Recorded history began in Cambodia with the introduction of cultural elements from India. The Funan empire, an entrepot for maritime trade between the West and China, was one of the first indianized states in Southeast Asia. It flourished between the 1st and 6th century AD. The era of Khmer principalities called Chenla saw a shift of power to the agricultural areas in the inland river basins. Jayavarman II is said to have united Cambodia in 802. In the fertile western part near the Tonle Sap with its abundance of fish, Roluos in the 9th and Angkor in the 10th to 15th century became the capital and the centre of an agricultural civilization that left the most impressive temple town of the world. The Khmer people converted to Theravas Buddhism in the 13th and 14th century. The 16th to 19th century saw the Cambodian kingdom as a pawn in the power struggles between Siam (Thailand) and Vietnam. King Norodom asked for French protection, in the second half of the 19th century Cambodia became part of French Indochina. It gained independence after World War II. Cambodia became a victim of the US Vietnam war and, between 1975 and 1978, lost 2 million lifes under Pol Pot's nationalist and communist regime.
Though there is scarce archaelogical evidence for it, it is probable that Cambodia shared the prehistoric development that characterize Southeast Asia on the whole. There were slow infiltration processes of very different ethnic groups, migrating from the north to the south, australoid, veddoid and melanesoid hunter-gatherers. Their mesolithic culture is called Bacsono-Hoabinhian. Characteristic feature of their artefacts are stone implements worked on one side only. Such artefacts have been found in central Vietnam, northern Laos, Thailand and Malaysia, and on the east coast of Sumatra. These people used trunk-canoes. Today’s Sajai and Senoi hilltribes on the Malayan peninsula are believed to be their descendants. Mesolithic stone tools of the Hoabinhian culture from the 7th millennium BC and early Neolithic pottery from the 5th millennium were excavated in the cave of Laang Spean in Battambang province in western Cambodia. Traces of the neolithic oval-axe culture of northwestern Myanmar and some Indonesian islands, said to be connected with the use of plank-built canoes, have been found in Cambodia, too.
The distribution of Southeast Asia's widespread rectangular axe culture does coincide roughly with that of the Austronesian languages. Austronesians, also called Malayo-Polynesians, migrated from southeastern China to Southeast-Asia from the 3rd millennium BC onwards. Austronesians are famous as early seafarers, their languages are distributed from Taiwan in the north to Madagascar in the west and to Polynesia in the east, coming up to the Easter Islands. In mainland Southeast-Asia, the Cham people, eastern neighbours and longtime rivals of the Khmer people, belong to this language group.
Another group of languages arrived in those millennia before Christ, the austro-asiatic languages are spoken by Mon and Khmer in particular. Today, Vietnamese is the most important austroasiatic language. Archaeological evidence indicates that Cambodian regions were inhabited by a neolithic culture during the 2nd millennium BC. Skulls and human bones found at Samrong Sen near Oudong date from 1500 BC. This culture seems to have cultivated rice. Their tools show them to have been excellent wood-workers.
Bronze work has been produced in the northern parts of Southeast Asia since the second millennium BC. Bronze artefacts of very high order from the 3rd century BC belong to the so-called Dongson culture. Iron, found mainly in Northeast Thailand, was worked at the same time, but scarcely. Peoples of the Dongson culture were engaged in trade and high-skilled in boat-construction and navigation. They travelled far distances and spread names for weights and measures to India and China. Southeast-Asians arrived in India before Indians travelled across the Sea of Bengal.
When adepting Indian culture, Southeast Asians were not passive recipients, but played an active role, inviting Indian trade, administration and ritual specialists. However, Indian culture was modified according to already existing traditions. The French scholar Coedes included the following characteristics in a list of ancient elements that continued to leave their mark on Southeast Asian cultures:
- skill in navigation,
- importance of descent by the maternal line
- worship of ancestors,
- location of shrines on high places,
- burial in jars or at dolmens,
- mythological dualism of mountain versus sea and winged beings versus water beings
Most probably, these elements had already been imported or introduced by those Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic peoples who have settled in Southeast Asia since the 3rd millennium BC, the Khmer being one of them.
The Khmer people were among the first in Southeast Asia to adopt religious ideas and political institutions from India. The earliest known kingdom in the area, Funan, flourished from around the first to the 6th century as most significant entrepot between India and China. It’s most important seaport Oc Eo in present-day Vietnam close to the Cambodian border was located a few kilometres away from the coast. It was an urban agglomerate of enourmous size, people lived in stilt houses along small canals. Oc Eo is believed to be the seaport Kattigara mentioned by the ancient geographer Ptolemy. Roman coins of Antoninus Pius and Marc Aurel have been found here. Sanskrit ring inscriptions in Brahmi letters prove the existence of a Hinayana Buddhist sect in this area already in the 2nd century. Oc Eo seems to have been situated at a strategic junction of a canal ssystem that linked the Gulf of Siam with the Mekong area. One canal connected Oc Eo with Angkor Borei in the present Cambodian province of Ta Keo. Angkor Borei close to the Phnom Da hill seems to have been the inland capital of Funan during its heydays, but earlier on capital was Ba Phnom and Banam in today’s Prei Veng province.
