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. At its height in A.D. 1200, the Khmer kingdom stretched from the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan Province and encompassed almost all of Southeast Asia.

The Khmer kingdom grew rich from surplus labor made possible by large rice harvests and tributes received from all over Southeast Asia. As was true with Rome all the paved roads in Southeast Asia led to Angkor. Along these roads were temples and rest houses built for the pilgrims on their way to Angkor Wat.

Most of what is known about the early Khmer civilization is based on Pali, Sanskrit and Khmer inscription found at Angkor and few accounts by Chinese and Arab travelers. Angkor Wat is so important to the people of Cambodia today that its towers have appeared on the flags of the country's last four regimes. The sentiments seems to be that if the Cambodian people created such a great empire in the past that also have it within themselves to create a great modern nation.

Notable among the Khmer builder-kings were Suyavarman II, who built the temple known as Angkor Wat in the mid-12th century, and Jayavarman VII, who built the Bayon temple at Angkor Thum and several other large Buddhist temples half a century later. Jayavarman VII, a fervent Buddhist, also built hospitals and rest houses along the roads that crisscrossed the kingdom. Most of the monarchs, however, seem to have been more concerned with displaying and increasing their power than with the welfare of their subjects. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Book: The Civilization of Angkor by Charles Higham (Phoenix); Angkor by Michale D. Coe (Thames & Hudson)

Early History of Khmer Dynasty

Some historians believe that the Khmer civilization developed out of Funan. Others believe it evolved independently. The Khmers and Funanese were linked by geography and language and shared a similar origin story. One version of the story—found in Chinese texts about Funan and in Sanskrit and Khmer inscriptions—stated that Funan—and the Khmer culture—began with a marriage between the daughter of the king of nagas (mythical serpents) and a Hindu prince after the prince shot the daughter with a magic arrow. The king gave them Cambodia and built a capital there as a wedding present.

Evidence that the Khmer and Funan civilizations evolved separately include fact that the Funan name is not known in the Khmer language and references to Funan and Chenla come from Chinese sources not Khmer ones.

Around A.D. 600 the Khmers emerged as a regional power. In the late 8th century the Khmer region was divided into independent kingdoms that remained separate until they were united by the future king, Jayavarman II, who emerged from the south and brought the region under his control

Jayavarman II

King Jayavarman II (802-850) is credited with founding the Khmer Civilization. He established a Hindu kingdom and proclaimed himself the Universal Monarch based on an ancient Indian beliefs about a god-king and royal cult. The first reference to the name Jayavarman was in 5th century Funan. A king by that name sent a message to the Chinese Emperor. According to Chinese sources Jayavarman I ruled over Chenla until his death in 681.

Virtually nothing is known about the rule of Jayavarman II. No inscriptions from his reign have been found. Information about him has been pieced together from an 11th century inscription found in northwest Cambodia and a report from an Arab merchant. According to these sources Jayavarman II spent some time in court of the Indonesian Sailendras kingdom and may have originally arrived in Indonesia as a prisoner. The Sailendras kingdom defeated the Khmers by launching a surprise attack from Tonle Sap and beheaded the Khmer ruler.

Jayavarman II returned to Cambodia around 795 and established a capital at Indrapura and then moved it three times. It is not known why he moved so many times, maybe it was to find better food sources. In 802, the capital was moved to Mount Mahendrapura (modern Phnom Kulen), 25 miles northeast of Angkor Thom, and declared himself the universal ruler. This marks the creation of the Khmer state and its independence from Indonesia. Jayavarman II made the devaraja cult, a new religious belief based on the worship of a god-king, the state religion. He died in Rolous, the third capital he founded, in 850.

