The history of the Khmer people and their accomplishments, the legacy they have left for the world to marvel at, and the religious monuments they built stand as an eternal testimony to the ingenuity of the human mind. They serve as a window for the modern world to the realm of timeless imagination, mystery and awe at the unbridled complexity and beauty of humankind's search for meaning in life.
Without question, the cultural heritage of the Khmer peo;oe far surpasses any of Cambodia's modern day neighbors. Khmer's historic, architectural achievements are without equal in the region and are on par with the wonders of ancient Egypt or the Aztecs.
Legend has it that during the first century AD, Kaundinya, and Indian Brahman priest, following a dream came to Cambodia's Great Lake to find fortune. He met and married a local princess, Soma, daughter of the Naga King, and founded Funan, introducing Hindu customs, legal traditions and the Sanskrit language.
Modern historians refer to a state known as Funan, which is considered to have been the first Khmer Kingdom, and which was the oldest Indianized state in the Southeast Asian region. The name is derived from the Khmer word for mountain, phnom.
Funan was usurped mid-6th century by Khmers who inhabited the vassal state Tchen-la which ended up in turmoil and division in the 8th century. Thus began the rise of the Khmer Empire which was to dominate much of Southeast Asia for more than 600 years.
A Khmer King named Jayavarman II returned from a region called Java to unite the Khmer people under his leadership around the year 800. Establishing his capital in what is now northwest Cambodia, north of the Great Lake, Jayavarman II was crowned as king of Kambuja and adopted the Hindu religion.
A long succession of strong leaders enabled the Khmer empire to flourish until the 15th century, with the zenith of its influence, might and architectural splendor reached in the 12th century.
At its height the Khmer Empire extended from the border of modern-day Burma in the west to the South China Sea in the east and to Laos in the north.
With a succession of capitals located in and around what is known today as the town of Siem Reap, the Khmer kings exhibited an enormous talent for marshalling the genius of their people.
The legacy of this half-millennia imperial flourish includes what is today the most extensive concentration of religious temples any where in the world, the Angkor complex.
With the temples of Angkor complex--the largest religious monument ever built--as the most significant and worldrenowned legacy of this era, Khmer kings initiated a fourcentury long construction boom of magnificent and unparalleled proportions.
The official religion of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism, which is also practiced in neighboring Laos, Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka.
Introduced to Cambodia in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, Theravada Buddhism is the official religion in contemporary Cambodia. The sight of saffron-robed monks is common throughout the Kingdom and almost every village has a Buddhist temple as a dominant feature of daily life.
A New Capital
Besieged by an expanding Siamese kingdom in the west, the Khmer King Ponhea Yat abandoned Angkor in 1434. The seat of power was successively transferred to the sites of Lovek, Oudong and finally in what is the nation's present day Capital--Phnom Penh.
From the 17th century, Cambodia was under the influence of the Siamese kingdom. The country was fought over by the expansionist Siamese and Vietnamese through the 17th and 18th centuries.
By the mid-1800s, Cambodia, like most other nations in Asia, was under pressure from European colonial expansion. In 1863, King Norodom signed a Protectorate Treaty with the French which led to 90 years of French domination over the Khmer people.
With the death of King Norodom in 1904, the French forced the Crown Council to elect his brother Prince Sisowath (1904- 1927) as his successor over the king's heir apparent.
In 1941, 19-year-old Prince Norodom Sihanouk was crowned King following the death of King Monivong, heir of Sisowath.
In 1945 the Japanese briefly ousted the French protectorete administration which returned after the Japanese defeat the same year King Sihanouk, as Head of State, crusaded tirelessly for independence, which was granted in 1953. King Sihanouk abdicated the throne to become Head of State and was replaced by his father. King Norodom Suramarit in 1955.
Prince Sihanouk lead the country through prosperous years, while neighboring Laos and Vietnam were embroiled in civil War.
In spite of the Prince's tireless efforts Cambodia was unable to avoid becoming immersed in the Vietnam quagmire. The Prince's overthrow by Marshal Lon Nol in 1970 sealed the country's fate as Cambodia became a full-scale partner in the broader Indochina conflict.
With the country immersed in civil war, the communist Khmer Rouge finally took power on 17 April 1975, Ieading to a four-year reign of terror which resulted in more than one million deaths.
A Kingdom at Peace
The Khmer Rouge regime was finally overthrown in 1979 by the Vietnamese-backed People's Republic of Kampuchea. However, Cambodia did not return to peace until the United Nations-organized Paris Peace Accords was signed on 23 October 1991.
Supported by the presence of more than 22,000 U.N. peacekeepers, Cambodia held what is widely recognized as free and fair elections. A new constitution was promulgated in September 1993 and the Monarchy proclaimed a Royal Government recognized by the world community.
His Majesty Preah But Samdech Preah Nomdom Sihanouk Varmam, crowned King of Cambodia in October 1993, remains a symbol of national unity--a Father to his people.
Culture and People
The population of Cambodia is approximately 9 million. Of this roughly 90-95 precent are are Khmer. The remaining 5-10 percent include Sino-Khmer, Khmer Islam, Khmers Loeu or "Highland Khmers," and Vietnamese.
The Khmer race is related to the Mons of Burma and Thailand. Scholars believe that over 2,000 years ago Mon- Khmers, migrating to what is present day Cambodia, most likely intermarried with an existing population of Austroasiatic people who had inhabited the region for centuries.
Chinese traders have been visiting Cambodia for many centuries, many of whom settled in urban areas engaging in small business and commerce, while ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia have been, for the most part, involved in sustaining their livelihoods by fishing on Cambodia's two main rivers and on the Great lake.
The Chams or Khmer Islam, estimated at about 500,000, are a Muslim community who live in scattered settlements in the southeast of the country. They are survivors of the ancient Kingdom of Champa, now central Vietnam.
The Khmer Loeu, who speak their own dialects, live in the northeast of the country near the Laotian and Vietnamese borders, and comprise a variety of diverse ethnic groupings. They are distinguished by their affiliation with animistic religious practices and their use of slash and burn agriculture which necessitate the occasional relocation of their settlements. They have much in common with other ethnic peoples in Laos, Burma, parts of Thailand and Vietnum.
The bulk of Cambodia's population live in rural areas engaging in a primarily rice-based agriculture economy.
The beautiful lotus, with fragrant pink and while blossoms which bloom morning and evenings, is sacred to Buddhism and is used for votive offerings in temples. Its form, full of spiritual symbolism, is a constant motif in Khmer art and architecture.