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Cambodia Lesson for Kids: History & Facts

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Cambodian history stretches back centuries and has seen the country ruled or influenced by powerful empires. Learn about Cambodian history and its influence on the nation today in this lesson.

Cambodia's Culture

A vacation to southeastern Asia may sound pretty great. You get to hang out on tropical beaches, ride elephants, and, if you're brave enough, eat really unusual foods like fried grasshoppers. There's a lot more to this part of the world than just its cool travel features, however. Cambodia, a small nation between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos, is a southeastern Asian country with a long past and an active culture.

Map of Cambodia in southeast Asia
Cambodia map

Early History

People have been living and farming in southeastern Asia for thousands of years. What we know about the first civilization in the region that we call Cambodia today came from histories written down in China, who called the people living there about 2,000 years ago Funan (pronounced foo-nahn). The Funan society spread throughout most of the region by about 1,200 years ago, but it was not yet united. At the beginnings of the 800s, a king named Jayavarman II built the Khmer Empire, bringing together almost all of this region in Asia.

Photo of famous Khmer Empire temple, named Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat

While it was good to be the king at the top, most people who lived in the Khmer Empire were simple farmers who relied on growing rice to feed their families and make money. However, artisans, or people who make specific things, became more and more skilled, resulting in buildings, statues, and artwork that has survived to this day. Without a doubt the most famous building, called Angkor Wat, was a temple built about 900 years ago.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

While the Khmer Empire started out powerful, it eventually began to fall apart. People from nearby Vietnam and Thailand took over the area that today is Cambodia. In fact, for the next few hundred years Cambodia was between these two powerful regions, and often had to do what one or the other told them to do, or had to look for one to help if the other attacked them.

However, the power balance in southeastern Asia changed about 150 years ago when Europeans began to arrive in the region, including French missionaries, which are religious leaders looking for new converts. The Cambodian king realized that he could ask this outside power for help against his two big enemies. However, this opened a whole new issue of someone else being in charge of their home. The French began to make money off of Cambodia, opening up farms to plant the trees that create rubber, but didn't share the money with Cambodia, leaving the country poor and frustrated.

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