The Khmers founded a great civilization centered at Angkor that lasted from the A.D. 802, when Jayavarman II declared himself king, to 1432, when the Thais sacked Angkor. For more than six centuries, the Khmer people dominated Southeast Asia, erecting thousands of lavish monuments and developing a complex system of waterways and reservoirs, known as baray, to irrigate their fields and feed their people.

At its height in A.D. 1200—at a time when Europe was still wallowing in the Dark Ages—the Khmer kingdom stretched from the Indian Ocean to the Yunnan Province in China and encompassed almost all of Southeast Asia. Angkor itself was a thriving city with possibly a million inhabitants. By comparison Paris, the largest city in Europe at that time, was home to maybe 30,000 people.

The Khmers were an agricultural people that lived primarily around waterways. They practiced a variety of agricultures including shifting cultivation, irrigated farming and intensive cultivation of dry land gardens. Much of their food came from floating rice, a variety of the grain that grows well in deep lake water and has stems that can reach a length of six meters and grow as much as 10 centimeters a day, fast enough to keep pace with the rising wet season water levels. At harvest time, the rice was collected by boats and rafts.

Javyavarman VII (reigned 1181-1219) is regarded as Angkor’s greatest ruler. He changed Angkor into a Buddhist kingdom, built Bayon temple, and established more than 100 hospitals throughout the kingdom. Jayavarman VII has been compared with Ramses the Great of ancient Egypt. Both leaders had hundreds of concubines and embarked on great building campaigns, that employed tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of laborers and slaves, but drained considerable wealth from their kingdoms. Jayavarman VII ruled until his death at the age of 93.

Names for Cambodia

The English name “Cambodia” and the French name Cambodge” are Westernized transliterations of Kambuja, a Sanskrit name used by some ancient kingdoms in the region. From 1975 to 1989 Cambodia was called Kampuchea. In 1989 it was renamed Cambodia. The name Kambuja is associated with Kambu Svayammbhuna, the legendary founder of the Khmer civilization. The Khmers often refer to themselves as “Khmae” and the country as srok Khmae . Cambodia was once called Noko Kokthlok ("County of the Island of Trees”)

Cambodia was named Democratic Kampuchea instead of Cambodia to please the Khmer Rouge, of all groups. According to historian David P. Chandler, both Cambodia and Kampuchea are derived from "Kambuja," a Sanskrit word thought to have been applied originally to a north Indian tribe. The selection of "Cambodia," therefore, was without ideological connotation. It is more recognizable to the English-speaking reader, and it adheres to the standard practice of the United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN), which also has been followed in the spelling of all place names.

In April 1989, after the cut-off date of research for this book, Prime Minister Hun Sen of the People's Republic of Kampuchea announced that the name of the country had been changed to the State of Cambodia. In recent years some provinces have been combined, renamed, and then divided again several times. The most recent case is that of Bantay Meanchey, the formation of which-- from parts of Batdambang, Siemreab-Otdar Meanchey, and Pouthisat-- was announced in late 1987 to take effect in 1988.

Short History of Cambodia

Cambodian culture is rooted in Indian culture and Buddhism and has incorporated elements from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China and Java Cambodia has been frequently pressured by its two large neighbors—Thailand and Vietnam, both of whom established protectorates over Cambodia.

According to Lonely Planet: The good, the bad and the ugly is a simple way to sum up Cambodian history. Things were good in the early years, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th century, as ascendant neighbours steadily chipped away at Cambodian territory. In the 20th century it turned downright ugly, as a brutal civil war culminated in the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975–79), from which Cambodia is still recovering. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The Khmer people were among the first in Southeast Asia to adopt religious ideas and political institutions from India and to establish centralized kingdoms encompassing large territories. The earliest known kingdom in the area, Funan, flourished from around the first to the sixth century A.D. It was succeeded by Chenla, which controlled large areas of modern Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand (known as Siam until 1939). The golden age of Khmer civilization, however, was the period from the ninth to the thirteenth century, when the kingdom of Kambuja, which gave Kampuchea, or Cambodia, its name, ruled large territories from its capital in the region of Angkor in western Cambodia. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

Under Jayavarman VII (1181-ca. 1218), Kambuja reached its zenith of political power and cultural creativity. Following Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja experienced gradual decline. Important factors were the aggressiveness of neighboring peoples (especially the Thai, or Siamese), chronic interdynastic strife, and the gradual deterioration of the complex irrigation system that had ensured rice surpluses. The Angkorian monarchy survived until 1431, when the Thai captured Angkor Thom and the Cambodian king fled to the southern part of his country. *

The fifteenth to the nineteenth century was a period of continued decline and territorial loss. Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of prosperity during the sixteenth century because its kings, who built their capitals in the region southeast of the Tonle Sap (Great Lake) along the Mekong River, promoted trade with other parts of Asia. This was the period when Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and missionaries first visited the country. But the Thai conquest of the new capital at Lovek in 1594 marked a downturn in the country's fortunes and Cambodia became a pawn in power struggles between its two increasingly powerful neighbors, Siam and Vietnam. Vietnam's settlement of the Mekong Delta led to its annexation of that area at the end of the seventeenth century. Cambodia thereby lost some of its richest territory and was cut off from the sea. Such foreign encroachments continued through the first half of the nineteenth century because Vietnam was determined to absorb Khmer land and to force the inhabitants to accept Vietnamese culture. Such imperialistic policies created in the Khmer an abiding suspicion of their eastern neighbors that flared into violent confrontation after the Khmer Rouge established its regime in 1975. *

In 1863 King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate over his kingdom. The country gradually came under French colonial domination. During World War II, the Japanese allowed the French government (based at Vichy) that collaborated with the Nazis the Vichy French to continue administering Cambodia and the other Indochinese territories, but they also fostered Khmer nationalism. Cambodia enjoyed a brief period of independence in 1945 before Allied troops restored French control.


Angkor (near Siem Reap, 145 miles from Phnom Penh) was the capital of the Khmer Empire, a Hindu-Buddhist civilization that encompassed all of present-day Cambodia, and much of Southeast Asia. Situated on a flat plain in northwestern Cambodia, it was one of the largest cities in the world in the 11th and 12th centuries. "Angkor" means "capital" in Khmer. It is derived from nagara , a Sanskrit word that originally referred to a particular time and place in Angkor history.

There are 292 temples in the Angkor complex, a fifth of those surviving in Cambodia from the Khmer civilization. Among these are 72 major temples and monuments, and 220 minor ones, of which 30 have been cleared from the jungle and can be visited. By one count the entire complex contains 700 large and small temples and shrines. Constructed from brick and hand-carved sandstone, the temples are scattered over a central 30-square-mile urban area (twice the size of Manhattan) and a 155-square-mile metropolitan area.

