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Home : Holidays : Southeast Asia : Cambodia : A historic destination in Cambodia

A historic destination in Cambodia

Cambodia has so much to offer to international traveler in terms of a rich cultural, natural and historical heritage. Not only are there the world renowned Angkor Wat complex and surrounding temples steeped in history and mystique, but for those who enjoy relaxing on tropical beaches. The country undoubtedly offers some of the most beautiful unspoiled beaches in the world. Offshore lie coral islands and exotic fish while inland indigenous flora and fauna, waterfalls, and tropical forests all await discovery.

Map of Cambodia

Cambodia has places of interest all over the country but the principle attractions can be divided into three main areas: Phnom Penh, Siemreap (Angkor), and the South Coast. However, for eco-tourists, more and more people are heading off the beaten track and venturing into the hilltribe regions of Rattanakiri, Mondulkiri, the Kirirom National Park and other more remote but beautiful rural areas.

Without question, the heritage of Cambodia far surpasses that of any of its neighbor, harking back to a past time when it was the dominating force of the region. Its territory, far in excess of its current one, encompassed much of what is now Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The architectural achievements from this period are without equal in the region and are on par with the wonders of ancient Egypt or Aztec Monuments. Extensive articles about the History - Angkor Civilization, Reasons for rise and fall of the Khmer Empire.

The History of Khmer Empire

The Khmer or Angkor Civilization came into existence during the period from 802 to 1431 A.D. and stretched as far as the modern Thailand-Burma Border in the West and Wat Phou of Laos in the North during its peak.

Its emergence lies in the fact that the ancient Khmer rulers adopted a right political doctrine of its time, which enforce the unity among people. Moreover, they had developed an intelligent irrigation system to control the water of the great Mekong River for agricultures, which enhanced its prosperity. The Khmer Civilization had long been perished over 5 centuries ago, but it left outstanding monuments such as the great Khmer temples of Angkor Wat and Bayon and numerous unique sculptures like Apsara.

The word "Angkor" is derived Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, of "Nagara" which means "City". Angkor Wat literally means "City of Temple" and Angkor Thom "The Magnificent City".

No doubts, the ancient Khmers were great masters of stone carving. As we can see today the unarguable evidences of various Angkor temples lying on the vast plain of Siemreap, or even beyond its present-day border to the Preah Vihear at Dangrek Mountain, Phnomrung and Phimai in Thailand and Wat Phu in Laos. All these were created and carefully crafts by the ancient Khmers in successive centuries. This seems to contradict with the normal and easy-going life of the local Khmer people and villagers of their time. What drive them to put such an extraordinary efforts and time will be explained in the next chapters.

The study of Khmer civilization in depth is not easy and pain-taking by the historians and archaeologists. Most of the writing, found after the excavation of Angkor, were carved in the stones which became the unperishable materials against time. Although these evidences are important for us to understand the basic constituency of Khmer society and its chronology, they were mainly concerned with religious rituals, King's praise, and literature of Indian epics of "Ramayana" and "Mahabharata". There were little things saying about the ordinary life of the local people.

Interestingly, we learn about the daily way of life of the ancient Khmers, not from the Khmer themselves, but from the Chinese annals. In the middle of 13th century during Chinese Yuan Dynasty, a Chinese ambassador named Zhou Daguan traveled to Angkor, stayed with the local villagers, and explored this empire for a year before his return. He wrote in his Chinese chronicle about this amazing empire, and explain vividly how the people lives with the clear portrayal of the Khmer society during those days.

The center of the Khmer Civilization is at the Angkor Wat area which is situated on the plain of present-day Siemreap province north of the Great Lake of Tonle Sap. Throughout the course of Khmer history, the kingship was frequently attained by violent means with bloodshed throne. There were successive capitals built by different kings in the region, not far from each others; these capitals are at area of Angkor Wat and Roluos with the different names such as Harihalara, Yasodharapura, Jayendanagari, Angkor Thom and a few unknown names.

Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and several other Khmer temples are undoubtedly the relics of the past Khmer Civilization. In order to help travelers as well as readers to get a clearer picture of Cambodia and these temple complexes, we have put up several articles on Khmer Civilization which covers the historical background, successive eras from the beginning till the end, reasons of rise and fall of this civilization and a chronology

Reasons for the rise of Angkor Empire

1) The adoption of Indian doctrines of deva-raja or "god-king"

The ancient Khmer kings adopted a successful monarchy system of Indian civilization as the replica. Being revered as the "god-king" or deva-raja, the Khmer kings were able to rule over the empire with divine kingship and absolute power. This enhanced the kings to mobilize large manpower to serve in its military force to defend the nation as well as to invade the neighbors. In addition, the kings could maintain their extensive irrigation system which was the prime factor of its successful economy with their Khmer laborers and foreign slaves.

Moreover, the kings surrounded themselves with the wise men or the "learned" Khmer Brahmins as their counselors. The Brahmins were known to have acquire vast knowledge which were inherited from father to sons or taught only within the family. These learned Brahmins help the kings to run an efficient administration of the country, and thus resulted in stronger empire.

2) Strategic Location

Well-chosen strategic location of the Angkor by its founder Jayavarman II hampered the attack by its potential enemies which enable its existence for over 6 centuries.

The Angkor was situated in the North of Tonle Sap Lake, and the only possible way for invaders to bring in a large enough troop to fight against the Angkor is by sailing upstream from the Mekong River. Geographically, the Angkor was protected by rugged thick forests from all sides. There were no well-developed roads, and the land access with large military force could turn out into a tragedy. The troops and weapons had to be delivered in a long line which could not support one another in case of being attack. A good example is the Persian invasion to the Greeks during the 4th and 5th B.C. Greece for instance was protected by high mountains. Although the Persian was far more superior and much more in number, it could hardly win over the Greeks.

When the enemies intended to attack the Angkor, they have to sail up from the Mekong River only to meet with the strong naval force of Angkor upstream. The enemy's battle ships moved slower thus became an easier target of being attacked and sunk. Throughout the history of over 600 years, Angkor lose only one major naval battle on Tonle Sap Lake to Champa in 1171.

3) Mastery over Water Control

The geographical location of the Angkor Empire itself faces two extreme seasons, i.e. the heavy rainfall during Monsoon and the dry period during the off-Monsoon season. Numerous large reservoirs, dikes, moats and ponds helped significantly to prevent floods over the farmland during the heavy rainfall in Monsoon and to conserve water storage for use during the dry season. The efficient and extensive irrigation system of the ancient Khmer enabled the empire to cultivate crops two to three times a year which led to high productivity and strong economy of the Angkor Empire.

Reasons for the Fall of Angkor Civilization

1) Introduction of Theravada Buddhism

The pillar of the Angkor Civilization was supported by the religious belief of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. The monarchs being regarded as the god-king were able to motivate the dedication of their people to serve the throne as a divine service. The empire's extensive irrigation system and military troops required massive laborers and manpower to maintain. The introduction of Theravada Buddhism in 13th century to the Khmers had turned out to hurt sublimely the basic foundation of the Angkor Empire in the long run. Theravada Buddhism taught the people to seek self-enlightenment, abandon worldly things and discourage any superstition belief which directly or indirectly means all deities and all evils. The sovereignty of the Angkorian monarch as a "god-king" or deva-raja was basically challenged.

2) Loss of Water Control

Less devotion of the people to the "god-king" led negative impact to the empire. The Khmers seem unwilling to work wholeheartedly for the king as a holy service as they had previously did. The formerly efficient irrigation and drainage system became silted up with less water supply and the rice crops, used to be cultivated two or three times a year, were dramatically dropped, thus weaken the productivity and the strength of the Angkor Empire.

