The modern Khmer people came from a fusion of Mon-Khmer ethnic groups living around the Mekong delta during the first six centuries of the Common Era. While archeologists have found evidence that Cambodia has hosted civillisations since the 4th Century BCE, the first Mon-Khmer civillisation on record was known as Funan. Descriptions of the empire are found in Chinese historical records and so “Funan” is a Chinese transliteration of an ancient Khmer word for “Phnom” meaning “hill.”
Funan was located in the south of present day Cambodia and lasted from the first to the sixth centuries CE. Fan Shih-Man was known as the “Great King of Funan,” who “had large ships built, and sailing all over the immense sea he attacked more than ten kingdoms…he [vastly] extended his territory.” Clearly, Funan was a powerful maritime empire.
In the mid-sixth century Funan was subjugated and eventually absorbed by its upstart of a neighbour to the north, Chenla Kingdom – another Khmer power. Chenla didn’t last too long and, within a century, broke into two: Land Chenla and Water Chenla. Land Chenla was stable but Water Chenla was beset by dynastic rivalries. Eventually the whole thing disintegrated into warring states until the region was united in the 8th Century CE under King Jayavarman II and the famous Angkorian period began.
At the beginning of the 9th Century, the Angkorian Kings set up their capital near modern day Siem Reap and for six hundred years they built one temple after another, each grander than the last. Two hundred such temples survive spread over a 400 square kilometers. Jayavarman II (802-850) set the whole thing off when he built a sumptuous residence on the holy Kulen Mountain in the 8th Century. His nephew, King Indravarman I built a vast irrigation system that is still impressive by modern standards in its efficiency. Indeed, the Angkorian Empire drank from this intricate water system for hundreds of years. King Yasovarman (889- 900) founded a new capital that was to be the heart of Angkor and built the famous Eastern Baray, a 7x2km artificial lake.
Frantic temple building continued with the notable Banteay Srei – the woman’s temple being erected in 967 by Brahman Yajnavaraha, a high priest of royal blood. In the eleventh century, King Suryavarman (1002-1050) seized Angkor and founded a glorious dynasty. During his reign, the Gopura of the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom was completed with the pyramid of Phimeanakas at its centre. Suryavarman II (1113-1150) brought the Angkor (which means “Holy City”) empire to new heights, extending it from the coast of the China Sea all the way to the Indian Ocean. Angkor city, by then, was like a modern megacity supporting 0.1% of the entire human population.
The end of Angkor came around 1431 when the city was sacked by the Siamese Ayutthaya Kingdom with whom the Angkorians has been fighting a long and draining war. The wars took up more and more resources until the irrigation systems could not be maintained. The King was forced to retreat and form a new capital in the vicinity of modern Phnom Penh and Angkor was abandoned by the 15th Century.
Growing Siamese and Vietnamese empires formed a pincer either side of Cambodia and over the following centuries Cambodia lost more and more land until eventually, King Norodom (1860-1904) requested a French protectorate over his kingdom. Cambodia became a protectorate of France in 1863 and became part of French Indochina in 1887. During this time the capital, Phnom Penh was known as the “Jewel of Asia” and its modern system of grid-patterned roads and boulevards were put in place.
Cambodia broke from French rule in 1948 and gained full independence in 1953. The 1960s saw an artistic explosion under the stewardship of King Norodom Sihanouk, a keen cinematographer, who produced 50 films in his lifetime. There were many hip bands and movie stars during this time. After this came Pol Pot’s genocidal regime about which much has already been written.
The modern Kingdom of Cambodia has been in place since 1993 and has been under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen since 1985 making him one of the longest serving premiers in the world. It is a dynamic country, developing fast with an economic growth rate of 7-8% per year.