Angkor Wat is one temple within Angkor. Other major temples that are open to visitors include Bayon, Angor Thom and Ta Prohm. Some of the temples still covered by jungle have only recently been discovered with the help of photographs taken from space. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “From the air, the centuries-old temple appears and vanishes like a hallucination. At first it is no more than an umber smudge in the forest canopy of northern Cambodia. Beneath us sprawls the lost city of Angkor, now in ruins and populated mostly by peasant rice farmers. Clusters of Khmer homes, perched on spindly stilts to cope with flooding during the summer monsoon, dot the landscape from the Tonle Sap, the "great lake" of Southeast Asia, some 20 miles to the south, to the Kulen Hills, a ridge jutting from the floodplain a roughly equal distance to the north. More than a thousand shrines the Khmer erected in the city of Angkor during a building spree whose scale and ambition rivals the pyramids of Egypt. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

At its peak Angkor was among the world’s most populated cities, with 750,000 residents. It sprawled across an area the size of New York City's five boroughs, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world. In 1431 it was abandoned to Buddhist monks after a final sacking by Siamese invaders. In the 1990s temples of Angkor were rediscovered after a quarter-century of closure by war and Khmer Rouge rule. They now draw more than a million foreign visitors a year. During the peak hours of the peak, according to the Washington Post, human traffic jams can form at temple steps once reserved for kings and priests.

According to UNESCO: Angkor “extends over approximately 400 square kilometers and consists of scores of temples, hydraulic structures (basins, dykes, reservoirs, canals) as well as communication routes. For several centuries Angkor, was the center of the Khmer Kingdom. With impressive monuments, several different ancient urban plans and large water reservoirs, the site is a unique concentration of features testifying to an exceptional civilization. Temples such as Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, exemplars of Khmer architecture, are closely linked to their geographical context as well as being imbued with symbolic significance. The architecture and layout of the successive capitals bear witness to a high level of social order and ranking within the Khmer Empire. Angkor is therefore a major site exemplifying cultural, religious and symbolic values, as well as containing high architectural, archaeological and artistic significance.[Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

Angkorian Period

The Angkorian period lasted from the early ninth century to the early fifteenth century A.D. In terms of cultural accomplishments and political power, this was the golden age of Khmer civilization. The great temple cities of the Angkorian region, located near the modern town of Siemreab, are a lasting monument to the greatness of Jayavarman II's successors. (Even the Khmer Rouge, who looked on most of their country's past history and traditions with hostility, adopted a stylized Angkorian temple for the flag of Democratic Kampuchea. A similar motif is found in the flag of the PRK). The kingdom founded by Jayavarman II also gave modern-day Cambodia, or Kampuchea, its name. During the early ninth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, it was known as Kambuja, originally the name of an early north Indian state, from which the current forms of the name have been derived. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

At its greatest extent, in the 12th century, the Khmer kingdom encompassed (in addition to present-day Cambodia) parts of present-day Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the Malay Peninsula. Thailand and Laos still contain Khmer ruins and inscriptions. The kings at Angkor received tribute from smaller kingdoms to the north, east, and west, and conducted trade with China. The capital city was the center of an impressive network of reservoirs and canals, which historians theorize supplied water for irrigation. Many historians believe that the abundant harvests made possible by irrigation supported a large population whose labor could be drawn on to construct the kings' temples and to fight their wars. The massive temples, extensive roads and waterworks, and confident inscriptions give an illusion of stability that is undermined by the fact that many Khmer kings gained the throne by conquering their predecessors. Inscriptions indicate that the kingdom frequently suffered from rebellions and foreign invasions. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Origins of the Angkor Empire

The civilisation of Angkor had its origins in the prehistoric Iron Age. Even from the beginning of the period of its glory, state centralism was concentrated in the region of Angkor, near the Tonle Sap or Great Lake. Angkor, the then capital, bears marks of long-lasting constant urban renewal. It controlled the provinces through a network of shrines, both state and family temples. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

Traditionally, the history of Angkor begins in the 9th century, when King Jayavarman II (790–835) declared himself a devaraja or a god-king, after, as stated in an inscription, he returned from “Java”. The term “Java” has often been interpreted as referring to the distant island of Java, but another solution has recently been suggested. It is possible that the place of his stay was the Champa kingdom nearby, in the coastal area of present-day Vietnam. ~

Jayavarman II established his capital first near the present-day Roluos, and later in the Kulen Mountains, both in the vicinity of Angkor. From this period onward the Khmer kings started to construct state temples. The form of a temple was initially a raised pyramid, a kind of artificial mountain, on which a linga, the phallic symbol of Shiva’s creative power, was placed. The king identified himself with Shiva and thus the linga became the focal point of the whole state. As was customary in India and Southeast Asia in general, the Khmer temples also represent Mount Meru in their symbolism, thus reflecting the ideas of Indian cosmology. ~

Rise of the Angkor Empire

In the early 9th century a Khmer (ethnic Cambodian) prince returned to Cambodia from abroad. He probably arrived from nearby Java or Sumatra, where he may have been held hostage by island kings who had asserted control over portions of the Southeast Asian mainland. In a series of ceremonies at different sites, the prince declared himself ruler of a new independent kingdom, which unified several local principalities. His kingdom eventually came to be centered near present-day Siemreab in northwestern Cambodia. The prince, known to his successors as Jayavarman II, inaugurated a cult honoring the Hindu god Shiva as a devaraja (Sanskrit term meaning "god-king"). The cult, which legitimized the king's rule by linking him with Shiva, persisted at the Cambodian court for more than two hundred years. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

According to Lonely Planet: “A popular place of pilgrimage for Khmers today, the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen, to the northeast of Angkor, is home to an inscription that tells of Jayavarman II (r 802–50) proclaiming himself a ‘universal monarch’, or devaraja (god-king) in 802. It is believed that he may have resided in the Buddhist Shailendras’ court in Java as a young man. Upon his return to Cambodia he instigated an uprising against Javanese control over the southern lands of Cambodia. Jayavarman II then set out to bring the country under his control through alliances and conquests, the first monarch to rule most of what we call Cambodia today. [Source: Lonely Planet**]

“Jayavarman II was the first of a long succession of kings who presided over the rise and fall of the greatest empire mainland Southeast Asia has ever seen, one that was to bequeath the stunning legacy of Angkor. The key to the meteoric rise of Angkor was a mastery of water and an elaborate hydraulic system that allowed the ancient Khmers to tame the elements. The first records of the massive irrigation works that supported the population of Angkor date to the reign of Indravarman I (r 877–89) who built the baray (reservoir) of Indratataka. His rule also marks the flourishing of Angkorian art, with the building of temples in the Roluos area, notably Bakong.”**

Angkor-Khmer God-Kings and Their Court

Between the early 9th century and the early 15th century, 26 monarchs ruled successively over the Khmer kingdom (known as Angkor, the modern name for its capital city). The successors of Jayavarman II built the great temples for which Angkor is famous. Historians have dated more than a thousand temple sites and over a thousand stone inscriptions (most of them on temple walls) to this era.

