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Cambodia Trip 2006
Info on Cambodia

(hopefully) interesting background info on Cambodia

Here is the text of two papers I've written; the first is from a paper I wrote after my first trip to Cambodia in 2004, the second is from an Honors paper I recently wrote for my History of the Modern Middle East class, about the Muslim minority in Cambodia.
A not-so-legal disclaimer: These papers are in no way comprehensive and I cannot vouch for the verity of my sources. However, to the best of my knowledge, the information I have used was accurate at the time I accessed it.




     From July 7th -21st of 2004 I went with a group of seven other people from my church on a two-week missions trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia. It was an exciting time during which I learned a lot about this fascinating country that has such a rich cultural background and a history marked by so much conflict and tragedy.

     Cambodia, or “Kampuchea,” as it is called by the country’s largest people group, the Khmer, is a small Southeast Asian country, only about as big as the state of Oklahoma. It lies directly between Thailand and Vietnam, just south of Laos. Around 100 AD, the very first kingdom known to have occupied the region of present-day Cambodia was established. This kingdom, called Funan, began as one of many colonies started by the Tamil peoples of southern Indo-China, and during the first century became independent.

      As a former colony of a people-group originating from the region of present-day India, Funan culture was greatly influenced by Hinduism and many other parts of Indian culture. The Funan port of Oc Eo, located on the Gulf of Thailand, was part of a major trade-route between India and China.

      In the sixth century, Chenla, a small vassal state of Funan, revolted and then conquered the kingdom, expanding Chenlan control of the area until 706, when a period of unrest and dissent among the population led to the division of the kingdom into two regions. The northern half eventually became  part of the Laos, and the southern half, which comprises modern-day Cambodia, came under Javan rule.

     A new era in Cambodian history began in the early ninth century when Jayavarman II, a king of Chenlan descent, rejected the Javan way of life and molded the kingdom into a “god-king”-run state, not unlike that of ancient Egypt. He encouraged the perception of royalty as deities and ordered that they be honored as such. Thus, this period of time, called the Angkor Era, was marked by the continual building and expansion of ornate temple complexes, many commemorating the supposed incarnations of the various kings who ruled during the period. The most extensive temple site in Cambodia is Angkor Wat. The ruins of Angkor Wat are located approximately fifteen miles north of the Tonle Sap, a large shallow lake in western Cambodia which is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. The temple was built to celebrate King Suryavarman II as an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Angkor                                        

Wat is built entirely of stone and decorated by a plethora of sculptures and carvings depicting Vishnu and legends concerning the various Hindu gods.

      The region of Angkor became the capital city of the kingdom and was at the time one of the largest cities in the world. Angkor was surrounded by a complex system of reservoirs and irrigation canals which controlled the area’s water supply, greatly benefiting the nearby farms. As local agriculture flourished, the rulers’ coffers were continually supplied with the wealth necessary to pay for the nearly constant construction of the Angkor temples.

      As time went on, the power of the so-called “god-kings” was weakened through internal conflict in the royal court and the introduction of Therevada Buddhism, which teaches that one may achieve a higher state of enlightenment through discipline, meditation, and strict adherence to the tenets of the religion. Also, neglect of the area’s irrigation systems led to agricultural problems, and indirectly to epidemics of malaria and other diseases. Thus, a combination of factors led to increasing discontent within the Angkor empire and an eventual weakening of its political structure.

      As the decline of Angkor continued, aggression on the part of the neighboring kingdoms increased. In 1431 Angkor was attacked by Siam, which is now modern-day Thailand. The Khmer rulers fled south to Phnom Penh, a city located on the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers. Phnom Penh soon became the country’s capital. In 1594 the city was captured by the Siamese, who eventually succeeded in gaining partial control of the country. Several years later, the Vietnamese advanced southward to the Mekong Delta. A power struggle ensued between Siam and Vietnam, as each country sought to establish complete control of the Khmer kingdom through puppet rulers and military aggression.

     In 1863 the French declared itself protectorate of Cambodia in an effort to halt the ongoing struggle between the Vietnamese and the Siamese, who were both still attempting to conquer the country. France, already in control of much of Indo-China, established its rule of Cambodia through “advisors” to the Cambodia royalty, who were required to comply with their advisors’ “guidance” on all important issues. During French rule new roads and public facilities were built, and the country’s exports, especially rice and rubber, were greatly increased. Also, the ruins of Angkor Wat were partially restored in the 1930’s. Thus the French occupation did bring about some positive changes in Cambodia.

