Khmer Empire Facts

The Khmer Empire existed in Southeast Asia from A.D. 802 to 1431. At its height, it encompassed areas of Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. Its former capital, Angkor, was located in modern-day Cambodia. Unlike many other wide-ranging empires, it left behind no written records other than stone inscriptions.

Early Khmer Empire

The area in which the Khmer Empire developed was heavily influenced by India, and it engaged in extensive trade with China as well. It also incorporated elements from Javanese culture, as the kingdom, Kambuja, was originally under Javanese rule. The first king of the Khmer Empire is considered to be Jayavarman II, who established Kambuja and then declared its independence from Java. He founded Angkor, the Khmer Empire's capital, and named himself chakravartin, which can be loosely translated as "king of the world," in 802.

Growth of the Khmer Empire

The successors of the first king of the Khmer Empire, Jayavarman II, expanded the empire over the next few centuries. Some, such as Indravarman I (877-889), did so without using military force. Many kings undertook large building projects, creating temples and water reservoirs. After a war in 950, between Kambuja and Champa, which was located in what is now Vietnam, a period of peace set in under the rule of Jayavarman V. During this time, Jayavarman V established more temples and welcome artists, philosophers and scholars to his court.

Increasing conflict in the empire

Unfortunately, after the peaceful, prosperous and creative era under the rule of Jayavarman V, a period of conflict followed. Several successive kings ruled for only short periods, repeatedly overthrown to be replaced by another short-lived ruler. Suryavarman I ended this trend when he came to power in 1010. He ruled for forty years but was constantly under siege from would-be usurpers. After his death, another period of turmoil set in until Suryavarman II led the Khmer Empire to its height both in power and size of territory.

Decline of the Khmer Empire

The 12th century saw the empire again torn apart by internal struggle, external warfare, and political instability. In 1177, Kambuja fell to Champa and became a province of the neighboring nation. Jayavarman VII, though, proved another strong-willed and long-lasting ruler. After 22 years of struggle, he liberated Kambuja and took over large parts of Champa in 1203. During his rule, building projects created more temples, extensive road systems to connect all parts of the empire, and even more than 100 hospitals.

Jayavarman VII was succeeded by his son, Indravarman II, who proved a much less effective ruler. He lost much of the territory his father had gained, and the Khmer Empire began its decline. Various factors contributed to this decline, though the lack of written records makes it difficult to determine exactly why the empire fell. A change in the official religion might have reduced the authority of Angkor's kings. Angkor also suffered major setbacks against Thai kingdoms, and there is some evidence their previously highly effective irrigation systems began to break down, leading to reduced harvests. Southeast Asia also began to feel the effects of the plague between 1330 and 1345, and Angkor was supplanted as the center of the kingdom in 1432 in favor of Phnom Penh. The once-great city gradually fell out of use, though its many temples remained active, and the Khmer Empire faded into obscurity.

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