Ordinary Khmers feared their kings, regarded them as their protectors and worshiped them as gods. Each Khmer king inaugurated his reign by building a new temple and installing the devaraja cult (See Below). He was expected to bring prosperity to the kingdom and pass that prosperity on to his ancestors and his descendants. His power was unquestioned and complete.

The Khmer kings lived quite well. The Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor in 1296, wrote that Jayavarman VIII had five wives and several thousand concubines and palace girls. When he appeared in public he rode on an elephant with golden tusks and wore strings of pearls, diamond and gold bracelets and rings, and a robe with patterns reserved for royalty. He was escorted by elephant-mounted soldiers, ministers and princes. All common people that saw him were expected to bow and touch their foreheads to the ground.

The kings were also military leaders, Bas-reliefs at Bayon depict kings on battle elephants and in war canoes, accompanied by horse-mounted warriors, flanked by musicians; elephant-mounted commanders, identified by umbrellas; and soldiers in exotic headdresses, armed with javelins and supplied by ox carts filled food and weaponry.

Battle Elephants

Elephants served as armor in ancient battles in Asia. Some regard them as the prototype of tanks. To the sound of drums, warrior with spears advanced on the backs of the elephants while soldiers with swords guarded the animals legs. War elephants sometimes wore heavy armor. They could be force in fighting and take out large numbers of enemy troops by simply crushing them under their feet but they also could become unmanageable if wounded.

There were many military purposes for which elephants could be used. In battle, war elephants were usually deployed in the centre of the line, where they could be useful to prevent a charge or to conduct one of their own. Their sheer size and their terrifying appearance made them valued heavy cavalry. Off the battlefield, they could carry heavy materiel and provided a useful means of transport. [Source: Wikipedia]

An elephant charge could reach about 30 km/h (20 mph), and unlike horse cavalry, could not be easily stopped by an infantry line setting spears. Such a charge was based on pure force: elephants crashing into an enemy line, trampling and swinging their tusks. Those men who were not crushed were at least knocked aside or forced back. Moreover, elephants could inspire terror in an enemy unused to fighting them - even the very disciplined Romans - and could cause the enemy to break and flee. Horses unaccustomed to the smell of elephants also panicked easily. The elephants' thick hide gave them considerable protection, while their height and mass offered considerable protection for their riders. Many generals preferred to base themselves atop elephants so as to get a better view of the battlefield. [Ibid]

In addition to charging, the elephants could provide a safe and stable platform for archers to fire arrows in the middle of the battlefield, from which more targets could be seen and engaged. The archery evolved into more advanced weapons, and several Khmer and Indian kings used giant crossbow platforms (similar to the ballista) to fire long armor-piercing shafts to kill other enemy war elephants and cavalry. The late 16th century AD also saw the use of culverin and jingals on elephants, an adaptation to the gunpowder age that ultimately drove elephants from the battlefield. [Ibid]

In Asia large numbers of men were carried, with the senior commander either utilising the howdah or leading from his seat on the elephant's neck. The driver, called a mahout, was responsible for controlling the animal. In many armies, the mahout also carried a chisel-blade and a hammer to cut through the spinal cord and kill the animal if the elephant went berserk.

Elephants were further enhanced with their own weaponry and armour. In India and Sri Lanka, heavy iron chains with steel balls at the end were tied to the trunks of war elephants, which the animals were trained to swirl menacingly and with great skill. Numerous cultures designed elephant Armour, aiming to protect the body and legs of the animal while leaving his trunk free to attack the enemy. Larger animals could also carry a protective tower on their backs, called a howdah. [Ibid]

War elephants had tactical weaknesses, however, that enemy forces often learnt to exploit. Elephants had a tendency to panic themselves: after sustaining painful wounds or when their driver was killed they would run amok, indiscriminately causing casualties as they sought escape. Their panicked retreat could inflict heavy losses on either side. One famous historical method for disrupting elephant units was the war pig. Ancient writers believed that "elephants are scared by the smallest squeal of a pig", and the vulnerability was exploited. At the Megara siege during the Diadochi wars, for example, the Megarians reportedly poured oil on a herd of pigs, set them alight, and drove them towards the enemy's massed war elephants. The elephants bolted in terror from the flaming squealing pigs. [Ibid]

Angkor-Khmer Religion and the Devaraja “God King” Cult

Initially, the Khmers were Hindus. Angkor Wat originally was the center of royal phallic cult dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. A linga (the phallic symbol of Shiva) was installed in the temple’s main sanctuary. Later Vishnu became the most important Hindu god and his image was placed in the sanctuary at Angkor Wat. Under Jayavarman VII the Khmer converted to Mahayana Buddhism. Later, Theravada Buddhism was introduced by the Thais. It became dominate after the Khmer empire collapsed.

Devaraja , meaning “God King” or literally “the Lord of the Universe Who is King,” refers to the cult associated with the rulers of Angkor, who were regarded as a earthly representations of deities, capable of performing the same kind of role on earth that the gods performed in the heavens. Through a consecration rite, the kings were endowed with divine power and given the responsibility to protect the state and the people.

Devaraja was linked with Hinduism and has its root in an ancient Indian royal cults based on the concept that a king and one of the Hindu gods, usually Shiva or Vishnu, were spiritually linked. At Angkor, the devaraja cult was used like pharaoh worship in ancient Egypt to help justify the state and put the population to work to build monuments and maintain the state.

In Khmer Cambodia and in Java, the devaraja (god-king) cult embodied the belief that the living king transmitted divine will through his relationship with a particular god, and that the deity’s images in the temple constructed by the king symbolized the god’s approval of the king’s divine right to rule. The devaraja cult was appropriated from India. Hindu rulers turned to Shiva or Vishnu as their patron deity. Buddhist kings derived their authority not from Buddha, who had renounced his worldly position, but from bod- hisattvas, who were still of this world and possessed extraordinary powers. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

In keeping with these beliefs, occasionally representations of the monarch were made in the image of the god, often complete with the attributes of a deity. Many of the greatest Khmer temple-mountains were centered on a funerary shrine—the inner core of Angkor Wat, for instance— in which such statues were placed.

Along with the cosmic and spiritual truths embodied in the temple’s architectural form, extensive narrative reliefs on temple walls performed on educational role by instructing worshippers in both religious and histor- ical events. For instance, as the pilgrim ascends the galleries at Borobudur, circling each level before climbing to the next, he or she is inspired by depictions of the Buddha’s life and the compassion of bodhisattvas.