    During the second World War, Japanese invaders allowed French rule to continue until 1945, when the Japanese ousted French leadership in favor of a somewhat independent Khmer government headed by King Norodom Sihanouk. Soon after the war France managed to regain control of Cambodia for a short time, but in 1953 King Sihanouk went into voluntary exile in protest of the French administration. This helped push France into recognizing Cambodian independence in 1954, and Sihanouk soon returned.

    Only two years later King Sihanouk abdicated and his father became king. Now prince, Sihanouk began to exercise his diplomatic influence to encourage various foreign powers to aid in the development of his homeland. At first, he attempted to distance Cambodia from the increasing turmoil in nearby Vietnam through an effort to maintain neutrality. However, in 1965 Sihanouk allowed the Communists of North Vietnam to construct military bases in Cambodia.

     In 1969 President Nixon ordered secret air strikes against Cambodia. The bombings went on for four years and killed an estimated 100,000 people. During the second year of the bombings, U.S. military forces entered Cambodia, but were ordered to withdraw only three months later.

     Meanwhile, in 1970 the Cambodian prime minister, General Lon Nol, had seized control of the Cambodian government. Lon Nol quickly sent Khmer troops to the Cambodian border in order to fight the North Vietnamese stationed there. Both the U.S. and the South Vietnamese supported Lon Nol’s regime, but U.S. air strikes in Cambodia continued until 1973.

     Prince Sihanouk, who opposed Lon Nol’s regime, aligned himself politically with the Khmer Communist Party, also called the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, shortly before the North  Vietnamese gained control of Saigon, the Khmer Rouge, headed by radical communist leader Pol Pot, overthrew Lon Nol, seizing control of the government.

      Under the leadership of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia entered a period of ruthless brutality and intense suffering for its people. Already reeling from the U.S. military strikes, Cambodia was plunged into an immediate economic decline due to Pol Pot’s attempts to return the country to the former glory of the Angkor era. Phnom Penh was emptied as the people were forcibly relocated to labor camps and government-run farms. Religion of every kind was suppressed, and dissenters, teachers, politicians, the disabled, the educated, the multi-lingual, and even people who wore glasses were imprisoned, tortured, and killed for supposed “crimes” against the state. Whole families were executed because one member had spoken out against the Khmer Rouge. School children were forced to beat their own teachers to death for refusing to teach communist propaganda. The bodies of many of the men, women and children who were executed were buried in mass graves in an area now known as the Killing Fields. In all, approximately 1.7 million people died under Pol Pot’s regime, over one-fifth the population.

      In 1978, Vietnam, now completely under communist control, invaded Cambodia. The Vietnamese quickly gained control of the main cities and roads, setting up a government headed by two puppet-leaders, named Heng Samrin and Hun Sen. The new government attempted to re-establish what was in many ways similar to a pre-Khmer Rouge way of life, but did not allow the monarchy to be re-asserted. Although some Khmer Rouge resisted the new regime, their efforts were largely unsuccessful.

     By 1989 most of the Vietnamese army had withdrawn from Cambodia, which considerably weakened Hun Sen’s regime and led to its eventual demise. In 1991 a peace treaty was signed by both the regime and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge party. The treaty gave the United Nations and a Cambodian representative council the authority to govern the county until a new government could be assembled. Prince Sihanouk was named interim president of Cambodia and returned from China, where he had been living, to Cambodia.

      In 1993 the first post-Khmer Rouge multi-party elections took place. The Khmer Rouge refused to vote in protest of the elections. The royalist pro-monarchy party won the election, but a pro-Hun Sen party threatened to secede with several Cambodian provinces, and so as a conciliatory measure the two leading parties formed a joint-coalition government until 1994, when a new constitution designating Cambodia a parliamentary monarchy was ratified. Sihanouk once again became the new king of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Ranariddh, became prime minister, with Hun Sen as second prime minister. Conflict arose yet again in 1995, when Sihanouk’s half-brother, Secretary General Sirivudh, a member of the royalist party, was accused of plotting Hun Sen’s assassination. Though Sirivudh claimed that the charges brought against him were false, he was sent to France in exile in 1996.