Possibly to put distance between himself and the seaborne Javanese, Jayavarman II settled north of the Tonle Sap. He built several capitals before establishing one, Hariharalaya, near the site where the Angkorian complexes were built. Indravarman I (A.D. 877-89) extended Khmer control as far west as the Korat Plateau in Thailand, and he ordered the construction of a huge reservoir north of the capital to provide irrigation for wet rice cultivation. His son, Yasovarman I (A.D. 889-900), built the Eastern Baray (reservoir or tank), evidence of which remains to the present time. Its dikes, which may be seen today, are more than 6 kilometers long and 1.6 kilometers wide. The elaborate system of canals and reservoirs built under Indravarman I and his successors were the key to Kambuja's prosperity for half a millennium. By freeing cultivators from dependence on unreliable seasonal monsoons, they made possible an early "green revolution" that provided the country with large surpluses of rice. Kambuja's decline during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries probably was hastened by the deterioration of the irrigation system. Attacks by Thai and other foreign peoples and the internal discord caused by dynastic rivalries diverted human resources from the system's upkeep, and it gradually fell into disrepair. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Other Early Khmer Rulers

Jayavarman III I (reigned 850-877) was the , son of Jayavarman II, He built one of the first Khmer major temples, at Bakong southwest of Angkor Wat, in the 9th century. Indravarman I (reigned 877-89) built a large reservoir (baray ) and irrigation system at Rolous.

Yasovarman I (reigned 889-900) moved the capital to Angkor. By the year 1000 Angkor was one of the greatest cities in the world, along with Constantinople, Cordoba in Spain, Tchangngan in China and Tollán in Mexico The largest cities in the world in the year 1000 were (estimated population): 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 5) Kyoto, Japan (175,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Neyshabur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India; 11) Rayy, near modern-day Tehran (100,000); 12) Isfahan, Persia (100,000); 13) Seville, Spain (90,000); 14) Dali, China (90,000); and 15) Thanjavur, India (90,000).

Suryavarman I (reigned 1002-50) extend the Khmer kingdom southward to the Gulf of Thailand through a series of wars and then ruled over a period of peace and prosperity. He developed an efficient bureaucracy and effective internal security system and established tolerant religious polices that allowed the devaraja cult and Buddhism to coexist.

According to Lonely Planet: “By the turn of the 11th century the kingdom of Angkor was losing control of its territories. Suryavarman I (r 1002–49), a usurper, moved into the power vacuum and, like Jayavarman II two centuries before, reunified the kingdom through war and alliances, stretching the frontiers of the empire. A pattern was beginning to emerge, and is repeated throughout the Angkorian period: dislocation and turmoil, followed by reunification and further expansion under a powerful king. Architecturally, the most productive periods occurred after times of turmoil, indicating that newly incumbent monarchs felt the need to celebrate, even legitimise their rule with massive building projects.” [Source: Lonely Planet]

Suryavarman II

Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-1150), built Angkor Wat and is thought to have attained power by killing his uncle. He took power at a time when Angkor Wat was being attacked by its enemies. He subdued kingdoms in present-day Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam; vastly expanded the Khmer empire and established diplomatic relations with China. Angkor Wat, some believe, was raised to honor the gods who he credited with helping him win. Suryavarman II had a long reign and vanished from the historical record in 1150. Some think he was murdered. He may be buried at Angkor Wat.

One of the greatest Angkorian monarchs, Suryavarman II expanded his kingdom's territory in a series of successful wars against the kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam, the kingdom of Nam Viet in northern Vietnam, and the small Mon polities as far west as the Irrawaddy River of Burma. He reduced to vassalage the Thai peoples who had migrated into Southeast Asia from the Yunnan region of southern China and established his suzerainty over the northern part of the Malay Peninsula. His greatest achievement was the construction of the temple city complex of Angkor Wat. The largest religious edifice in the world, Angkor Wat is considered the greatest single architectural work in Southeast Asia. Suryavarman II's reign was followed, however, by thirty years of dynastic upheaval and an invasion by the neighboring Cham, who destroyed the city of Angkor in 1177. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

According to Lonely Planet: By 1066 Angkor was again riven by conflict, becoming the focus of rival bids for power. It was not until the accession of Suryavarman II that the kingdom was again unified. Suryavarman II embarked on another phase of expansion, waging costly wars in Vietnam and the region of central Vietnam known as Champa. Suryavarman II had brought Champa to heel and reduced it to vassal status, but the Chams struck back in 1177 with a naval expedition up the Mekong and into Tonlé Sap Lake. They took the city of Angkor by surprise and put King Dharanindravarman II to death. The following year a cousin of Suryavarman II rallied the Khmer troops and defeated the Chams in another naval battle. The new leader was crowned Jayavarman VII in 1181. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Suryavarman II and Angkor Wat

According to Lonely Planet: "Suryavarman II is immortalised as the king who, in his devotion to the Hindu deity Vishnu, commissioned the majestic temple of Angkor Wat. For an insight into events in this epoch, see the bas-reliefs on the southwest corridor of Angkor Wat, which depict the reign of Suryavarman II."

See Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) and originally dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva and then Vishnu. The temple spreads out over 402 acres (about three quarters of a square mile) and required 37 years and an estimated 5000 stone carvers, workers and slaves, using 3000 ox-carts for carrying stones, to complete.

The South Gallery depicts a splendid triumphal procession from a battle between the Khmers and their enemies. The relief's show methods used in warfare, mainly hand-to-hand combat, as they no machinery and no knowledge of firearms. The naturalistic depiction of trees and animals in the background of this panel is unusual. The central figure of this gallery is King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, who appears twice. An inscription on the panel identifies him by his posthumous name, suggesting it may have been done after his death. The rectangular holes randomly cut in this gallery may have contained precious objects of the temple. On the upper tier the king (seated with traces of gilt on his body) holds an audience on a mountain. Below of the place walk down a mountain in the forest. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The army gathers for inspection and the commander mounted on elephants join their troops who are marching towards the enemy. The commander's rank is identified by a small inscription near the figure. King Suryavarman II stands on an elephant (conical headdress, sword with the blade across his shoulder) and servants around him hold 15 ceremonial umbrellas. Visnu stands on a Garuda on a Garuda on a flagpole in front of the king's elephant. The lively and loud procession of the Sacred Fire (carried in an ark) follows with standard bearers, musicians and jesters. Brahmans chant to the accompaniment of cymbals. The royal sacrifice in a palanquin.

Towards the end of the panel: The military procession resumes with a troop of Thai soldiers (pleated skirts with floral pattern; belts with long pendants; plaited hair; headdresses with plumes; short moustaches) led by their commander who is mounted on an elephant. The Thai troops were probably either mercenaries of a contingent from the province of Louvo (today called Lopburi) conscripted to the Khmer army. A number of the Khmer warriors wear helmets with horns of animal heads (deer, horse, bird) and some of their shields are embellished with monsters for the same purpose.

See Angkor Wat

Jayavarman VII

Javyavarman VII (reigned 1181-1219) is regarded as Angkor’s greatest ruler and was the last of great Khmer kings. 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.

Many of the temples visited around Angkor today were constructed during Jayavarman VII’s reign. Jayavarman VII rebuilt Angkor Tho and built Bayon as a monument to Buddhism. At a time when Europe was still wallowing in the Dark Ages, Angkor was a thriving city with possibly a million inhabitants. By comparison Paris, the largest city in Europe, was home to maybe 30,000 people.

Before Jayavarman VII took the throne he retook Angkor from Cham invaders, who had launched a successful surprise attack in 1117 from Tonle Sap and sacked and occupied Angkor. Jayavarman reclaimed Angkor for the Khmers with a huge army he assembled and took the Cham king hostage. His victory over the Chams in a series of sea battles is depicted on walls at Bayon.

The reign of Jayavarman VII, marked the apogee of Kambuja's power. Unlike his predecessors, who had adopted the cult of the Hindu god-king, Jayavarman VII was a fervent patron of Mahayana Buddhism. Casting himself as a bodhisattva, he embarked on a frenzy of building activity that included the Angkor Thom complex and the Bayon, a remarkable temple whose stone towers depict 216 faces of buddhas, gods, and kings. He also built over 200 rest houses and hospitals throughout his kingdom. Like the Roman emperors, he maintained a system of roads between his capital and provincial towns. According to historian George Coedès, "No other Cambodian king can claim to have moved so much stone." Often, quality suffered for the sake of size and rapid construction, as is revealed in the intriguing but poorly constructed Bayon. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Jayavarman VII was regarded as a devout Buddhist mystic. There are statues of him deep in mediation, smiling and complacent and seemingly detached from the material world. It is not known why Jayavarman VII converted to Buddhism. Jayavarman VII expanded the Khmer empire and extracted tribute from a number of small states. Under his rule, the borders of the Khmer empire were extended from the coast of Vietnam to the borders of Pagan in Burma and the area around Vientiane in Laos and encompassed all of Thailand and much of Malaysia. After his death Khmer civilization began its long, slow decline.

