People in Cambodia are known as Cambodians and most Cambodians are members of the Khmer ethic group. Khmer is the also the name of the language that Khmers speak. There are about 14.2 million people in Cambodia (estimated 2004), making it one of the least populated countries in Asia. Most people live in the lowlands around the Mekong River and Tonle Sap.

About 10 percent of the population lives in Phnom Penh, the capital, making Cambodia largely a country of rural dwellers, farmers and artisans. Only 18 percent of all Cambodians live in urban areas (compared to 76 percent in the United States). The other 82 percent live mostly in small agricultural villages. The population is growing at the rate of 1.8 percent a year; the average life expectancy is 57 years; and about 41 percent of all Cambodians are 15 and under, and 3.5 percent are over 65.

The population of Cambodia has been fairly homogeneous. In 1962 about 80 percent of the population was ethnic Khmer. The remaining 20 percent included Chinese, Vietnamese, Cham, Khmer Loeu, Europeans. By 1981, as a result of the Vietnamese repatriation in 1970 to 1971 and the deaths and emigration of large numbers of Cham and Chinese, ethnic Khmer accounted for about 90 percent or more of the population.

Khmers tend be dark and have angular, ruddy faces. By contrast Chinese are paler and have smoother, rounder features.

Ethnic Khmer were concentrated in central and in southeastern Cambodia. The Cham lived in their own towns and sections in larger cities. The Chinese lived mainly in urban centers; in Phnom Penh they were concentrated around the markets. The Vietnamese tended to live in their own villages and in certain sections of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Loeu were concentrated in the northeastern and southwestern areas of Cambodia.

Ethnic Composition

Khmers make up 90 percent of the population. Non-Khmer groups include the Vietnamese (5 percent), Chinese (1 percent), Cham (1 percent) and hill tribes (3 percent) that mainly live in the northeastern mountains. The Chams are a Muslim group, also known as the Muslim Cham. There are also a large number of them in Vietnam. The hill tribes are collectively known as Khmer Loeu (“Upland Khmer”) even though their language and culture are considerably different than the lowland Khmer.

The ethnic groups that constitute Cambodian society possess a number of economic and demographic commonalties- for example. Chinese merchants lived mainly in urban centers and play middlemen in many economic cycles, but they also preserve differences in their social and cultural institutions. They were concentrated mostly in central and in southeastern Cambodia, the major differences among these groups lie in social organization, language, and religion. <>

The majority of the inhabitants of Cambodia are settled in fairly permanent villages near the major bodies of water in the Tonle Sap Basin-Mekong Lowlands region. The Khmer Loeu live in widely scattered villages that are abandoned when the cultivated land in the vicinity is exhausted. The permanently settled Khmer and Cham villages usually located on or near the banks of a river or other bodies of water. Cham villages usually are made up almost entirely of Cham, but Khmer villages, especially in central and in southeastern of Cambodia, typically include sizable Chinese communities. <>

See Minorities

Population of Cambodia

Total population: 14,138,000. Population density: 208 people square mile (compared to 4 per square mile in Mongolia, 72 in the United States, and 1,188 in South Korea). Population under 15: 40.7 percent (compared to 48 percent in Kenya and 16 percent in Japan). Population over 65: 3.5 percent (compared to 3 percent in Kenya and 14 percent in Japan).

The population of Cambodia is much smaller than it otherwise might be because of warefare, revolution and famine between 1969 and 1980. The death rate was particularly high between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmer Rouge ran the country and between one and two million people died of illness, starvation or execution. Men had a much higher death rate than women during the period of turmoil and this created a sex ratio skewed in the favor of women. In some places 60 to 80 percent of the adult population was made up of females in the early 2000s.

Between 1874 and 1921, the total population increased from about 946,000 to 2.4 million. By 1950 it had increased to between 3,710, 107 and 4,073,967, and in 1962 it had reached 5.7 million. From the 1960s until 1975, the population of Cambodia increased by about 2.2 percent yearly, the lowest increase in Southeast Asia. By 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power, it was estimated at 7.3 million. Of this total an estimated one million to two million reportedly died between 1975 and 1978. In 1981 the PRK gave the official population figure as nearly 6.7 million, although approximately 6.3 million to 6.4 million is probably a more accurate one. The average annual rate of population growth from 1978 to 1985 was 2.3 percent. Life expectancy at birth was 44.2 years for males and 43.3 years for females in 1959. By 1970 life expectancy had increased by about 2.5 years since 1945. The greater longevity for females apparently reflected improved health practices during maternity and childbirth. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

