The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.


On this page:

  • Overview
  • People and Society
  • National Identity



Cambodia is located in Southeast Asia with an area of 181,035 square kilometres and lying entirely within the tropics, with two distinct seasons – rainy and dry – but minimal temperature variation. It borders Thailand to the north and west, Laos to the northeast, and Vietnam to the east and southeast. It has a 443-kilometre coastline along the Gulf of Thailand.

Cambodia's landscape is characterised by a low-lying central plain that is surrounded by uplands and low mountains and includes the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) and the upper reaches of the Mekong River delta. Extending outward from this central region are transitional plains – thinly forested and rising to elevations of about 650 feet (200 metres) above sea level.

The Kingdom is a land of paddies and forests dominated by the Mekong River and Tonle Sap. The latter is Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake, measuring about 2,500 square kilometres during the dry season and expanding to about 16,000 square kilometres in the rainy season. This densely populated plain, which is devoted to wet rice cultivation, is the heartland of Cambodia. Much of this area has been designate as a biosphere reserve. To learn more about The Kingdom’s geography, watch the following video.

There are a few natural resources, including oil and gas, timber, gemstones, iron ore, manganese, phosphates, hydropower potential, and arable land. However, illegal logging activities throughout the country and strip mining for gems in the western region along the border with Thailand have resulted in habitat loss and declining biodiversity. In particular, the destruction of mangrove swamps threatens natural fisheries. Other issues facing the Kingdom include soil erosion, low levels of sanitation in rural areas, declining fish stocks because of illegal fishing and overfishing, as well as coastal ecosystems being choked by sediment washed loose from deforested areas inland.

Cambodia's biodiversity is largely founded on its seasonal tropical forests, containing some 180 recorded tree species, and riparian ecosystems (areas adjacent to rivers or streams). Wildlife in Cambodia includes dholes, elephants, deer, wild oxen (banteng and gaur), panthers, bears, and tigers. Cormorants, cranes, ibises, parrots, green peafowl, pheasants, and wild ducks are also found, and species of venomous snakes and constrictors are numerous. Much of the country's biodiversity is contained around the Tonle Sap Lake and surrounding biosphere. The biggest threat to vital ecosystems besides unregulated hunting is deforestation; actors include the local population, Cambodian businesses and authorities, as well as transnational corporations from all over the world. The global issue of land grabbing is particularly rampant in Cambodia.

Cambodia does not rank high on the global Environmental Performance Index (EPI) with an overall grade of 139 out of 180 countries in 2020. Based on 32 performance indicators across 11 issue categories, the total score of 33.6 places the country in the lowest EPI bracket and well below the regional average of 40.8. Check out the EPI's Living Atlas to see how Cambodia compares to the rest of Southeast Asia and the world and watch the video below for some interesting facts.

There has been a recent shift in policymakers' opinion, with climate commitments being viewed as an opportunity instead of a burden by Phnom Penh. Cambodia is currently exploring a carbon neutrality strategy. As a developing country, it is aiming to avoid becoming a future polluter. Despite having a negligent output of 0.02% of current global greenhouse gas emissions. The Kingdom is looking to become one of the first countries in the world to pilot carbon trading under the Paris Agreement. This will create a vast new source of finance to incentivise emission reductions. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen explained, "Dealing effectively with the problems caused by climate change will contribute to sustainable and inclusive socio-economic development in the future."

The National Council for Sustainable Development has a Department of Climate Change responsible for coordinating the development and implementation of the climate change response in Cambodia and reporting to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Department evaluates the Kingdom as highly vulnerable to climate change and poses significant challenges in food security, agriculture production, national development target, public health, and physical infrastructures. Climate Links has analysed Cambodia's climate risk profile and determines the key areas of impact and policy context. To see one way climate change and dam activity are impacting Cambodians, watch the following report by South China Morning Post.

Access the resources below to learn more about the Kingdom of Cambodia.