     Sirivudh’s exile sparked a controversy which eventually led to one of the leaders of the royalist party threatening to withdraw his party from the coalition’s government unless Hun Sen and his party agreed to reform the agreement between the leading parties. Hun Sen refused, and threatened to take control of the military, which was largely comprised of his followers. In the summer of 1997, when the leader of the royalist party was out of the country, Hun Sen overthrew the government and once again took control of the Cambodia.

      In 1998 twelve of Hun Sen’s political opponents were killed in the weeks preceding a mock election. Hun Sen won the election, and several protesters were killed by military police. These events led to more controversy and yet another rearrangement of the government, this time with Hun Sen as prime minister and Ranariddh as president of the national assembly. It was also in 1998 that Pol Pot, the former leader of  the Khmer Rouge, died while under a house arrest initiated by his own ex-followers and members of the Communist party.

     Hun Sen remained in power until the summer of 2003, when during an election none of the country’s parties garnered enough votes to obtain the two-thirds majority needed to officially declare a true electoral win. The various parties refused to co-operate with each other, and for a time the government was in a state of chaos. The situation remained unresolved for almost a year, and in fact was not resolved until the day before I arrived in Cambodia, when Sihanouk’s son, Ranariddh, and Hun Sen reached an agreement that allowed the monarchy to resume with Hun Sen as prime minister. Several months later Cambodia was officially admitted into the World Trade Organization. In the fall of 2004 King Sihanouk formally abdicated in favor of his son Norodom Sihamoni, who is now king and head of state in Cambodia.

      The conflicts which comprise much of Cambodian history have had an enormous impact on modern-day Cambodian culture. The constant power shifting, the mass genocide which took place in the 1970’s, and the internal chaos within a government only recently improved has given Cambodia a feeling of general instability. Cambodians seem to have a mindset based on the belief that they are somehow inferior to others, and in some ways this mindset is very similar to that of a child from a broken and abusive home, unsure of themselves and wishing for something better but not knowing how to get it.

      Cambodians are in general a quiet and apparently stoical people. They are not quick to voice their true feelings, and excessive displays of emotion are uncommon. The idea of “saving face” is of great importance in Cambodian culture, and to give offense or humiliate someone is highly embarrassing to both parties. Thus, the typical Cambodian would rather hide their opinions under a mask of indifference than risk losing face or embarrassing them, which is called “breaking” someone else’s “face”.

      This issue of respecting others by protecting them from humiliation is one which affects many Khmer customs. The elderly and religious are held in particular veneration in Cambodia. The traditional Khmer greeting, called a “sompeah,” consists of bowing with one’s hands folded, and the height at which the hands are held is used to convey a specific degree of honor toward the person being greeted. Because Buddhism teaches that the head is sacred, the higher one’s hands are raised in sompeah, the more respectful the gesture. The highest form of sompeah, in which the hands are held above one’s head, is reserved for people considered to be of especial importance, such as religious leaders.  As the head is considered sacred, the feet, which are the physical antithesis of the head, are considered vulgar and distasteful. Thus, to point one’s feet at someone is extremely offensive in Cambodian culture.

      Many Cambodian customs originate in superstitious belief. For example, Cambodians avoid having their picture taken in groups of three because they believe that the person standing at the center of the group becomes cursed and will die a premature death. Another example of how superstition influences the lives of the people of Cambodia is the practice of keeping spirit-houses. Spirit-houses are essentially small shrines which can be seen outside virtually every building in Cambodia. Most Cambodians believe that the spirits of their dead relatives will haunt them unless a shrine is erected in honor of the deceased. Offerings of fruit, flowers, or incense are place daily in the spirit-house in order to appease the spirits.

     One custom which affects the entire Cambodian economy is that of a yearly ceremony which takes place in the king’s palace. Various Cambodian crops and products are displayed in front of a cow specially chosen for the ceremony. Whatever item the cow first takes into its mouth is considered the “lucky” product of the year. The industries involved in the production of the chosen item generally do benefit from the practice of this custom, though of course not because of an actual “lucky” quality in their product. Sales of the item tend to go up because people are more eager to buy something which they believe to be lucky. Thus, the influence of superstition affects the growth of the business sector impacted by the sale of the “lucky” item. One reason why superstitious belief holds such sway over the people of Cambodia is that concepts which are taken for granted in the western world, such as cause-and-effect and supply-and-demand, are largely unfamiliar to Cambodians. Many have never been exposed to the concepts of democracy or free enterprise, and remain unaware of how other parts of the world function.

