BETWEEN THE ANGKOR AND COLONIAL PERIODS (1432-1887) OF CAMBODIAN HISTORY

BETWEEN THE ANGKOR AND COLONIAL PERIODS, 1432-1887

The four centuries of Cambodian history following the abandonment of Angkor are poorly recorded, and therefore historians know little about them beyond the bare outlines. Cambodia retained its language and its cultural identity despite frequent invasions by the powerful Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and incursions by Vietnamese forces. Indeed, for much of this period, Cambodia was a relatively prosperous trading kingdom with its capital at Lovek, near present-day Phnom Penh. European visitors wrote of the Buddhist piety of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Lovek. During this period, Cambodians composed the country's most important work of literature, the Reamker (based on the Indian myth of the Ramayana). [Source: Tourism of Cambodia ~~]

In the period after the sacking of Angkor Wat in 1431, according to to Lonely Planet, perhaps drawn by the opportunities for sea trade with China and fearful of the increasingly bellicose Thais, the Khmer elite began to migrate to the Phnom Penh area. The capital shifted several times over the centuries but eventually settled in present day Phnom Penh. **

The powerless Khmer court was reduced to poverty, and during the ensuing centuries of insecurity it was constantly forced to change the site of its capital. In the mid-15th century a new capital was founded on the banks of the Mekong River, in Phnom Penh, but in the 16th century the capital was moved to Lovek and after that to Udong. Phnom Penh was again chosen as the capital in 1866. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ]

Before the arrival of Europeans, kingdoms in Southeast Asia were constantly at war. Eventually the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (modern Thailand) expanded to the north and east, absorbing much of Lan Na and Lan Xang (modern Laos). Dai Viet (modern Vietnam) expanded to the south, taking over the remaining territory of the Kingdom of Champa and the southern tip of the Kingdom of Lovek (modern Cambodia). Toungoo evolved into modern Myanmar. In the late 18th century, a civil war in Vietnam and disorder following a Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya spilled over into Cambodia and devastated the area. In the early 19th century, newly established dynasties in Vietnam and Thailand competed for control over the Cambodian court. The warfare that ensued, beginning in the l830s, came close to destroying Cambodia. ~~

According to Lonely Planet: From 1600 until the arrival of the French in 1863, Cambodia was ruled by a series of weak kings beset by dynastic rivalries. In the face of such intrigue, they sought the protection – granted, of course, at a price – of either Thailand or Vietnam. In the 17th century, the Nguyen lords of southern Vietnam came to the rescue of the Cambodian king in return for settlement rights in the Mekong Delta region. The Khmers still refer to this region as Kampuchea Krom (Lower Cambodia), even though it is well and truly populated by the Vietnamese today. [Source: Lonely Planet **]

“In the west, the Thais controlled the provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap from 1794 and held much influence over the Cambodian royal family. Indeed, one king was crowned in Bangkok and placed on the throne at Udong with the help of the Thai army. That Cambodia survived through the 18th century as a distinct entity is due to the preoccupations of its neighbours: while the Thais were expending their energy and resources in fighting the Burmese, the Vietnamese were wholly absorbed by internal strife. The pattern continued for more than two centuries, the carcass of Cambodia pulled back and forth between two powerful tigers. **

Cambodian Dark Ages

The more than four centuries that passed from the abandonment of Angkor around the mid-fifteenth century to the establishment of a protectorate under the French in 1863 are considered by historians to be Cambodia's "dark ages," a period of economic, social, and cultural stagnation when the kingdom's internal affairs came increasingly under the control of its aggressive neighbors, the Thai and the Vietnamese. By the mid-nineteenth century, Cambodia had become an almost helpless pawn in the power struggles between Thailand and Vietnam and probably would have been completely absorbed by one or the other if France had not intervened, giving Cambodia a colonially dominated "lease on life." Fear of racial and cultural extinction has persisted as a major theme in modern Cambodian thought and helps to explain the intense nationalism and xenophobia of the Khmer Rouge during the 1970s. Establishment in 1979 of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, a Vietnamese-dominated satellite state, can be seen as the culmination of a process of Vietnamese encroachment that was already well under way by the seventeenth century. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987 *]

