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Lesson One – Introduction to Cambodian History

To gain an overall picture of Cambodia’s history.
To appreciate how ancient Angkor still lives in Cambodian culture.
To understand the resentment that builds up during foreign occupation.
To get to know a Cambodian student and the challenges of his life.

Homework prior to class.
Read Summary of Cambodian History (Appendix A). In Soul Survivors read the chapter titled "Daravuth." (Note for teachers: Daravuth is a Cambodian boy who lives in an orphanage. He tells about going to school, his friends, what he likes to eat, sports, music, overcoming difficulties and being kind to others.)

Answer the following questions:

  1. What helped Daravuth succeed in life?
  2. What challenges did Daravuth overcome?

In Class – The teacher leads an interactive discussion introducing Cambodia, including a recap of the history reading.

Materials Needed:
world map
optional: picture of Cambodian flag (with image of Angkor Wat; try

Geography of Cambodia

Where is Cambodia located? Southeast Asia, neighbors with Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

What is the name of the capital?Phnom Penh

What is the climate like? It is located close to the equator. It is hot and tropical with a rainy season and a dry season.

Tonle Sap is a great lake in Cambodia and there are many rivers.

What kind of food could you get in a country with lakes and rivers? Cambodians catch fish and grow rice. Eighty-five percent of the people are rice farmers.

Language – The language spoken in Cambodia is called Khmer or Cambodian. The people who live there are also referred to as Khmer or Cambodian. You can use either word.

History - Cambodia has had many different types of government during it’s history. (Teacher’s note: the answers to the following questions can be elaborated on)

Can you name some types of governments? (democracy, kingdom, communist)

What was the famous ancient government in Cambodia? The Kingdom of Angkor.

Who can tell us something about this period? Such as territory, temples, religion, slaves, life for peasants, threats.

What happened to Angkor? Decreased in size and power due to invasions from Thailand and Vietnam.

Which foreign country colonized Cambodia? The French took over.

What was an advantage of being controlled by the French? Cambodia was protected from its invading neighbors.

What was a disadvantage? They lost their freedom. They felt resentment toward being controlled by foreigners. Was America ever controlled by foreigners? How did we feel? What did we do? Does the US exercise colonial power over any countries or territories? Puerto Rico, Siapan (location of US sweatshops)

When did Cambodia become independent from France and who ruled the country? 1954 Prince Sihanouk

Why did the US start bombing Cambodia in 1969? Because they thought Cambodia was supporting the Vietnamese communists.

What happened in 1975? The genocide began. The Khmer Rouge took over, put everyone in work camps and started killing educated people. 1.7 million people died from execution, starvation or disease over the next 4 years. (Teacher’s note: Lesson 2 is devoted to the genocide)

How did the genocide end? The Vietnamese invaded and pushed them out in 1979.

What was the attitude of the Cambodians toward the new Vietnamese-backed government? They were glad to be free from the Khmer Rouge but they didn’t like being controlled by the Vietnamese.

Who was the civil war between? The Cambodian government vs. the Khmer Rouge and other groups.

What finally ended the civil war? Pol Pot’s death. It is interesting that one man was able to keep the brutal Khmer Rouge movement going for over 20 years after the genocide ended.

Who is the current leader of Cambodia? Hun Sen

What happened to the Khmer Rouge leaders? All but two of them live freely. The United Nations and Cambodia are negotiating to set up an international tribunal to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to trial.

What is Cambodia like today? Buddhist, democratic, recovering from genocide, poverty, lack of schools and medical care, government corruption.

What did you find interesting about Daravuth’s story?

  • Why was he well-liked by the other orphans?
  • How does he deal with anger?
  • How did corruption affect his education?

In 1999 Daravuth won the immigration permit lottery in Cambodia and was given permission to move to the US with his wife and son. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. If you’d like to write Daravuth you can send an email to and it will be forwarded to him.


Website Resources on Cambodia - Three of my favorite sites:

  1. PBS Frontline/World: Cambodia – Facts and Stats (
  2. Cambodia – A Country Study ( – it is through the Library of Congress)
    Excellent summaries of Cambodia’s historical periods.
  3. "Yahoo World News Cambodia"

More links for Cambodia can be found at:

East and Southeast Asia: An Annotated Directory of Internet Resources (

Mekong Net: Beauty and Darkness – The Odyssey of the Khmer People
Lots of links and a collection of articles, essays, and photos focusing on the Khmer Rouge campaign.