        Sadly, at least one quarter of the Cambodia population is illiterate. Without adequate education many are forced by default into low-paying and sometimes dangerous jobs as unskilled laborers. They become entrapped in a cycle of poverty, unable to get good jobs because of their lack of education, and unable to pursue higher learning because without a good job they cannot earn the money to pay for an education. This makes it very difficult for them to improve living conditions for themselves and their families.

       Despite the high level of illiteracy in Cambodia, education is becoming more accessible and is in fact technically required by the government to be made available to all children through the elementary grades. However, many poorer families have children who begin working while still very young in order to help support the family.  Children in this kind of situation may never have an opportunity to attend school. Secondary education for those who already have had some schooling remains largely inaccessible to the average Cambodian, who cannot afford a degree, and probably does not even realize just how much it could benefit them. The fact that so many Cambodians have only a nominal education without specialized skills or even a high school diploma inhibits their ability to better their lives.

        One indirect consequence of illiteracy is the widespread ignorance regarding matters of health and sanitation. Many Cambodians are simply unaware of how germs, diseases, and infections spread, and so are unable to effectively protect themselves from these things. Thus, the disease rate remains high among Cambodians. AIDS and other STDs are common. Even minor illnesses and relatively benign sicknesses such as the common cold go untreated and can develop complications with sometimes serious health implications. Quality medical care is scarce and expensive, so a sick person may seek “treatment” from local witch doctors, doing more harm than good.

       Another health issue sorely needing to be addressed in Cambodia is nutrition. Most Cambodians have never heard of the five food groups and eat a far from healthy diet. As in so many Asian countries, rice is the Cambodian food staple, and because it is relatively cheap it may be the only thing a Cambodian eats all day. A belief held by some Cambodians is that if they do not eat rice every day they may starve regardless of any other food they may eat. While this delusion undoubtedly helps keep rice farmers in business, it does little to promote the consumption of a balanced diet. Essential vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain a person’s overall health are often lacking in the average Cambodian’s diet. This is especially true among the poorest of the country, who can scarcely afford to buy a bowl of rice each day, let alone provide for their other dietary needs.

       There are many other health concerns which need to be dealt with in Cambodia. These include drug and alcohol abuse, lack of clean drinking water, a high infant mortality rate, and high numbers of injuries and deaths due to exploding land mines which are buried throughout many rural areas. Obviously, serious measures must be taken in order to promote the physical well-being of the Cambodian population.

       During my trip to Cambodia I stayed with my team members in a hotel in Phnom Penh for all but three days. Each day our team would eat breakfast in our rooms or at the hotel across the street. I was surprised to find that there are no breakfast-specific foods in Cambodia, so breakfast would typically be fried rice or bai secht tdrougk, which is a dish comprised of white rice, barbecued pork, cucumbers, green tomatoes, and a spicy ginger and carrot slaw, with water, iced coffee, or jasmine tea to drink. I learned that Cambodian food has its roots in Thai and Vietnamese cooking but is generally less spicy than either. Rice is present in some form in nearly every dish. I particularly enjoyed  bai secht tdrouk and chicken pho, which is a light soup made of rice noodles, chicken, onions, and bean sprouts, to which you add various herbs and flavorings according to taste.

      After breakfast our team would set out on whatever we had planned for the day. We usually traveled in a hired van, although occasionally we would hire small motorcycles, called motos, for short trips in the city. Traffic in Phnom Penh is chaotic and unpredictable. People drive on either side of the road, weaving in and out between motos, bicycles, cars, and trucks. Though traffic lights and speed limits do exist, most drivers either do not know what they mean or else choose to ignore them. This made traveling in Phnom Penh far from dull.

      One of our first activities while in the country was a visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, followed by a trip outside the city to the Killing Fields. Tuol Sleng was originally a school which was converted into a prison and interrogation center when the Khmer Rouge came into power. It is now a museum, with the interrogation rooms, tiny prison cells, and torture chambers left virtually as they were while in use by the Khmer Rouge. Rows of pictures of the men, women and children who were imprisoned and executed line the walls, as well as photos and paintings documenting the horrible torture and killings which took place there. The Killing Fields is the site of the mass graves where many of those executed under Pol Pot’s regime were buried. Most of the bodies have since been removed and a glass tower has been constructed and filled with skulls retrieved from graves. Skeletal remains protrude from the ground surrounding the graves, some with shreds of ragged clothing still clinging to them. It was very sad to realize how recently this tragic genocide took place.