People and Society

Cambodia is a predominantly rural country with among the most ethnically and religiously homogenous populations in Southeast Asia: more than 95% of its inhabitants are Khmer and more than 95% are Buddhist. The population’s size and age structure shrank and then rebounded during the 20th century as a result of conflict and mass death. During the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979 as much as 25% of the population are estimated to have been killed or died as a result of starvation, disease, or overwork. At the same time, emigration was high, and the fertility rate sharply declined. In the 1980s, after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge, fertility nearly doubled and reached pre-Khmer Rouge levels of close to 7 children per woman, reflecting in part higher infant survival rates. The baby boom was followed by a sustained fertility decline starting in the early 1990s, eventually decreasing from 3.8 in 2000 to 2.9 in 2010, although the rate varied by income, education, and rural versus urban location. Despite continuing fertility reduction, Cambodia still has a youthful population that is likely to maintain population growth through population momentum. Improvements have also been made in mortality, life expectancy, and contraceptive prevalence – although reducing malnutrition among children remains stalled. Differences in health indicators are pronounced between urban and rural areas, which experience greater poverty. Currently, the population of over 17 million is concentrated in the southeast, particularly in and around the capital city of Phnom Penh then following the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake.

Cambodia is a country of migration, driven by the search for work, education, or marriage. Internal migration is more prevalent than international migration, with rural to urban migration being the most common, followed by rural-to-rural migration. Urban migration focuses on the pursuit of unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in Phnom Penh, with men working mainly in the construction industry and women working in garment factories. Most Cambodians who migrate abroad do so illegally using brokers because it is cheaper and faster than through formal channels, though unfortunately doing so puts them at risk of being trafficked for forced labour or sexual exploitation. Young Cambodian men and women migrate short distances across the Thai border using temporary passes to work in agriculture, while others migrate long distances primarily into Thailand and Malaysia for work in agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, and domestic service. Cambodia was a refugee sending country in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, its ousting by the Vietnamese invasion, and the resultant civil war and instability. Tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to Thailand and more than 100,000 were resettled in the U.S. in the 1980s.

Other ethnic groups include the Cham (1.2%), Chinese (0.1%), Vietnamese (0.1%) and other (0.9%). The Cham are descended from the Austronesian people of Champa, a former kingdom on the coast of central and southern present-day Vietnam and a former rival to the Khmer Empire. The Cham in Cambodia number under a million and often maintain separate villages in the southeast of the country. Almost all Cham in Cambodia are Muslims. The indigenous ethnic groups of the mountains are known collectively as Montagnards or Khmer Loeu, a term meaning 'Highland Khmer'. They are descended from Neolithic migrations of Mon–Khmer speakers via southern China and Austronesian speakers from insular Southeast Asia. Being isolated in the highlands, the various Khmer Loeu groups were not Indianized like their Khmer cousins and consequently are culturally distant from modern Khmers and often from each other, observing many pre-Indian-contact customs and beliefs. To learn more about the Cham in Cambodia, watch the video below.

Throughout Cambodia's long history, religion has been a major source of cultural inspiration. Over nearly three millennia, Cambodians have developed a unique Cambodian culture and belief system from the syncretism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism. Indian culture and civilization, including its languages and arts reached mainland Southeast Asia around the 1st century AD.

The vast majority of the Cambodian population identified as Theravada Buddhist (96.9%) in recent surveys. It is the official religion of the country and public signs of reverence for the religion are evident throughout Cambodia, with an estimated 4,391 monastery temples throughout the country. Of the remaining population, 1.9% identified as Muslim, 0.4% identified with Christianity, and 0.8% identified with 'Other'.

The prominent form of Buddhism practised in Cambodia is Theravada Buddhism. Followers of Theravada Buddhism take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dharma), and the monastic community (the Sangha). These three elements of Buddhism provide a sense of stability within Cambodian society by offering a structure for people to base their everyday routines around. Although Buddhism has since been revived, Buddhist ideas no longer permeate education and ideology as strongly as they once did before the Khmer Rouge regime. See the changes in the following video.