The process of internal decay and foreign encroachment was gradual rather than precipitous and was hardly evident in the fifteenth century when the Khmer were still powerful. Following the fall of Angkor Thom, the Cambodian court abandoned the region north of the Tonle Sap, never to return except for a brief interlude in the late sixteenth century. By this time however, the Khmer penchant for monument building had ceased. Older faiths such as Mahayana Buddhism and the Hindu cult of the god-king had been supplanted by Theravada Buddhism, and the Cambodians had become part of the same religious and cultural cosmos as the Thai. This similarity did not prevent intermittent warfare between the two kingdoms, however. During the sixteenth century Cambodian armies, taking advantage of Thai troubles with the Burmese, invaded the Thai kingdom several times. *

In the meantime, following the abandonment of the Angkorian sites, the Khmer established a new capital several hundred kilometers to the southeast on the site of what is now Phnom Penh. This new center of power was located at the confluence of the Mekong and the Tonle Sab rivers. Thus, it controlled the river commerce of the Khmer heartland and the Laotian kingdoms and had access, by way of the Mekong Delta, to the international trade routes that linked the China coast, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean. A new kind of state and society emerged, more open to the outside world and more dependent on commerce as a source of wealth than its inland predecessor. The growth of maritime trade with China during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) provided lucrative opportunities for members of the Cambodian elite who controlled royal trading monopolies. The appearance of Europeans in the region in the sixteenth century also stimulated commerce. *

King Ang Chan (1516-66), one of the few great Khmer monarchs of the post-Angkorian period, moved the capital from Phnom Penh to Lovek. Portuguese and Spanish travelers who visited the city, located on the banks of the Tonle Sab, a river north of Phnom Penh, described it as a place of fabulous wealth. The products traded there included precious stones, metals, silk and cotton, incense, ivory, lacquer, livestock (including elephants), and rhinoceros horn (prized by the Chinese as a rare and potent medicine). By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Lovek contained flourishing foreign trading communities of Chinese, Indonesians, Malays, Japanese, Arabs, Spanish, and Portuguese. They were joined later in the century by the English and the Dutch. *

Because the representatives of practically all these nationalities were pirates, adventurers, or traders, this was an era of stormy cosmopolitanism. Hard-pressed by the Thai, King Sattha (1576-94) surrounded himself with a personal guard of Spanish and Portuguese mercenaries, and in 1593 asked the Spanish governor of the Philippines for aid. Attracted by the prospects of establishing a Spanish protectorate in Cambodia and of converting the monarch to Christianity, the governor sent a force of 120 men, but Lovek had already fallen to the Thai when they arrived the following year. The Spanish took advantage of the extremely confused situation to place one of Sattha's sons on the throne in 1597. Hopes of making the country a Spanish dependency were dashed, however, when the Spaniards were massacred two years later by an equally belligerent contingent of Malay mercenaries. *

The Thai, however, had dealt a fatal blow to Cambodian independence by capturing Lovek in 1594. With the posting of a Thai military governor in the city, a degree of foreign political control was established over the kingdom for the first time. Cambodian chronicles describe the fall of Lovek as a catastrophe from which the nation never fully recovered. *

Jar People of the Cardamom Mountains

In the 15th century, after the height of the Khmer Empire, the deceased in the Cardamom Mountains were not interred in the ground; their bones and other remains were placed in ceramic jars and left in secret spiritual locations, some of which have only recently been discovered. An expedition to a remote cave in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains has helped to shed new light on the origins these burial sites. Luke Duggleby wrote ion Geographical.com: “For Dr Nancy Beavan, the arrival of a courier bearing a bag of bones is a regular occurrence. Over the years, the US-born specialist in radiocarbon dating, currently based at New Zealand's University of Otago, has received thousands of them both human and animal. But this particular human rib bone, sent from a remote region in southwestern Cambodia, was the beginning of a fascination that continues to captivate her. [Source: Luke Duggleby, Geographical.com, July 2012 <>]