In 1959 about 45 percent of the population was under 15 years of age; by 1962 this figure had increased slightly to 46 percent. In 1962 an estimated 52 percent of the population was between 15 and 64 years of age, while 2 percent was older than 65. The percentage of males and females in the three groups was almost the same. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Population Dynamics of Cambodia

Rapid and drastic population movements occurred in the early 1970s, when large numbers of rural Cambodians fled to the cities to escape the fighting in the countryside, and between 1975 and 1979, when the government forcibly relocated urban dwellers to rural sites throughout the country. Large scale emigration also occurred between 1975 and 1979. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Population density varies throughout Cambodia. The national average in 1972 was about 22 persons per square kilometer. At one end of the density scale were the provinces around Phnom Penh, where the number of inhabitants per square kilometer could reach as many as 500, but more generally varied between 200 and 500. At the lower end of the scale were outlying provinces, like Rotanokiri (Ratanakiri) and Mondulkiri (Mondol Kiri) in the northeast and Kaoh Kong in the southwest, where the density was as low as zero to five persons per square kilometer. For almost two-thirds of the country, the density was approximately five persons per square kilometer. *

Migration and Refugees in Cambodia

Over the decades, some movement of the rural population in Cambodia-- either to urban areas in quest of employment or to other villages in search of more favorable agricultural sites--has been customary. Many highland tribal groups practice slash-and-burn agriculture that requires movement to a new area once the soil is exhausted in a given location. Warfare in the early 1970s drove large numbers of rural people to the cities in search of safety. The population of Phnom Penh, for example, increased from 393,995 in 1962 to about 1.2 million in 1971, but had decreased to about 500,000 by 1985. With their takeover in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge forced most of the population out of Phnom Penh into the countryside, where large numbers either died because of hardship or were executed. Many such population movements were forced upon the populace under the Khmer Rouge regime. Many Cambodians who had left the country to study abroad became de facto emigrants when the communists took over. Thousands more fled into neighboring Thailand and Vietnam in 1975 and at the time of the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978. Cham, Vietnamese, and Chinese communities alike were persecuted, and their members were killed, under the Khmer Rouge. Forced repatriation in 1970 and deaths during the Khmer Rouge era reduced the Vietnamese population in Cambodia from between 250,000 and 300,000 in 1969 to a reported 56,000 in 1984. Postwar emigration of Vietnamese civilians to Cambodia remained a subject of controversy. Some social scientists believed that the number of Vietnamese in Cambodia in 1988 had reached at least the prewar level, and, indeed, many Khmer feared that even more Vietnamese immigrants would inundate their population. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

During the Khmer Rouge era, about 50,000 Cambodians fled to Thailand, and an estimated 150,000 fled to Vietnam. As soon as the Khmer Rouge regime began to crumble under the onslaught of the Vietnamese in late 1978, a massive exodus of Cambodians began. About 630,000--braving hostile fire, minefields, bandits, and border guards--left the country between 1979 and 1981. In subsequent years, about 208,000 resettled in other countries; these included 136,000 in the United States, 32,000 in France, and 13,000 each in Australia and in Canada. *

In late 1987, about 265,000 Cambodians--about 150,000 of them below the age of 15 remained in Thailand. The Khmer refugees were supported by the United Nations Border Relief Operation (which assumed the task from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the early 1980s) and private agencies at an annual cost of US$36 million in 1986. The refugees were grouped in nine camps on the Thailand side of that country's common border with Cambodia. Of the nine installations, the most prominent was Khao-I-Dang, located near Aranyaprathet, Prachin Buri Province, Thailand. It was controlled by the Thai military, and its inhabitants were the only ones to be regarded legally as refugees by the Thai government. In 1987 Khao-I-Dang had a population of about 21,000 to 25,000 (down from a peak of 130,000 at its founding in 1979), of whom about 12,000 to 15,000 were eligible for resettlement. *

The other eight camps were under the control of the three Khmer resistance factions. These camps were considered reception centers rather than bona fide refugee facilities by the Thai government, and their inmates, unlike the residents of Khao-I-Dang, were considered displaced persons rather than refugees. Of these eight installations, five were controlled by the Khmer Rouge; two, by the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF); and one, by the Sihanouk National Army (Armée Nationale Sihanoukiste - ANS). Khmer insurgents freely visited the camps controlled by their own resistance factions and used them as rest and recuperation centers. *

