Khmer: Becoming Minnesotan

Cambodia, CIA World Factbook, 2010.

Map of Homeland

Khmer Stories

Quick Facts

Note:  The Khmer are the people native to Cambodia, also known as Kampuchea.

Khmer Population:
U.S.: 241,520 (2009)
Minnesota: 4,374 (2009)
Cambodia:  14,753,320 (2010)

Major Religions in Cambodia:  Buddhist 96.4%, Muslim 2.1% (1998 census)

Ethnic Groups in Cambodia: Khmer 90%, Vietnamese 5%, Chinese 1%, other 4%

Major Languages in Cambodia:  Khmer (official) 95%, French, English

Current Government of Cambodia: Multiparty democracy under a constitutional monarchy.

Geography of Cambodia:  A land of paddies and forests dominated by the Mekong River and Tonle Sap.  Mostly low, flat plains; mountains in southwest and north.

Climate of Cambodia:  Tropical; rainy, monsoon season (May to November); dry season (December to April); little seasonal temperature variation.

Source: CIA World Factbook 2010 and American Community Survery 2009.

Population Comparison






  • Introduction
  • Religion & Culture
  • History & Geography
  • Finding a New Home
  • Investigate Further


The Khmer people originated in what is now called Cambodia in Southeast Asia.  Throughout their history they have faced invasions from neighboring countries Vietnam and Thailand, and were colonized by the French in the late 1880s. During the middle of the 20th century, Communist influence, led by North Vietnam, spread over Southeast Asia.  In 1975, the Khmer Rouge (the Khmer Communist Party) took over Cambodia, forcing a mass resettlement of people to work camps in rural areas, and the systematic execution of approximately 1.4 million Khmer people. Few refugees were able to escape until the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979.  In that year, the U.S. welcomed approximately 150,000 refugees from Cambodia.  Minnesota currently has the fifth largest Khmer population in the U.S.

Religion & Culture


About 95% of the Khmer people are Buddhist, with most being Theravada Buddhists (one of the two different branches of Buddhism).  The Khmer people are known for being respectful and polite.  They greet one another saying “Namaste” and giving a “sompeah,” which is a gesture in which the two hands are placed together in front of the heart with fingers pointing towards the sky.  Buddhist believe that a person will be born again, or return in another life.  Therefore, the funeral rituals include many activities that help a person prepare calmly for death.  Monks wash the body and wrap it in cloths, recite prayers, and burn incense.


The Cambodian people are called Khmer.  There is also a minority group in Cambodia called the Cham-Malays.  The Cham-Malays are Muslims.

Khmer is the official language of Cambodia, but French is also often spoken.  Additional languages spoken throughout Cambodia include Chinese and Vietnamese. The Khmer believe in the Chinese philosophy of finding balance, and this includes food. Some foods are considered “hot foods” (chicken), some are considered “cold foods” (vegetables), and some are neutral foods (rice).  Therefore, rice is eaten with almost every meal, and is sometimes complimented with other hot and cold foods.

Typically, the Khmer raise large families with many children. In addition, it is common for elders and extended family to all live together under the same roof.  The father is the head of the household.  Elders in the household help raise the children and provide important advice to the younger family members.

History & Geography


Cambodia is a country in Southeast Asia that is bordered by Laos to the north, Vietnam to the east, the Gulf of Thailand to the south, and Thailand to the west.  The capital city is Phnom Penh, and this is also the largest city in Cambodia.  It is mostly a tropical monsoon climate with a rainy season from November to April.


The Golden Age of Khmer civilization was from 889-1434.  During this time, the Khmer Empire ruled an area that today would include Cambodia and Laos.  The capital of the empire was Angkor.  In 1434 invaders from Thailand took control of Cambodia.  For the next 400 years, Cambodia was continually invaded by Siam (now Thailand) and Annan (now Vietnam).  In 1854 the Cambodians sought help from the French.  France came to their aid, but took increasing control over the people and territory.  In 1887, Cambodia became part of the French colony of Indochina.  By 1946 the French had granted Cambodia self-government, but the Cambodia King Norodom Sihanouk continued to push for complete independence from the French.


Troops from Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1954, but were forced to retreat after the Geneva Convention.  In 1955 Cambodia gained full independence, and King Sihanouk abdicated the throne to become the leader of the Popular Socialist party.  Throughout the 1960s political leaders struggled to keep Cambodia neutral as two of their neighboring countries, Vietnam and Laos, were taken over by Communist regimes.  In an attempt to stay neutral the Cambodians allowed the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong to use Cambodian territory as a supply base and refuge.  However, at the same time Cambodia was also accepting military aid from the U.S. so they could build up their own military force to ward off any Communist advances.

In 1965, Cambodian leaders decided to completely cut off all aid from the U.S.  The economic situation rapidly declined, and the Vietnamese increasingly pushed into Cambodian territory.