The first written account about Cambodia was from the third century, it was written by Kang Tai and Zhu Ying, envoys of the Chinese Han emperors. Their original reports are lost, but they were used in handed down sources from the 5th century. Kang Tai and Zhu Ying described an agrarian society, well versed in metallurgie. They called Khmer rulers „Fan“. The Chinese chronicles mention the Funan king Fan Shih-man at the begin of the third century was a great conquerer in Southeast-Asia.
At the latest from this period Funan controlled the Isthmus of Kra in today's southern Thailand. This narrowest strip of the Malay peninsula along the "silk road of the seas" was used for transporting goods via land routes from the Gulf of Bengal to the Gulf of Siam. This way the traders could avoid the long sea journey round the Malay Peninsula and across the Strait of Malacca, which was imperilled by pirates. Funan not only benefited from tolls for using the land route, but also from stockpiling food and providing accommodation for traders and selling own Southeastasian goods.
Fan Shih-man's nephew and successor Fan Chan, according Kang Tai's and Zhu Ying's account, sent embassies to India and China in the middle of the century, the Chinese emperor received statues and even dancers. Kang Tai and Zhu Ying also mention indirectly, that the letter type used in Cambodia was similar to those in India. From the 5th century onwards Khmer rulers bore Indian names, often withn the suffix „varman“ meaning „protected“.
Rudravarman is the name of the most famous and the last significant king of Funan, he ruled in the first half of the 6th century. The Chinese chronicle called Liang History describes him as a usurper, born of a concubine. Between 517 and 539 he sent several missions to Chinese Imperial Court.
Funan’s traditions, particularly the cults of the sacred mountain and of a naga princess, were adopted by the Khmer kings of the Angkorian era.
After Funan’s king Rudravarman had died, presumably about 550, two brothers from the inland Mekong region, Bhavavarman and Chitrasena, managed to overthrow the rulers of Funan. Chitrasena’s son Ishanavarman, who succeeded him in 611, was credited by the Chinese with the completion of the conquest of Funan. Ishanavarman I also extended his power westwards towards the region that was later to become the core of the Angkor empire.
It is not clear, if these new rulers in Funan were simply foreign invaders. Local inscriptions mention that Bhavavarman was a descendent of Rudravarman. But since they came from northern areas, it definitely indicates a shift of power from the coast to the inland river plains in northern Cambodia and southern Laos. This appears to correspond to a transition from coastal or riverine entrepots linked to the trade route between India and China to a more inland focus upon ricefields. At the same time the sea route changed to the high see, since deep-see shipping became more prevelant. This is a main reason why Funan’s inland canal routes and the Isthmus of Kra lost importance. During the next four centuries the Strait of Malacca as well as the Sunda Strait were controlled and secured by the new predominent sea power of Southeast Asia, Srivijaya in southern Sumatra.
The dawning era of the new inland power-centre is called Chenla, though this term is used in Chinese chronicles for Cambodia in later (Angkorian) periods, too. The origin of the name „Chenla“ is unknown; it cannot be related to any Sanskrit or Khmer word.
The contemporary Chinese History of the Sui and the New Tang History reported that the capital of Funan had finally been seized by Chenla in the begin of the 7th century. Though the Sui History seems to transcribe the Sanskrit name „Chitrasena“, the Chenla king who most probably completely conquered the kingdom of Funan during 612-628 is Ishanavarman, as already mentioned. His new capital Ishanapura is today’s Sambor Prei Kuk, the first major temple town in Southeast Asia of which significant remnants can be seen till the present day. Statues from Sambor Prei Kuk, such as an elegant and refined Durga, in a dynamically bent posture (classical Indian „tribangha“), show some continuity in sculptural art indicating that the shift from Funan to Chenla was not a transition of power to another people, but to another region.
Ishanavarman’s successor was Bhavavarman II. But it was Jayavarman I in the middle of the 7th century who managed to rule a larger than a regional area. There are many inscriptions from his period, the earliest dates from 657. One of them calls him „glorious lion of kings, the victorious Jayavarman“. Jayavarman’s inscriptions prove that founding and merging of religious institutions that controlled agricultural land was not a local act any more, but supervised by a central authority. Curses against disregarding royal decrees occur for the first time in Jayavarman’s inscriptions. Listed tasks of officials indicate an increasing complexity of administration. For the first time the term „mratan“ is used, it is a title of an appointed official instead of a hereditary local principal (called „pon“). Buddhism no longer held a favoured position as it had been the case in Funan. Jayavarman conquered the whole middle Mekong region (today’s Laos) up to the borders of the Nanchao kingdom (in today’s Yunnan province of China). Jayavarman I reigned for possibly forty years. But no building can be assigned to him.
When Jayavarman I died, presumably in 681, he left no male heir. Jayadevi, who was his widow or daughter, succeeded him. Her residence was most probably in the area of the later Angkor. Jayadevi is inscriptionally verified. She is the only known female national ruler in Khmer history. But local principalities that reemerged after Jayadevi’s death also had female leaders, such as the most important residential town of the middle of the 8th century, Sambhapura, in present-day Kratie province. It controlled trade on the Mekong river quite exactly between today’s borders to Laos and Vietnam. In other regions, there were relevant principalities such as Bhavapura, Dhruvapura, Vyadhapura and Indrapura.
