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Brief history of Cambodia

Cambodia has a long standing history. Archeological discoveries indicate human life in Neolithic times well over 6,000 years ago. These people probably migrated from the southern parts of China. Early in the 1st century, Cambodia was inhabited by a stable society, in villages and settlements, speaking a language that is already closely related to the present Khmer or Cambodian language.

While developing they took inspiration from India (from both Hindu and Buddhism origin) in establishing kingdoms that were highly centralized. According to the Khmer legends, they have their origin in Kamu, the mythical ancestor of the Khmers. His son, Preah Thong, left India and sailed for Cambodia. One night he saw a beautiful naga on the shore of the waters. They fell in love and married. The girl’s father, king of the nagas, drank the waters that covered the land, built a capital, gave the country to them and named it Kambuja.

The first of these kingdoms, Funan, flourished between the 1st and 6th century. It covered a large area of current Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, and even Burma. During the 6th and7th centuries, the Khmer – who lived in the areas around the Mekong, Menam and Mun Rivers, rebelled and took over a good part of the Funan empire, calling it Chenla. Their king, Ishanavarman conquered the Funan territories almost completely during the early 7th century. Hundred years later, the Chenla territory was split up into a northern (upper or land Chenla) and southern part (lower or water Chenla). From the 9th to the 15th centuries the Khmer Empire reached the height of its civilization, dominating a substantial part of Southeast Asia, and centered on Angkor. By the end of this period Theravada Buddhism was introduced by monks of Sri Lanka. After the death of Jayavarman VII, the empire went in decline, facing aggression from its neighbors: Siam (Thailand), Champa and Dai Viet (now Vietnam).

From the 15th to 19th centuries, Cambodia on a smaller scale lived around the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong delta. New groups of adventurers from Spain and Portugal arrived also, giving some extension to their trade relations, but finally became a de facto vassal state of Siam (Thailand). From the other side, Vietnam pushed westward in a continuous strategy of push, settle and claim. Slowly but surely Cambodia fell into the hands of Vietnam. By the end of the 19th century (in 1863 to be precise), King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to obtain protection from the Vietnamese. But this meant that gradually the whole territory came under French colonial domination.

After World War II, the whole of ‘Indochine protectorates’ became somewhat self-governed, but after a ‘Royal crusade’ for independence led by Sihanouk, Cambodia obtained independence in 1953. During the war in Vietnam Cambodia desperately tried to stay out of the conflict and maintain neutrality, banning both the Communist Vietcong and the USA from using Cambodian territory, but increasingly got caught up in fighting against the rising Khmer communists (labeled as Khmer Rouge), and political pressure from the USA (who believed Cambodia was supporting the Vietcong). While Sihanouk was abroad for medical treatment in 1970, General Lon Nol staged a coupd d’état , took power and abolished the Cambodian monarchy, changing the country’s name in Khmer Republic. Problems with Vietnam increased as both Vietcong in the north and Vietnamese and US troops in the south) violated the Cambodian borders, as well as interior problems with the uprising Khmer Rouge.

On New Year’s Day in 1975, communist troops launched a 4 month offensive under which the Khmer Republic collapsed, leading under Pol Pot to probably the darkest times Cambodia has ever seen. In the next 4 years close to 2 million people (about 1/3 of the total population) died. Being an intellectual, or supposed to be one (wearing glasses was proof enough) meant certain death. There were no more trains, no more schools, no more administration, no more hospitals, in short a total collapse of civilized life. Hundreds of thousands died of starvation, and a lot more from execution. Early 1979 Vietnamese forces launched a full invasion of Cambodia. Phnom Penh was regained, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge driven back towards the Thai border, from where the struggle would still continue for several years. Only in October 1991 a ceasefire and a comprehensive peace agreement was reached, leading to a UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) and finally elections in May 1993. The monarchy was re-established and Norodom Sihanouk restored as King. By the end of the year a new government and a new constitution meant the beginning a new and peaceful era for Cambodia. To this date, Cambodia is still struggling to get back on its feet again. Recent years saw the reconstruction of several main roads, making the country accessible, but, apart from a few better developed centers (like Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville), most of the country still lives in a subsistence economy.

