such warfare, commercial advantage or sometimes simply the preferences of the king for a more favourable location.

Principal cities serving intermittently as the nation’s capital during this period included Phnom Penh (1434 – 1473), Lovek (1516 – 1618) and later Oudong (1618 1861). Besieged, burned or simply abandoned and left to decay, the majority of structures from this period have long since disappeared, leaving a few scant foundations. Even at the former royal capital of Oudong, 40 kilometres northwest of Phnom Penh, very little remains apart from the moat, some old cannon placements and stupas containing the remains of kings of the Oudong period.

Phnom Penh was first established with the founding of the city by King Ponhea Yat in 14734. Later the capital was relocated successively to: Angkor, Lovek, Oudong, then returned with King Norodom to Phnom Penh.
This marked the end of the Middle Period and the start of a new era in Cambodia’s history.


1859 – 1953    French Protectorate period

Early French explorers and navigators were almost without exception naval officers, with the avowed intention of finding a ‘river road’ via the Mekong to China. Thus opening a direct trade route through Cambodia and avoiding the coastal routes already crowded with ships from a host of competing British and European nations carving out ‘eastern’ colonial empires.


Following the formation of French Indochina in the late 19th century, colonial mapping and urban planning was centralised in Hanoi. A typical colonial city grid was superimposed over burgeoning towns that fitted more with commerce and as in the case of Phnom Penh, conveniently partitioned the city into ethnic sectors or ‘quartiers’.

In 1864, following years of devastating wars on Khmer soil between Siamese and Vietnamese armies, Norodom became king. He sought French protection. Twenty years later, in 1884, the French imposed a treaty which limited the king’s power and established a colonial bureaucracy. The French persuaded King Norodom to accept protectorate status for Cambodia, saving the country from being divided between its two neighbours. The French presence in Indochina (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) was ratified in 1887.  Cambodia became part of French Indochina, along with Laos and Vietnam, and gained stability. The French did little to develop Cambodia as part of its colony of Indochina; however, they did build roads and establish rubber plantations in the country.

Japanese forces briefly occupied Cambodia during World War II (1939 -1945). Norodom Sihanouk was made king at the age of eighteen in 1941. After the war the French tried to regain control over the region but King Norodom launched a crusade for independence that resulted in French withdrawal in 1953. In 1955 Sihanouk gave up his throne to form a political party. In elections held that same year, Sihanouk’s party won every seat in the National Assemble, and he became prime minister.


1983 – 1954     Independence periods


1955 – 1970    Sangkum Reastr Niyum period

Cambodia obtained independence peacefully from France in 1953 while the rest of the region was in turmoil. The country experienced a dynamic period of economic development and cultural prosperity, unique in Southeast Asia. In an explosion of youthful vigour and basking in the exuberance that accompanied Independence, then Prince Norodom Skhanouk as head of State launched into a campaign of urban planning, development and construction that transformed many provincial centres and in particular, the capital Phnom Penh.


This previously largely French colonial city was catapulted into an acclaimed capital that bustled with energy through wider international contact. Youthful, visionary Cambodian architects took the lead and were largely responsible for the look of a city that soon became the envy of Cambodia’s Southeast Asian neighbours and that by the mid 1960s was dubbed ‘the belle of Southeast Asia’. Innovative architect, Vann Molyvann perhaps more than any others, exemplified the essence of ‘New Khmer Architecture that appeared throughout the city and in the provinces from the late 1950s to 60s.


1970 – 1975    Lon Nol period

In March 1970, General Lon Nol and Sirik Matak overthrew Sihanouk in a bloodless coup whilst he was on an official visit to the Soviet Union. The Vietnam civil war between South Vietnam and communist North Vietnam spilled into Cambodia when the United States, which supported South Vietnam, began a massive bombing campaign to destroy North Vietnamese border stations in Cambodia. Carpet bombing by the United States of suspected Communist bases in Cambodia commenced. The bombing campaign wrought vast destruction in Cambodia, and approximately half a million Cambodians were killed.

Khmer Rouge, North Vietnamese forces and pro-Sihanoukist government in exile form an alliance against the US-backed Lon Nol regime. Sihanouk formed a government-in-exile based in Beijing and Phongyang and became president of the Cambodian Resistance. During April, in Canton he initiated the Summit Conference of Indochinese Peoples.