Angkor- Khmer Life and Society

Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “An intriguing firsthand account brings the city to life at its zenith. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat, spent nearly a year in the capital at the end of the 13th century. He lived modestly as a guest of a middle-class family who ate rice using coconut-husk spoons and drank wine made from honey, leaves, or rice. He described a gruesome practice, abandoned not long before his visit, that involved collecting human gall from living donors as a tonic for courage. Religious festivals featured fireworks and boar fighting. The greatest spectacles occurred when the king ventured out among his subjects. Royal processions included elephants and horses decorated with gold, and hundreds of palace women bedecked in flowers. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

The ancient Khmers were not so different from modern Khmers. They spoke the same language, looked similar and followed many of the same traditions. Women held relatively high positions in Khmer society. They served in the government and were influential in economic life. The hereditary lineage of a ruler and inheritance of property was passed down through the female line.

Angkorian society was strictly hierarchical. The king, regarded as divine, owned both the land and his subjects. Immediately below the monarch and the royal family were the Brahman priesthood and a small class of officials, who numbered about 4,000 in the tenth century. Next were the commoners, who were burdened with heavy corvée (forced labor) duties. There was also a large slave class that, like the nameless multitudes of ancient Egypt, built the enduring monuments. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Zhou described Angkor as a city filled with gilded statues, towers, thatched roof homes for ordinary people and tile-roofed palaces for the rich. Monks wore saffron robes and had shaved heads (as they do today); soldiers carried lances and shields; and both men and women went topless and wore their hair long and tied in a knot. The Chinese envoy also described female merchants, lepers, criminals with their hands and noses cut off as punishments, and nobles carried on gold, silver and silk palanquins.

According to Zhou slavery was common and rich families had up to 1,000 slaves. He also described huge parades with clusters of ceremonial umbrellas with gold handles reserved for the highest ranks; and wrote that husbands of adulterous wives were allowed to torture their wive’s lovers with a special devise that squeezed their feet, until the pain was so unbearable they turned over all their property to the husband.

Bas-reliefs at Bayon depict fortunetellers, hospitals, taverns, beauty parlors, women giving birth, men fishing in Tonle Sap, bookies taking bets on a cockfight, monks trying to remove the sarong of a young girl, and a man pulling out his whiskers with tweezers. There are also images of wild boar fights, jugglers, wrestlers, chess players, bow hunters and princesses surrounded by suitors. One scenes shows three smiling Cambodian women cheating three Chinese by secretly adding weight to the scales with their fingers. Another shows a holy man escaping from a tiger by climbing a tree.

Khmer parades featured in the bas-reliefs showed caparisoned elephant, chariots and flag bearers. The Khmers held rain-inducing ceremonies in which elephants sucked water from a cistern and sprayed everybody, symbolizing rain. Their traditional form of cremation was referred to as “turning the corpse.” Chinese travelers both admired the Khmers and looked down on them They described their dark skin with disgust and were shocked by women who urinated while standing up.

Angkor-Khmer Culture and Dance

The Khmers kept vast libraries but most of the writing was done on animal skins and palm leaves and disappeared with time.

Dance was very important to the Khmers. Most dances in the Angkor era were temple dances, performed by huge ensembles of female dancers, linked to a temple. The royal court of King Jayavarman VII employed 600 dancers. The content of these dances is not known but images in the temples of dancing apsara (celestial nymphs) indicate they were strongly influenced by traditional Hindu dancing.

Some of the dance movements depicted in bas-reliefs are quite extreme and hard to do. These include the second position plie ; flexing fingers backwards towards the wrists; and diagonally tilting the pelvis with one foot against the opposite thigh. Dance costumes included shoulder decorations, bracelets, wristlets, anklets, floral garlands, hip-girdles, earrings and elaborate headdresses.

Angkor Art, See Separate Article

Angkor-Khmer Buildings

Carvings show that everyday Angkorian buildings were wooden structures not much different from those found in Cambodia today. The impressive stone buildings were not used as residences by members of the royal family. Rather, they were the focus of Hindu or Buddhist cults that celebrated the divinity, or buddhahood, of the monarch and his family. Coedès suggests that they had the dual function of both temple and tomb. Typically, their dimensions reflected the structure of the Hindu mythological universe. For example, five towers at the center of the Angkor Wat complex represent the peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe; an outer wall represents the mountains that ring the world's edge; and a moat depicts the cosmic ocean. Like many other ancient edifices, the monuments of the Angkorian region absorbed vast reserves of resources and human labor and their purpose remains shrouded in mystery. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The basic structures of a typical Khmer-era temple (from top to bottom): 1) lotus bulb finial; 2) diminishing tiers; 3) mutiple pediments on axial; 4) lintel; 5) axial entrance; 6) raised platform foundations.

It has been estimated that 50,000 people, including artisans and slaves worked on Angkor Wat during the 37 years it took to build it.

Angkor Temples

Rather than expanding temples built by their predecessors, the Khmer kings consecrated their rule by building new temples—with its own moats, irrigation systems, causeways, gates and carved sandstone towers—in scattered areas, where separate mini-cities grew up around them. That is why there are so many incredible monuments in the Angkor area.

Hundreds of architects and engineers were hired to design the temples. Some were dedicated to Buddha. Some were dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu or Shiva. Others were built as shrines to the Angkor god-king that commissioned them. Some like Angkor Wat were all of the above. For the most part the temples were viewed as sanctuaries of the gods and only members of the royal family and perhaps some monks or priests were allowed to enter them.

The sandstone used to build the monuments was transported from faraway quarries by canal barges, oxcarts and elephants. After the stones were cut and fit together they were decorated with bas-reliefs and free-standing statues. Many were once painted with bright colors and decorated with gold leaf. The stone building were once surrounded by wooden houses, where ordinary people lived, but these all disappeared with time.

Angkor Architecture

The architecture of Angkor was influenced by architecture in India and other kingdoms in Southeast Asia, but also contains some unique elements such as those associated with the Khmer king and his cosmology and divinity.

Many Khmer temples were built as microcosms of Hindu cosmology with a central tower or towers representing Mt. Meru, , the center of the Hindu universe and the home of the Hindu gods. The sanctuary walls defined the limits of the universe. Some features that appear to have been built for military purposes were in fact built for symbolic and religious reasons. The water-filled moats, for example, that surround the temples represent the oceans around the Hindu universe.

Most temples were built facing east towards the rising sun which was regarded as auspicious, with the main gate on the east side. The west was considered inauspicious and associated with death. The north was linked with elephants, which are valued because of their strength. The south was neutral. An effort was made to make sure all the structures were balanced and in harmony as is the case with the Hindu and Buddhist universes. Angkor Wat was built facing west, perhaps in honor of the Hindu god Vishnu, preserver of all things.

The decorative motifs and sculptures are similar to those found in India. Some early buildings contains elements found in the architecture of ancient Indonesia. Some of the later ones contain Chinese characteristics such as glazed tiles and Chinese-style motifs in the reliefs.