The Chinese Tang chronicles proclaim that in the 8th century, Chenla was split into Land Chenla and Water Chenla. As already mentioned, archaeological evidence indicates that Chenla during most of the time in the 7th and 8th century was not a centralized kingdom, but consisted of many different independent regional principalities.
In the late 8th century lower Chenla was attacked by pirates from „Java“. The term may refer to any Indonesian island or even the the Malay Peninsula. The Javanese seized islands near the coast and used them as a base for raids. In 774 and 787 they raided Champa in what is today central Vietnam. A Javanese inscription claims that the Cambodian mainland was conquered by King Sanjaya.
The Angkor kingdom grew out of thes remnants of Chenla principalities. It is said to have been established in 802 when Jayavarman II declared independence from Java and proclaimed himself a Chakravartin and introduced the cult of a „god-king“ called Devaraja, it is a later Sanskrit translation of the Khmer term „kamraten jagat ta raja“ meaning „Lord who rules the world“. There is no inscriptional evidences from the founding period. Though sculptural art, particularly those works depicting women, and temple construction flourished in the late 8th century (Prasat Kompong Preah and Prasat Phoum Prasat as well as Ak Yum near Angkor are from the is time) and there are many edifices from the first half of the 9th century on Phnom Kulen, there are no architectural or sculptural remnants that could be ascribed to Jayavarman II unequivocally. However, Jayavarman II, a half-mythical figure, was venerated throughout the Angkorian era as founder of the empire and the examplary king.
Jayavarman III (ca. 850-877), son and successor of Jayavarman II, was called Vishnuloka posthumously. Interestingly, this indicates his preference for Vishnu, whereas other Khmer kings till the 11th century usually regarded Shiva as highest god and protector of the empire. Jayavarman III is said to have been a good hunter of elephants. The king remained childless.
His successor Indravarman I (877-889) belonged to the matrilinear kinship of empire founder Jayavarman II. Indravarman erected the Roluos monuments, Preah Ko and Bakong. They signalize the beginning of the first period of classical Khmer architecture. Indravarman I constructed the first huge Khmer reservoir, too. It was called Indratataka, it is now dried up. The tank was completed by Yashovarman I. The temple on an island in its centre, Lolei, was erected by Yashovarman, too.
Yashovarman I (889- ca.910) became famous as the first Angkor king, since he shifted the capital from Roluos 15 km to the north-west, he chose the area surrounding Phnom Bakheng, those days called Yashodharagiri („Phnom“ is the Khmer term, „giri“ a Sanskrit word for „hill“). This natural mound, which was crowned with a state temple pyramid by Yashovarman, was the centre of his new capital Yashodharapura. Parts of this first city in Angkor were later on overlapped by the last city in this area, Angkor Thom. By the way, Angkor Wat is located in the south-east corner of the earlier city. Its name „Yashodharapura“ remained to be in use throughout the Angkorian era. Even in the 13th century Angkor Thom was sometimes called Yashodharapura, whereas „Angkor“ was a term for „capital“ more than an actual specific name of a city. Another major achievement of Yashovarman I was the construction of the Yahodharatataka (East Baray, now dry), a much larger tank than the Indratataka in Roluos. It became the main reservoir of Angkor. Furthermore, inscriptions mention that Yashovarman founded 100 religious institutions (Ashramas), they were called accordingly „Yashodharashramas“. Besides many deities also the Buddha was venerated in these Ashramas, indicating an integration of diverse Indian religious traditions that were rivals in India.
The local ruler of Koh Ker, who belonged to a matrilinear line of the royal family, became a mighty opponent of Yashovarman’s sons and successors, Harshavarman I and Ishanavarman II. Finally, he managed to overthrow the Angkor king. After being crowned 928, the new Khmer king, Jayavarman IV, chose his hitherto residence Koh Ker as the new capital and abandoned Angkor. Jayavarman IV built the tank of Koh Ker, today called Baray Rahal. Nearly all significant monuments of the vast temple town Koh Ker are from this period. The Koh Ker sculptural style is much appreciated for its expressive dynamics and baroque ornamentation.
King Rajendravarman II (944-968), who dethroned Jayavarman IV’s son Harshavarman II, transferred the capital back to Angkor. An inscription at Baksei Chamkrong, an older construction that now was completed by Rajendravarman, mentions a victorious war against the Chams and the burning of the Cham capital. A Cham inscription credits him with carrying away the gold image of Bhagavati from the temple of Po Nagar. Contemporary Cambodian inscriptions also mention Buddhist studies of this king. Rajendravarman’s main legacy are the pyramid temples East Mebon and Pre Rup.
His son Jayavarman V (968-1001) was not adult when he ascended the throne in 968. His reign was long and peaceful and marked by increasing significance of court dignitaries. Administrative functions in the Khmer kingdom were in the hands of this nobility. Chief offices were held by members of the royal family and few great sacerdotal families forming an oligarchy, not a Chinese style civil servant hierarchy. They intermarried and formed a class separated from the rest of the population. But although they represented the Brahmanist Hindu tradition they used Khmer names. The teacher (guru) and probable regnant of the young king was Yajnavaraha, at this point in time he began the construction of a most remarkable private tempe, Banteay Srei. The state temple of the new king was Ta Keo, Angkor’s first sandstone pyramid.