Due to the large number of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia continues to have many orphans, widows and single-parent families. This has emphasised the familial relationship referred to as 'thoa', which roughly translates as adoptive/foster parent or sibling. Thoa is a relationship closer than friends but not as close as blood relations. This relationship serves to strengthen interpersonal ties and provides a support structure for the individual.

The roles of men and women are well respected within Cambodian culture. There is some variation in perceptions of the common household structure between urban and rural dwellers, with the latter being more conservative. During the Khmer Rouge regime, communal work broke down rigidly defined gender roles, leading women to play a larger role in civil service. The oldest male, often the father, is seen as the head of the household and main income earner, while women are the primary caregivers and homemakers. Women also tend to have more control over household economic matters such as the family budget as well as the education of their children. In this sense, the Cambodian household structure is more matriarchal than in other Asian countries.

To learn more about Cambodian Culture, such as etiquette and unique communication styles, check out the SBS Cultural Atlas. Then watch the following video.


National Identity

The Kingdom of Cambodia is a fairly homogeneous society, with the vast majority identifying as ethnically Khmer. Many Cambodians today consider themselves to be descendants of the Khmer people from the Khmer Empire. Indeed, the terms ‘Cambodian’ and ‘Khmer’ are often used interchangeably, with the term ‘Khmer’ commonly used to refer to the Cambodian language, people and culture. This suggests that Khmer is more widely perceived as an ethnic and linguistic identity marker than a political entity. National symbols include Angkor Wat temple, kouprey (wild ox), the national colours of red and blue, as well as the national anthem 'Nokoreach' meaning 'Royal Kingdom' based on a folk tune. Core concepts are hospitality, friendliness, harmony, tolerance, stoicism and modesty.

Architecturally, the capital city of Phnom Penh is a mixture of pre-1975 French colonial, Chinese, and modernist styles alongside the simple socialist styles of the 1980s, garish new buildings, and shanty towns. The Royal Palace compound and the nearby National Museum lie on Phnom Penh's park-lined central riverfront and form a prominent cultural focal point of the country and city. Norodom Boulevard, lined with embassies, government buildings, and villas, runs between Independence Monument and the Wat Phnom temple. Several key markets, Buddhist temples, and luxury hotels serve as major landmarks. City streets are full of people, evoking a sense of social flux with no clear boundaries.

Rice and fish are staples in the Cambodian diet. The cuisine contains tropical fruits, soups, and noodles. Key ingredients are kaffir lime, lemon grass, garlic, fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind, ginger, oyster sauce, coconut milk, and black pepper. Some delicacies are num banh chok, fish amok, and aping. French influence on Cambodian cuisine includes the Cambodian red curry with toasted baguette bread. The toasted baguette pieces are dipped in the curry and eaten. The cuisine is relatively unknown to the world compared to that of its neighbours.

Up until 1970, much of Cambodian culture and artistic expression was informed by Cambodians’ pride in the country’s history, including the longstanding presence of Buddhism and the ancestral connection to the Khmer Empire from the Middle Ages (also known as Angkor). However, Cambodian culture has been recovering and rebuilding in the wake of mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge regime during the 1970s. Contemporary Cambodia is experiencing a revival of traditional cultural values and practices while still reconciling with the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

The Cambodian proverb “Fear not the future, weep not for the past” captures the general approach to life followed by many Cambodians. Given the tragedies experienced during the Khmer Rouge regime, many have demonstrated immense forgiveness in order to live harmoniously with those who were a part of the regime as well as those Khmer who may have lost loved ones. Cambodians also tend to have a stoic and cheerful demeanour. They rarely complain or show discomfort. People often smile or laugh in various scenarios, regardless of whether the situation is positive or negative. Thus, for a Cambodian, a smile does not necessarily equate to expressing happiness, agreement or amusement.

