While there is evidence of human settlement in the Iron Age it was the Khmer Empire in the 9th Century that lasted for a few centuries that was the real beginning of Cambodia. There had already been influences from both India to the west and China to the north. The Mongols of Kubla Khan agreed to peace for a price and in the 13th Century monks from Sri Lanka introduced Buddhism to South East Asia; it gradually replaced Hinduism.
The Khmer Empire was largest empire in South East Asia at one time and its centre was Angkor with Angkor Wat arguably the best example of preserved religious temple anywhere in the world. Cambodian tour packages always make this the highlight of the tour. Decline led to its fall in the 15th Century and there were constant problems with the Siamese in the west and Vietnamese in the east. The latter were particularly aggressive in the 19th Century and ultimately the King Norodom Prohmborirak signed an agreement leading to French protection from both neighbours. These days of course Indochina travel regularly include all three countries, now very much at peace.
In 1863, King Norodom sought the protection of France from Thai rule even though he had been installed by them. For forty years two provinces, Battambang and Siem Reap became part of Thailand though in 1907 the French negotiated their return from Thailand.
The French in fact stayed until 1953 although briefly during World War II the Japanese occupied the territory. The population grew enormously during a period not too dissimilar to the period of occupation; less than 1 million in the 1870s to over 5.5 million in 1962.
Cambodia became an independent constitutional monarchy but lost all hope of the territory of the Mekong Delta which was Vietnam, as it had been since the end of the 17th Century, despite its large Khmer population. King Norodom Sihanouk abdicated soon afterwards to get involved in politics; he became prime minister. His father became King for just five years until his death in 1960 when Sihanouk became head of state with the tile of ‘’prince’’.
The Vietnam War
Although officially neutral during the Vietnam War, Viet Cong sought sanctuary in Cambodia and the country was regularly bombed as a result. Sihanouk was deposed by a military coup in 1970 and the new regime demanded all Viet Cong leave. They had American support yet the result was civil war because the new regime found itself under attack by North Vietnam.
This was the beginning of a communist presence in Cambodia and soon the new political infrastructure had a distinct communist content. While the Americans and the South Vietnamese sought to contain communist strength in Cambodia they were unsuccessful.
Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge
One of the problems within Cambodia was the disunity of those opposing communism and this was something that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge with the help of North Vietnam were able to exploit. Even by 1973 they controlled 60% of the territory and within little more than a year the government fell and all Americans quickly departed.
The official name of the country was changed to Democratic Kampuchea, modelling itself on Maoist China which stressed the importance of rural life. Many temples and most things regarded as ‘’western’’ were discarded. Estimates vary but as many as three million were killed and huge numbers fled to Thailand. From a high of around 300,000 Vietnamese living within Cambodia’s borders only 50,000 remained early in the 1980s.
Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodiain 1978, assisted by Soviet Union arms and Pol Pot was defeated though retained a ‘’government in exile.’’ Despite Pol Pot being marginalised the troubles were far from over; a fragile coalition existed and the Vietnamese refused to leave. It was not until 1989 that peace efforts began in earnest and in October 1991 a settlement was reached in Paris.
Norodom Sihanouk was restored as King of Cambodia in 1993 but stability remained elusive for some time. These days, things are calm and Cambodia Vietnam tours reflect that there are no difficulties between the countries; Phnom Penh down the Mekong into Vietnam is a popular holiday that a Cambodia travel agency regularly organises.