Jayaviravarman I became king in 1002. But he had a rival in the eastern province, who may have been a prince from Tambralinga on the Malay peninsula. This opponent after almost a decade of civil war gained full control and called himself Suryavarman I. He claimed the throne by virtue of descent through his mother from the maternal line of Indravarman I. Suryavarman I. reigned till 1050 and became one of the most powerful Khmer emperors. Maybe due his status as an usurper, he introduced an oath of allegiance, declared by 4000 officials. Suryavarman I left not many monuments in Angkor, but he started the construction of a new giant tank, those days the West Baray was the largest reservoir outside China, it remained to be the largest Khmer monument at all. He also developed irrigation projects, but it is not sure whether the West Baray was a functional building and part of it.
In the provinces, Suryavarman I contributed to many of the most important Khmer monuments, particularly Preah Vihear at today’s border to Thailand was enlarged and Phimai in Northeast Thailand maybe even founded by this king. Like Preah Vihear, Phnom Chiso (Phnom Chisor) in today’s Takeo province and Phnom Ek (Wat Ek) near Battambang and Wat Phu (Vat Phou) in Laos, built or renovated by Suryavarman I, were situated on natural hills.
Suryavarman I was a warrior, and due to the enlargement of territory under his control he is the first Khmer king who deserves to be called an emperor beyond doubt. He consolidated Khmer power in Lopburi and integrated the Dvaravati kingdom and thereby controlled the Menam bassin, the core area of today’s Thailand. But there is no inscriptional evidence for wars against the Cham in what is now Central Vietnam.
Udayadiyadityavarman II (1060-1066), son and successor of Suryavarman I, was well versed in Hindu scriptures. He re-established the Devaraja-cult. Wars with Champa and an uprise in the southern provinces sponsored by the Cham were fought and suppressed by the famous Khmer general Sangrama. Two further revolts during Udayadityavarman II’s reign, one in the north-west and one in the east, were crushed by Sangrama, too. Udayadityavarman’s legacy in Angkor is the imposing Baphuon temple. The West Baray was completed under his reign. His successor was his younger brother Harshavarman III (1066-1080).
Jayavarman VI (1080-1107), an usurper, is mentioned for the first time in an inscription from 1082. Perhaps he spent more time in his hometown Phimai than in Angkor. Most probably, the main Prasat in Phimai (in the Isan region of Thailand) was erected by Jayavarman VI. It introduced the typical shape of a Khmer Prasat roof used for the five towers of the Angkor Wat.
Dharanindravarman I (1107-1113) was the elder brother of Jayavarman VI. There seems to have been an anti-king called Harshavarman in the south of the empire. The southern clans were finally overcome when in 1013 a new king, grandnephew on the maternal side of Dharanindravarman, usurped the Khmer throne. He became the mightiest Khmer emperor, Suryavarman II, the king who erected the Angkor Wat.
Suryavarman II (1113- ca.1150) launched attacks against Champa (Annam in Central Vietnam) and Dai Viet (Northern Vietnam). The Khmers seem to have been defeated, according to inscriptions of their enemies. In contrast, the Chinese Sung History shows a considerable expansion of Khmer sovereignty. Anyway, Khmer influence was now prevailing in mainland Southeast-Asia. Inscriptions of Suryavarman were found in Preah Vihear and Wat Phu, indicating a consolidation of power in the tradtional outer provinces. For the first time in the Angkorean era delegations were send to the Chinese court.
Dharanindravarman II, a cousin on the female side, who succeeded Suryavarman II about 1150, was a Buddhist. Not much is known about his son Yashovarman II (1160-1165), who was not the heir. His elder brother went into exile and is said to have lived in Champa. Yashovarman II was killed by a courtier or chief, this usurper Tribhuvanadityavarman lost his life when the Cham, who had started a series of attacks already in 1167, after a naval attack from the Great Lake Tonle Sap finally seized Angkor in 1177. Yashovarman’s elder brother, returning from his exile, started a kind of guerilla war against the Cham invaders and finally overcame them. He ascended the Khmer throne in 1181, as Jayavarman VII. He even launched revenge attacks against the core territory of Champa and managed to conquer the Cham territory. Under Jayavarman VII the sway of Angkor extended possibly even more widely than under Suryavarman II. In the west the empire stretched as far as to the Malay peninsula.
Like his father Dharanindravarman II, Jayavarman VII (1181- ca. 1218) was Buddhist, but Jayavarman was the Khmer emperor who introduced Buddhism as state cult. Nevertheless, Hinduism flourished was well, among the smaller shrines as many were dedicated to Shiva as to the Mahayana Buddhist lord and saviour Lokesvara. All large Buddhist monuments in Angkor are from Jayavarman VII’s era. After his Buddhist wife Jayarajadevi died, the king married her elder sister Indradevi. She was a Buddhist scholar. In perfect Sanskrit she composed the famous inscription at the Phimeanakas which gives her husband’s biography. Females traditionally played a more important role at the Khmer court than in India or China.
Jayavarman VII’s building programme was unparalleled in its immensity but carried out in haste and carelessness. Besides hundreds of smaller structures Jayavarman VII constructed the vast complexes of Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Ta Som. Thousands of villages were assigned for the upkeep of the great temples, while tens of thousands of officiants and labourers and hundreds of dancers were employed in their service.
