A Smart Traveler’s History of Cambodia, Pt. 1

This is the beginning of a three-part installment of "A Smart Traveler’s History of Cambodia.  Part one is "From the Beginning of the Common Era to the End of the Angkorian Period."  In part two, we'll cover the end of Angkor up to the end of the Khmer Rouge.  The last part will be an up-to-date travelers current events for Cambodia.  We hope you learn lots and enjoy!

Indic Influence in Cambodia

Cambodia has a long past that continues to shadow it.  There are the sleepy placid faces of the Jayavarman VII of Angkor Thom and the stricken, stark black and white photos that line the walls of Tong Sleng prison, and waving, happy royalty.  When most of us encounter a country like Cambodia, we are left with the taste of history in our mouths, as complex as any kroeung, the classically Cambodian curry. Even this common dish reflects the deep pool of history.

Khmer cooking mirrors the history of this Southeast Asian kingdom from ancient influences of Vedic cooking to a modern legacy of fine breads borrowed from their French colonizers. Chilies were introduced into Southeast Asia in the 16th century by the Portuguese. Kroeung is a specifically Khmer blend of curry; it was not only religion that was imported from India, but also the art of blending spices (via Java). Kroeung forms the essence of Khmer cuisine with its more subtle flavors and distinguishes it from that of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.

At about the beginning of Common Era, Cambodians underwent a process of cultural change as they imported “great traditions” from the Indian subcontinent. Today, travelers may still see much closer cultural affinities between South India and Cambodia than nearby Vietnam. Food is eaten with the hand and soup spoon, not chopsticks. Rural peoples wear turbans, their classically Khmer krormas. Larger krormas are often wore in the styles of dhotis or they wear lungis. The Khmer writing system, aksar Khmer, was borrowed from the Vedic script probably before India itself had been completely Sanskritized. Power Hindu kingdoms were established in Sumatra and the Indonesian islands that exerted strong Indic influence indirectly. Much like South Asia, leaders of particular martial prowess supplemented with religious stagemanship were able to carve out kingdoms of increasing expanse and sophistication and increasingly they relied on Indian notions of the devaraja, or god-king, and Sanskrit justifications for the institute of divine rule. 

Various principalities rose and fell. However, about the same time that a strong Indic influence was being felt in Cambodia there rose to power one of the first recorded dynasty's of Cambodia, a kingdom known to the Chinese at the Funan. The Funan court was large enough and wealthy enough to offer gifts to the empirial court of China towards the middle half of the second century Common Era and claimed its origins in an inspired Indian brahman, Kaundinya. Archeological records and Chinese accounts inform us it was a Siva-worshipping state, but its relative strength and prominence among its neighbor states is less well known.

The monuments that make up the gem of Cambodia, Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple structures begin to appear nearly a thousand years after the Common Era, when a great succession of Khmer kings controlled a centralized and powerful empire. The Angkorean period is generally dated between 802 CE and 1431 CE. The beginning date is marked by the claim of Jayavarman II to the title of devaraja and "universal monarch" (chakravartin) among the present day Kulen Hills. Through a program of military campaigns, alliances, marriages and land grants, he achieved a unification of the country 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. Phnom Kulen, an hour trip into jungle and countryside from Siem Reap, still contains some of the oldest Angkorian ruins as well as river lingas and other features carved into the riverbeds, early examples of what would emerge as the cultural brilliance of this early Khmer empire.

Angkorean History

The kingdom of Jayavarman and his successors were not the only contenders of a great empire struggle that took place throughout Southeast Asia. Mon-Khmer kingdoms of the Burmese and Khmer, the Thai kingdoms, the Malay-related Champas, the Vietnamese, and the Malay kingdoms of Melacca and Sumatra. The Javanese were powerful through insular Southeast Asia and the mountains of Laos came to be home of the Lan Xang kingdom. 

Phnom Kulen ruins
The Thais and Champa each operated considerable influence over Cambodia, and one that can still be seen in playing out in contemporary Cambodian foreign relations with Cambodia and its neighbors. The Thai and Champa invasions and counter-invasions, the pushing the line of control back against the Champa kingdom and the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, were central in shaping the Khmer kingdom. Indeed the devaraja was seen as a protector—Jayavarman literally translates from Sanskrit into “Victory+Protection.” The Angkorian dynasty eventually fell to the predation of the Ayutthaya kingdom, a Thai kingdom centered near present-day Bangkok. Within less than a century they climbed to power, and eventually in 1431 they sacked the great Khmer capital of Angkor. Today, border, cooperation and trade relations with Thailand and dominate the Cambodian news and continue to occupy present-day Cambodians. While the current regime has been hostile to the Thai democrats, it remains close to the ruling Vietnamese government as well as the Thai populist movement. 

The ruins of Angkor are located amid forests and farmland to the north of the Great Lake (Tonlé Sap). The temples of the Angkor area number over one thousand, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble scattered through rice fields to the magnificent Angkor Wat, said to be the world's largest single religious monument. Many of the temples at Angkor have been restored, and together, they comprise the most significant site of Khmer architecture. Visitor numbers approach two million annually. In 2007, an international team of researchers using satellite photographs and other modern techniques concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world, with an elaborate system of infrastructure connecting an urban sprawl of at least 1,000 square kilometres (390 sq mi) to the well-known temples at its core. The principal temple of the Angkorian region, Angkor Wat, was built between 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II.

Check in next week for the second part, "From the End of Angkor to the End of the Khmer Rouge."


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