Ethnic Groups In Cambodia

Traditional Aspara dancers in Cambodia.
Traditional Aspara dancers in Cambodia.

Cambodia formally known as the Kingdom of Cambodia is an Asian country situated in the Southeast Asian Peninsula. Cambodia is bordered by Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Gulf of Thailand with a total population of more 15 million people. The main religion in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism that is practiced by more than 90% the population. The Khmer are by far the largest ethnic group in Cambodia alongside smaller numbers of other Southeast Asian peoples. The minority groups in Cambodia include the Chams, Chinese, Vietnamese, and 30 other tribes from the hills.

Ethnic Groups In Cambodia


The Khmer are the oldest ethnic groups in Cambodia having spread out into Southeast Asia around the same period the Mon did. Most historical experts including Sinologists, archaeologists, crop specialists, and linguists believe that the Khmer arrived in or before the 2000 BCE. It is believed that the Khmer brought with them agricultural practices in particular rice farming. The Khmer later built their Empire and overruled Southeast Asia from 802 CE for six centuries. At present, the Khmer Empire forms the Cambodian political, economic, and cultural mainstream. The Khmer people were the developers of the first alphabet and it is still in use in Southeast Asia. The first alphabet later gave way for the Thai and Lao scripts. The Khmer are historically believed to be lowland people choosing to live on one of the tributaries of the Mekong thus making them indigenous to other regions.

The Khmer people pride themselves on being one ethnicity that is not only associated with a single culture, history, and language but are split into three main small groups that are based on the nation of origin. The Cambodian Khmer people speak a dialect of the Khmer language. The Northern Khmer who speaks fluent Isan language are an indigenous ethnic group and their lands used to belong to the Khmer Empire but now belong to Thailand. The Khmer Krom are also native Khmers living in a Vietnam region that was formerly a part of Khmer Empire. The Khmer account for 91% of the Cambodian population.


The Vietnamese were the most populous among the ethnic minority groups in Cambodia before the Cambodian Civil War with an estimated population of 450,000 mostly found in Southeast of Cambodia alongside the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese of Cambodia also lived upstream along the shores of Tonlé Sap. However, during the civil war, the Vietnamese community was almost annihilated' from Cambodia. However, due to the Vietnamese invasion post-civil war, other Vietnamese people entered the country. The modern Cambodian government also maintained close ties with the Vietnamese and backed the Vietnamese ventures when they came to Cambodia to invest in the new market. Most urban immigrants consist of villagers who illegally cross the border into Cambodia to flee from poor rural conditions in Vietnam with hope for a better life. There exist very little cultural association between the Khmers and the Vietnamese because the first Khmers originated from the Greater India whereas the Vietnamese people originate from the East Asian culture. The Vietnamese account for 3% of the Cambodian population.


The Chinese descended between the 19th and 20th century in Cambodia. Most of the Chinese were settlers who came because of trade and commerce when Cambodia was under the French protectorate. Chinese migration into Cambodia dates back to the early 12th century during the Khmer empire period. The Chinese and Khmers intermarry and often assimilate into the Khmer culture with a few Chinese retaining their customs. The Chinese account for 1% of the Cambodian population.

Tai, Cham, Lao, and Other Peoples

The Tai, Lao, Cham, and other group’s population in Cambodia significantly decreased during the Cambodian civil war. The Lao people live in the distant northeast part of Cambodia along the Mekong and its tributaries. Most Lao born in Cambodia are acknowledged as Khmer according to a policy set by the Cambodian government. The Lao have a few political organizations and representation to none at all. Most of the remaining population of the ‘other’ Cambodian people has been assimilated into the Khmer culture. The Tai, Cham, Lao and Other account for 5% of Cambodia's population.

Ethnic Groups At A Glance

The Khmer have proven to be the socially and politically dominant group thus the other groups classify under the indigenous and nonindigenous ethnic minorities. There are about 17 to 21 independent ethnic groups who speak Austroasiatic dialects that are similar to Khmer. The indigenous ethnic minorities of Cambodia still maintain their traditional beliefs whereas the nonaboriginal ethnic minorities which include immigrants and descendants adopted the Khmer culture and language.

Ethnic Groups In Cambodia

Rank Ethnic Group Share of Population of Cambodia
1 Khmer 91%
2 Vietnamese 3%
3 Chinese 1%
Thai, Cham, Lao, and Other Peoples 5%

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