A Brief Cambodian History
What makes Cambodia such a fantastic place is the thousands of years of history and legends going all the way back to the 9th Century.
Cambodia has gone from the wonders of being the most powerful and successfully advanced culture in the Asian peninsular during the Angkor times to the bleak occupation by the Thai and Vietnamese and the desperate and humiliating rule of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot to the exciting Cambodia we see today. This history has created a fantastically vibrant and unique country.
Despite all that the country and people have been through Cambodia has an infectious energy and life to it that almost everyone feels within minutes of stepping off the plane. As they have rebuilt their country they have been able to step away from any darkness in the past and focus on the opportunity and vibrancy of today.
Here is a brief history to wet your appetite but there are a number of fantastic books which can be purchased in the local markets for $2-5 each or from our ‘online shop’ and make great holiday reading.
Nobody knows for certain how long people have lived in the lands we now call Cambodia, where they came from or what languages they spoke. Recent finds do however suggest that they were a comparatively sophisticated culture living in organised structures with domestic animals. There are suggestions that the first rice cultivation and first bronze castings happened in the region. It is also clear that the languages of the time where closely related to the present Cambodian language of Khmer.
Funan (68 AD – 550 AD)
At about the time that Western Europe was absorbing the classical culture and institutions of the Mediterranean. The people of Southeast Asia were responding to the stimulus of a civilization that had arisen in India during the previous millennium as a consequence of the increasing trade in the Indian Ocean. Vedic and Hindu religion, political thought, literature, mythology and artistic motifs gradually became integral elements in local cultures. The caste system was never adopted, but Indianization stimulated the rise of highly-organized, centralized states.
Funan, the earliest of the Indianized states, is generally considered to have been the first kingdom in the area. Founded in the first century, Funan was located on the lower reaches of the Mekong River delta area, in what is today southeast Cambodia and the extreme south of Vietnam. The area was a natural region for the development of an economy based on fishing and rice cultivation. There is considerable evidence that the Funanese economy depended on rice surpluses produced by an extensive inland irrigation system. Maritime trade played an extremely important role in the development of Funan, and the remains of what is believed to have been the kingdom’s main port, Oc Eo (now part of Vietnam), contain Roman as well as Persian, Indian, and Greek artefacts.
Chenla (550 AD – 802 AD)
King Strutavarman managed to break free from Funan’s control and founded the kingdom of Chenla. A later Chenla king, Bhavarman, invaded Funan annexing it to his domains. They then embarked on a course of conquest that continued for three centuries. They subjugated central and upper Laos, annexed portions of the Mekong Delta, and brought what are now western Cambodia and southern Thailand under their direct control. The people of Chenla were Khmer and wrote in Khmer script, as opposed to the Funan practice of writing in Sanskrit.
In the 8th century factional disputes at the Chenla court resulted in the splitting of the kingdom into rival northern and southern halves. According to Chinese chronicles, the two parts were known as Land (or Upper) Chenla and Water (or Lower) Chenla. Land Chenla maintained a relatively stable existence, but Water Chenla underwent a period of constant turbulence, partly because of attacks from the sea by the Javanese and others.
The Sailendra dynasty in Java actively tried to establish control on Water Chenla territories and eventually forced the kingdom to vassal status. The last of the Water Chenla kings allegedly was killed around 790 by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended. The ultimate victor in the strife that followed was the ruler of a small Khmer state located north of the Mekong Delta. His assumption of the throne as Jayavarman II marked the liberation of the Khmer people from Javanese suzerainty and the beginning of a Khmer empire.
The Great Angkor Kingdom (802 AD – 1431 AD)
The Angkorian period or Khmer Empire began in 802 AD, when the monarch Jayavarman II declared himself a ‘universal monarch’ and ‘god-king’. During this time the Khmer empire was flourishing through programs of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants, a unification had occurred creating a kingdom bordered by China (to the north), Champa (now Central Vietnam, to the east), the ocean (to the south) and a place identified by a stone inscription as the land of cardamoms and mangoes (to the west) which included present Thailand, Laos and parts of Burma.
Angkor the City
In 889 AD, Yasovarman I ascended to the throne. A great king and an accomplished builder, he was celebrated by one inscription as ‘a lion-man’. He tore the enemy with the claws of his grandeur; his teeth were his policies and his eyes were the Veda. Near the old capital of Hariharalaya, he constructed a new city called Yasodharapura on the current site on Angkor. He also constructed a massive reservoir called a baray, the significance of which has been debated by modern scholars, some of them believe it was a means of irrigating rice fields, and others regarded them as religiously charged symbols. Yasovarman built his central temple on a low hill known as Phnom Bakheng which can be visited today and is a great spot to watch the sun set. He also built numerous other Hindu temples.
Over the next 300 years, between 900 and 1200, the Khmer empire produced some of the world’s most magnificent architectural masterpieces in the Angkor area. Some 72 major temples or other buildings are found within this area, and the remains of several hundred additional minor temple sites are scattered throughout the landscape beyond. Because of the dispersed, low-density nature of the medieval Khmer settlement pattern, Angkor lacks a formal boundary; however a specific area of at least 1,000 km² (386 square miles) beyond the major temples is defined by a complex system of infrastructure, including roads and canals. In terms of geographical extent (not population) this makes it the largest urban agglomeration in human history prior to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, in terms of its urban sprawl, medieval Angkor even approaches the size of modern Los Angeles.
The principal temple of the Angkorian period, Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II. Suryavarman ascended to the throne after prevailing in a battle with a rival prince. An inscription says that, in the course of combat, Suryavarman leapt onto his rival’s war elephant and killed him; just as the mythical bird-man Garuda slays a serpent.
Breaking with the tradition of the Khmer kings and influenced perhaps by the concurrent rise of Vaisnavism in India, he dedicated Angkor Wat to Vishnu rather than to Siva. With walls nearly one-half mile long on each side, Angkor Wat grandly portrays the Hindu cosmology. The central towers represented Mount Meru, home of the gods; the outer walls, the mountains enclosing the world; and the moat, the oceans beyond.
Suryavarman had the walls of the temple decorated not only with scenes from mythology, but also from the life of his own imperial court. In one of the scenes, the king himself is portrayed as larger in size than his subjects, sitting cross-legged on an elevated throne and holding court, while a bevy of attendants make him comfortable with the aid of parasols and fans.
Rebuilding of the Empire
Following the death of Suryavarman around 1150 A.D., the kingdom fell into a period of internal strife. Its neighbours to the east, the Cham of what is now southern Vietnam, took advantage of the situation in 1177 to launch a seaborne invasion up the Mekong River and across Tonle Sap. The Cham forces were successful in sacking the Khmer capital of Yasodharapura and in killing the reigning king. However, a Khmer prince rallied his people and defeated the Cham in battles on the lake and on the land and then in 1181 King Jayavarman VII assumed the throne.
He was to be the greatest of the Angkorian kings. Over the ruins of Yasodharapura, he constructed the walled city of Angkor Thom, as well as its geographic and spiritual center, the temple known as the Bayon. Bas-reliefs at the Bayon depict not only the king’s battles with the Cham, but also scenes from the life of Khmer villagers and courtiers. In addition, Jayavarman constructed the well-known temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, dedicating them to his parents.
This massive program of construction coincided with a transition in the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. Jayavarman had adopted the latter as his personal faith after it was introduced by Theravada monks from Sir Lanka in the 12th century. During Jayavarman’s reign, Hindu temples were altered to display images of the Buddha, and Angkor Wat briefly became a Buddhist shrine. Following his death, a Hindu revival included a large-scale campaign of desecrating Buddhist images, until Theravada Buddhism became established as the land’s dominant religion from the 14th century.
An Important Visitor
The year 1296 marked the arrival at Angkor of the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan. Zhou’s one-year sojourn in the Khmer capital during the reign of King Indravarman III is historically significant, because he penned a still-surviving account of approximately 40 pages detailing his observations of Khmer society.
Some of the topics he addressed in the account were those of religion, justice, kingship, agriculture, slavery, birds, vegetables, bathing, clothing, tools, draft animals, and commerce. In one passage, he described a royal procession consisting of soldiers, numerous servant women and concubines, ministers and princes, and finally, the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. Together with the inscriptions that have been found on Angkorian stelas, temples and other monuments, and with the bas-reliefs at the Bayon and Angkor Wat, Zhou’s journal is the most important source of information about everyday life at Angkor. Filled with vivid anecdotes and sometimes incredulous observations of a civilization that struck Zhou as colorful and exotic, it is an entertaining travel memoir as well.
The End of the Angkorian Kingdom
The Angkorian civilization was in decline in the 13th and 14th centuries and officially ended in 1431 AD when Angkor was sacked and looted by Thai invaders. During the course of the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor was abandoned, except for Angkor Wat, which remained a Buddhist shrine.
Several theories have been advanced to account for the decline and abandonment of Angkor:
War with the Thai
It is widely believed that the abandonment of the Khmer capital occurred as a result of Siamese invasions. Ongoing wars with the Siamese were already sapping the strength of Angkor at the time of Zhou Daguan toward the end of the 13th century. In his memoirs, Zhou reported that the country had been completely devastated by such a war, in which the entire population had been obligated to participate.
Erosion of the state religion
Some scholars have connected the decline of Angkor with the conversion of Cambodia to Theravada Buddhism following the reign of Jayavarman VII, arguing that this religious transition eroded the Hindu conception of kingship that undergirded the Angkorian civilization.
Neglect of public works
The weakening of Angkor’s royal government by ongoing war and the erosion of the beliefs of Devaraja undermined the government’s ability to engage in important public works, such as the construction and maintenance of the waterways essential for irrigation of the rice fields upon which Angkor’s large population depended for its sustenance. As a result, Angkorian civilization suffered from a reduced economic base, and the population was forced to scatter.
Other scholars attempting to account for the rapid decline and abandonment of Angkor have hypothesized natural disasters such as earthquakes, inundations, or drastic climate changes as the relevant agents of destruction.
Recent research suggests that the decline may have been due to a shortage of water caused by the transition from the Medieval Warm Period to the Little Ice Age. Research has established tree-ring chronologies indicating severe periods of drought across mainland Southeast Asia in the early 1400s, raising the possibility that Angkor’s canals and reservoirs ran dry and ended expansion of available farmland.
The truth is probably a combination of these factors which sadly bought the end to a magnificent empire and has left us the wonderful monument of the temples of Ankor, almost all of which can be visited and experienced today.
The Dark Ages (1431 AD – 1863)
After the fall of Ankor in 1432 the court moved the Capital to Lovek near present day Phnom Penh where the kingdom sought to regain its glory through maritime trade. The attempt was short-lived as continued wars with the Thai and Vietnamese resulted in the loss of more territory and Lovek was conquered in 1594. During the next three centuries, the Khmer kingdom alternated as a vassal state of the Thai and Vietnamese kings, with short-lived periods of relative independence between.
The French Connection (1883 – 1955)
In 1863, King Norodom, who had been installed by Thailand, sought the protection of France from the Thai and Vietnamese after tensions grew between them. In 1867 the Thai king signed a treaty with France renouncing suzerainty over Cambodia in exchange for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces which officially became part of Thailand. The provinces were ceded back to Cambodia by a border treaty between France and Thailand in 1906.
Cambodia continued as a protectorate of France from 1863 to 1953, administered as part of the colony of French Indochina although they were briefly occupied by the Japanese empire from 1941 to 1945. After King Norodom’s death in 1904, France manipulated the choice of king and Sisowath, Norodom’s brother, was placed on the throne. The throne became vacant in 1941 with the death of Monivong, Sisowath’s son, and France passed over Monivong’s son, Monireth, feeling he was too independently minded. Instead, Norodom Sihanouk, who was eighteen years old at the time, was enthroned and so started a long and complicated relationship with his country.
The French thought young Sihanouk would be easy to control. They were wrong, however, and under the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia gained independence from France on November 9, 1953. During this time Cambodia officially lost control over the Mekong Delta when it was awarded to Vietnam as it had been controlled by them since 1698 when King Chey Chettha II granting Vietnamese permission to settle in the area decades before. This remains an issue with many Cambodia’s to this day.
The Cold War (1955 – 1975)
In 1955, Sihanouk abdicated in favour of his father in order to be elected Prime Minister. Upon his father’s death in 1960, Sihanouk again became head of state, taking the title of Prince. As the Vietnam War progressed, Sihanouk adopted an official policy of neutrality in the Cold War.
However, Cambodians began to take sides and he was ousted while on a trip abroad in 1970 by a military coup led by Prime Minister General Lon Nol and Prince Sisowath Sirik Matak with the back-up support of the United States. Settling in Beijing, China, Sihanouk was forced to realign himself with the Chinese communists. Soon the Khmer Rouge rebels would use him for gaining territory in the regions. The King urged his followers to help in overthrowing the pro-United States government of Lon Nol, hastening the onset of civil war.
Between 1969 and 1973, Republic of Vietnam forces and U.S. forces bombed and briefly invaded Cambodia in an effort to disrupt the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge. Some two million Cambodians were made refugees by the war and fled to Phnom Penh. Estimates of the number of Cambodians killed during the bombing campaigns vary widely, as do views of the effects of the bombing. The US Seventh Air Force argued that the bombing prevented the fall of Phnom Penh in 1973 by killing 16,000 of 25,500 Khmer Rouge fighters besieging the city. However, it is also argued that the bombing drove peasants to join the Khmer Rouge. Others argue that the Khmer Rouge would have won anyway.
In 1967 the North Vietnamese army laid the first landmines in Cambodia, and continued to do so throughout the Vietnam War period to protect bases and supply routes, which were established along the border on Cambodian territory. The United States responded with covert operations from 1969 to 1973, dropping bombs and laying mines well within neutral Cambodia. Following the coup in 1970 the war between Khmer Rouge forces and the US-backed Lon Nol regime saw landmines used across extensive areas of Cambodia.
As the Vietnamese war ended in 1975, a US AID report observed that the country faced famine, with 75% of its draft animals destroyed, and that rice planting for the next harvest would have to be doneby the hard labour of seriously malnourished people.
Khmer Rouge (1975 – 1979)
The Khmer Rouge reached Phnom Penh and took power in 1975. The regime, led by Pol Pot immediately evacuated the cities and sent the entire population on forced marches to rural work projects. They attempted to rebuild the country’s agriculture on the model of the 11th century; discarded Western medicine, and destroyed temples, libraries, and anything considered Western.
During this time between 1 and 3 million Cambodians, out of a total population of 8 million died from executions, overwork, starvation and disease. This era gave rise to the Killing Fields, and the prison Tuol Sleng (S21) became notorious for its history of mass killing. Hundreds of thousands fled across the border into neighbouring countries. The regime disproportionately targeted ethnic minority groups such as Cham Muslims and ethnic Chinese and anyone educated included doctors, lawyers, monks and teachers. While in power from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge used mines extensively along the borders with Vietnam and Thailand, turning the country into what was called a prison without walls.
Independence (1979 – Present)
By December 1978, due of several years of border conflict and the flood of refugees fleeing Cambodia, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam collapsed. Pol Pot, fearing a Vietnamese attack, ordered a pre-emptive invasion of Vietnam. His Cambodian forces crossed the border and looted nearby villages. These Cambodian forces were repulsed by the Vietnamese.
The Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, an organization that included many dissatisfied former Khmer Rouge members and the Vietnamese armed forces then invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Despite a traditional Cambodian fear of Vietnamese domination, defecting Khmer Rouge activists assisted the Vietnamese.
At the same time, the Khmer Rouge retreated west, and it continued to control certain areas near the Thai border for the next decade. These Khmer Rouge bases were not self-sufficient and were funded by diamond and timber smuggling; military assistance from China channelled by means of the Thai military and food from markets across the border in Thailand. Violent occupation and warfare between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge holdouts continued throughout the 1980s.
In 1985 Vietnam declared that it would complete the withdrawal of its forces from Cambodia by 1990 having allowed the government that it had instated there to consolidate and gain sufficient military strength however this did not bring peace.
Further peace efforts began in Paris in 1989, culminating two years later in October 1991 in a comprehensive peace settlement. The United Nations was given a mandate to enforce a ceasefire, and deal with refugees and disarmament.
In 1992 the Khmer Rouge boycotted the election, rejected its results and resumed fighting against the new Cambodian coalition government. There was a mass defection in 1996, when around half the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers (about 4,000) left.
In 1997, a conflict between the two main participants in the ruling coalition caused Prince Rannaridh to seek support from some of the Khmer Rouge leaders, while refusing to have any dealings with Pol Pot. This resulted in bloody factional fighting among the Khmer Rouge leaders, ultimately leading to Pol Pot’s trial and imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot died in April 1998. By 1999, most members had surrendered or been captured, and the Khmer Rouge as an organisation effectively ceased to exist.
Throughout this period Landmines were extensively deployed by all groups across very fluid battle lines as a weapon of choice to protect territory, channel enemy forces to vulnerable positions, and demoralize communities. Millions of mines were laid especially in a 600-kilometer barrier along the Thai border.
Another major episode of mine laying followed the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in September 1989, in the military power vacuum that resulted. Government forces laid an enormous quantity of mines to hold back resistance forces on the Thai border. Resistance fighters in turn launched an offensive bigger than any in the war prior to this, and laid mines deep within the country. Mines continued to be employed by the Khmer Rouge and by Government forces even after the 1993 elections.
Cambodia along with Angola are the two worst landmine effect countries. Landmines have caused considerable human damage and unfortunately most of this is to innocent civilians. International attention was raised by the Late Princess Diana among others through the 90′s and since then an extensive clearing program has been in operation run by a combination or Cambodia’s military and international support especially from Japan. Mine clearing has been a success with injuries dropping sharply over the last 10 years with over 520 square kilometres clear and over 2.7 million mines destroyed. Although there is still many years of work to be done the area of land cleared per year is increasing. Although precautions are required in some remote rural areas, areas visited by tourists are safe and mine free.
Cambodia really is the hidden gem of South East Asia and compared to their next door neighbours in Thailand and Vietnam, it is still relatively unknown by the tourist hordes. However this is already beginning to change as travellers get to hear about the incredible Angkorian heritage and the warm welcome that lies behind the bewitching Cambodian smile.
Cambodia is much like all developing countries and has its fair share of problems and challenges to deal with. Thirty years of civil war, the destruction caused by the Khmer Rouge genocide and isolation from the rest of the world took a heavy toll. Cambodia has a very young population and over three-quarters of Cambodians were too young to remember the Khmer Rouge years. This means the country has a young, go-ahead generation who are seeking to catch up as fast as they can with their more illustrious neighbours. At the same time, they are aware of their illustrious heritage, the master-builders of World Heritage sites like Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear and of the beguiling Apsara classical dance, these are priceless cultural gems that must be woven into the fabric of the today’s new Cambodia.
It’s a country that is experiencing change faster than anywhere else in South East Asia and we recommend you come and see it for yourself, both the old and the new, and become as enraptured by that Cambodian smile as every other visitor, past and present.
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