The architectural technology is less sophisticated than that of the Romans. The rooms are small, ceilings are low, and some of the designs for stone structures is based on wooden structures. Many buildings are made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone placed on top of porous slabs of laterite—a spongy, iron-laden soil that hardens when exposed to air— and fitted together rather than anchored with concrete. But, somehow, using these basic techniques and materials, the Khmers were able to create structures of extraordinary beauty, harmony and complexity.

Sandstone was the preferred material for walls with reliefs because it is relatively easy to carve. The sandstone blocks used at Angkor were quarried about 40 kilometers away and transported by raft to Angkor when Tonle Sap reversed its direction and flowed towards Angkor. The laterite used for foundations is found in abundance in the Cambodian soil. Known for its durability, it is a red rock that is soft when it is underground, because of its high water content, but becomes hard when exposed to sunlight. In most cases it was cut while still in the ground and removed in the form of blocks that were left to dry on the sun.

Elements of Angkor Architecture


Elements of Angkor Architecture: 1) the corbel arch is a primitive construction method that was used only by the Khmers. It is made by placing blocks on top of one another until they come together. The disadvantage of this method is it creates arches that are tall and narrow and accommodate little space underneath them. 2) False doors are another common Khmer feature. They are sometimes found with real doors at the main sanctuaries of temples, and are often beautifully decorated and carved. 3) Khmer pediments (triangular upper portions of a wall) are often intricately decorated with pictorial scenes.

Other common Angkor architectural elements included: 4) rectangular and lotus-shaped pillars (free-standing supports); 5) rectangular pilasters (columns that project slightly from a wall); 6) decorated lintels (slabs that supports the weight above a door) and tympanums (triangular spaces above lintels enclosing the moldings of the pediments); and 7) windows with balusters. Often the windows have laterite blocks placed at the top and five to seven wood- or bamboo-like balusters on the lower half.

Khmer central towers are almost always facing towards the east. Their conical shape is formed by a series of stepped tiers that come together to form a rounded point at the top The interior is usually relatively plain, with the exterior being more highly decorated. The focus of a temple is the sanctuary, which sits on elevated platform below the central tower. Elaborate temples have a central tower surrounded by other towers. These towers represent the peaks of Mount Meru and were often adorned with stucco or carved sandstone decorations.

As the temples became more complex, hallways and galleries were built off the sanctuaries. They were usually set on platforms, with stairways connecting different levels. Later, separate buildings were added for meditation halls, “libraries” and other purposes, and elaborate porches, sanctuary walls, gates and causeways across moats were built. Gallery walls were often decorated with carved reliefs. The so-called libraries were generally storage rooms for sacred objects.

Angkor-Khmer Infrastructure

Surrounding the temples at Angkor is a sophisticated waterworks system, that still functions to some degree today, consisting of numerous canals, dams and rectangular reservoirs called barays . In a monsoon climate, where the rainy season sometimes brings too much water and the dry season doesn't bring any at all, control over water is the key to wealth and even survival.

The waterworks system was very advanced The canals and reservoirs directed and collected wet season runoff water to prevent flooding; stored the water during the dry season; and channeled it into an irrigation system capable of producing two or three crops a year. Canals were used to haul stones used in the construction of temples. The two largest reservoirs held over two billion gallons of water. To build and maintain such water system required central planning and lots of physical labor mobilized through the power of a god king.

The major temples were surrounded by huge moats. Some scholars believe that some of the moats served as reflecting pools to amplify the beauty of the temples. Others say they were primarily symbols of the cosmos. Water in the moats symbolically separated the outer world from the sacred precincts of the temples inside them. Recent surveys indicate the water may have been more decorative and symbolic that practical. It seems that relatively few canals ran out of the moats, implying that there were involved less in irrigation than previously thought.

Rice surpluses produced by irrigation and floating rice freed labor to devote its attention to art and religion and made it possible for the Khmers to build a large standing army and support an opulent culture with court ministers, priests, bureaucrats, and artisans. But the intensive labor required to maintain both the agricultural and irrigation systems also demanded much from the empire’s work force, and may have proved intolerable over time and led to the Khmer civilization’s collapse.

In his book "Challenging the Mystery of the Angkor Empire: Realizing the Mission of Sophia University in the Asian World, Yoshiaki Ishizawa, former president of Sophia University, says he has answered some longstanding questions about the Angkor civilization. Ishizawa, who has studied and worked to preserve Angkor monuments for more than 50 years, found that temples and roads related to the Angkor Empire had spread over the Indochinese Peninsula by reading inscriptions written in Sanskrit and old Khmer, which were discovered in the Angkor monuments. He concluded this huge network of trade and logistics must have supported and nurtured the once-great civilization. According to Ishizawa, the empire's throne was traditionally seized by force, not inherited through bloodline succession. Ishizawa explained the discarded statues were evidence of political conflicts in which a king displayed his new power, and that the empire continued to flourish until its fall. Hiromi Kanekita, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 26, 2012]

Angkor and Water

Another significant element of the Angkor complex is the irrigation system of the region based on the great reservoirs, which provided the economic infrastructure for the successive Khmer capitals and their rulers. Spillways from sloping dams used in the system may extended as long as a football field. Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “By harnessing the monsoon tide that gushed from the Kulen Hills, Angkor and its rulers flourished. From the era of Jayavarman II, who laid the kingdom's foundations in the early 800s, the empire's growth depended on bumper rice harvests. Throughout southern Asia, perhaps only the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and their famed reservoirs could compare to Angkor's ability to guarantee a steady water supply. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“That reliability required massive feats of engineering, including a reservoir called the West Baray that's five miles long and 1.5 miles wide. To build this third and most sophisticated of Angkor's large reservoirs a thousand years ago, as many as 200,000 Khmer workers may have been needed to pile up nearly 16 million cubic yards of soil in embankments 300 feet wide and three stories tall. To this day the rectangular reservoir, or baray, is fed by water diverted from the Siem Reap River.

“The first scholar to appreciate the scale of Angkor's waterworks was Bernard-Philippe Groslier, an archaeologist with the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO). In a landmark 1979 treatise, he envisioned Angkor as a "hydraulic city." The great barays, he argued, served two purposes: to symbolize the primeval sea of Hindu cosmogony and to irrigate rice fields. Unfortunately, Groslier could not pursue this concept further. Cambodia's civil war, the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, and the ouster of the regime by Vietnamese forces in 1979 turned Angkor into a no-go zone for two decades. After Vietnamese troops withdrew, looters descended on Angkor, swiping statues and even chiseling off bas-reliefs.