Asian Educational Media Service
Links to lesson plans, geography, culture, maps, photos, news, historical sites, human rights, portals.

Web sites with background information on Cambodia:

Cambodia NGO Forum
Embassy of Cambodia
Cambodia Information Center
US Indochina Educational Foundation

Books about Cambodia:

Soul Survivors – "Further Reading Chapter" lists books on Cambodia by category.

Emily’s Books is an online bookstore with an excellent collection of books on Cambodia for children and adults, also music and videos.

Sharma, Sanjeev. Cambodia: A Historical Overview. 1994. University of Hawaii at Manoa. 179 pages. A comprehesive middle/high school workbook on historical and contemporary Cambodia. Includes exercises, maps, discussion questions, and tests. $10 plus shipping. (use Google to find the website for University of Hawaii, Center for Southeast Asia Studies, Outreach)

Brown, Ian. Cambodia – An Oxfam Country Profile. 2000. 88 pages. The background, issues and people. Excellent for students!

Chandler, David P. The Land and People of Cambodia. 1991. Harper Collins Publishers. David Chandler offers a comprehensive and readable introductory portrait of the history, geography, people, culture, government and economy of Cambodia. He examines how a proud people who once had built the great temples of Angkor Wat and who had established their own culture, endured repeated foreign invasions, civil war, and repression and who must now find the cultural resources to rebuild their nation and their lives.

Videos about Cambodia’s History

Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia 29 min; video; color. A video about survival and recovery in Cambodia, by Ellen Bruno. Documents the lives of the Cambodian people, long troubled by war, and brings a humanistic perspective to a country in deep political turmoil. Focuses on the Cambodians' struggle to reconstruct their shattered society in a climate of war and with limited resources. Ancient prophecy, Buddhist teachings, folklore and dreams provide a context for understanding the Cambodians' world view and philosophies which guide their lives.

Cambodia: The Prince & the Prophecy 80 min; video; color. To understand Cambodia, this program delves to the roots of its culture and its conflicts--it looks back to the time of the great kings of Angkor, how they ruled and how they survived as their empire crumbled; Cambodia's fears and response to the thrust of their Vietnamese neighbors; the impact of colonization by France and the struggle for independence in Indochina after the Second World War. Explores the years of Prince Norodom Sihanouk's rule, his juggle for peace, his charisma and contradictions. Follows the Prince's overthrow, and traces Cambodia's destruction during the five years of war before Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge came to power and launched their revolution. (James Gerrand; 1988)

Cambodia Kampuchea 60 min; video; color. Exposes the nightmare of the revolution unleashed by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge after their victory in 1975. Explains the paranoia and provocations that led to the Vietnamese invasion; the famine, exodus and grinding war of resistance that followed; the struggle for peace in Kampuchea that continues to the present day. A sequel to Cambodia: The Prince and the Prophecy. (James Gerrand; 1988)

Summary of the History of Cambodia (Appendix A)

Ancient Kingdom of Angkor - The first government in Cambodia was a kingdom. The ancient Kingdom of Angkor lasted from 802 to 1431 AD. At it’s peak, this powerful empire extended into Thailand, Vietnam and Laos and had a population of 30 million people. Many of the kings who ruled during this time associated themselves with one of the Hindu gods and then built a temple using slaves to honor the god and himself. Most of the temples were built of stone and have myths and stories carved in their walls. Beautiful dances were performed for the king. Today people from all over the world travel to Cambodia to visit these beautiful ancient temples which are one of the largest religious structures in the world. Another word for temple is wat. The most famous temple is named Angkor Wat.

Over time the predominant religion of the Khmer kings shifted from Hinduism to Buddhism and fewer temples were built. In 1431 an army from Thailand invaded Cambodia and took treasures from one of the temples. Later the Vietnamese invaded. Cambodia eventually lost a large part of it’s territory to Thailand and Vietnam. The capital of Cambodia was moved to Phnom Penh.

