A Waterfall in Phnom Kulen, Cambodia

Cambodia has a glorious history and rich heritage. Hinduism and Buddhism flourished here for many centuries. As a result, it is home to numerous religious monuments, including Angkor Wat, an architectural masterpiece.

The original name of Cambodia is Kamboja, which is the name of one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas (great tribes) that existed in ancient India between the 6th and 4th century BCE. The original Kamboja tribes controlled the region around the Hindu Kush, a mountain range passing through present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is believed that some Kamboja tribes moved to Southeast Asia and were responsible for establishing a new Kamboja country.

Kamboja became Kampuchea in the Khmer language. When the French colonized Cambodia, Kampuchea became Cambodge. The current name of Cambodia is an English version of Cambodge. The dreaded Khmer Rouge made Kampuchea the official name, but after their defeat, the official name reverted to Cambodia.

Located in the Indochinese Peninsula, Cambodia borders Thailand to the west and northwest, Laos to the northeast and Vietnam to the east. It has a coastline of about 275 miles along the Gulf of Thailand. The Mekong River flows through Cambodia. It joins Tonlé Sap, a freshwater lake near Phnom Penh.

Places to Visit

Siem Reap

Siem Reap was the center of the Khmer civilization and home to numerous temples and monuments, including  Angkor Wat, Bayon, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm.

Lake Tonlé Sap

Located 30 miles south of Siem Reap, Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. Because of the seasonal changes, its size fluctuates. During the dry season, the lake shrinks as the water flows out of the lake into the rivers.  During the wet season, the lake expands as the water flows into the lake from the rivers, and the water level rises as much as 30 feet.  Thus, it acts as a natural reservoir.

The maximum dimensions of the lake are, length – 260 miles, width – 62 miles, and depth – 33 feet

Tonlé Sap is home to many floating villages inhabited mostly by the Vietnamese and Cham people. They earn their livelihood by fishing and crocodile farming.

In addition to floating houses, these villages have floating schools, shops, and even churches. See the images above.

Phnom Kulen National Park

The Phnom Kulen National Park consists of the Kulen mountains, Kbal Spean River and waterfalls.

The Kbal Spean River is also known as the Sahasralinga River (River of one thousand lingas) because one thousand lingas are carved on its bed. A 16th-century pagoda named Preah Ang Thom is located on the way to Phnom Kulen. It is famous for the statue of Sleeping Buddha. The Banteay Srei Temple is on the way to the Kulen mountains.

Phenom Penh

Phenom Penh is capital of Cambodia and home to the National Museum of Cambodia, which houses cultural treasures of Cambodia.

Indian Influence

The cultural influence of India is very deep in Cambodia. Hinduism arrived in Cambodia sometime in the first century CE. Buddhism arrived much later.

The earliest record of Indian influence came from the Chinese historical texts, the rulers of the Kingdom of Funan worshiped Vishnu and Shiva.


The early accounts of Cambodian history originate from the Chinese historical texts, which include reports from travelers, traders, and diplomats who traveled to the region around the Mekong Delta.

Funan is the name given by the Chinese to the Indianised kingdom that ruled the region centered around the Mekong Delta from the first century CE. We don’t know what the locals called their kingdom, but there is some evidence to suggest that they called it Suvarna Bhoomi (Land of Gold). It is probable that suvarna became funan when it was translated into Chinese.

The Funan Kingdom lasted until the 6th century. Succeeding the Funan Kingdom was another Indianised kingdom called Chenla, which ruled for two more centuries before the mighty Khmer Empire rose from nowhere and lasted for six centuries.

Khmer Empire

Although Cambodia was referred to as a single kingdom in the Chinese texts, according to experts, it was an actually a collection of small kingdoms – more like the Greek city-states- who fought among themselves. There was no centralized power structure that controlled the kingdoms. The rise of the Khmer Empire changed all that.

The founding of the Empire

In the late eighth century, King Jayavarman II was ruling the kingdom known as Kambuja with its capital Indrapura situated in the Mekhong Delta. He swore allegiance to King  Samaratungga of the Shylendra dynasty in the present-day Java. It is worth pointing out that King Samaratungga was known for initiating the building of Borobudur situated near present-day Yogyakarta in Indonesia.

It is believed that King Jayavarman II spent his early years in Java with the Shylendras, who were Buddhists, and got the first-hand experience of their governance and learned about their religion and culture.

Once he came back, he used skills that he learned in Java to create his own kingdom. He believed in his own greatness and eventually revolted against Shylendras and succeeded. In a grand ceremony at the Kulen mountains (Mahendraparvata) in 802 CE, King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from the Shylendras, the rulers from the island of Java, and at the same time declared himself a Chakravarty (King of Kings or Emperor) of Khmer Empire.