The Khmer Rouge camps sheltered between 50,000 and 60,000 inhabitants. Access to them was granted grudgingly, if at all, even to United Nations officials. Occasional visiting journalists reported in the 1980s that an atmosphere of repression and fear prevailed at these facilities. The largest Khmer Rouge installation, located on the southwestern part of the border between Cambodia and Thailand, was known as Site 8 and held about 30,000 persons. Smaller installations, inhabited by 20,000 or more people altogether, were reported at Na Trao and Huay Chan, in Sisaket Province, Thailand, and at the seldom-visited encampments of Borai and in Ta Luen, Trat Province, Thailand. *

The KPNLF controlled two camps containing a total of about 160,000 persons. The principal installation was Site 2, with a population of between 145,000 and 150,000 and an environment noted for its rampant lawlessness. Site 2 was located in the vicinity of Ta Phraya, Prachin Buri Province, Thailand, and, at one time in the early 1980s, held the largest concentration Cambodians outside of Phnom Penh. *

The lone camp controlled by the ANS was Site B, also known as "Green Hill," which was located about 50 kilometers north of Ta Phraya and had a population of between 40,000 and 50,000. Site B was considered by observers to be the most orderly and well-managed of the refugee camps; it offered more living space, including room for personal gardens, than did the others. *

Birth Control and Abortion in Cambodia

No extensive information exists on birth control or on the use of contraceptives in Cambodia. Before the Khmer Rouge takeover, no organizations in Cambodia were known to be concerned with family planning.Traditional Khmer families were normally smaller than Chinese or Vietnamese families; the desired number of children was five. Reports suggest that several methods of contraception are currently available in Cambodia and that these are practiced in the PRK. A recent study of Cambodian women in France reported that 91 percent of the sample wished to use some method of birth control and that 74 percent knew of at least one method. The most common methods used in that group were the oral contraceptive pill and some form of sterilization. It is not known to what extent the attitudes of this group reflect those of Cambodian women in general. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

According to a 1997 law, abortions are legal within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. More advanced pregnancies can be terminated if the mother’s life is threatened. Even though women can get an abortion in a legal clinic for as little as $20 many women shy away from abortions because of their association with prostitutes and the lower classes.

Many women prefer traditional Khmer pregnancy termination techniques that sometimes leave the women dead. The techniques include womb massages, herbal concoctions to the insertion of various object into the uterus. One NGO worker told AFP, “The problems is these methods cause high infection rates, so a lot of women die.” In some places 20 to 25 percent of women who receive the treatments die as a result of infection or negligence directly related to the medical care they receive.


Khmer is the official language of Cambodia. A member of the Mon-Khmer family of languages, it is related to Sanskrit (the early language in India) and is not a tonal language like Thai, Lao, Chinese and Vietnamese. Tonal languages have words that change their meanings when the tone or pitch is changed. Khmer has few multi-syllable word and has a special vocabulary used when speaking to and about royalty and Buddhist monks. The Khmer alphabet is the world's longest, with 74 letters. The letters look somewhat similar to Thai or Burmese writing. The script itself was derived from an ancient south Indian writing system.

French and English are the primary European languages. English is more widely spoken by young people while French is more widely spoken by people who were educated before 1975 . French used to be the official language of commerce and education. Khmer is now used for all official communication. English is the language of tourism and understood by many people in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and the Angkor Wat. In the countryside few people speak English or French.

The majority of Cambodians, even those who are not ethnic Khmer, speak Khmer, the official language of the country. Ethnic Khmer living in Thailand, in Vietnam, and in Laos speak dialects of Khmer that are more or less intelligible to Khmer speakers from Cambodia. Minority languages include Vietnamese, Cham, several dialects of Chinese, and the languages of the various hill tribes. Austroasiatic-Mon-Khmer

In Cambodia, the family name is written first.


The Cambodian language is Khmer, which is inherited itself - and advanced in education with application of Indic languages Pali and Sangkrit from India. Also, the Khmer language is influenced by spoken and written Thai. Some technical languages are borrowed from French. However, English is commonly communicated in hotels and business compounds at present days.