Brief history of Angkor

Officially, it started in 802 when Jayavarman II was installed as universal ruler, according to the inscription found at Mount Kulen. The historic event marked the unification of the Khmer state, a declaration of independence versus Indonesia, and a such, the start of the Angkor era.. The preceding events are not always clear, but the Sailendras from Central Java had invaded and annexed the Khmer territory, and Jayavarman II has spent time at the court. He probably returned as a vassal ruler around 790, but clearly strived for independence, with his enthronement as supreme evidence. With it came a new religious cult, that of the devaraja god-king.
Soon afterwards, he moved the capital to Roluos from where he reigned until his death in 850. Successive kings (a total of 39 according to the inscriptions) started to expand the Khmer empire. The most notable of them are shortly mentioned hereafter.

INDRAVARMAN I (877-889) & YASOVARMAN I (889-910) – father and son
Here we have a father and son, who both have definitely set in a tradition of building. Indravarman I started a tradition of cult building: a temple mountain (Roluous – Bakong), a temple to honour the ancestors (Roluous – Preah Ko) and a huge water reservoir (Indratataka) at Roluous). His son followed with another temple (Roluous – Lolei) on an island in the barray his father built, and started another ‘barray’, the Yasodharatataka or East Barray). He also moved the capital to Yasodharapura (the current Angkor Thom), laying the foundations for the next 500 years. Finally he built his own temple mountain (Phnom Bakheng) on a natural hill to the south of the new capital, which today is still counting as one of the main attractions in Angkor.
Yasovarman I was (after some intermittent kings) followed by his brother-in-law, who kept up the building fever, although to a lesser extent. He moved the capital a bit to the north and set up Koh Ker.

His son, Rajendravarman II came back to Angkor, and built two magnificent temple-mountains (East Mebon and Pre Rup), and started building the Phimeanakas in Angkor Thom, as well as the sublime Banteay Srei. Both of these latter buildings were largely finished under his son Jayavarman V (968-1001). The temple mountain of Ta Keo is also attributed to him, although it was largely built a little bit later.

SURYAVARMAN I (1002-1049)
Although he gave the final touch to the Phimeanakas and North and South Kleang, he was not really a great builder. His origins are a bit obscure, although he claimed dynastic lineage from the south of Thailand. He’s mainly known as a great conquerer, who re-organized the government, strengthened internal security, and brought the Khmer empire to its largest territorial extensions ever.
The next 60 years were populated by a series of minor kings, who quickly followed each other.

SURYAVARMAN II (1113-1145)
He surely made his name immortal by building Angkor Wat. But he was also otherwise one of the greatest rules the Khmer empire has ever seen. He was not only internally a great ruler, but also externally, establishing good relations with (and sending several embassy missions to) China. And finally waged several wars against the Cham. Het attacked and destroyed the royal capital and defeated the king. Unfortunately, after his death, the next rulers were not of the greatest, and the Cham, seeking revenge, did use the occasion and set up a brilliant surprise attack from Tonle Sap: it all ended in the destruction of Angkor Thom, and a period of occupation by the Cham. But not for long.

JAYAVARMAN VII (1181-1210)
This king kicked back, and started probably the biggest building program in history. He bears the fame that he built more monuments, roads, bridges and rest houses than all the other kings together. It’s just incredible what he has put together, even more so in view of his age: he was 55 when he regained the throne, and kept going strong until well in his nineties. The whole of Angkor Thom was given a facelift, with some of the most eminent buildings still standing today: the Bayon, the Elephant Terrace and Terraces of the Leper King, but also Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei, Ta Som, Neak Pean and Preah Khan, to name a few. And in between he found the time to win several wars again the Cham, expanding the boundaries of the empire again from Myanmar over Laos to the Malay Peninsula and Vietnam. He was also a strong defender of Theravada Buddhism, which is one reason that so many of the still remaining buildings are devoted to Buddhism.
Alas, he was also the last king of any importance. Gradually the empire shrank under a series of natural disasters and a century later, in 1432, Angkor was deserted and the capital moved, first to Basan on the eastern side of the Mekong, and later to Phnom Penh. But Theravada Buddhism has never left the country again.


mid 8th cent.

Cambodia around 750



10th cent.

Khmer empire in the 10th century


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