The majestic Angkor Wat at sunrise, Siem Reap - Cambodia


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The Turbulent History of Cambodia

To understand Siem Reap, one must first understand the turbulent history of Cambodia and how it still deeply affects the lives of the people here. As I sit amongst it all in a café in Phnom Penh, I will attempt to bring my own unique understanding of this history.


With the Angkor temples being the oldest, and arguably the biggest attraction in Cambodia, the ancient Angkorian history is an important place to start. With the direct translation of Angkor being ‘holy or capital city’, it is clear this area was initially the main centre of Cambodia. The Angkor era started around AD 800 and continued for several hundred years until the 1400’s. History of this period is based almost solely on legends found inscribed on sandstone slabs. Jayavaman II, who is believed to be the first King of the Angkorian era, established the lingam as a religious symbol that remained central to Khmer religion, architecture, kingship and art for the many centuries that followed. The architecture throughout the Angkorian era has marked differences, which reflects the religious developments. Over the rule of King Jayavarman II, he implemented several different religious ideals and gave himself a god-king status, which gave the kingdom a special connection to the Hindu god Shiva.

Over the Angkorian period several Kings ruled, each contributing in different ways and developing various Angkorian kingdom’s, which now form the ruins we see today. Predominant worship of Shiva continued until the 12th century, when King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat, dedicated to Vishnu, between 1113 and 1150. It is thought up to one million people lived, worked and worshipped at Angkor Wat and the surrounding area.

Following the death of King Suryavarman II, Angkor entered a period of strife and was attacked by people from the east (which makes South Vietnam today). The Khmer prince, who later became King Jayavaman IV, played an integral role at this time and defeated those who had invaded the country. He is now recognised as the greatest Angkorian King. Throughout his rule he constructed Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, the latter two were dedicated to his parents. These temples differed to those built by previous kings, with Buddhist beliefs and values emulated throughout these temples. This marks a change in religion from Hinduism to Buddhism. King Jayavaman IV also had Buddhist images built into Angkor Wat, which briefly became a place of Buddhist worship. Following his death, Khmer people reverted to follow Hinduism until the 14th century when Theravada Buddhism yet again became the predominant religion. To this day, Buddhism remains the most practised religion in Cambodia.

Ancient Thailand launched multiple attacks on Angkor throughout the 13th century. The capital was moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh in 1432 and the Angkorian era ended. Experts are unsure why Angkor was abandoned, with several theories, including the Thai war, change of religion (from Hinduism to Buddhism), and natural disaster being thought most likely.

While the temples are an incredible feat, just as amazing (if not more) are the intricate and deliberate 16,000+ square kilometres of waterways that stretch throughout the ancient Angkor city. Parts of the waterways have religious significance, such as the moats, which symbolise the oceans around Mount Meru (the home of the Hindu gods). Other aspects that spread further afield are designed to direct rainwater towards Angkor, both as drinking water for the Khmer people and to irrigate the rice fields. This fascinating piece of engineering allowed the Khmer people to grow at least three, maybe four, rice crops per year. With rice being the primary currency for trade at the time, this allowed the city enough crops to feed the large community with some remaining for trade. While Angkor isn’t far from Tonle Sap (a large lake), the Khmer people instead designed the waterways, which directed and stored monsoon rainwater. Interestingly, recent research has discovered evidence of these waterways failing in the 13th century, ironically after a flood washed away part of the earthworks. This may have lead to the eventual abandonment of Angkor.


Located between Thailand and Vietnam, two powerful countries in the late 18th – early 19th centuries, it seems Cambodia was often invaded and suffered some hardships throughout this period. In 1863, King Norodom I signed a treaty of protectorate with the French. Some believe it was the rediscovery of Angkor Wat by French Missionaries in the 1850’s that lead to the French initiating the treaty with the Cambodian King, which would allow them greater access to analyse the archeological wonders.

The French influence in Cambodia appeared to focus on economic development and trade. They assisted in reclaiming Battambang, Sisophon, Siem Reap, and consequently Angkor Wat, from Thailand in 1907. During WWII, the Japanese dabbled in Cambodian rule and conceded the northwestern provinces (Battambang and Siem Reap) to Thailand. The French continued to largely monitor the day-to-day Cambodian matters until 1945 when Paris was in strife, which saw the Japanese more involved until the completion of WWII. The French returned in early 1946 and struggled to maintain control of Indochina. The first Indochina war raged from 1946 until the fall of the French in 1954. On the 9th of November 1953, King Sihanouk declared independence and consequently is named as the sole authority in the Geneva Accords of 1954.


After King Sihanouk succeeded in declaring Cambodia’s independence, he abdicated the throne and formed the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (People’s Socialist Community), which won every seat in parliament in the 1955 elections. Running a relatively neutral party, they monopolised Cambodian politics for the following 15 years.