Khmer belongs to the Mon-Khmer family of the Austroasiatic phylum of languages. American linguists David Thomas and Robert Headley have divided the Mon-Khmer family into nine branches: Pearic in western Cambodia and eastern Thailand; Khmer in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos; Bahnaric in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; Katuic in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; Khmuic in Laos, Thailand, and China; Monic in Burma and Thailand; Palaungic in Burma, China, and Thailand; Khasi in Assam (India); and Viet-Muong in Vietnam. Of the languages in the Mon-Khmer family, Vietnamese has the largest number of speakers (about 47 million); Khmer, has the next largest (about 8 million). [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

Khmer, in contrast to Vietnamese, Thai, Lao, and Chinese, is nontonal. Native Khmer words may be composed of one or two syllables. Khmer is uninflected, but it has a rich system of affixes, including infixes, for derivation. Generally speaking, Khmer has nouns (including pronouns as a special subcategory), verbs (including stative verbs or adjectives), adverbs, and various kinds of words called particles (including verbal auxiliaries, prepositions, conjunctions, final particles, and interjections). Many Khmer words change, chameleon-like, from one part of speech to another, depending on the context. The normal word order is subject-verb-object. Adjectival modifiers follow the nouns they modify. *

Khmer, like its neighbors, Thai, Lao, and Burmese, has borrowed extensively from other languages, especially the Indic languages of Sanskrit and Pali. Khmer uses Sanskrit and Pali roots much as English and other West European languages use Latin and Greek roots to derive new, especially scientific, words. Khmer has also borrowed terms-- especially financial, commercial, and cooking terms--from Chinese. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Khmer borrowed from French as well. These latter borrowings have been in the realm of material culture, especially the names for items of modern Western technology, such as buuzii (spark plug) from the French bougie.

Austroasiatic Languages

The Khmer and Mon-Khmer languages are usually placed within the larger Austroasiatic family of languages. It is related to the languages of the Mon people of Burma and a number of Mon-Khmer-speaking minorities that live n various part of Southeast Asia and India. Vietnamese is also am Austroasiatic languages.

There are about 90 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages in the world today. They are also called Munda or Mon-Khmer languages. Although the language may have originated in China, very few people in China speak it today (a small enclave near the Myanmar border). Vietnamese and Cambodian are Austroasiatic languages. Enclaves of people that speak Austroasiatic languages also found in Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and India.

Austroasiatic languages are characterized by an abundance of vowels. In contrast to English, which only has around a dozen vowel sounds, Austroasiatic languages have around 40 or so, including ones that are nasal, non-nasal, long, extra-short, creaky, breathy, normal, high-tongue, low-tongue, medium-high tongue, medium-low tongue, front tongue, back tongue, middle tongue and various combinations of these sounds.

Written Khmer

Khmer is written in a script derived from a south Indian alphabet. The language has symbols for thirty-three consonants, twenty-four dependent vowels, twelve independent vowels, and several diacritic. Most consonants have reduced or modified forms, called subscripts, when they occur as the second member of a consonant cluster. Vowels may be written before, after, over, or under a consonant symbol. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

Some efforts to standardize Khmer spelling have been attempted, but inconsistencies persist, and many words have more than one accepted spelling. A two-volume dictionary prepared under the direction of the Venerable Chuon Nath of the Buddhist Institute in Phnom Penh is the standard work on Khmer lexicography. *

Khmer is divided into three stages--Old Khmer (seventh to twelfth century A.D.), Middle Khmer (twelfth to seventeenth century A.D.), and Modern Khmer (seventeenth century to the present). It is likely that Old Khmer was the language of Chenla. What the language of Funan was, but it was is not at all certain, probably a Mon-Khmer language. The earliest inscription in Khmer, found at Angkor Borei in Takev Province south of Phnom Penh, dates from A.D. 611.