“The bone came from a remote expanse of forest in the Cardamom Mountains. This forest, the second largest and least exploited in Southeast Asia, extends over 20,000 square kilometres from the border with Thailand to the west and to the Mekong valley in the east. For centuries, the Cardamoms offered refuge to people on the run from the law or those who simply didn’t want to be a part of the communities that occupied the country’s lowlands. Most recently, it was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, which was forced to retreat there in 1979 by the liberating Vietnamese Army. <>

“The bone that so intrigued Beavan was found in an ancient burial site known as Khnorng Sroal, one of ten such sites that have been discovered so far where human remains have been interred either in large earthen jars or in coffins carved from a single log. The jars and coffins are invariably found in particularly inaccessible places – typically high up on narrow cliff ledges. The practice of placing the dead in jars has been observed in other countries in the region – Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, for example – but in Cambodia, it’s evidence has been confined to these Cardamom Mountains sites. <>

“The origins of the sites are a mystery. No written record of the practice exists. The first reports of the burial sites appeared in the Western literature during the 1970s. Marie Martin, an ethnographer of Cardamom tribal groups, was told stories of ‘bones in caves’ that the local people believed were those of ‘people of the court’ who fled the old Khmer capital of Longvek after a Thai invasion in 1592–93. In her reports, Martin cited comments by researchers Roland Mourer and Jean Ellul, who also worked in the region during the 1960s and ’70s and were told similar stories. However, all of these researchers discarded the idea that these were the remains of high-status people because of the simplicity of the possessions buried alongside the bodies – typically a few metal rings and coloured beads. <>

Expedition to a Jar People Site in the Cardamom Mountains

Luke Duggleby wrote ion Geographical.com: “In January 2012, Beavan and a team of scientists were helicoptered in to Phnom Khnorng Perng, the largest of any of the known sites, with the assistance of Suwanna Gauntlet, founder and CEO of the US conservation NGO Wildlife Alliance, which has run projects in the Cardamoms since 2002. On arrival, the team set to work, but only after offerings of incense had been made to appease the forest spirits. Once the site had been measured and split into sections, the jars were brought out one by one from the small cave in which they had been placed, a task that involved both balance and agility. Located several hundred feet up a sheer cliff, the cave was about five metres deep, less than two metres high and could only be reached via a tiny path that meandered along the cliff’s edge. [Source: Luke Duggleby, Geographical.com, July 2012 <>]

“Each jar was emptied and the contents bagged and handed over to Beavan’s colleague, biological anthropologist Dr Sian Halcrow. ‘Looking at human remains directly can tell you a lot of things about the way that person lived – the age at death, whether they are male or female, if they had any disease, and so on,’ explained Halcrow as she sorted the bones, jar by jar, on a makeshift table assembled by the Cambodian helpers from tree branches and bamboo. While the rest of the team worked through their bones and jars, Beavan surveyed the site, taking measurements of the cave and the wooden coffins; sieved through the dirt collected from the bottom of the jars and surrounding cave floor; and carefully selected which bones – one from each jar, as well as a tooth – she would take samples from for radiocarbon dating and stable-isotope analysis. <>

“After seven days of non-stop work, the contents were returned to their jars and the reconstructed jars returned to their original place of rest. ‘What we are doing here is conservation archaeology,’ Beavan said. ‘We return all the objects and conserve the jars because the site will continue to deteriorate and our mission is heritage protection. We can collect data as well as conserving the site as a burial ground.’ However, leaving the site as it was is a risky move, and something that still plays on Beavan’s mind. Many of the more accessible sites have already been disturbed in some way; the jars have been broken by animals, or items among the smaller ceramics taken by locals who don’t know the significance of these places. Phnom Khnorng Perng’s remote location should keep it safe for now, but as loggers and poachers move deeper into the forest, it’s days are surely numbered. <>

Analysis of the Jar People Site in the Cardamom Mountains

“Luke Duggleby wrote ion Geographical.com: “The results of the survey enabled Beavan to begin to build up a picture of the site’s origins. A total of 44 jars were found at the site. Most of these date from the 14th–16th-century Maenam Noi kilns in Singburi Province in Thailand, but several were made in a 14th-century Angkorian style. Around 13 celadon plates and bowls, also from Thailand, were also reconstructed. Hundreds of Chinese glass beads, many simple metal rings, some earrings and part of a bracelet were found in and around the jars. And a total of five wooden coffins were found, all of different shapes, suggesting that they were brought in individually from other regions. [Source: Luke Duggleby, Geographical.com, July 2012 <>]