King Jayavarman II started a new brand of Hinduism known as the Devaraja Cult. According to this belief system, the king is a devaraja (god-king in Sanskrit) who is divine and allowed to rule with divine authority. The Khmer people practiced their religion by mixing their ancestral belief system with Hindu traditions and philosophy.

Early Years

King Jayavarman II soon moved his capital to a place called Hariharalaya, which is present-day Roluos located 10 miles east of Siem Reap. He spent his years expanding his territory, and there no evidence to suggest that engaged in building monuments.

King Jayavarman II died in 835CE and posthumously conferred the title of Parameswara (Supreme God). After his death, his throne was passed to his son Jayavarman III (835-877), who not only engaged in expanding the Khmer territory but also started building many temples and monuments, the prominent among them is Bakong in Hariharalaya. King Jayavarman III (877-886) was succeeded by Indravarman I,  who kept  Hariharalaya as their capital and expanded the territory further.

State of Turmoil

The Khmer Empire was relatively peaceful until King Indravarman I died, but his death resulted in turmoil, which lasted for 3 years.

Rise of Yashovarman I

After the death of King Indravarman I, a violent power struggle ensued between the crown prince and his brother.  Eventually, the crown price lost and his brother Yashovarman I (889-915) declared himself the king.

The power struggle led to the destruction of the palace in Hariharalaya. When Yashovarman I became the king, he decided to move the capital from Hariharalaya. He eventually built a new capital near Angkor Wat and named it Yashodharapura, and thus began the glorious history of Angkor, the central point of the Khmer Empire.

During his 26 years of rule, Yashovarman I commissioned many building projects, including many temples. His major accomplishments are the construction of East Barray reservoir and the temple on top of Phnom Bakheng, a hill near Angkor.

Gopura at the center of Bakeng Hill in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Gopura at the center of Bakheng Hill in Siem Reap, Cambodia

After the death Yashovarman I in 905 CE, his son Harshavarman I (905-923) succeeded him, who was followed by his other son Isvaravarman (923-928).

The death of Isvaravarman I threw the Khmer Empire into a state of turmoil again. The details of what happened after his death are sketchy. Isvaravarman I was succeeded by Jayavarman IV (928-941), who was neither his son nor relative but a king of a nearby principality who swore allegiance to the Khmer kings.

After the death of Jayavarman IV, there was a power struggle again, and eventually, Harshavarman II (941-944) succeeded him. Even though he was a son of Jayavarman IV, he was not the crown prince. Harshavarman II lasted only for three years and was succeeded by his cousin Rajendravarman (944-968).

During Rajendravarman’s 24 years rule, he consolidated the Khmer Empire and expanded its territory. After his death, his son Jayavarman V succeeded him.

Jayavarman V – The Intellectual King

By the time King Jayavarman V (968- 1001) came to power, the Khmer Empire has become very powerful and prosperous. He was an intellectual king who enjoyed the company of scholars. His 32-year rule was relatively peaceful.

He was responsible for building several temples in and around Angkor. However, Banteay Srei,  a temple complex famous for its exceptional beauty, was built by Yajnavaraha, the chief priest of the court and a close confidant of the king.

A beautifully decorated pediment of the east gopura of the middle enclosure with a bas-relief depicting time monster Kala.
A beautifully decorated pediment of the east gopura of the middle enclosure with a bas-relief depicting time monster Kala.

Golden Age

Suryavarman II  – The Radical King

The power and influence of the Khmer Empire peaked during the reign of Suryavarman II  (1113 – 1150), who is responsible for the greatest achievement of the Khmer civilization, Angkor Wat.  In addition to Angkor Wat, he built many smaller temples, including Beng Mealea, Banteay Samre.


Suryavarman II understood the importance of diplomacy. He established great relationships with the Chinese and Indians. He frequently sent emissaries with tributes to the Chinese emperor and kings of Chola dynasty in Southern India.

Military Campaigns

Suryavarman II was also an expansionist. He launched many military campaigns, not all of them ended successfully.  He had a love-hate relationship with the neighboring Champa kingdom. They allied with him in some of the campaigns against the other neighboring kingdom in Vietnam.

Breaking with Tradition

King Suryavarman II was a radical king who broke with the traditions of his predecessors in many ways. Before he came to power, Shiva was the dominant god of the Hindu trinity and the kings mainly worshiped Shiva built numerous Shiva temples. King Suryavarman II broke with this tradition and made Vishnu the dominant god of the Trinity and became a follower of Vishnu. Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu when he built it.