In order to be able to repulse future Cham attacks, the king set himself to build an impregnable fortified city. While it was under construction the king resided in a temporary capital, Preah Khan, which was called Nagara Jayasri. The new capital was Angkor Thom with its central sanctuary Bayon. Gopuram entrances of Ta Prohm and Ta Som and of Angkor Thom’s gates and the Bayon are surmounted by colossal Buddha faces. These emblematic face tower’s of Jayavarman VII’s reign can also be seen at Prasat Bakan (Preah Khan in Preah Vihear province) and Banteay Chhmar in Banteay Meanchey province.
Indravarman II (1219-1242?) was the son of Jayavarman VII. There is not much inscriptional infromation about his period. Though the great age of Khmer architecture seems to have come to an abrupt end with the passing of Jayavarman VII, Indravarman actually continued and completet dor even modified the building programms of his father.
Jayavarman VIII (1243-95) had the longest reign in Khmer history, he re-established Hinduism as the state cult and is responsible for the iconoclastic destruction of many Buddhist sculptures. But during his decades no impressive monuments were built any more, only the small Mangalartha temple. It was during Jayavarman VIII’s reign that Siamese (Thai) gained control over the Menam bassin and adjoining territorries that are today’s Thailand. Bang Klang Thao, a Thai chieftain who had married a Khmer princess, defeated the Khmer governor of the upper Menam valley. He established the independent Thai kingdom of Sukhothai and crowned himself King Sri Indraditya.
The increasing power of the Siamese kingdoms Sukothai in the 13th and, nearer and even more powerful, Ayyuthiya in the 14th century resultes in many foreign invasion and a decline of Angkor. The Siamese originally were migrants from China who settled down in the Menam river bassin. Khmers called them „Siam“, meaning „darks“, they welcomed them as soldiers in their armies. But in the 13th century the Siamese (or Thai) began to establish independent kingdoms. However, the final triumph of the Siemaese capital Ayyuthiya is not only the cause of Angkor's decline, but also the result of a weakened Angkor empire.
The reasons for Angkor’s decline are under debate. Jayavarman VII’s huge scale building programme, together with demands for military service, could have resulted in impoverishing the Khmer people due to too heavy taxation and forced labour. Problems due to climate change may have played an even more important role. Additionally, increasing importance of international trade contributed to the shift of power to areas which was reachable for ships,such as the Thai capital Ayyuthiya (Ayutthaya). By the way, Ayythiya introduced many elements of Khmer culture and even architecture and integrated it in Siamese court traditons and art. In a sense, Ayyuthaya became the foreign heir of Angkor.
Details of Khmer history during the fourteenth century are not well known. There are no important contemporary Cambodian inscriptions, only some contemporary Cham and Thai inscriptions are the main source for historians, the Chinese chronicles and reports do not mention anything about this period.
The 13th century saw the rise and the 14th century the triumph of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia, which is the Khmer religion till the present day. Theravada was not practiced by any of the great Angkorian kings - Jayavarman VII was Mahayana Buddhist -, though Hinayana Buddhism (of which Theravada is a variant) is known from very early Cambodian inscriptions. The new teaching that became prevalent was the Sinhalese Theravada version of Sri Lanka, it had been introduced into Burma at the end of the twelfth century by Mon monks.
From Birma, the Sinhalese religion had spread to the Mon peoples of the Menam valley, where Theravada Buddhism had already centuries of existence behind it. In the middle of the 13th century it began to spread northwards to the Thai and eastwards to the Khmers.
It was more popular among common people than among the elites. However, the rise of the Sukothai and Ayyuthiya kingdoms in Thailand contributed to missionary work of Theravada Buddhist monks in Khmer territory significantly. Though Siamese and Khmer were political rivals, the Buddhist orders in Thailand and Cambodia usually were tightly connected.
There is an international background for this remarkable development of Theravada predominance in Cambodia.
In Burma (Myanmar) the Pagan (Bagan) kingdom had introduced Theravada Buddhism right from the beginning in the 11th century, when the Mon kingdom in Lower Burma practicing Theravada was conquered and integrated. But in the end of the 12th century a new line of Theravada was introduced in Myanmar, and it was this line that finally became officially recognized in Burma (Myanmar) in the 15th century and, already earlier on, influenced and shaped the neighbouring countries of Mon, Thai and Khmer. Among Mon people, living in the territory of today’s Thailand and ethnically related to the Khmer, were pioneers involved in this Burmese reform movement. This new Theravada line is the Mahavihara tradition. It was introduced from Sri Lanka. The 12th century saw the final decline of Buddhism in India, due to Muslim invasions. The only remaining predominantly Buddhist culture in South Asia was that of the Sinhalese people on the island of Sri Lanka, which already had a reputation of being a centre of Buddhist scholarship for more than a millennium. The holy scriptures of Theravada Buddhism, the so-called Tipitaka „three baskets“, were laid down for the first time in Sri Lanka.
During the reign of Burma’s king Narapatisithu the young mong Chapata (Sapada), who was a Mon, decided to travel to Sri Lanka in order to study the original Theravada form, the so-called Mahavihara tradition, and to reform the Burmese order according to it. Mahavihara was the name of the main Theravada monastery in Sri Lanka’s former capital Anuradhapura, notwithstanding, it became the island’s sole official religion only after Anuradhapura was abandoned.