“Although Halcrow carried out a full analysis of the contents of only the first 20 jars, she estimated that up to 80 individuals could be interred at the site, many jars containing the remains of two people. Out of this collection of bones, she believes she has identified the earliest archaeological evidence of scurvy in Southeast Asia, as well as evidence of anaemia. There were also two individuals who showed the first instance of tooth ablation (the intentional removal of teeth) found in this period in mainland Southeast Asia. Along with the human remains were the bones of baby pigs, an example of the variation in offerings to the ancients interred here.

“But who were the people in the jars? It’s still impossible to know, but thanks to the new research which comprises samples from 40 or so bones and teeth, combined with data from four other sites, we now have an idea of when the ritual occurred and an indication of the uniformity of the practice over a considerable area throughout the Cardamoms. Beavan has now radiocarbon dated a total of 25 samples of coffin wood and bone from other jar sites to between about 1395 AD and the mid-1600s; this coincides roughly with the demise of the Angkor civilisation, which began around the early 15th century. ‘The Cardamom sites provide the first material evidence and direct dating of people living in these mountainous refuges in Angkorian times,’ she says. <>

“The jars and plates came from Thailand and Vietnam, and the beads possibly came from China. These were all common items in the maritime trade that took place along Cambodia’s coastline from at least the 13th century. The sheer number of jars now counted in Phnom Khnang Pueng and the other known sites – more than 75 Maenam Noi jars alone – suggests that the highland people may have interacted directly with those seafaring people, probably trading rare woods, the spice cardamom and even elephant tusks in return. <>

According to Marie Martin, the Cardamoms were inhabited by three ethnic groups – the Pear-Pou, the Suoy and the Sam-re. According to folklore passed on to modern times, these people moved from lowland neighbouring provinces to collect, and trade in, the forest’s valuable resources. There are also stories of a great empire of the Chong people, pre-dating those three groups, who inhabited the western border region with Thailand and even pre-dated the entry of the Khmers to the region. The Chong may have been the source group of the people who migrated to the foothills of the mountains. While these highland groups may have ventured out to trade, they probably avoided contact with the aggressive Angkor civilisation, which was known to capture the mountain ‘savages’ to use as slaves. ‘These people were not able to put together significant defences, so they may have retreated to places of refuge such as the Cardamoms in order to protect their culture,’ explains Beavan. <>

Domination by Thailand and by Vietnam

During the 17th and 18th century the Thais moved down from the north and the Vietnamese came in from the east, occupying much of present-day Cambodia, and pushing the Khmer into a small corner of their former empire.

More than their conquest of Angkor a century and a half earlier, the Thai capture of Lovek marked the beginning of a decline in Cambodia's fortunes. One possible reason for the decline was the labor drain imposed by the Thai conquerors as they marched thousands of Khmer peasants, skilled artisans, scholars, and members of the Buddhist clergy back to their capital of Ayutthaya. This practice, common in the history of Southeast Asia, crippled Cambodia's ability to recover a semblance of its former greatness. A new Khmer capital was established at Odongk (Udong), south of Lovek, but its monarchs could survive only by entering into what amounted to vassal relationships with the Thai and with the Vietnamese. In common parlance, Thailand became Cambodia's "father" and Vietnam its "mother." [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987*]

By the late fifteenth century, the Vietnamese--who, unlike other Southeast Asian peoples, had patterned their culture and their civilization on those of China--had defeated the oncepowerful kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam. Thousands of Chams fled into Khmer territory. By the early seventeenth century, the Vietnamese had reached the Mekong Delta, which was inhabited by Khmer people. In 1620 the Khmer king Chey Chettha II (1618-28) married a daughter of Sai Vuong, one of the Nguyen lords (1558- 1778), who ruled southern Vietnam for most of the period of the restored Le dynasty (1428-1788). Three years later, Chey Chettha allowed the Vietnamese to establish a custom-house at Prey Nokor, near what is now Ho Chi Minh City (until 1975, Saigon). By the end of the seventeenth century, the region was under Vietnamese administrative control, and Cambodia was cut off from access to the sea. Trade with the outside world was possible only with Vietnamese permission.*