Greetings in Cambodia are accompanied by the gesture known as the ‘sompeah’. The way in which one does the sompeah varies based on age and social status. The greeting is done by placing one’s palms together in a praying gesture and bowing one’s head. The higher the hands and lower the bow, the greater the degree of respect that is being shown to the other person. While this form of greeting is still widely used, the sompeah has been partially replaced by the Western practice of shaking hands. It is considered impolite and offensive not to return a sompeah, somewhat similar to rejecting an offered handshake in Western culture. For more facts about the Kingdom, check out the following video.

During the Khmer Rouge regime, many artefacts of Cambodian heritage and history – such as historical books, files, works of art, literature and religious temples – were destroyed. Much of the post-regime period has been dedicated to rebuilding the Cambodian culture in the wake of these tragedies.

This loss of culture can be seen in Cambodia's vibrant music industry in the 1960s and 1970s, featuring signers Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea, and Pen Ran, being targeted. Master tapes were lost or destroyed, and many classic and popular singers were murdered, starved, or overworked to death by the Khmer Rouge. In the 1980s, Keo Surath, (a refugee resettled in the United States) and others carried on the legacy of the classic singers by remaking their popular songs. The 1980s and 1990s also saw the rise in popularity of kantrum, a music style of the Khmer Surin set to modern instrumentation. Currently, Cambodian popular music is performed with western style instruments and often adds traditional elements.

Amid the tumult of the civil war and atrocities committed by Pol Pot's regime, the temple complexes of the Khmer Empire – including three designated by UNESCO as World Heritage sites – were ransacked. Organised networks – often headed by members of the military or the Khmer Rouge – removed statues, used dynamite to blast relics loose, and trucked away entire walls. Proceeds from the pillaging helped fund the fighting. To ease the consciences of their wealthy clientele, dealers fabricated stories to obscure the fact that the items had been stolen. The looting continued well into the 2010s.

One particular target was the ancient city of Koh Ker, with its 76 temples and aqueducts, statuary, and a seven-level pyramid. The statues of Koh Ker were distinctive and revolutionary for their time: Artisans carved sandstone masterpieces that were intricately detailed, larger-than-life and often infused with dynamic movement. Before 1965, the temple complex had been all but unreachable, but then a road was built that while benefiting locals also gave looters easy access to the area. Currently, Cambodian antiquities looted and fraudulently sold during and after the civil war can be found in museums around the globe. Curators are ethically obligated to investigate the origins of new acquisitions, but little has been done to return to the Kingdom pieces that belong there. Now the Cambodian authorities, led by the Department of Culture and Fine Arts, are attempting to repatriate the stolen artefacts and recover their cultural heritage.

Museums, galleries and auction houses have proved reluctant to return relics to their countries of origin until confronted with overwhelming evidence that the items were looted. This approach places the burden of proof on the country of origin. Consequently, thousands of stolen relics are still out there. Cambodian archaeologists have begun the painstaking process of restoring some of the thousands of ransacked temples to return the souls of the Khmer ancestors back to the country. For more information on the looting of Cambodian antiquities watch the video below then access the following resources.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Cambodia is one of the world’s smallest emitters of carbon, yet it has proposed some fairly ambitious goals (from the point of view of a developing country), to become carbon neutral. Is this viable based on Cambodia’s economic growth ambitions? What support could a first world nation like Australia offer in order to support these ambitions?
  2. Cambodians have demonstrated a desire to proactively ensure a brighter future for their nation by not allowing the issues of the recent past to stifle their development. Is it possible for a nation with such a recent tragic history to become a successful and thriving regional nation, or are there internal issues which need to be addressed first? What are the issues for ADF activities with Cambodia?
  3. The civil war saw numerous historical and cultural artefacts looted from the myriad of temples across Cambodia, many which ended up in foreign museums. Though museums are ethically bound to investigate acquisitions, it appears little has been done to return many of the national treasures. What more should the governments of the world do to seek the return of these items? What are the similarities to the Australian example of indigenous artefacts that have illicitly been removed from the country, and how can Australia support the development of an international agreement to ensure historical artefacts can return to their countries of origin?