The early people who lived in Cambodia are believed to be similar to the early people who lived in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. See Southeast Asia

A carbon-l4 dating from a cave in northwestern Cambodia suggests that people using stone tools lived in the cave as early as 4000 B.C., and rice has been grown on Cambodian soil since well before the A.D. 1st century. The first Cambodians likely arrived long before either of these dates. They probably migrated from the north, although nothing is known about their language or their way of life.[Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The earliest evidence of habitation in Cambodia has been found at Loang Spean in northwestern Cambodia. It was occupied beginning around 5000 B.C. by people who lived in caves, polished stones and decorated pottery with cord and comb markings. The first evidence of village-like settlements comes from a site called Bas-Plateaux, in southeastern Cambodia, first occupied in the 2nd century B.C.

The earliest evidence of human habitation in the Angkor area has been dated at 5000 B.C. and was in the form of artifacts and remains from pre-Bronze-Age hunter-gatherers. Samrog Sen, in central Cambodia not too far from Angkor Wat, was occupied around 1500 B.C. The bones found at the site are similar to those of modern Cambodians. The use of metal began around 1000 B.C. and became widespread by 500 B.C..

According to the Library of Congress: “By the first century A.D., the inhabitants of had developed relatively stable, organized societies, which had far surpassed the primitive stage in culture and technical skills. The most advanced groups lived along the coast and in the lower Mekong River valley and delta regions, where they cultivated irrigated rice and kept domesticated animals. Scholars believe that these people may have been Austroasiatic in origin and related to the ancestors of the groups who now inhabit insular Southeast Asia and many of the islands of the Pacific Ocean. They worked metals, including both iron and bronze, and possessed navigational skills. Mon-Khmer people, who arrived at a later date, probably intermarried with them. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

According to Lonely Planet: “Much of the southeast was a vast, shallow gulf that was progressively silted up by the mouths of the Mekong, leaving pancake-flat, mineral-rich land ideal for farming. Evidence of cave-dwellers has been found in the northwest of Cambodia. Carbon dating on ceramic pots found in the area shows that they were made around 4200 BC, but it is hard to say whether there is a direct relationship between these cave-dwelling pot makers and contemporary Khmers. Examinations of bones dating back to around 1500 BC, however, suggest that the people living in Cambodia at that time resembled the Cambodians of today. Early Chinese records report that the Cambodians were ‘ugly’ and ‘dark’ and went about naked. However, a healthy dose of scepticism is always required when reading the culturally chauvinistic reports of imperial China concerning its ‘barbarian’ neighbours. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The following 600 years saw powerful Khmer kings dominate much of present day Southeast Asia, from the borders of Myanmar east to the South China Sea and north to Laos. It was during this period that Khmer kings built the most extensive concentration of religious temples in the world - the Angkor temple complex. The most successful of Angkor's kings, Jayavarman II, Indravarman I, Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII, also devised a masterpiece of ancient engineering: a sophisticated irrigation system that includes barays (gigantic man-made lakes) and canals that ensured as many as three rice crops a year. Part of this system is still in use today.

Funan, the Chams and Chenla, See Separate Article

Origin of the Khmers

The Khmer who now populate Cambodia may have migrated from southeastern China to the Indochinese Peninsula before the first century A.D. They are believed to have arrived before their present Vietnamese, Thai, and Lao neighbors. [Source: Library of Congress, December 1987]

Ancestors of the early Khmer are believed to have arrived in the Angkor area between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. They were attracted by the good fishing and plentiful water supplies offered by Tonle Sap. The origins of these people is unknown because their original language (the means by which historians trace the origins of early people) was replaced by one introduced from India.