According to Lonely Planet: “Jayavarman VII is a figure of many contradictions. The bas-reliefs of the Bayon depict him presiding over battles of terrible ferocity, while statues of the king depict a meditative, otherworldly aspect. His programme of temple construction and other public works was carried out in great haste, no doubt bringing enormous hardship to the labourers who provided the muscle, and thus accelerating the decline of the empire. He was partly driven by a desire to legitimise his rule, as there may have been other contenders closer to the royal bloodline, and partly by the need to introduce a new religion to a population predominantly Hindu in faith. However, in many ways he was also Cambodia’s first socialist leader, proclaiming the population equal, abolishing castes and embarking on a programme of school, hospital and road building. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Mongols in South-East Asia

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Present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, were the targets of Kublai Khan's last efforts at expanding Mongol lands southward from China. The jungle-covered, hot and humid lands of Southeast Asia were quite different from the steppes of Central Asia and stretched the Mongol armies to their limits. There were also the challenges of a sea transport and unfamiliar styles of warfare.

According to historian Stephen Turnbull: “The Mongols had fought everywhere from the steppes of Mongolia to the snowy forests of Russia, from the mountains in Korea to the deserts of Syria but it was in the jungles of south-east Asia were the Mongols were faced with conditions and factors that were the most unfamiliar to them. These factors, most notably the heat and humidity took their toll on the Mongol military. Dense jungles, tropical swamps and long rivers were not suited to Mongol styles of warfare and although the Mongol army was able to adapt they were essentially never in their element during any of their south-east Asian campaigns.” [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull; Bloodswan: *^*]

The Mongol wars in Southeast Asia marked the southern limit of the Mongol conquests. By this time the Mongol empire had split into various khanates with the most notable being the Il-khans of Persia, the Golden horde of Russia and the Jagadai khanate of central Asia. On top of this was the Yuan dynasty of China founded by Kublai Khan. A series of wars between the khanates effectively ended Mongol expansion westward whilst the campaigns against Japan and in Southeast Asia ordered under Kublai ended eastward expansion of the Yuan Mongol-Chinese Empire. These campaigns were very costly and many ended without effectively achieving their goals. The Mongol failures in Southeast Asia and Japan also marked the beginning of the end of Mongol power in China by undermining the Yuan dynasty's formidable military reputation.

Mongols and Siam and Khmer Empire

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: The Mongol campaigns in Siam were vastly different from those of the others already mentioned. The land we know as Thailand today was at this time a number of separate states. King Ramkhamhaeng of Siam whose capital was at Sukhothai took a very different approach to the Mongol empire than his contemporaries in Burma and Java. The king of Siam actively sought good relations with Kublai and negotiated a treaty of amity with the Yuan dynasty in 1282. He made a personal visit to China to see the khan shortly before his death in 1294. [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: *^*]

To the north of Siam was the kingdom of Lan Na. It was ruled by King Mangrai whose capital was at Chiang Mai. A border dispute led to war in 1296 but an expedition carried out in 1301 ended in a Mongol disaster.*^*

The only other kingdom not yet mentioned is that of the Khmers of Cambodia. This once glorious empire that built the wonderful temples, shrines and palaces of Angkor was already overrun by Thais. They had already taken Sukhothai from the Khmers in 1220 and made it their capital. Ramkhamhaeng played a master-stroke in this regard. Whilst the Mongols threatened to destroy their enemies in Burma and Vietnam and with his Northern opponent in Lan Na in a state of concern, King Ramkhamhaeng could prosper at the Khmer's expense. His Mongol allies had no concern over his realm and if matters changed, he still had Lan Na as a buffer in the north. Angkor held out until 1431 when it was finally taken by the Siamese. *^*

Image Sources:

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 May 2014

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