      Another heart-breaking reality in Cambodia which I witnessed first-hand was that of the huge numbers of beggars in Phnom Penh. As a group of foreigners, we were solicited for money nearly everywhere we went. The beggars ranged from children barely old enough to walk to the very elderly, and every age in-between. Many approached us in small groups, asking for 100 riel, which is approximately two and one-half cents in American money. Many appeared to be sick, crippled, or missing limbs from land mine explosions. Most were in very ragged clothing and looked malnourished. We were told by the missionary couple Eric and Ginny Hanson of In-His-Steps Ministries, who we worked with while in Cambodia, that while many beggars were truly needy, it would not be uncommon to encounter members of begging rings, as well as children whose parents train them to beg as a profitable source of income, and not because they are truly needy.

     While in Cambodia we visited several different kinds of orphanages, including Sunshine House, which is a rural orphanage primarily for children whose parents have died of AIDS. While visiting Sunshine House we led a short children’s program, during which we sang songs, played a simplified version of the children’s game “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and provided crayons and paper for coloring. It was fun to interact with the children and to watch them happily drawing pictures of flowers, religious symbols, and the orphanage itself. Before leaving we also distributed toys and sports equipment to the children. They were very excited to receive these and eagerly watched as we demonstrated how to play some of the games.

     Another orphanage we visited was an AIDS orphanage for young children who had contracted the virus at birth. We played with those who were alert and held and rocked those who were less responsive. It was extremely sad to reflect that even if the children received the best medicine and care available that they are dying and will probably not live past twenty.

    Our group also went on a three-day side-trip into a rural province outside Phnom Penh. During that time we stayed in stilted houses and rode horse-carts to several medical clinics held by an organization called Boat of Hope. Some of our group helped to distribute medicine and weigh patients, while the rest of us helped lead an educational children’s class during the daily clinics. In the evenings we ate dinner at a tiny restaurant in the village, then had a prayer service on the boat we used to travel on the river. Our time working with the Boat of Hope ministries was especially interesting because we were able to experience some of life in a more rural area of Cambodia.

       Our group participated in numerous other things while in the country, but one highlight was attending New Life Church in Phnom Penh. The congregation made us feel very welcome and allowed us to participate in their youth meetings. One night we had the opportunity to actually organize and lead a youth party at the church, where we sang songs, played a variety of games, and ate snacks. It was a lot of fun to spend time with so many friendly Cambodian youth. Most spoke at least a little English and were very eager to talk to us and even to teach us words in Khmer.

     During our stay in Cambodia our group became friends with our translator and several other people who we met at New Life Church. We were able to spend a lot of time with them and often played the card games Uno and Dutch Blitz with them in the hallways of our hotel. We were also able to experience a Cambodian tradition called “dahling” with them. Dahling is essentially a Cambodian get-together where you go with your friends down to the river after dark and sit on woven palm-mats eating a corn-on-the-cob dinner. Our Cambodian friends were surprised that foreigners would want to participate in this. While there, two of our team-members tried a Cambodian delicacy, cooked baby duck still inside its egg. Though our new friends assured us that this was a special treat, neither of our group who tried that particular dish chose to finish it, not were they inclined to eat anything else for some time afterwards.

      My trip to Cambodia was filled with many other memorable times and amazing opportunities to enjoy Cambodian culture. It was an incredibly broadening experience that taught me so much about the world we live in. I made great friends, learned a few basic phrases in Khmer, got to ride on the back of a moto in crazy traffic, and drank a lot of iced coffee. I also did some less “fun” things, like playing with beggars and holding dying orphans. But it was not just the “fun” things which made my trip worthwhile, because it was truly a blessing to be able to bless others less fortunate than myself. I count my stay in Cambodia as one of the best times in my life, and I plan to go back to this amazing country for a second two-week missions trip in July of this year.











Microsoft Encarta 98 Encyclopedia articles including:


“The Kingdom of Chenla”

“Angkor Wat”


“Norodom Sihanouk”

“Therevada Buddhism”

“Pol Pot”

“Vietnam War”

“Khmer Rouge”


In-His-Steps Ministries



Other website resources include: