Geographic Origins

The state of Cambodia (also formerly known as Kampuchea) is situated on the north-eastern shore of the Gulf of Siam. It is bordered by Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

History of Immigration and Settlement

Between 1975 and 1979 thousands of Cambodians fled to neighbouring Thailand to seek refuge from Pol Pot’s regime. These numbers increased in 1979 following invasion by Vietnamese forces. Many more Cambodians remained in makeshift camps on the Cambodian side of the border.

Two holding centres, Sakaeo and Khao-I-Dang, were established in Thailand under the jurisdiction of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Cambodians were considered for third country resettlement from these centres alone. Only a small percentage of refugees were selected from those camps to resettle in South Australia. Overall, 10,575 were selected to come to Australia between 1975 and 1984.

Six Cambodian refugees arrived in South Australia in 1976. Between 1978 and 1979 this number had increased to 33. During 1980-81 there were 181 arrivals. After the fall of the Pol Pot regime in January 1979, stories and evidence of horror and hardship received world attention and Australia’s refugee intake increased. By June 1984 South Australia had accepted 2,090 Cambodians. In the late 1980s many Cambodians were arriving in Australia as part of the Family Reunion Scheme. Their immigration to Australia was sponsored by relatives already living here. They moved directly into the community upon arrival.

Both government and non-government organisations have offered assistance to Cambodian refugees. In 1979 the Department of Immigration, Local Government and Ethnic Affairs initiated the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme. This scheme assisted refugee arrivals to settle in the Australian community.

The Monastery Refugee Project, part of the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme, lasted from April 1980 to May 1984. In this scheme 1,104 sponsored Cambodians secured accommodation at St. Paul’s Monastery, Glen Osmond, while waiting for permanent homes. The project developed integrated services designed to equip mainly Khmer refugees for resettlement and provided education, welfare and medical services. Community settlement groups also accepted Cambodians. A further 986 refugees stayed at the Pennington Migrant Centre.

Cambodians have relied on personal contacts to obtain accommodation. A nucleus of people was attracted to Adelaide’s inner western suburbs, with their low cost rental accommodation and proximity of services. This operated as a magnet for others who arrived later.

Between 1980 and 1984 there was a concentration of Cambodians in the Thebarton, West Torrens and Woodville areas. People from Pennington Migrant Centre were likely to go to Port Adelaide, while those who had stayed at the monastery were more likely to settle initially in Mitcham, Unley or Burnside.

By 1990 the concentration of Cambodians had shifted to the Enfield area. Many Cambodian South Australians live in Burton. Others live in Mansfield Park, Ferryden Park, Angle Park and Woodville Gardens.

Cambodians experienced difficulty in obtaining work in South Australia and suffered extremely high rates of unemployment. Language skills affected the ability of refugees to find employment. The majority of young Cambodians and other Indo-Chinese refugees arrived here with little or no formal education. To meet their needs, a dual system of language centres and literacy units was developed in South Australia in 1982. The language centres for secondary school entry were at a number of primary schools in Adelaide. Literacy units were located at a number of high schools. These provided language instruction and literacy, numeracy and cultural familiarisation to students 18 years and under.

Cultural Traditions

The Khmer Buddhist Association of South Australia has traditional and modern musical groups, dance groups, a women’s group and sporting teams. The Khmer Education and Culture Centre, a small organisation without premises, was established in 1987 to concentrate on the needs of Khmer youth.

The Indo-Chinese Australian Women’s Association has membership open to Chinese women from Vietnam, Cambodia and mainland China. It conducts English classes, assists in resettlement and generally helps women from these countries to adjust to their new lives.

Between 7 March 2003 and 11 May 2003 the Cambodian community staged an exhibition ‘Survival of Cambodian Refugees’ at The Forum, the Migration Museum’s community access gallery.

Community Activities

The gulf between Cambodian and Australian culture is wide and many Cambodians have had great difficulty settling here. They have also encountered prejudice. Cambodian organisations and institutions have been established gradually in Adelaide to meet the needs of the Khmer people.

By June 1981, 755 Cambodians had arrived in South Australia and in that year the Cambodian Association of South Australia was formed. Its role was to provide assistance in resettlement for newly arrived Cambodians and to maintain and foster Cambodian culture. The association published a newsletter periodically and established a school.

In the mid 2000s many of the association’s programs were handed over to third party providers with the intent that these organisations would provide a Khmer focus to their operations. Over time that focus was lost but recently, an increasing need for services such as counselling, respite, mediation, immigration, health, education etc., has seen the association revived.

The association has several objectives. These include maintaining and expanding the existing radio program, developing a Khmer language website to promote the activities of the association, providing on-line resources to the community and support the community radio station. The association also conducts an annual New Year’s Eve Festival, coinciding with the Khmer New Year in February and aims to bring together the whole community regardless of their religious or political affiliations. Other priorities for the association include the establishment of youth programs, support for elderly Khmer and an employment service for the community. It is also hoped to reestablish the ethnic school to provide classes in the Khmer language, dancing and culture.

Although a number of Khmer language schools were established in Adelaide from the early 1980s most of these have now closed. Presently the Khmer language is taught at the School of Languages, Torrens Road, West Croydon.

The arrival of Chinese refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos from 1975 onwards led to the formation of the Indo-China Chinese Association, now the Australian South East Asian Women’s Association Pty Ltd. Situated at Woodville, the association conducts English language classes on Wednesdays, helps in the resettlement of new arrivals and assists women to adjust to the culture and lifestyle of their new home.

Most Khmer and ethnic Chinese refugees from Cambodia are Theravada Buddhists. Until the mid-1980s Khmer Buddhist South Australians worshipped at Wat Ratanaprathib Vihara, the Thai Buddhist Temple in Thebarton. In 1985 the Khmer Buddhist Association was established and the following year the association obtained a house in Beverley to use as a temporary temple. Initially a monk from Wat Ratanaprathib Vihara visited to help Khmer Buddhist South Australians with religious observances. In June 1986 the association sponsored a Khmer monk to come to South Australia from France.

Over the next three years the association raised funds to buy a temple. Khmer Buddhists in Melbourne and Sydney supported their efforts. The association bought a house in Parafield Gardens which was sanctified as a temple in 1989. The Cambodian community now has four Buddhist temples in which to worship. These are situated at Salisbury, Paralowie, MacDonald Park and Waterloo Corner. 

Buddhism is a major unifying force for Khmer Buddhists in South Australia. It helps them maintain and define their identity in Australia. The main Buddhist festivals for Khmer South Australians are: Makha Buja; Chole Chnum; Visaka Buchabuchvea; Chole Vassa; Prachum Ben; Chen l’assa and Kathin.

Makha Buja recalls a day three months before Buddha’s death. The Enlightened One knew he was going to pass from this life. His followers gathered around to hear his last message. He advised his followers to do everything he had taught them, to act correctly and to purify their hearts and minds. On Makha Buja Khmer Buddhists visit the temple. They make offerings, pray, meditate and receive teachings from the Scriptures.

Chole Chnum is the Khmer New Year. It falls on the full moon in April. Chole Chnum is both a religious and secular celebration. In Cambodia it is a three-day public holiday, a combined celebration for the New Year and the end of the harvest. On the first day of Chole Chnum people gather in temples to welcome the New Year. On the second day people come together in the temple to be blessed and to pray for the spirits of the dead. The third day is marked by a ceremony in the temple, where statues of Buddha are washed and blessed. Afterwards the congregation celebrates with traditional games, including a tug-of-war and skipping, and builds a large sand hill or castle, decorating it with flowers, incense, candles and flags. Khmer Buddhist South Australians celebrate Chole Chnum on the nearest weekend. Family and friends meet to exchange gifts, share a festive meal and enjoy each other’s company.

Visaka Buchabuchvea is celebrated on the fifth full moon of the Lunar Year. It is a triple celebration of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and liberation from the suffering of this life. These three events are believed to have occurred on the same date. Khmer Buddhist South Australians spend the evening of Visaka Buchabuchvea chanting and meditating. They keep a vigil through the night, drinking coffee and talking. In the morning they offer food to the temple’s monks. Buddhist organisations in Adelaide take turns to host Visaka Buchabuchvea, which is known by a variety of names.

Chole Vassa is known as the ‘rains retreat’. In Cambodia this three-month period, from mid-July to mid-October, is the rainy season. Monks are forbidden to travel during this time.

Prachum Ben, Soul Day, is an important festival for Khmer South Australians. Over two weeks in September people go individually to the temple to pray for the souls of deceased relatives. The festival culminates with a major ceremony, during which participants make symbolic offerings of rice and incense to their ancestors. Food is offered to the attending monks and the ceremony concludes with the customary sharing of food.

The end of the rainy season in Cambodia is marked by Chen l’assa in October. Kathin follows in October/November when people make offerings for the upkeep of their village temple and give new robes, food and personal necessities to each monk. Members of the congregation also offer money for the temple’s maintenance.

Organisations and Media

  • Cambodian Association of South Australia
  • The Khmer Buddhist Association of South Australia
  • The Khmer Education and Culture Centre
  • Australian South East Asian Women’s Association Pty Ltd
  • 5EBI-FM Radio Program


The 1981 census recorded 316 Cambodian-born South Australians.

The 1986 census recorded 1,650. 1,371 people said that they were of Khmer descent.

According to the 1991 census there were 1,924 Cambodian-born South Australians. 1,852 people said that their mothers were born in Cambodia, and 1,718 that their fathers were.

According to the 1996 census there were 2,314 Cambodian born South Australians, and a small second generation of just 844 persons.

The 2001 census recorded 2,317 Cambodia-born South Australians, while 2,744 people said that they were of Khmer descent.

The 2006 census recorded 2,434 Cambodian-born South Australians, while 3,226 people said that they were of Khmer descent.

The 2011 census recorded 2,784 Cambodian-born South Australian, while 4,037 people said that they were of Khmer descent.

The 2016 census recorded 3,196 Cambodian-born South Australians, while 5,409 people said that they were of Khmer descent.

Add your comment


Arena, F, ‘Immigrant and Refugee Women, Rights and Struggle’, Speak Out  for Immigrant and Refugee Women in South Australia (Adelaide: Ethnic Affairs Commission, 1983)

Ashworth, G, The Boat People and the Road People: Refugees of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (Quartermine House, 1979)

Austcare, ‘Cambodia–Kampuchea’, Indochinese Refugee Handbook (Sydney: Austcare Education Project)

Austcare, People in Australia: From Cambodia (Sydney: Austcare Education Project)

Australian Department of Employment and Youth Affairs, Cultural Background Paper: Kampuchea, (Canberra: AGPS, 1983)

Bunnag, J, ‘The Way of the Monk and the Way of the World: Buddhism in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia’ in The World of Buddhism, (eds) Bechert, H and Gombrich, R, (Thames & Hudson, 1984)

Chin, B K, The General Adaptation of Cambodian Refugees to Australian Society, (MED project, Monash University, 1984)

Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, ‘Please Listen to What I’m not Saying’, A report on the Survey of Settlement Experiences of Indochinese Refugees 1978–80, (Canberra: AGPS, 1982)

Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, A Review of Kampuchean Refugee Settlement in Adelaide, 1984.

Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Australia and Indo-Chinese Refugees 1975–1983: A Chronology, Canberra.

Hendry, B, ‘The Killing Fields to a Land Down Under: An Oral Record of Life in Cambodia and Resettlement in Australia of Ten Cambodian Refugees’, (B.A. (Hons), University of Melbourne, 1985)

Jupp, J (ed.), The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and Their Origins, Second Edition, (Cambridge University Press, 2001)

Krupinski, J and Burrows, G (eds), The Price of Freedom: Young Indochinese Refugees in Australia (Sydney: Pergamon Press, 1986)

Lawrence, H, Report on the Health and Welfare of Indo-Chinese Women Living in Adelaide (Health Promotion Services, 1981)

Migrant Resource Centre, Adelaide, Kampuchean Refugee Community in Adelaide, Index no. 391.

Ngor, Haing S, Surviving the Killing Fields (London: Chatto & Windus, 1988)

Stevens, C, ‘Occupational Adjustment of Kampuchean Refugees in Adelaide’, (B.A. (Hons), University of Adelaide, 1984)

Stevens, C, ‘New Life in the Freedom Country: Young Cambodians in Adelaide’, (PhD, University of Adelaide, 1990)