Even though the kingdom downsized, life for the peasants, which was most of the population, didn’t change a lot over the next 400 years. They grew rice, lived simple lives in the rural areas, and sought protection from those in power.

French Colonial Period - The French arrived in 1863 and took over Cambodia. They controlled the country, but allowed King Norodom to be a symbolic king. One positive contribution from the French was the restoration of Cambodia’s ancient temples from the Angkor period. The French also offered protection from Cambodia’s invading neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. The negative side of French colonialism was that Cambodia lost its freedom and was being controlled by a foreign country. In 1954 Cambodia became independence from France. Prince Sihanouk ruled the country until 1970.

US Bombing of Cambodia - In 1969 the Vietnam-American War spilled into Cambodia when the US started bombing Cambodia. International law states that it is illegal to bomb a neutral country, which Cambodia was, but the bombing continued for four years. The US felt that some people in Cambodia were helping the Viet Cong. In 1970, when Prince Sihanouk was on a trip to France, General Lon Nol took over Cambodia. Lon Nol supported the US in the Vietnam War. In 1970 US and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia and war broke out throughout the country. Between 1970 and 1975 several hundred thousand people died in Cambodia.

Khmer Rouge Genocide - The communist movement started in Cambodia in the 1940’s to oppose the French rule. After independence from France, the communists continued to work for better treatment of the peasant farmers in Cambodia. The communists were called the Khmer Rouge (meaning red Cambodians) and were led by Pol Pot. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. They had a vision of creating a country without class, where everyone was equal. However they were very brutal and started executing everyone who was middle or upper class. They moved everyone out of the cities and put them in slave labor camps in the rural areas. There was not enough food or medicine, so many people died from starvation or disease. During the four year reign of the Khmer Rouge, 1.7 million people died.

The Khmer Rouge invaded Vietnam, in an attempt to reclaim Cambodia’s former territory. This provoked Vietnam into invading Cambodia, ousting the Khmer Rouge and taking over the country in 1979. Many Cambodians fled to the Thai border in 1979, when the Vietnamese were fighting the Khmer Rouge. These people became refugees and lived camps just over the Thai border. Some were given permission to move to the US. Now there are about 250,000 Cambodian-Americans living in the US today.

Vietnamese-backed Government - Vietnam controlled Cambodia from 1979 to 1991. Vietnam was a communist government, but it was very different from the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam helped Cambodia rebuild roads, hospitals and schools – everything the Khmer Rouge had destroyed.

Civil War - Some Cambodians did not like being controlled by Vietnam, their former enemy, so they started a war against the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government. This civil war included people who were loyal to the king, people with business interests, and the largest group was the Khmer Rouge, still led by Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge kept fighting the government until 1998 when Pol Pot mysteriously died the day before he was to be taken prisoner by the US.

Democratic Elections - In 1991 the Vietnamese left Cambodia because the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew their aid from Vietnam. The United Nations then took over and helped Cambodia prepare for democratic elections. The first democratic election was held in 1993. Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh became co-prime ministers. Hun Sen won the national election in 1998 and again in 2003. Hun Sen’s government has had a lot of corruption. Powerful government officials have taken land, forests, and fishing rights from poor peasants.

Cambodia Today – The Cambodian culture is strongly influenced by the Angkor Period. The music and royal dance from the ancient empire are still performed today. The religion of ninety-five percent of the people living in Cambodia is Buddhism. The two biggest holidays are the Cambodian New Year which falls in April and the Water Festival in November. Once one of the most powerful countries of the world, Cambodia is now among the 10 poorest.

Cambodia’s Challenges – Cambodia is still recovering from the Khmer Rouge genocide, when a quarter of the population, including most of the educated people (such as doctors and teachers) were killed. There still is a shortage of schools and hospitals. Half the women and 25% of the men living in Cambodia did not have an opportunity to go to school and cannot read or write. Only 30% of the population has access to clean drinking water. Almost half of the children in Cambodia are malnourished. There are 4 to 6 million landmines in Cambodian soil which are still being stepped on each day by civilians. Cambodian’s greatest challenges today are poverty and government corruption.

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