Cambodia came into being, so the legend says, through the union of a princess and a foreigner. The foreigner was an Indian Brahman named Kaundinya and the princess was the daughter of a dragon king who ruled over a watery land. One day, as Kaundinya sailed by, the princess paddled out in a boat to greet him. Kaundinya shot an arrow from his magic bow into her boat, causing the fearful princess to agree to marriage. In need of a dowry, her father drank up the waters of his land and presented them to Kaundinya to rule over. The new kingdom was named Kambuja. Like many legends, this one is historically opaque, but it does say something about the cultural forces that brought Cambodia into existence, in particular its relationship with its great subcontinental neighbour, India. Cambodia’s religious, royal and written traditions stemmed from India and began to coalesce as a cultural entity in their own right between the 1st and 5th centuries. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The first contacts between the people of Southeast Asia and empires of India and China are believed to have taken place between 50 B.C. and A.D. 100. Chinese and Christian traders are believed to have arrived in Southeast Asia while searching for a maritime Silk Road route to replace overland routes blocked by horseman tribes in Central Asia.

From the A.D. 1st century, the Indianisation of Southeast Asia occurred through trading settlements that sprang up on the coastline of what is now southern Vietnam, but was then inhabited by the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. These settlements were important ports of call for boats following the trading route from the Bay of Bengal to the southern provinces of China.

By the beginning of the A.D. 1st century, Chinese traders began to report the existence of inland and coastal kingdoms in Cambodia. These kingdoms already owed much to Indian culture, which provided alphabets, art forms, architectural styles, religions (Hinduism and Buddhism), and a stratified class system. Local beliefs that stressed the importance of ancestral spirits coexisted with the Indian religions and remain powerful today. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Indian influence started to spread to the region at the latest during the early centuries AD, when two kingdoms or chains of chiefdoms, Funan (c. 150–550) and Chenla (c. 550–800), flourished in the Mekong Delta area. The Khmer empire of ancient Cambodia flourished from the 9th to the 15th centuries.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. [Source:Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki ~~]

The predominant religion was Hinduism, most often in its Shivaistic form. Vishnuism, as well as forms of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, was also practised for shorter periods. One of the features of the syncretistic belief system was the elevation of the king to the realm of the gods. The conception of devaraja, which translates as “god-king”, is mentioned in the stone inscriptions that survive.

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.

Influences of India and China on Southeast Asia

Rugged mountains separated Laos, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia from China. As a consequence they were influenced more by Hinduism and Buddhism which came from India. Hindu kingdoms arose in Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Cambodia, southern Vietnam, southern Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Bali and Lombok.

On the side of Southeast Asia that faced India the influence of India was stronger than the influence of China. At the way stations and ports here, Indian traders brought heir ideas about Hinduism and Indian culture. Later some of these traders took up residence at the ports and communities of Hindus were established. As these communities grew their ideas about religion became more entrenched and were more widely disseminated. Khmer Civilization at Angkor Wat began as Hindu Civilization.

The Pallava kingdom ruled much of south India from A.D. 350 to 880, as the Indian culture arrived in Southeast Asia. In addition to religion, style of dance, its stories, architecture and gaudy color schemes were introduced. The First written language for much of Southeast Asia was Pali, a derivative of Sanskrit. Many written languages in Southeast Asia were based on it.

Of all the Southeast Asian countries Vietnam was influenced the most by China, partly because it was close to China and not separated by natural boundaries. Chinese influences found in Southeast Asia include Taoist thinking, Confucian morality, Chinese mercantilism, Chinese folk medicine, their weight and measure system and kite flying.

The first Hindus arrived as traders, while the first Chinese came as merchants and colonizers. Strong independent empires established themselves in Burma, Thailand and Cambodia. Vietnam on the other was controlled, at war or recovering from a war with China.

Early Civilizations in Cambodia

By the A.D. 1st century, people living in settlements along the coast and in the valleys were cultivating rice, domesticating oxen and cooking food and storing liquids using earthenware containers. They practiced animism and were skilled metalworkers.

At Noen U-Lole, a site 150 miles from Angkor, archeologists discovered the tomb of a man who died around A.D. 300. He wore four bronze belts, 20 wrist bangles, more than 120 finger rings and over 30 toe rings. Archeologists believe that this man and Angkor Wat were related because disc in man’s earlobes resembled those found on figures in Angkor bas-reliefs.