Chapata’s journey, with a re-ordination ceremony in Sri Lanka, resulted rather in a schism than a reform in Burma in the 13th century. However, Chapata’s followers were more successfull missionaries in the neighbouring Menam region. The newly established Siamese kingdoms, after gaining independence from Khmer hegemony, adapted this Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) Mahavihara pattern of Theravada Buddhism and made it the official state religion, those days intentionally turning away from the Hindu religion of the Khmer empire.
It is said, among those companions who traveled with Chapata to Sri Lanka and introduced the new Sinhalese Theravada line of ordination in Southeast Asia, was a Khmer prince, a son of Jayavarman VII. However, the teachings of the new Theravada sect were brought by missionary monks to Cambodia itself in the course of the 13th century, with almost revolutionary effects. Unlike Shivaism, Vishnuism, and Mahayana Buddhism, which were imposed from the empire’s elites, the new doctrine was preached to common people. Khmer farmers during the centuries of Hindu and Buddhist state cults had remained to be animistic, sparcely touched by those foreign Indian religions. But now the basis of the Theravada tradition was the village instead of the royal court. Instead of pomp and elaborate ceremonial, the monks prescribed meditation and were devoted to a life of modesty and austerity. Unlike the hierarchy in the capital, they were in direct contact with the people. The new missionary Theravada sect stimulated a popular movement which carried the Khmers into the Theravada fold, until the present day.
Indravarman III (1295-1308), also called Srindravarman, was more successfull than his predecessor and step father Jayavarman VIII in consolidating Angkor’s power against the Sukothai kingdom. Sukothai's strength declined after its most significant king Rama Kamheng died, who is regarded to be a kind of founder of Thailand. Indravarman III is the first Angkor king who personally favoured Theravada Buddhism, he supported monks and is sometimes said to have led the life of a monk himself or to have introduced Theravada as the new official state doctrine. An inscription dated 1309 records his benefactions to a Buddhist monastery and shrine at the close of his reign.
It was during his reign that the Chinese delegate Zhou Daguan visited Angkor. His account called „Zhenla Fengtu Ji“ (Cambodia report) is the most important foreign source concerning the history of Angkor. By the way, Zhou Daguan noticed that Theravada had become the predominant religion, Buddhist monasteries the most venerated religious institutions those days.
Under King Jayavarman IX (Jayavamran Parameshvara, 1327-36) Pali instead of Sanskrit was used at the court. Pali is the ancient language of Theravada scriptures. Most probably it was this Cambodian king who was involved in introducing Theravada in Laos through marriage policy, his daughter played a key role.
Theravada Buddhist sanctuaries were built of wood. This is one reason, why there are no stone buildings in Angkor from the 14th century, though it was still the capital.
The Malay peninsula and the Indonesian islands adapted Islam from Arab and Persian and Indian Muslims, but folk culture, that continued to be basically animistic, was influenced by Hindu elements of court religions at the same time. Simultaneously and paralleling this, mainland Southeast Asia (except Vietnam) introduced the Sri Lankan version of Buddhism, but typical Southeast-Asian traditions such as spirit worship remained prevalent and Hindu elements of the elites penetrated folk culture. The catchy vehicles transporting Hindu traditions, in countries converted to Islam or Theravada Buddhist alike, were recitations and plays of Indian myths and epics, of the Ramayana in particular. The 17th century saw the heydays of Khmer literature. Khmer versions of the Indian Ramayana epic became popular, the most important one is called Reamker.
The history of Southeast Asian kings during the early Theravada centuries is told in official chronicles of a much later date. They are full of political propaganda and religious insinuations and personal anecdotes, they should not be considered to be as reliable sources as Chinese chronicles and travel reports or inscriptional evidence. This is why not much is known about political developments in Cambodia during the 14th to 16th century. The chinese Ming History mentions the reception of ten embassies from Cambodia between 1371 and 1403.
After 1350 there seems to have been almost incessant fighting between Siemese and Khmers. The new Siamese capital Ayyuthiya (Ayutthaya) was nearer and much more dangerous than Sukothai in the second half of the 13th century. In the early 15th century also the Cham again began attacking Angkor when it was weakened by the struggles with Ayyuthaya. Finally, Angkor was sacked und plundered by the Siamese (Thai) king Boromaraja II in 1431 after a siege of seven months. A Siamese prince was placed on the throne as a puppet king and soon afterwards assassinated on behalf of the Khmer crown prince Ponhea Yat. He was crowned in Angkor, but Ponhea Yat decided to leave and evacuate the threatened city in 1432. First Basan on the left bank of the Mekong served as his residence, 1434 Phnom Penh became the new capital, for the first time, only for a short period.
Even after Angkor was abandoned by the royal court in 1432 due a Siamese invasion and the capital shifted to the area of Phnom Penh in the 15th century, Angkor remained inhabited. Angkor Wat became a Buddhist sanctuary that attracted pilgrims. King Ang Chan I (1516-1566) sponsored three more gigantic bas-reliefs for the galleries of the Angkor Wat. King Ang Chan, reigning nearly half a century, was the most powerful Khmer monarch after the fall of Angkor. He even raided Siamese territory. Ang Chan made Lovek his capital, he surrounded it with stone fortifications. Ang Chan was a devout Buddhist, he decorated Lovek with pagodas.
