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Cambodian History

About 2500 years ago the ancestors of the people who live today in Southeast Asia began migrating from their homelands in China and Tibet. For reasons that are unrecorded, many traveled along the rich valleys and plains for several centuries before settling in the region that is now Cambodia. In these pre-historic times, they developed a complex agricultural way of life that centered then, as now, on the growing of rice. They were among the first people to domesticate tubers and legumes, often exporting the yam to the rest of the world.

Lasting cultural influences arrived from India whose ideas through Hinduism and Buddhism spread the art of writing, mythologies, and particularly the concept of a despotic God-King. It was the rise of the Khmer empire in the ninth century that elevated the concept of “deva-raja,” the God-King, to its mightiest position in the course of civilization in Southeast Asia.

During the reign of Suryavarman II (1113-c.1150), the building of the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat began. At one time, 12.5 million acres of rice fields lay under permanent cultivation, watered by a network of canals and reservoirs stretching for hundreds of miles ( from Columbia History of the World ). Although in many ways the temples and fields were extraordinary achievements, the resources devoted to their building and maintenance were exhausting for the country. And in the end, the Khmer people rejected the governance of “God-Kings” and their ornate ways. The people turned to the teachings of a different form of Buddhism that honored a path of poverty and simplicity. The Cambodian kingdom continued but endured constant threats from its neighbors.

These conflicts with bordering neighbors and beyond have carved the distant and recent past of Cambodia. The courage, wisdom and resiliency of human nature are vitally present in the families we meet in Pursat. Despite their unbearable past of the last thirty years, these families are beginning to see the possibilities of a hopeful new future.

The cultural history of Cambodia spreads far beyond the well-known Angkor Wat. For a BBC video on the Khmer temples around rural Cambodia, especially in remote Banteay Chhmar, click here.

One of Sustainable Cambodia’s former long-term onsite international volunteers is helping a local community-based tourism group in support of the preservation of the temples and cultural heritage in remote Banteay Chhmar. To learn about the region and its history, and to arrange affordable guided tours of the area, visit