3) External Threats

As neighboring states of the Angkor grew, they became a major threat to the empire, especially the Thai State of Ayuthaya in the Chaophaya River Basin to the West. In order to protect the empire, the Angkor had to direct portion of its manpower to secure strong armed forces, which in turn, deprived itself from giving good maintenance to its irrigation system.

4) Double-edged sword of Roads Network

The road network built by Jayavarman VII had aided the transports of products and trades throughout the empire and also facilitated the Khmer troops to quell its neighbors. It had became a double-edged sword when the Angkor became weak as the invaders could easily marched in through this road network, instead of previously sailing up from the Mekong River. This turned out to be true when the newly emerged Ayuthaya, a Thai kingdom in the West became stronger. They use this road to march from the Chaophaya River basin through Phnomrung (in Burirum of modern Thailand) and then through Aranyapathet to attack right at the heart of Angkor and finally sacked the empire in 1431. The glory of the Angkor Civilization was terminated since that time.

Cambodia Chronology

YearsKings of Khmer

Major Events and Construction

1st-7th Century A.D.-Funan Civilization
550 A.D.-Chenla's Independence from Funan
613-Chenla's conquest of Funan
657-681Jayavarman I

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7th century-Division of Chenla Kingdom and invasion of Java Empire
802-834Jayavarman IIFounder of Angkor Empire
834-877Jayavarman IIIPrei Monti temple
877-889Indravarman IMove capital to Roluos; construct monuments such as Preah Ko, and Bakong (Roluos)
889-910Yasovarman IMove capital from Roluos to Yasodharapura with Phnom Bakheng as the capital center; construction: Lolei, Phnom Bakheng, Eastern Baray
910-923Harshavarman IMonument: Baksei Chamkrong and Prasat Kravan
923-928Isanavarman II

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928-941Jayavarman IVBuilt a new capital of Koh Ker
941-944Harshavarman II

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944-968Rajendravarman IIKhmer sacked Champa. Construction of Eastern Mebon and Pre Rup
968-1000Jayavarman VConstruction of Banteay Srei and Takeo
1001-1002Udayadityavarman I

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1002-1010Jayaviravarman

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1010-1050Suryavarman IStruggle for power to succeed the throne with Suryavarman I's victory
1050-1066Udayadityavarman IIConstruction of Baphoun, Western Mebon, and Western Baray
1066-1080Harshavarman III

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1080-1107Jayavarman VIBuilt Phimai temple
1107-1113Dharanindravarman I

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1113-1150Suryavarman IIConstruction of Angkor Wat, Beng Melea, Banteay, Samre, Chey Say Tevoda, Thommanon
1150-1160Dharanindravarman II

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1160-1165Yasovarman II

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1165-1181TribhuvanadityavarmanChams defeat Angkor in 1177
1181-1219Jayavarman VIIAngkor expelled Chams; extensive construction of roads and monuments such as Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Phrom, Banteay Kdei, Neak Pean, Sras Srang, etc
1219-1243Indravarman II

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1243-1295Jayavarman VIIIMass Destruction of Buddha statues; Kublai Khan' Mongol invaded Angkor's border
1295-1309SrindravarmanZhou Daguan visits Angkor between 1296-1297
1309-1431Minor reignsAngkor Sacked by Thai Army; Glory of Ankgor ends in 1431
1432-1859-Dark period of Angkor (rare historical accounts found)
1860-Re-discovery of Angkor by Henri Mouhot
1863-Cambodia became a French Colony
1907-Siemreap (Angkor) and Battambang, previously Thai's territory, fell into the French hand.
1908-Angkor Conservancy established by French
1908-1972-Archaeological study and restoration of Angkor temples
1972-Archeological activities stopped as civil war broke up
1975-1979-Reign of Terror by Khmer Rouge
1979-1990-Political unrest in Cambodia
1990-2000-Modern Cambodia