From 1969 to 1973 Cambodia was invaded by the Americans and Vietnamese as part of the Vietnam War, and the U.S. led frequent bombings of the Communist-controlled areas of Cambodia. Entire villages were destroyed and many civilians died in the bombings.  This war left approximately 2 million Cambodians homeless.  Many Cambodians looked to the U.S. for help, but many others were increasingly resentful of the U.S. More and more Cambodians were throwing their support behind the Communists.  In fact, the Cambodian Communist party, called the Khmer Rouge, increased its membership from 3,000 in 1970 to 30,000 by 1974! This civil war in Cambodia in the early years of the 1970s was financed by North Vietnam, China, and the U.S.  The Chinese and the North Vietnamese were trying to influence Cambodia to become Communist, and the U.S. was hoping to have enough of an impact that Cambodia could establish a democracy.


As the U.S. retreated from Southeast Asia, it left a power void that the Communists quickly filled.  In 1974, a coup d’état overthrew Sihanouk’s government and within a year, the Khmer Rouge had overthrown the new U.S.-supported government of Lon Nol.  Cambodia was renamed “Democratic Kampuchea” although it was anything but democratic!  Pol Pot was named the new premiere, and called “Brother Number One.”

Pol Pot wanted to lead a massive transformation of Cambodian society, and quickly embarked on a program of evacuating cities and putting people to work in rural areas.  Those who were educated, professionals, middle or upper class, as well as any who opposed the Communists, were targeted by the Khmer Rouge and were either executed or forced to do hard labor in work camps.  Many of them died of starvation or over-exertion.  During the period of genocide from 1975-1979 approximately 1.4 million people were executed, and it is estimated that a total of 20% of the population died.  Another part of Pol Pot’s plan was to eliminate anything that represented Western influence.  Thus, all cars and machines were destroyed.      

The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia again in 1979, forcing Pol Pot to flee to the jungle.  However, Pol Pot continued to exert his influence from hiding for many years, and the Khmer Rouge was still recognized by the United Nations as the official government of Cambodia.


A peace treaty was signed in 1991 between the Khmer Rouge, the Vietnamese, and the former King Sihanouk.  Two years later the first democratic elections were held and overseen by the United Nations.  By 1996 the Khmer Rouge has split into two different groups, which signaled the end of any remaining power that these Cambodian Communists still had.  Things are still unsettled in Cambodia, though; between 1996 and 2006 there was a struggle for control of Cambodia by multiple different political leaders.

Finding a New Home

In 1979 when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were overthrown by the Vietnamese, Khmer people fled in large numbers to refugee camps in nearby countries.  The fled because of displacement due to continued fighting, fears of persecution by the Vietnamese, and poverty and starvation due to poor harvests.  Throughout the 1980s approximately 500,000 refugees fled to the Thailand.  Of those, about 300,000 moved on to settle in the U.S., France, and other places around the world.  Many of the educated middle and upper class Khmer were executed or died in Khmer Rouge work camps.  Of those people who survived the Khmer Rouge, most of them have fled Cambodia as refugees.  Thus, Cambodia has struggled to overcome this “brain drain” since the early 1980s.

The U.S. settled 150,000 Khmer refugees in 1979 alone.  The largest communities of Cambodians currently live in California, Massachusetts, Washington, Texas, and Minnesota.  Khmer culture continues to flourish in the close-knit Khmer community - especially in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  There are Buddhist temples, Khmer organizations, and public celebrations that continue to honor their traditions.

Investigate Further


United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, St. Paul:
UCAM is the only human service organization in Minnesota dedicated to meeting the social service and other needs of the state’s Cambodian immigrants and refugees.

Watt Munisotaram - Minnesota Cambodian Buddhist Society:
Watt Munisotaram in Hampton, Minnesota is the largest Cambodian Buddhist temple in the state.

Cambodian View:
General information on Khmer culture and links to other Cambodian resources.


St. Pierre, Stephanie.  Teenage Refugees from Cambodia Speak Out. New York: Rosen Pub. Group, 1995.
Cambodian teens describe their experience fleeing Cambodia and fitting in in a new country. Good for grades 3-6.

Streed, Sarah.  Leaving the House of Ghosts: Cambodian Refugees in the American Midwest.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.
Survivors of the Khmer Rouge now living in the Midwest tell their stories.

Yin, Chamroeun.  In My Heart, I am a Dancer.  Philadelphia, PA : Philadelphia Folklore Project, 1996.
The story of a Khmer classical dancer and survivor of the Khmer Rouge. Good for grades K-4.


The Killing Fields. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2001.
The Khmer Rouge genocide is viewed through the story of an American journalist and his Cambodian friend and colleague who endures four years in labor camps before finally escaping to Thailand.


Cheng Heng Restaurant
448 University Ave W, St. Paul, MN 55103

Kolap Restaurant
601 Dale St N, St. Paul, MN 55103

Watt Munisota Cambodian Buddhist Temple
2925 220th St E, Hampton, MN 55031

Khmer New Year

Citation Sources

"Cambodians in Minnesota." Culture Care Connection website, 10 September 2010.

Khmer Information & Entertainment Center website, 2 September 2010.

Questia website, 2 September 2010.

United Cambodian Association of Minnesota website, 2 September 2010. 

Wikipedia website, 6 September 2010. 

Yan, Yorn, Community Focus Group Representative. Meetings and email correspondence with Kate Stower, May-September 2010.

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