Bas-relief of King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia
King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat

King Suryavarman II is believed to have died between 1145 and 1150 CE during the military campaign against Champa. Towards the end of his reign, the Khmer empire became weaker as the building projects and the frequent military campaigns had a taken their toll on the economy of the empire.

After his death, King Suryavarman II was given the title Paramavishnuloka. It literally means the supreme world of Vishnu in Sanskrit, but likely meant he became the supreme leader of the world of Vishnu.

King Suryavarman II was succeeded by his cousin Daranindravarman II (1150 -1160) and a period of discord in the empire began.

Jayavarman VII – The Benevolent King

Jayavarman VII (1122-1218),  son of Daranindravarman II,   was one of the most powerful kings of the Khmer Empire. He came to power in 1181 after defeating the Champas, the arch-enemy of the Khmers who ransacked Yashodharapura. He asserted his power and united all the factions that were weakening the Khmers.

In his long reign of 37 years, he commissioned numerous Buddhist temples, including Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Angkor Thom and Bayon. As a devout Buddhist, he deeply cared about his subjects. He centralized his administration and built roads to connect the provinces of his kingdom. He built numerous hospitals and rest houses along the roads.

A smiling face carved on the upper level tower of the Bayon temple
A smiling face carved on the upper-level tower of the Bayon Temple


The majority of Cambodians are Buddhists. The official religion of Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism, which is one of the three main Buddhist traditions (the other two being Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna). The Theravada tradition started in Sri Lanka and spread all over Southeast Asia.

Although the majority of Cambodians are Buddhists, they worship some Hindu deities. Many Hindu and Buddhist monuments exist side by side in Cambodia. The reason being the Khmer rulers frequently switched the state religion between Hinduism and Buddhism.

The stone sculpture shown below is a Shiva Linga located near a Buddhist temple on the way to the Phnom Kulen mountain. Shiva Linga is an abstract representation of Shiva, one of the Hindu Trinity, and worshiped mainly by Hindus.

Note: Similar symbols are worshiped all over the world in ancient times. For example, Omphalos in Delphi, Greece

Shiva Linga near a Buddhist temple
Shiva Linga near a Buddhist temple

Cham People

The Cham are an ethnic minority in Cambodia. The ancestors of the Cham people belonged to Champa, the ancient Hindu Kingdom that flourished in the present day Vietnam.

The Khmer and Cham were neighbors, but often rivals. The bas-relief in the Bayon Temple depicts a scene from the naval battle fought between the Khmer and Cham sometime in 1181 CE.

A section of the bas-relief on the lower level gallery of the Bayon temple depicting Khmer vs. Champs naval war
A section of the bas-relief on the lower level gallery of the Bayon temple depicting Khmer vs. Champs naval war

The majority of the Cham people in Cambodia are Muslim. A small number of Chams still practice Hinduism of their ancestors. Besides the Balinese Hindus, the Chams are the only group that practices Hinduism in Southeast Asia.


Khmer is the official language and is spoken widely in Cambodia. It is written in the Khmer script, which is based on an archaic form of Grantha script known as Pallava Grantha used in South India.

Note: The Dravidian languages, such as Tamil and Malayalam, use the Grantha script.


The Riel is the currency of Cambodia. The ISO code for the Cambodian Riel is KHR and the symbol is ៛ (Unicode U+17DB).

The banknote denominations are: 50, 100, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 riels. The coin denominations are: 50,100, 200, 500 riels.

Cambodian banknotes

The Cambodians banknotes reflect the pride in their heritage. The 2000 Riel bill displays a beautiful gopura from the Banteay Srei Temple, 1000 Riel bill shows the south entrance to Angkor Thom, 500 Riel bill proudly displays the front view of Angkor Wat.

The US Dollar is accepted as a currency in Cambodia. The exchange rate hovers around 4000 KHR to 1 US$.

Rural Cambodia

Cambodia is a scenic country. The majority of Cambodians engage in agriculture.

Lotus Farming

The lotus flower is considered sacred by the Hindus as well as Buddhists. It also plays a significant role in the Cambodian economy. The lotus plants are farmed commercially in Cambodia. The lotus farms like the ones shown below are a familiar scene in rural Cambodia.

The lotus flower, its fruit, and seeds are used in a variety of products. The fibers extracted from the stems of the lotus flower are used in textiles. The lotus seeds are edible and are also used in many commercial products, including balms and moisturizers.

Related Pages
Angkor Wat, Angkor WatBas-Reliefs, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei
Phnom Kulen, Tonlé Sap

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