Cham and Austronesian Languages

The Austronesian languages are spread over vast areas of Asia and the Pacific, from Madagascar to Easter Island and from Taiwan to Malaysia. Four Austronesian languages--Cham, Jarai, Rade, and Malay--are spoken in Cambodia. Cham is spoken by the largest number of people. Before 1975, there were about 100,000 speakers of Western Cham. Western Cham is the term used to distinguish (at least two mutually related dialects of) the Cham spoken in Cambodia and that used in adjacent inland Vietnam from Eastern Cham spoken in the coastal areas of central Vietnam. Western Cham is written in Arabic script, or, since the late 1960s and the early 1970s, in a romanized script devised by Protestant missionaries. The traditional Cham script, based on an Indian script, is still known and used by the Eastern Cham in Vietnam, but it has been lost by the Western Cham. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The Cham language is also nontonal. Words may contain one, two, or three syllables. Cham contains much linguistic borrowing from Arabic, Malay, and Khmer. The normal word order is subject-verb-object, and, as in Khmer, modifying adjectives follow the nouns that they modify. Most Cham in Cambodia are bilingual in Cham and in Khmer and many also know Arabic and Malay. Rade and Jarai, close relatives of Cham, are spoken by several thousand members of both ethnic groups in northeastern Cambodia. Both languages are written in romanized scripts based on the Vietnamese alphabet. Rade and Jarai have rich oral literatures, and the former has two epic tales that have been transcribed and published. *

Some Khmer Words

Here are some useful Khmer words and phrases, written phonetically, that will come in handy. Khmer may sound confusing. But with a little patience and practice, you can get by. There are 33 consonants and 26 vowels. "Ai" is pronounced as in Thai; "ay" as in pay; "dt" takes the t sound while "bp" takes the p sound. "Oo" is pronounced as in cook and "ao" as in Laos. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

English-Khmer: Hello---jum-reap soo-a; ; How are you?---tau neak sok sapbaiy teh?; Good morning---arun sour sdei; Good night---tiveah sour sdei; Afternoon---reah-trey sour sdei; My name is.....---k'nyom tchmouh...; Yes---baat; No---dteh; Please---suom mehta; Thank You---or-koon; Excuse me---sohm dtoh; Goodbye---joom-reap leah; I don't understand---k'nyom men yoo-ul tee; I want a...---k'nyom jang baan...; Water---teuk; Tea---tai; Rice (cooked)---bia; Rice (uncooked)---angkoh; Meat---saich; Fish---t'ray; Chicken---moan; Bread---num pung; Restaurant---haang bai; Where is the...?---noev eah nah...?; Market---p'sah; Bank---tho neea kear; Post Office---bprai sa nee; Doctor---peth; Bus---laan ch'noul; Train---ra dteah plerng; Cycle---see kloa; Policeman---bpoa leeh or norkor-bahl; ; Turn left---bot dtoy ch'wayng; Turn right---bot dtoy s'dum; Go straight---dtov dtrong; Morning---bpreuk; Midnight---aa-tree-at; Night---yoop.

English-Khmer: Sunday---t’ngai aa-dteut; Monday---t'ngai jan; Tuesday---t'ngai ong-gee-a; Wednesday---t'ngai bpoot; Thursday---t'ngai bpra-hoa-a; Friday---t'ngai sok; Saturday---t'ngai sao; Hello---jum-reap soo-a; How are you?---tau neak sok sapbaiy teh?; Good morning---arun sour sdei; Good night---tiveah sour sdei; Afternoon---reah-trey sour sdei; My name is.....---k'nyom tchmouh...; Yes---baat; No---dteh; Please---suom mehta; Thank You---or-koon; Excuse me---sohm dtoh; Goodbye---joom-reap leah; I don't understand---k'nyom men yoo-ul tee; I want a...---k'nyom jang baan...; Water---teuk; Tea---tai; Rice (cooked)---bia; Rice (uncooked)---angkoh; Meat---saich; Fish---t'ray; Chicken---moan; Bread---num pung; Restaurant---haang bai; Where is the...?---noev eah nah...?; Market---p'sah; Bank---tho neea kear; Post Office---bprai sa nee; Doctor---peth; Bus---laan ch'noul; Train---ra dteah plerng; Cycle---see kloa; Policeman---bpoa leeh or norkor-bahl; ; Turn left---bot dtoy ch'wayng; Turn right---bot dtoy s'dum; Go straight---dtov dtrong; Morning---bpreuk; Midnight---aa-tree-at; Night---yoop;

Expressions, Proverbs and Foreign Languages

“You have to cut off the head to fit the hat”

An old Khmer proverb goes: “The boat moves off, the river bans remain.”

Explaining why he was studying English one university student told National Geographic, “We don’t want to speak French like our parents. Now, its English, the language of business.

Mandarin (Putonghua) are the most popular foreign languages after English.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.