After Ang Chan had died (1566?), his only son Barom Reachea I established his headquarters in the Angkor region, from where his armies temporarily subjugated the Khorat region in Northeast Thailand.
Finally, under Barom Reachea’s son and successor Satha (1576-1594?) the tide turned against Cambodia, when Siam’s capital Ayyuthiya recovered from Burmese raids. The Thai commander and later king Naresuan invaded Cambodia, maybe already in 1581. After he ascended the Siamese throne in 1590, the Siamese managed to capture the Khmer capital Lovek in 1594.
With King Satha’s reign Cambodian history enters upon a much better known period. Two kinds of new sources yield useful information, viz. stone inscriptions at the Angkor Wat and Spanish and Portuguese accounts. Diogo do Couto writes about a discovery of Angkor long before French colonists created the myth of having discovered a forgotten empire in the jungle. There is evidence that Catholic missionaries visited the ruins somewhere between 1583 and 1589, at King Satha’s invitation.
A new Khmer capital was established at Oudong south of Lovek in 1618, but its monarchs could only temporarily act independently in a buffer state between its two increasingly mighty neighbours to the west and east. Usually they only entered into alternating vassal relationships with Siam or Vietnam. Vietnamese settlement of the Mekong Delta led to its annexation at the end of the 17th century. In the begin of the 18th century the Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty, making use of internal rivalries in the Cambodian royal family, managed to expand its suzeranity to the gulf of Thailand. Cambodia’s king Ang Em in Oudong was a Vietnamese puppet. Supported by the Siamese, his rival Ang Tham returned to Cambodia in 1737. He moved the capital to Phnom Penh. The back and forth of Siamese and Vietnamese control was interrupted only by a short period of independence under Ang Non in 1776, when the Nguyen rulers in Vietnam were weakened by an internal uprise.
In 1791, 10,000 Khmer men were deported to the new Thai capital Bangko for construction works. When Cambodia’s king Ang Eng war crowned in Bangkok in 1794, he transferred the western part of Cambodia, including Angkor and Battambang, to Siam.
In the 19th century a the power struggle between Siam and Vietnam for control of Cambodia continued. Vietnamese court officials in Cambodia tried to force Khmers to adopt Vietnamese customs. This led to rebellions against the Vietnamese and resulted in another Siamese intervention. The Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–1845) ended with an agreement to place the country under joint suzerainty.
After repeated requests for French assistance, a protectorate was established in 1863. In 1867, King Norodom, who had been installed by Siam, signed a treaty with France, renouncing Siemese suzerainty over Cambodia, but in exchange for Siamese annexation of the western provinces. Cambodia became part of the Fench Indochina Union with Cochinchina, Annam, Tonking, and Laos. After King Norodom’s death in 1904, his brother Sisowath was placed on the throne with French help. In 1906, Battambang and Siem Reap provinces were ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Thailand.
During World War II, the 1940–41 the Vichy government signed a treaty with Japan to allow free Japanese military transit through French Indochina. The Thai government took advantage of its Japanese support and again invaded Cambodia’s western provinces.
In 1941 the young Norodom Sihanouk, a maternal grandson of King Sisowath was enthroned by the French. Cambodia continued to be a protectorate of France until 1953.
In March 1945, the young king Norodom Sihanouk proclaimed an independent Kingdom of Kampuchea, on behalf of the Japanese occupation force. After World War II came to an end in the Pacific region, the French reimposed their colonial rule in Cambodia. As a result of French court verdicts and transfers of souvereignty concerning police, jurisdiction and armed forces, Norodom Sihanouk, who had dissolved the democratically elected parliament and government in 1952, declared that independence had been fully achieved. But the question of full souvereignty remained uncertain until 1954 when a conference was held in Geneva to settle the French Indochina war.
Sihanouk abdicated in 1955, his father became king. Sihanouk formed a national party alliance, oppressing opponents of this unification process. Sihanouk's new Sangkum party won all 91 seats in the National Essembly. Prime minister Sihanouks priority was to eliminate militant leftwing resistance in Cambodia. Neutrality was the central element of his foreign policy during the 1950s. It became tricky in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War threatened to engulf the whole region. Sihanouk decided to suspend military cooperation with the USA, in order to satify those leftists he tried to integrate in his government. He allowed Vietnamese communists to use eastern Cambodian territory as a supply route for fighters in South Vietnam, the so-called Ho Chi Minh path. But when the Vietnamese Communists began using the port of Sihanoukville for military supplies, Sihanouk took steps to repair those relations. Sihanouk seems to have turned a blind eye when the Nixon administration launched a secret bombing campaign called "operation menu" against Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia. The carpetbombings starting in 1969 were not approved by the US Senate.
Sihanouk was ousted by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol in 1970, general Lon Nol assumed power and later on abolished the Cambodian monarchy. Lon Nol again allied Cambodia with the United States.
