Cambodia: demographics

In 2019, I wrote a post called A Million Questions, where I listed around 100 questions about a country. Having done a module on anthropology now, I have more. But these can still serve as a helpful overview. These answers are not from rigorous academic research (unless otherwise stated), but rather from anecdotal experience. Read up on the basics of the country here.

Even after answering all the questions on the original post, you’ll still only jave a superficial understanding of the country. I know I will never have a Cambodian’s understanding of Cambodia. Much of my understanding may be academic; for Cambodians it will be intuitive and visceral. (It’s the same as knowing, “British people find queuing important” but never having that instinctive pull to a queue like a moth to a flame, or the physical sensation of your heart rising when someone tries to skip the queue.)

What is the population of the country?

17,304,363 (July 2021 estimate by the CIA: The World Factbook). This makes it the 70th most populous country in the world. Other estimates put it in the 16 million range.

How many people live in urban areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?

Only 23.4% of the population live in cities. (Britannica.com) That’s about 3.9 million people.

What are the largest urban areas in the country? What are their populations?

Phnom Penh is the largest city within Cambodia, with over 1.2 million residents. (Britannica.com) Some sources suggest it is over 2 million now. (Both Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City have populations over 8 million, so you can see how small Phnom Penh is in comparison.) Another large urban area is Takmao, which is directly south of Phnom Penh and makes up the wider greater Phnom Penh urban area. Other cities or towns include Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang.

A typical Phnom Penh scene

How many people live in rural areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?

The majority of Cambodians live in rural areas and villages (76.6%). These villages often comprise of houses on stilts and be surrounded by rice paddies and field.

How does the country’s population compare to the rest of the region?

Cambodia is a very small country compared to its neighbours and other countries in South East Asia. Vietnam has a population of around 103 million and Thailand has almost 70 million. (CIA World Factbook)

What are the different people groups in the country?

Cambodia is largely homogenous. The people groups are Khmer (95.4%), Cham (2.4%), Chinese (1.5%). There’s quite a large Vietnamese population. There are many hill tribes and other ethnic minorities, including the Brao, Chong, Rade, Jarai, Kaco, Khaonh, Kraol, Kravet, Kui, Mel, Mong, Pear, Sa’och, Samre, Somray, Stieng, Suoy, T’moan, Tampuan. (CIA World Factbook and Joshua Project)

Where can they be found?

A house in a floating village in Cambodia

The Vietnamese often live on waterways, such as the Tonle Sap lake, in floating villages. The Cham villages mostly run along the banks of waterways, such as the Mekong. I heard this was because they don’t eat pork so they have a largely fish-based diet. The tribal groups often live on the edges of the country and are often inaccessible.

What is the main people group and what is their attitude towards the others?

The dominant group is the Khmer. Relations with the Cham are generally harmonious but there are occasional stories in the news where a Cham person gets murdered for apparently using black magic. The relationship with the Chinese has become more difficult in recent years despite the fact the Chinese has poured a vast amount of resources into the country. The Vietnamese are generally disliked by the Khmer (Britannica.com).

Which people groups have the economic power and political power in the country?

The Sino-Khmer (Khmer with Chinese ancestry) hold most the power within the country. Chinese people have a lot of influence within the economy, especially Phnom Penh.

What are the different people groups’ attitudes towards the others?

The Vietnamese tend to distrust the Khmer. (Britannica.com)

Which people groups live alongside one another?

In Phnom Penh and other urban sites, there is some integration of the people groups. The Chinese and Sino-Khmer live within urban areas. However, it seems that many of the groups live in their own villages. For instance, the Cham often will have their own villages with a mosque.

What type of interactions are there between the groups (business, social, religious, etc.)?

Many of the market sellers and tradespeople in Phnom Penh are Chinese or Sino-Khmer. Phnom Penh actually has the largest Chinese language school outside of Cambodia. It is located very near Orussey Market, which has many Chinese stall holders. The Cham also mainly seem to have limited interactions and only on a transactional level. The Cham children often attend Muslim schools near the mosque.

What are the sources of conflict between the people groups?

The Chinese are often seen as having a disproportionate amount of control over the economy, especially in cities such as Sihanoukville. The Vietnamese are often marginalised, with temporary communities, and they are forced to move on when areas are used for development. This can be the case with the Cham, especially those living nearer to Phnom Penh.

What stereotypes have each group formed other the other?

Britannica.com comments on the distrust between Khmer and Vietnamese. Anecdotally, I can attest to some of the tensions. One of my friends said how Vietnamese are always loud. Khmer women sometimes say that the Vietnamese women are very beautiful, but are less complimentary about their morals.

The Cham are sometimes accused of being evil and cursing Khmer villagers.

What are the obvious shibboleths (cultural markers) of each group?

The housing of Chinese and Sino-Khmer in Phnom Penh can be obvious. They will often have red banners with gold Chinese characters over their doorways and sometimes even red Chinese lanterns. Their shrines are often indoors and are different to the shrines found in Khmer homes.

The Cham dress quite differently to Cambodians: the women cover their hair and the men (especially older men) may wear flat-topped hats and long shirts.

What are the main differences between the groups?

The Khmer are Buddhist, the Cham are Muslim. The hill tribes often practise folk religions. The different groups also speak different languages too.

What is the average age of the country?

Due to the genocide and recent economic developments, Cambodia has a very young population. About three-fifths of the population is under 30. (Britannica.com)

What is the average life expectancy of the country?

69.82 years (44th in Asia). It has been massively improving over recent decades.

How does the life expectancy vary regionally, between urban and rural areas, and between people groups?

Due to a lack of access to health care in rural areas, I would imagine their life expectancy to be somewhat lower. However, traffic accidents, pollution and work condition may play a part in lowering life expectancy in urban areas, so I would have to do more research.

The lack of health care resources would significantly effect the ethnic minority groups.

What is the population growth of the country?

It is currently at about 1.4%.

What are the consequences of this growth?

Urban areas have grown extremely rapidly. The population is also very young. However, urban families seem to be having fewer children than previous generations.

Many young people entering the labour market find it hard due to lack of opportunities and qualifications. There have also been shifts in rural-urban populations as the young people are trying to find jobs in the cities. COVID-19 will have only exaccerbated these situations.