Cambodia History


According to Legend, in the first century AD, Kaundinya, an Indian Brahman priest, came to the great lake of Cambodia, Ton Le Sap, to find his fortune. There he met the daughter of the Naga king and married her founding the first kingdom called Phnom. He introduced Hindu customs and law, along with the Sanskrit language. Historians would refer to this as the Funan kingdom, the precursor to the Khmer empire. The Khmer people, who are closely related to the Mon of Thailand and Burma, migrated from southeastern China into the Indochinese Peninsula and Mekong River Valley. The Mon-Khmer people intermingled with the indigenous population that were probably of Austro-Asiatic extraction and would eventually establish the Funan kingdom according to the earliest historical records. 

Funan was among the first South- east Asian kingdoms to embrace the Hindu culture. Located on the lower raches of the Mekong Delta and from it main port of Oc Eo it benefited from it proximity to the east- west trade route between China and India. From its contact with Indian merchants, diplomats and theologians, Funan gradually adopted the Sanskrit language, an Indian hierarchical system of government and law as well as Hindu and Buddhist beliefs.

The Funan kingdom was eventually supplanted by the Chenla kingdom but still retained the social, political and religious institutions from the earlier kingdom. During this time the kingdom expanded to include all of Laos and west into southern Thailand. Internal disputes caused the kingdom to split into Land Chenla (Upper) and Water Chenla (Lower). While Land Chenla remained relatively stable, Water Chenla came under the control of the Sailendra dynasty of Java. This lasted until a Khmer prince, Jayavarman II, having spent time in the Sailendra court, returned to Cambodia and declared all the areas inhabited by the Khmer people independent from Java. Having proclaimed himself universal monarch, Jayavarman instituted the cult of Devaraja, which conferred divine status upon the ruler. He relocated the capital north of the Tonle Sap at Hariharalaya near Angkor and reunited the two Chenlas thus founding the famed Khmer Empire. His successors would begin building on the site at Angkor, which included the construction of an elaborate system of canals and reservoirs to provide irrigation for wet rice cultivation. This was a key to their prosperity and signalled the golden age of the Khmer Empire. It was during this time that the great temple complexes were built along with a system of roads and elevated causeways, rest houses and hospitals. 

Being a Hindu state, the King was the earthly representation of the Hindu deities. The temples were constructed for worship of the king and the gods and the structural features, which included the towers, terraces and moats, represented various elements in the Meru mythology. At Angkor Wat the tower in the centre is the mythical Mount Meru, representing the centre of the universe, while the moat portrays the ocean and the outer wall are the mountains at the world's edge. Temple wall carvings and the external relief's are fables from various Hindu mythologies.
The Khmer Empire would flourish for over 600 years and at its zenith in the 12 century covered most of the Southeast Asian peninsula. The kingdom suffers repeated invasions by the Annamese and the Champas from present day Vietnam. Under Jayavarman VII, the Khmers would conquer the Champas and the kingdom would reach its largest extent. Jayavarman VII would convert to Buddhism, making it the national religion and begin construction on a new temple complex Angkor Thom in 1200. Having over extended themselves in terms of territory and financing the lavish constructions couple with the deterioration of the irrigation system that fuelled their economy, this would signal the beginning of the end for the Khmer Empire. The Thai kingdoms in the west now threatened them and in the 15th century, Ayutthaya captured the capital at Angkor.

Angkor was abandoned to the jungle and the capital moved to a site near present day Phnom Penh at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap. The emphasis shifted from an agricultural to a trading society and they were able to prosper by linking the river commerce to the international trade routes. Maritime trade was further stimulated by the arrival of the Europeans in the region. During the 16th century the capital was moved to Lovek on the Tonle Sap river and it flourished with its foreign trade communities of Spanish, Portuguese, Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians, Malays and later the English and the Dutch. The Thais eventually captured Lovek and at this point in history Thais and the Vietnamese would alternately subjugated them until they became a French protectorate.

The French interest in Cambodia was aroused by the much-publicized travels of the explorer and naturalist Henri Mouhot, who was respon- sible for rediscovering the ruins of Angkor Wat as well as journeying up the Mekong to the Laotian kingdom of Luang Prabang. Through their gunboat diplomacy, they had already annexed the provinces of the Mekong Delta or Cochinchina as it was called as well as Saigon. A French protectorate was established in exchange for the rights to explore and exploit the Cambodian forest and mineral resources. Us- ing its usual means of persuasion, the French would later amend that treaty to give the French governor of Cochinchina far-reaching control over the kingdom and effectively rendering the monarchy power- less. This led the formation of the Union Indochinoise, or Indochina Union that encompassed Cambodia as well as the three regions of Vietnam. Realizing that there was no hidden wealth to be exploited and that it would never achieve the free port status of a Singapore, Cambodia was reduced to a heavily taxed efficient rice-producing colony.