The airforce of the United States dropped a higher quantity of explosive force on Cambodia than they and their allies had dropped on Germany and Japan together during World War II (including the two atomic bombs). Besides Korea and Vietnam, Cambodia became one of the three most heavily bombed countries in world history. The total number of Cambodians killed by the bombings is estimated to be 600,000. To draw a comparison: 600,000 is the number of Germans killed by air raids in World War II, too. Germany in 1940 had 80 million inhabitants, whereas in Cambodia lived 8 million people in 1970. This means: Due to bombing campaigns during World War II, 0.75% of German civilians died. During the Vietnam War, 7.5% of Cambodian civilians were killed in an undeclared war. This was only the beginning of the Cambodian tragedy, but one of its root causes, since the terror of an alien war destroyed Cambodia's civil life and strengthened support for "freedom fighters" against foreign aggressors and domestic suppressors. Nixon's bombings paved the way to the terror regime of Pol Pot.
Already in 1973, the Communist guerillas, even with almost no North Vietnamese military support could challenge government forces, they controlled 60% of the territory and 25% of the population. In 1974, Lon Nol's control was reduced to small enclaves around the cities and transportation routes. More than 2 million refugees from the air attacks and civil war, 25% of Cambodia's total population, fled to Phnom Penh and other cities.
The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and took power in 1975. Led by Pol Pot, they changed the official name of the country to Democratic Kampuchea. Though the Khmer rouge victory in 1975 brought Pol Pot to power, Sihanouk remained serving, for the first year, as the figurehead president until he was placed under house arrest and went into Chinese exile.
The new regime, modelling itself on Maoist China during the "Great Leap Forward", immediately ordered the evacuation of the cities. 3.5 million people, inhabitants and refugees, had to leave the capital. The entire population was sent on forced marches to rural work projects. The new regime's attempt was to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the Angkorian heydays, but collectivized. Cambodia suspended private property and the use of money. The new leaders systematically destroyed Buddhist monasteries, discarded Western medicine, closed schools and public libraries and eradicated everything considered bourgois or western. Wearing glasses, being a doctor or a relative of a businessman or speaking a foreign language could be punished fatally. Families had to be separated.
This horror was not at all insanity or pure sadism or destructive intention of mentally ill or morally bad people. Pol Pot was neither an unfriendly guy nor was he a all-powerfull dictator of the kind of Stalin or Hitler with extermination plans. Rather, the Cambodian tragedy was an unforeseen consequence of an elaborate concept quite popular among newfangled Western academics: Paris-educated Khmer Rouge leaders such as Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) had learned from European marxists that people's minds were - and continued to be - subtly poisoned by cultural superstructures of feudal or capitalist eras. Thus, the Khmer society reformers, admiring Mao, now tried to eradicate that contraproductive intellectual world painstakingly.
Unspoilt minors, left uneducated, only ideologically prepared, became authorized to be the watchdogs of the dawning national collectivized rural paradise, free from any subversive influences and interferences. Auto-mechanisms of an unrestrained guardian system - besides wartime background and leftist romanticism - may be another key factor for the escalation to the total atrocity of the Khmer Rouge regime. Cambodia was virtually transformed into a nationwide Stanford-Prison-experiment a la Zimbardo.
Approximately 2 million Cambodians, about 30% of the population surviving the bombings, died during the 4 years of Pol Pot's regime. Almost half of them were slaughtered - not shot - by juvenile supervisors, rather occasionally than systematically planned. They were eliminated as ideological suspects or because of mere inefficiency. Persons were executed for lack of diligence, scavenging for food or crying for expired loved ones. The other half of victims died due to living conditions like in forced labour camps, namely starvation and exhaustion and lack of medical care. But the Vietnamese and Chinese and Cham minorities were persecuted in a way that can be called genocide. Due to persecution and emigration, the Vietnamese population afterwards was reduced to less than 20%. Half of the Cham Muslims were killed, an aim was to reduce their numbers. Notwithstanding, most victims were ethnic Khmers, members of the majority. Every citizen was in danger. Concerning numbers of victims, those notorious extermination places called "killing fields" were more like the tip of the iceberg, because most victims during those years of ultimate horror died near their homes or workplaces.
In 1978, after Khmer Rouge had attacked villages in Vietnam, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia. In 1979 they captured Phom Penh and established Heng Samrin as head of state. The new government depending on foreign forces, though ending the worst atrocities, was condemned by Western states continuing to regard the Pol Pot clique as Cambodia's legitimate government.
Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces continued to control territories in the northwest and to fight against the new government, their guerilla war was supported by China and the USA, because Vietnam, backing the new administration in Cambodia, was allied with the Soviet Union. The civil war caused 600,000 Cambodians to emigrate to refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. Peace efforts, commenced in Paris in 1989, led to peace settlement in 1991. In 1992 the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) was established to supervise the cease fire, to repatriate refugees and transfer power to an elected government.
In UN supervised elections in 1993 Prince Ranariddh’s royalist FUNCINPEC Party won 45.5% of the vote, followed by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party. An all-party coalition was formed and approved a new constitution, with the former Prince Sihanouk elevated to King in a representative function. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers.
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- Pick-up service by car, mini-van, Bus from Bangkok to Siem Reap and, or Siem Reap to Bangkok, or any others place in Thailand. The Cambodian and Thailand drivers are both very fast, skilled and trust drivers. My driver will advise at every step what to do between border. My guide will take you through the border and we have an office on the border to explain the trip and border crossing. Easy, fast, comfortatble and reliable services.
- Temple visits in chronological historical order
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