Corrupt and incompetent, Lon Nol’s administration was immensely unpopular and lasted just five years, despite US economic and military aid. Khmer Rouge rebels captured Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, and the Khmer Republic eventually became Democratic Kampuchea.

The United States’ bombing campaign also resulted in increasing support for Pol Pot’s forces. In 1975, Lon Nol’s government collapsed, and the Communist Party of Kampuchea took control of Phnom Pehn and the country. Sihanouk returned to become Cambodia’s head of state but resigned one year later.



1975 – 1979    Khmer Rouge or Pol Pot period

The Cambodian revolutionary movement, ‘Khmer Rouge’ (Red Khmer) was first used by Norodom Sihanouk in the 1960s as a derogatory label for the country’s communists. At that time, the leftist movement was dominated by a group of French-educated revolutionaries headed by Saloth Sar (Pol Pot). And the term has now come to refer exclusively to the followers of Pol Pot’s genocidal brand of communism.

Khmer Rouge troops entered Phnom Penh and took control of the country. For the next four years Cambodia history entered its darkest phase as the country suffered one of the bloodiest regimes imaginable. After the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975 (‘Year Zero’), they executed an extreme revolutionary program that sought to eliminate all traces of class and modernity, and create a currency, education and newspapers were abolished, and most contacts with the outside world served. Urban dwellers were marched into the countryside, where they were used as force labour. All the while, those with questionable loyalties especially, intellectuals, professionals, Buddhist monks, alleged Vietnamese spies, the Cham minority and those who had worked for the previous government were killed. The result was a holocaust in which up to 1.5 million Cambodians were executed or died from mistreatment, disease, exhaustion and starvation. In December 1978, Vietnam entered Cambodia after years of border skirmishes; the following month, the Khmer Rouge were forced from power and a Vietnamese-led regime installed.

In 1979 Vietnamese forces overran Phnom Penh and started the Vietnam occupation that would last until 1989. The UN prepared the country for free elections, which took place in 1993, and the multiparty liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy system established then has lasted until the present day in a largely peaceful period.


1979 – 1993    Heng Samrin periods

During this time the government was known as The People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). Between 1979 and 1991 a guerrilla war continued in the Cambodian countryside between PRK (People’s Republic of Kampuchea) and anti-government forces. In March 1981, Sihanouk began his long campaign to resist the Vietnamese occupation and to restore a free, democratic and non-communist Cambodia. The following year, Sihanouk agreed to lead the ‘Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea’ (CGDK) a loose amalgam of the three opposition groups that was seated at the UN and between 1982 and 1990 Sihanouk held the position of Head of the National Cambodian Resistance.

In 1989 Vietnam announced complete withdrawal of all of its forces from Cambodia and between 1989 and 1993 the government was known as The State of Cambodia.

The UN Security Council, the Phnom Penh government and the CGDK agreed to a plan that was to form the essence of the Paris Peace Accord. In October 1991, agreement was reached in Paris for a political solution to armed struggle. Sihanouk returned triumphantly to Phnom Penh in November after more than a decade, and was elected unanimously as the neutral President by the 11 members of the newly formed Supreme National Council (SNC). By 1992 there was agreement for the UN to provide a force in Cambodia of Authority (UNTAC) that was preceded by a United Nations Advanced Mission in Cambodia (UNAMIC). Cambodia was divided into 10 military zones superimposed on 21 electoral provinces that were then sub-divided into districts and in May 1993 a general election was held.


From 1993    Kingdom of Cambodia

UNTAC-sponsored elections were held in May 1993 and the national Assembly met for the first time in September. The FUNCINPEC party gained the majority. The monarchy was re-established and Sihanouk crowned King to become Head of State to ‘reign but not to govern’ Cambodia. By October most of the UN personnel had left to return home.

The subsequent power-sharing arrangement between the two main political parties CPP and FUNCINPEC was problematic, leading to fighting in 1997 after which FUNCINPEC was ousted from government. Since the general election of 1998 Hun Sen (Cambodian People’s Party, CPP) has held the post of Prime Minister, with opposition leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh (FUNCINPEC).

In 1998, there was second census of population: 11,437,656 (5,511,408 males & 5,926,248 females). After the latest round of elections in 2003, the coalition parties refused to form a working government until mid-2004. In early October 2004, HM King Norodom Sihanouk tended abdication papers from Beijing. His son, HM King Norodom Sihamoni succeeded the throne.


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