It is most likely that between the 1st and 8th centuries, Cambodia was a collection of small states, each with its own elites that often strategically intermarried and often went to war with one another. Funan was no doubt one of these states, and as a major sea port would have been pivotal in the transmission of Indian culture into the interior of Cambodia. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Airborne Laser Reveals 1200-Year-Old Hidden City in Cambodia

Kristen Gelineau of Associated Press wrote: “Airborne laser technology has uncovered a network of roadways and canals, illustrating a bustling ancient city linking Cambodia's famed Angkor Wat temple complex. The discovery was announced in a peer-reviewed paper released early by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The laser scanning revealed a previously undocumented formally planned urban landscape integrating the 1,200-year-old temples. [Source: Kristen Gelineau, Associated Press, June 18, 2013 -]

“Archaeologists had long suspected that the city of Mahendraparvata lay hidden beneath a canopy of dense vegetation atop Phnom Kulen mountain in Siem Reap province. But the airborne lasers produced the first detailed map of a vast cityscape, including highways and previously undiscovered temples. "No one had ever mapped the city in any kind of detail before, and so it was a real revelation to see the city revealed in such clarity," University of Sydney archaeologist Damian Evans, the study's lead author, said by phone from Cambodia. "It's really remarkable to see these traces of human activity still inscribed into the forest floor many, many centuries after the city ceased to function and was overgrown." -

“The laser technology, known as lidar, works by firing laser pulses from an aircraft to the ground and measuring the distance to create a detailed, three-dimensional map of the area. It's a useful tool for archaeologists because the lasers can penetrate thick vegetation and cover swaths of ground far faster than they could be analyzed on foot. Lidar has been used to explore other archaeological sites, such as Stonehenge. In April 2012, researchers loaded the equipment onto a helicopter, which spent days crisscrossing the dense forests from 800 meters (2,600 feet) above the ground. A team of Australian and French archaeologists then confirmed the findings with an on-foot expedition through the jungle. -

“Archaeologists had already spent years doing ground research to map a 9-square-kilometer (3.5-square-mile) section of the city's downtown area. But the lidar revealed the downtown was much more expansive — at least 35 square kilometers (14 square miles) — and more heavily populated than once believed. "The real revelation is to find that the downtown area is densely inhabited, formally-planned and bigger than previously thought," Evans said. "To see the extent of things we missed before has completely changed our understanding of how these cities were structured." Researchers don't yet know why the civilization at Mahendraparvata collapsed. But Evans said one theory is that possible problems with the city's water management system may have driven people out. The next step for researchers involves excavating the site, which Evans hopes will reveal clues about how many people once lived there. -

Arrival of Hinduism in Southeast Asia

Hinduism preceded Buddhism into Southeast Asia. It was introduced around the sixth century B.C. to Southeast Asia by Indian merchants. Many of the great early civilizations of Southeast Asia-such as the Funan, the Chams in present-day Vietnam and the Khmer's in present-day Cambodia—were strongly influenced by India and Hinduism. Unlike Indian Hinduism, which favored deities like Vishnu and Shiva, Southeast Asian Hinduism revered nagas, who protected temples from evil spirits, and considered Garuda, the eagle mount of Vishnu, to be one of the most important gods.

Hinduism in Southeast Asia gave birth to the former Champa civilization in southern parts of Central Vietnam, Funan in Cambodia, the Khmer Empire in Indochina, Langkasuka Kingdom, Gangga Negara and Old Kedah in the Malay Peninsula, the Srivijayan kingdom on Sumatra, the Singhasari kingdom and the Majapahit Empire based in Java, Bali, and parts of the Philippine archipelago. The civilization of India influenced the languages, scripts, calendars, and artistic aspects of these peoples and nations. [Source: Wikipedia]

Indian scholars wrote about the Dvipantara or Jawa Dwipa Hindu kingdom in Java and Sumatra around 200 BC. Southeast Asia was frequented by traders from eastern India, particularly Kalinga, as well as from the kingdoms of South India. The Taruma kingdom occupied West Java around 400. There was a marked Buddhist influence starting about 425. These seafaring peoples engaged in extensive trade, which attracted the attention of the Mongols, Chinese and Japanese, as well as Islamic traders, who reached the Aceh area of Sumatra in the 12th century.

Hinduism, the Khmers and Angkor Wat

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.