There were periods in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, when Cambodia's neighbors were preoccupied with internal or external strife, that afforded the beleaguered country a breathing spell. The Vietnamese were involved in a lengthy civil war until 1674, but upon its conclusion they promptly annexed sizable areas of contiguous Cambodian territory in the region of the Mekong Delta. For the next one hundred years they used the alleged mistreatment of Vietnamese colonists in the delta as a pretext for their continued expansion. By the end of the eighteenth century, they had extended their control to include the area encompassed in the late 1980s by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Vietnam). *

Thailand, which might otherwise have been courted as an ally against Vietnamese incursions in the eighteenth century, was itself involved in a new conflict with Burma. In 1767 the Thai capital of Ayutthaya was besieged and destroyed. The Thai quickly recovered, however, and soon reasserted their dominion over Cambodia. The youthful Khmer king, Ang Eng (1779-96), a refugee at the Thai court, was installed as monarch at Odongk by Thai troops. At the same time, Thailand quietly annexed Cambodia's three northernmost provinces. In addition, the local rulers of the northwestern provinces of Batdambang and Siemreab (Siemreap) became vassals of the Thai king, and these areas came under the Thai sphere of influence.*

A renewed struggle between Thailand and Vietnam for control of Cambodia in the nineteenth century resulted in a period when Vietnamese officials, working through a puppet Cambodian king, ruled the central part of the country and attempted to force Cambodians to adopt Vietnamese customs. Several rebellions against Vietnamese rule ensued. The most important of these occurred in 1840 to 1841 and spread through much of the country. After two years of fighting, Cambodia and its two neighbors reached an accord that placed the country under the joint suzerainty of Thailand and Vietnam. At the behest of both countries, a new monarch, Ang Duong (1848-59), ascended the throne and brought a decade of peace and relative independence to Cambodia. *

After Cambodia became one of the French protectorates (together with Vietnam and Laos) in 1863, the French colonial officers ordered the plans of the Thai Grand Palace from Bangkok. Thus, the present Grand Palace of Phnom Penh was built according to a Thai model. Thai influence had already been strongly felt in Cambodia since the sack of Angkor by the Thais in 1431. Theravada Buddhism, as well as several artistic expressions, was adopted from the Thais, as can be seen in the post-Angkorean architecture, sculpture and painting. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki]

In their arbitrary treatment of the Khmer population, the Thai and the Vietnamese were virtually indistinguishable. The suffering and the dislocation caused by war were comparable in many ways to similar Cambodian experiences in the 1970s. But the Thai and the Vietnamese had fundamentally different attitudes concerning their relationships with Cambodia. The Thai shared with the Khmer a common religion, mythology, literature, and culture. The Chakri kings at Bangkok wanted Cambodia's loyalty and tribute, but they had no intention of challenging or changing its people's values or way of life. The Vietnamese viewed the Khmer people as barbarians to be civilized through exposure to Vietnamese culture, and they regarded the fertile Khmer lands as legitimate sites for colonization by settlers from Vietnam. *

Arrival of Europeans in Cambodia

The Portuguese Dominican missionary Father Gaspar da Cruz was the first European to describe traveling on the Mekong River. He spent 1555 to 1557 in Cambodia and was largely unsuccessful in his efforts to covert the local population to Christianity. Portuguese Dominican missionaries that visited in the 1580s were equally unsucceful but they laid eyes on Angkor Wat. Some Portuguese freebooters also arrived in the area in the 1590s. They were involved in some palace intrigues and encouraged local rivalries to suit their ambitions.

The Thais established protectorates over Laos and Cambodia. Before the arrival of arrival of Europeans in the 19th century, Thailand's borders were only vaguely defined. The Thai monarchs primarily controlled Bangkok and the area around the capital. Provincial regions enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. The European powers took advantage of the lack of central authority in the provincial regions, and one by one took over these territories. France seized Laos and Cambodia and England acquired the northern Malay states.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, 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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