Having travelled through Laos and seeing the horrific legacy the Secret War has left, it seems only logical that Cambodia would also be affected. The Cambodian ruler at the time openly opposed the US military’s involvement in the second Indochina war, understandably disagreeing with bombing campaigns of the Vietnam – Cambodia boarder and other proposed bombings inside Cambodia. There was also resistance of the use of Cambodia airports and airspaces for US military activity. For four years from 1969-1973, the US conducted aerial bombings on areas they suspected to be communist bases. While I found it difficult to find any exact figures, one article suggested 540,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped by the US in Cambodian territory, killing upwards of 150,000 civilians.

Throughout the 1960’s, a polarisation developed in Cambodian politics. By the late 1960’s an opposition, with leaders including Pol Pot, had developed and was rapidly gathering a following. The bombing regime by the US no doubt added fuel to the fire, with many Cambodians in rural settings losing family members, they aligned themselves with Pol Pot.


In March 1970, Sihanouk was ousted while on an overseas trip. His cousin, Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak and General Lon Nol were responsible, with General Lon Nol resuming his position in charge. Allegedly, the US were in support of this political move. The US continued to fund Lon Nol’s regime and a civil war broke out. The US was in support of Lon Nol, funding the Cambodian military, while the North Vietnamese military moved into Northern Cambodia to protect them from further US bombing. The North Vietnamese troops gave the Khmer Rouge some support, further snowballing their movement. The Khmer Rouge continued the raging civil war until they eventually won and took power in 1975.


The Khmer Rouge is a name given to the Communist Party of Kampuchea by the French. Led largely by Pol Pot, a French-educated Cambodian with a admiration for the Chinese communist regime, a radical social restructuring started. On the 17th of April 1975, Phnom Penh surrendered to the Khmer Rouge. This was proclaimed Year Zero. From here, Pol Pot abolished currency, property, religion, traditional Khmer culture and much more. His goal, to create a pure, rural, classless society. To achieve this, he expelled the entire population from the cities, sending them to the country and forcing the people to work 12-15 hours a day to achieve the unrealistic goal of 3 tonnes of rice per hectare. Thousands of people died from starvation, disease and exhaustion.

Furthermore, Pol Pot started a brutal genocide, killing hundreds of thousands of people in an attempt to create a pure society. People were tortured before they were killed at one of the many killing fields throughout Cambodia. Any person thought to be a potential opposition was executed, including, but not limited to, doctors, lawyers, teachers and those considered intellectuals. As if this wasn’t enough, entire families were often executed to prevent any chance of revenge. The executions were brutal, with ammunition deemed too costly, people were beaten to death with various makeshift weapons. While there are no official records, it is estimated more than three million people died (more than a quarter of the total population, which at the time was 8 million) over the Khmer Rouge rule.

After multiple border clashes with the Vietnamese between 1976 and 1978, the Khmer Rouge controlled the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. In December 1978, Vietnamese troops stormed Cambodia, and in January 1979 drove the Khmer Rouge west, reclaiming Phnom Penh. Former Khmer Rouge officers who had fled Cambodia for Vietnam formed a new government, including the current Prime Minister, Hun Sen.

The 1980’s continued to be extremely tough for Cambodia, still struggling with famine and disease. The Khmer Rouge, though weakened, still made attempts to regain control. Amongst other things, they attacked road transport, demolishing bridges and lay thousands of landmines in rural areas. Civilians continued to be targeted. The Vietnamese, in return, pushed them further west and into Thailand.

In February 1991, the Paris Peace Accords was signed by all, including the Khmer Rouge. This stated the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) would rule the country until elections were held in 1993. This international intervention assisted in the restoration of civil rule and while the Khmer Rouge continued to exist in the 1990’s they never regained enough momentum to overthrow the new government.


We have been in Cambodia for nearly two weeks now, and after little observation there seems to be a huge division in modern society. While the poverty is overwhelming, there is also outlandish wealth. A boat ride along the river from Siem Reap to Battambang gave us insight to the many communities living in conditions that can only be described as poor at best, yet when you reach Phnom Penh people are driving brand new BMW’s. The contrast is mind-boggling.

It is interesting to think there has been so much growth and development, especially of the tourism industry, in such a short period of time. To date, we have travelled to Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh. Each of these towns have an extremely large tourism industry. It is obviously an extremely lucrative business and many locals seem to be involved with the various aspects. It will be interesting to visit again in maybe 5-10 years to see how the country has further developed.

In terms of modern Cambodian politics, I have failed to find any resources giving accurate and unbiased information. Perhaps the best way to gain further understanding of Cambodian politics would be to discuss it at length with the locals, however, I’m unsure how to broach the subject and if it’s an appropriate topic of conversation. With such a turbulent history, it’s difficult to know what is open for discussion.

As one travels through Cambodia, this history comes to life. From the Angkor temples surrounding Siem Reap to the Choeung Ek Killing Fields in Phnom Penh, Cambodia has been a highly emotional trip. For more on Cambodia through my eyes, the Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh blogs will give more insight on our personal experiences.

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