The first Khmer capital was at latter-day Roluos, itself a pre-Angkorian capital, Hariharalaya. This conformed with the classic form of Khmer capital. Leading dignitaries would also build temples, both inside and outside the enceinte, which were dedicated, like the state temple, to Hindu divinities, notably Shiva.

Arrival of Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism reached Sri Lanka about the middle of the 3rd century B.C. From there and from India, some centuries later, it spread to Southeast Asia, reaching Cambodia, Sumatra and Java by the A.D. 3rd century and Burma by at least by the A.D. 5th century. It also took hold to a lesser extent in Malaysia and Borneo and remained strong in there and in Indonesia until the massive conversion to Islam in the 15th century.

Buddhism may have arrived earlier. According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries to Suvanaphoum (the Golden Land) is the 3rd century B.C. Suvanaphoum was an emerging area of Indian and Chinese culture is thought to have embraed southern Myanmar, Thailand and eastern Cambodia.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand: “Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India’s Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, when Indian missionaries are said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand’s central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold). [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet Guide for Thailand]

Mahayana Buddhism may have been the first form of Buddhism to really take hold in Southeast Asia. It arrived in northern Burma from India and remained there from the 5th century to the 11th century as was the case in India. Buddhist monks from India and China also brought with the knowledge of medicine and science from those cultures. Mahayana Buddhism is believed to have arrived in southern Southeast Asia via the Kingdom of Srivjaya in Indonesia or Funan, where it was practiced in the A.D. fifth century.

In the 8th century the powerful Shri-Vijaya kingdom in Sumatra introduced a mixture of Hinduism and Mahayana to the Khmers in present-day Cambodia. The Khmers were originally Hindus. In the late 12th century, Jayavarman VII made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. Mahayana was compatible with the form of Hinduism and the god-king concept that existed in Cambodia at that time. It was expressed in Sanskrit. The Khmers converted to Buddhism in the 12th century under king Jayavarman VII (See Javyavarman VII, Cambodia) but continued to acknowledge Hinduism and worship many Hindu gods, particularly Shiva and Vishnu. The Khmers spread Mahayana Buddhism across Southeast Asia until their kingdom collapsed in the 14th century.

Buddhism had all but died out its homeland of India when it arrived in Southeast Asia. It provided a philosophical and oral framework for people that extended from Tibet to Vietnam. Even though Buddhism became the predominate religion, Hinduism and animism and local religions remained alive and fused together in a way that was unique to the region, embracing some Hindu deities and cult practices and absorbing some animist spirits. Many legends that became part of local folklore have both Hindu and Buddhist elements. Sometimes even different elements of the same religion came together in unique ways. The god Hara-Hara, popular in Khmer art, was a combination of Shiva and Vishnu.

Arrival of Theravada Buddhist in Southeast Asia

Theravada Buddhism developed in Sri Lanka and was introduced to Southeast Asia in southern Burma, when it was inhabited by people known as Mon, by way of eastern India and Sri Lanka. The religion took hold in Burma in A.D. 1040, when the Burmese monarch King Anawratha converted to it. Theravada Buddhism mixed with indigenous beliefs (particularly the belief in spirits called nats) and was spread with the help of rich patrons who supported the monasteries and established new monasteries across country that educated the people. In the process, Mahayana Buddhism disappeared.

The Buddhism brought to Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand owes little to China because it was carried their by monks from India. The texts were in the Pali language and derived from Sanskrit. The Buddhism that was introduced to Cambodia initially belonged to a now dead sect of Mahayana Buddhism called Sarvastivada. Theravada Buddhism did not appear there and in Laos until the 14th century. In Thailand, there is little evidence of it until the 13th century.

In the 13th century the Thai people arrived in northern Thailand from southern China. They absorbed Buddhism from the Mons in the central plains. In the 14th century Thai monks schooled in Sri Lanka returned with reformed concepts of Theraveda Buddhism, and helped spread the religion to Laos and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism arrived in Cambodia slowly in beginning in the 11th century from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma. It offered a new ideology and undermined the Hinduism and the god-king elements of Khmer rule. Theravada Buddhism gained a stronger foothold in Cambodia when the Thais conquered Angkor in 1431 and was the dominate form of Buddhism by the 15th century. It was expressed through the Pali language.

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.

Last updated April 2014

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