“When Christophe Pottier, an architect and archaeologist, reopened EFEO's research station at Angkor in 1992, the first priority was helping Cambodia restore dilapidated and pillaged temples. But Pottier was drawn to the wilderness beyond the temple walls. He spent months crisscrossing the southern half of Greater Angkor on motorbike and foot, mapping once hidden house mounds and shrines near artificial ponds called water tanks. (Lingering lawlessness deterred Pottier from surveying the northern half.) Then, in 2000, Fletcher and his colleague Damian Evans laid hands on NASA radar images of Angkor. They were a revelation: The University of Sydney team, working with EFEO and APSARA, the Cambodian agency that manages Angkor, found vestiges of many more settlements, canals, and water tanks, particularly in Angkor's inaccessible areas. Donald Cooney's ultralight flights have helped Fletcher and Pottier, now a co-director of the Greater Angkor Project, examine these features in finer detail. Crucially, they found inlets and outlets to the barays, ending a debate catalyzed by Groslier's work about whether the colossal reservoirs were used solely for religious rituals or for irrigation. The clear answer is both.

“The researchers were amazed by the ambition of Angkor's engineers. "We realized that the entire landscape of Greater Angkor is artificial," Fletcher says. Over several centuries, teams of laborers constructed hundreds of miles of canals and dikes that relied on subtle differences in the land's natural inclination to divert water from the Puok, Roluos, and Siem Reap Rivers to the barays. During the summer monsoon months, overflow channels bled off excess water. After the rains petered out in October or November, irrigation channels dispensed stored water. The barays may also have helped replenish soil moisture by allowing water to soak into the earth. In surrounding fields surface evaporation would have drawn up the groundwater to supply crops. "It was an incredibly clever system," says Fletcher.

“That clever water system may have made the difference between mediocrity and greatness. Much of the kingdom's rice was grown in embanked fields that would otherwise have relied on monsoon rains or the seasonal ebb and flow of water on the Tonle Sap floodplain. Irrigation would have boosted harvests. The system could also have provided survival rations during a poor monsoon season, says Fletcher. And the ability to divert and impound water would have afforded a measure of protection from floods. When other kingdoms in Southeast Asia were struggling to cope with too little or too much water, he says, Angkor's waterworks would have been "a profoundly valuable strategic asset."

Khmer Agriculture, Fishing and Economic Activities

The Khmer were an agricultural people that lived primarily around waterways. They practiced a variety of agricultures including shifting cultivation, irrigated farming and intensive cultivation of dry land gardens. They relied n Tonle Sap for fish and rice.

Much of their food came from floating rice, the earliest know form of Khmer agriculture. Floating rice grows very fast in deep water. It stems can reach a length of six meters and grow as much as 10 centimeters a day. The food bearing parts of the plant lie near the surface because the water rises about the same rate the rice grows. At harvest time, the rice is collected by boats and rafts.

Khmer trading routes extended into China. Well maintained roads spread out from Angkor like the spokes of a wheel. Goods wee moved mostly in ox carts.

Fishing and Agriculture and Tonle Sap

The Khmers fished in Tonle Sap. There are 300 species of fish living in Tonle Sap. These include black fish that breed and spawn when the lake is full and stick round when the lake empties, living in ponds, and sometimes in hollows of unique underwater plants. Migratory whitefish, mostly catfish, enter the lake during the wet season and migrate to the sea or the upper reaches of the Mekong River to spawn. They are caught in great numbers as they enter and leave the lake.

The months of flooding encourages the growth of huge fish stocks and other aquatic life, that become extremely easy to catch once the waters begin to reside. Fishing families string nets and bamboo traps across the lake's mouth and the numerous fish can almost be plucked from the water. The Tonle Sap Lake's level drops so fast that it out catches many of its inhabitants, and its not unlikely to see fisherman picking their catch from the trees.

When the Tonle Sap fills with water it also fills with quick-spawning and -growing fish. During the height of the dry season Tonle Sap becomes one of the easiest lakes in the world to catch fish in, as all the fish that grew and spawned in the wet season get squeezed into shallow pools from the drained lake. The fish are then trapped in bamboo weirs and nets that are strung across channels.

The mud banks created by the flooding of the Tonle Sap are extremely fertile, and local rice farmers have developed a deepwater rice that is unique to this area. Water from the Tonle Sap also provides rice farmers with water for irrigation. The fresh layers of silt deposited after each flood serves as an ideal fertilizer. The abundance provided by Tonle Sap, some historians have theorized, is one reason why the Angkor civilization was so great and was able to sustain itself for so long.

Decline of the Angkor-Khmer Empire

During the Angkor period a number of kingdoms rose to power and challenged the Khmer Empire. These included 1) the Chams and Ammanese in Vietnam; 2) Pegu and Pagan in Burma; 3) the Thai (Siamese) kingdoms in Ayutthaya, Sukhothat and Lan Na; and 4) the Indonesia kingdoms of Sailendras and Srivijaya.

According to to Lonely Planet: “ Angkor was losing control over the peripheries of its empire. At the same time, the Thais were ascendant, having migrated south from Yunnan to escape Kublai Khan and his Mongol hordes. The Thais, first from Sukothai, later Ayuthaya, grew in strength and made repeated incursions into Angkor before finally sacking the city in 1431 and making off with thousands of intellectuals, artisans and dancers from the royal court.

Angkor’s central location in Southeast Asia was an advantage from a trade and administrative point of view but a curse from a military perspective. Being located in the middle of so many kingdoms and empires meant that it could be attacked from all sides, sometimes simultaneously. In the 10th century, the China-supported Nam-Vet kingdom of Amman emerged in Vietnam and began nibbling away at the Khmer empire from the east while the Thais began moving down from the north.

After Jayavarman VII's death, Kambuja entered a long period of decline that led to its eventual disintegration. The Thai were a growing menace on the empire's western borders. The spread of Theravada Buddhism, which came to Kambuja from Sri Lanka by way of the Mon kingdoms, challenged the royal Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist cults. Preaching austerity and the salvation of the individual through his or own her efforts, Theravada Buddhism did not lend doctrinal support to a society ruled by an opulent royal establishment maintained through the virtual slavery of the masses. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, ““Bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war. In one bas-relief, spear-bearing warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Champa are packed stem to stern in a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. The scene is immortalized in stone, of course, because the Khmer were successful in battle. Although Angkor won that clash, the city was riven by rivalry, which heightened its vulnerability to attacks from Champa to the east and the formidable kingdom of Ayutthaya to the west. Khmer kings had several wives, which blurred the line of succession and resulted in constant intrigue as princes vied for power. "For centuries, it was like the Wars of the Roses. The Khmer state was often unstable," says Roland Fletcher, an archaeologist at the University of Sydney and co-director of a research effort called the Greater Angkor Project. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

Collapse of the Angkor-Khmer Empire

Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Angkor is the scene of one of the greatest vanishing acts of all time. By the late 16th century, when Portuguese missionaries came upon the lotus-shaped towers of Angkor Wat—the most elaborate of the city's temples and the world's largest religious monument—the once resplendent capital of the empire was in its death throes. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

After Jayavarman VII, the Khmer empire was weakened by repeated attacks by the Thais to the north. The Thais launched a major attacked in 1353 and sacked Angkor. The Khmers eventually recaptured it but fighting continued for almost a century with the Thais looting the capital several times and capturing Angkor for good in 1431. During the same period, Khmer territory north of the present Laotian border was lost to the Lao kingdom of Lan Xang. In 1431 the Thai captured Angkor Thom. Thereafter, the Angkorian region did not again encompass a royal capital, except for a brief period in the third quarter of the sixteenth century. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

The Khmers moved their capital to a new location: Phnom Penh, which had easier access to the Mekong River. The court returned to Angkor briefly in the 16th century and again intermittently in the 17th century but Angkor never regained its former glory. Even after court left, Buddhist monks used the temples as monasteries and cleared away vegetation and performed a degree of maintenance.

Reasons for the Decline and Collapse of the Angkor-Khmer Empire

Historians have not been able to fully explain the decline of the Khmer kingdom in the 13th and 14th centuries. However, it was probably associated with the rise of powerful Thai kingdoms that had once paid tribute to Angkor, and to population losses following a series of wars with these kingdoms. Another factor may have been the introduction of Theravada Buddhism, which taught that anyone could achieve enlightenment through meritorious conduct and meditation. These egalitarian ideas undermined the hierarchical structure of Cambodian society and the power of prominent Hindu families. After a Thai invasion in 1431, what remained of the Cambodian elite shifted southeastward to the vicinity of Phnom Penh. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Among the many factors that may have contributed to the decline of the Khmer-Angkor civilization were wars with the Thais; the high of cost of building grandiose temples and maintaining water schemes; the loss of manpower to the wars; a breakdown in internal security; a breakdown of a labor intensive economy, caused by unhappy workers leaving their jobs; and the rise of Theravada Buddhism, which undermined the power structure of the Khmer court and the belief in a god-king.

According to Lonely Planet: “A number of scholars have argued that decline was already on the horizon at the time Angkor Wat was built, when the Angkorian empire was at the height of its remarkable productivity. There are indications that the irrigation network was overworked and slowly starting to silt up due to the massive deforestation that had taken place in the heavily populated areas to the north and east of Angkor. Massive construction projects such as Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom no doubt put an enormous strain on the royal coffers and on thousands of slaves and common people who subsidised them in hard labour and taxes. Following the reign of Jayavarman VII, temple construction effectively ground to a halt, in large part because Jayavarman VII’s public works quarried local sandstone into oblivion and had left the population exhausted. Another challenge for the later kings was religious conflict and internecine rivalries. The state religion changed back and forth several times during the twilight years of the empire, and kings spent more time engaged in iconoclasm, defacing the temples of their predecessors, than building monuments to their own achievements. From time to time this boiled over into civil war. [Source: Lonely Planet**]

Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, ““Scholars have come up with a long list of suspected causes, including rapacious invaders, a religious change of heart, and a shift to maritime trade that condemned an inland city. It's mostly guesswork: Roughly 1,300 inscriptions survive on temple doorjambs and freestanding stelae, but the people of Angkor left not a single word explaining their kingdom's collapse.” French researchers long maintained the Angkor empire perished due to fatigue from continuous constructions of temples. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“Recent excavations, not of the temples but of the infrastructure that made the vast city possible, are converging on a new answer. Angkor, it appears, was doomed by the very ingenuity that transformed a collection of minor fiefdoms into an empire. The civilization learned how to tame Southeast Asia's seasonal deluges, then faded as its control of water, the most vital of resources, slipped away.

“Some scholars believe that Angkor died the way it lived: by the sword. The annals of Ayutthaya state that warriors from that kingdom "took" Angkor in 1431. No doubt the prosperous Khmer city would have been a rich prize: Inscriptions boast that its temple towers were clad in gold, as Zhou's breathless account confirms. To reconcile tales of Angkor's wealth with the dilapidated ruins encountered by Western travelers, French historians a century ago concluded from the tantalizing allusion that Ayutthaya sacked Angkor.

“Fletcher, who says his obsession is to "figure out what makes settlements grow and die," is dubious. Some early scholars, he says, viewed Angkor through the lens of the sieges and conquests of European history. "The ruler of Ayutthaya, indeed, says he took Angkor, and he may have taken some formal regalia back to Ayutthaya with him," says Fletcher. But after Angkor was captured, Ayutthaya's ruler installed his son on the throne. "He's not likely to have smashed the place up before giving it to his son."

“Court intrigue may not have perturbed most of Angkor's subjects, but religion was central to daily life. Angkor was what anthropologists call a regal-ritual city. Its kings claimed to be the world emperors of Hindu lore and erected temples to themselves. But as Theravada Buddhism gradually eclipsed Hinduism in the 13th and 14th centuries, its tenet of social equality may have threatened Angkor's elite. "It was very subversive, just like Christianity was subversive to the Roman Empire," says Fletcher. "It would have been exceedingly difficult to stop."

“Such a religious shift would have eroded royal authority. The regal-ritual city operated on a moneyless economy, relying on tribute and taxation. The kingdom's de facto currency was rice, staple of the conscripted laborers who built the temples and the cast of thousands who ran them. An inscription at one complex, Ta Prohm, notes that 12,640 people serviced that temple alone. The inscription also records that more than 66,000 farmers produced nearly 3,000 tons of rice a year to feed this multitude of priests, dancers, and temple workers. Add just three large temples to the equation—Preah Khan and the larger complexes of Angkor Wat and the Bayon—and the calculated farm labor required swells to 300,000. That's nearly half of the estimated population of Greater Angkor. A new, egalitarian religion such as Theravada Buddhism might have led to rebellion.

“Or maybe the royal court simply turned its back on Angkor. Successive rulers had a habit of erecting new temple complexes and letting older ones decay, and that penchant for starting anew might have doomed the city when sea trade began to flourish between Southeast Asia and China. Maybe it was simple economic opportunism that, by the 16th century, had caused the Khmer center of power to shift to a location closer to the Mekong River, near Cambodia's present-day capital, Phnom Penh, affording it easier access to the South China Sea.

“Economic and religious turmoil may have hastened Angkor's downfall, but its rulers were blindsided by another foe. Angkor became a medieval powerhouse thanks to a sophisticated system of canals and reservoirs that enabled the city to hoard scarce water in dry months and disperse excess water during the rainy season. Forces beyond Angkor's control threw this exquisitely tuned machine into disarray.”

Water and Climate and Angkor’s Decline and Fall

Dougald O'Reilly, deputy director of the Greater Angkor Project, a team of researchers at Australia's University of Sydney who in recent years have discovered how vast ancient Angkor was by studying images taken by NASA satellites and an ultralight plane, believes that the city's 15th century collapse occurred largely because people neglected their environment, cutting down too many trees to expand rice paddies, causing waterways to fill with silt.

Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Fletcher was baffled when his team unearthed one of the more extraordinary pieces of Angkorian workmanship—a vast structure in the waterworks—and found that it had been demolished, apparently by Angkor's own engineers. Around the end of the ninth century, with Angkor blossoming, engineers excavated a long canal that altered the course of the Siem Reap River, redirecting it southward to the newly constructed East Baray, a reservoir nearly as big as the later West Baray. The dam, positioned in the river, diverted water to feed the canal. But part of the massive structure may also have functioned as a spillway during monsoon surges, when water would have overtopped the low structure and flowed down the former river channel. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]

“The ruins of the spillway are a vital clue to an epic struggle that unfolded as generations of Khmer engineers coped with a water system that grew ever more complex and unruly. "They probably spent vast portions of their lives fixing it," says Fletcher. Some of the dam's blocks lie in a jumble; huge sections of masonry are missing. "The most logical explanation is that the dam failed," Fletcher says. The river may have chewed into the dam, gradually weakening it. Perhaps it was washed away by an unusually heavy flood, the kind that comes along every century or even every 500 years. The Khmer then ripped apart much of the remaining stonework, salvaging the blocks for other purposes.

“Another clue that the water system was failing comes from a pond at the West Mebon, an island temple in the middle of the West Baray. Pollen grains preserved in the muck show that lotuses and other aquatic plants flourished in the baray until the early 13th century. Then new kinds of pollen appear, from species such as ferns that prefer marsh or dry land. Right at Angkor's zenith, one of its reservoirs apparently went dry for a time. "Something was going wrong much earlier than we expected," says Daniel Penny, a pollen expert and a co-director of the Greater Angkor Project.

“Any deterioration of the waterworks would have left Angkor vulnerable to a natural phenomenon no engineer of that day could have anticipated. Starting in the 1300s, Europe endured a few centuries of unpredictable weather marked by harsh winters and chilly summers. Until recently there was only sketchy information on how other parts of the world fared during this period, called the Little Ice Age. Now it appears that Southeast Asia, too, experienced climatic upheaval.

“Around Angkor, the summer monsoon season lasts from roughly May through October and delivers nearly 90 percent of the region's yearly precipitation. A dependable monsoon is critical for all manner of life, including people. To unmask monsoon patterns of long ago, Brendan Buckley of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, ventured into the forests of Southeast Asia in search of trees with annual growth rings. He and his team knew it would not be easy: Most species in the region lack distinguishable growth rings or have ones that aren't laid down year by year. Several forays paid off with a clutch of long-lived species, including teak and po mu, a rare cypress. Some po mu trees they cataloged are nine centuries old, survivors of both Angkor's heyday and its demise.

“The po mu trees told a stunning story. Sets of constricted growth rings showed that the trees had endured back-to-back mega-droughts, from 1362 to 1392 and from 1415 to 1440. During these periods the monsoon was weak or delayed, and in some years it may have failed completely. In other years, megamonsoons lashed the region.

“To a tottering kingdom, extreme weather could have been the coup de grâce. Decades earlier, Angkor's waterworks were already ailing, to judge from the idled West Baray. "We don't know why the water system was operating below capacity—it's a conundrum," says Penny. "But what it means is that Angkor really had no fat to burn. The city was more exposed to the threat of drought than at any other time in its history." Prolonged and severe droughts, punctuated by torrential downpours, "would have ruined the water system," says Fletcher.

“Still, Penny says, "we're not talking about the place becoming a desert." People on the Tonle Sap floodplain south of the main temples would have been buffered from the worst effects. The Tonle Sap is fed by the Mekong River, whose headwaters in Tibetan glacier fields would have been largely immune to the effects of an altered monsoon. But Khmer engineers, skilled as they were, could not alleviate parched conditions in the north by moving Tonle Sap water against the lay of the land. Gravity was their only pump.

“If inhabitants of northern Angkor were starving while other parts of the city were hoarding rice, the stage would have been set for severe unrest. "When populations in tropical countries exceed the carrying capacity of the land, real trouble begins," says Yale University anthropologist Michael Coe. "This inevitably leads to cultural collapse." A malnourished army, preoccupied with internal strife, would have exposed the city to attack. Indeed, Ayutthaya's invasion and the Khmer king's ouster happened near the end of the second megadrought. Add to the climate chaos the shifting political and religious winds already buffeting the kingdom, and Angkor's fate was sealed, says Fletcher. "The world around Angkor was changing. Society was moving on. It would have been a surprise if Angkor persisted."

“The Khmer Empire was not the first civilization felled by climate catastrophe. Centuries earlier, as Angkor was rising, halfway around the world a similar loss of environmental equilibrium was hammering the Maya city-states in Mexico and Central America. Many scholars now believe that the Maya succumbed to overpopulation and environmental degradation following a series of three punishing droughts in the ninth century. "Essentially, the same thing happened to Angkor," says Coe, who in the 1950s was the first to discern similarities between the Khmer and Maya civilizations.

“Modern societies may need to brace for similar climatic challenges. According to Buckley, the most likely trigger of the Angkor megadroughts was intense and persistent El Niño warming of the surface waters of the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Scientists debate whether human-caused climate change will lead to more pronounced El Niños, but the Vietnamese tree rings show that even natural oscillations in the Pacific can spark catastrophe. Angkor's end is a sobering lesson in the limits of human ingenuity. The Khmer had transformed their world—a monumental investment that would have been excruciating for the kingdom's rulers to forsake. "Angkor's hydraulic system was an amazing machine, a wonderful mechanism for regulating the world," Fletcher says. Its engineers managed to keep the civilization's signal achievement running for six centuries—until, in the end, a greater force overwhelmed them.

Drought Doomed Angkor?

Aldo Foe wrote in Archaeology: The enigmatic nature of the empire's collapse has inspired researchers to dig deep into Angkor's remains for new insights. In its heyday, Angkor relied on an intricate engineered system of canals, moats, embankments, and reservoirs. The largest reservoir, the West Baray, has recently provided a clearer understanding of the decline of the city. According to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a sediment core taken from the West Baray reveals evidence of an extended drought in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. [Source: Aldo Foe, Archaeology, May/June 2012]

"We see that water levels from the Baray dropped. We also see sediments in the region being more weathered during Angkorian times due to people using the land for intensive agriculture," says Mary-Beth Day of Cambridge University, lead author of the study. It is believed that Angkor, already suffering from deforestation and conflict with other kingdoms, overtaxed its hydraulic system, which increased the effects of the drought and precipitated the city's decline. The study concludes that the Khmer water management system is an example of a sophisticated technology that failed in the face of extreme environmental conditions.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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