The Remnants of Khmer: Cambodia’s Mighty Empire
Nestled between Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and bordering the tropical waters of the Gulf of Thailand, with its coral reefs and dozens of beautiful islands, is the Kingdom of Cambodia. A nation with a rich and storied history spanning thousands of years. A history of a nation which is intrinsically intertwined with the history of the native Khmer people. A history which is often unfairly overlooked in favour of the country’s more recent troubled past.
Cambodia’s Violent Century
Much like their eastern neighbour Vietnam, which occupied the country from 1978 – 1992, Cambodia experienced an intense period of violent political upheaval in the latter half of the 20th Century. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Mainland Southeast Asia, is sure to have heard of the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge, led by the revolutionary dictator Pol Pot. Between 1 – 3 million people are believed to have died under the harsh and unforgiving policies of the Khmer Rouge between 1975 – 1979, with over a million of that number believed to have been executed, their bodies discovered in some of the tens of thousands of mass graves scattered throughout Cambodia known as Killing Fields.
The horrors of this period live on today, through the tales of survivors and their families, with records of the genocide available for viewing at the sobering Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in the capital Phnom Penh. The museum is situated in a former school commandeered by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and converted into the infamous Security Prison 21 (S-21). Visitors to the site, with its nondescript school buildings, bare cells and cabinets of human skulls, are faced with the sheer mundanity of evil, in a profound experience which will forever change their view of the world.
The barbarity of these events is such that it has inspired multiple books and articles and even the Oscar winning film The Killing Fields (1984), which starred Haing S. Ngor, an actual survivor of a Khmer Rouge labour camp.
Although the dark days of the Civil War now consigned to history, these horrifying events have tainted many people’s image of Cambodia. Portrayals in popular media and extensive news coverage have led many to see this beautiful country as yet another war-torn authoritarian state, covered in land mines and the scars of the past. But the Civil War and its attendant atrocities are just one chapter in the grand history of this beautiful country. A history perhaps best exemplified by Angkor, the City of Temples, the largest religious structure in the world.
The City of Temples
Deep in the heart of a jungle forest left to grow wild and undisturbed for centuries lies the majestic temple city of Angkor, the former capital of the medieval Khmer Empire. Dwelling beneath the shade of towering Chheu Teal trees known to grow 20 meters high, and reached by paths studded with fragrant orchids and wild ginger, this impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site sprawls over an expanse of at least 1,000 square kilometres, leading many to dub the site the “largest pre-industrial city in the world.”
Built over a period of centuries by successive Khmer kings each striving to outdo the last, the city is an eminent symbol of Cambodian pride, with the primary temple Angkor Wat emblazoned upon the national flag. The scale and complexity of the architectural endeavour, with its extensive infrastructure of roads, canals and large reservoirs known as Barays, was so remarkable that early European explorers believed the city to have been built by the Roman Emperor Trajan or even Alexander the Great himself. But this feat of human ingenuity was very much a product of the rich and storied culture of Southeast Asia, of the Khmer people of Cambodia.
Cambodia Pre 20th Century
Long before the turbulent events of the 20th century and in the area we now recognise as modern day Cambodia, the kings of Khmer ruled over an empire lasting from 802AD to the 15th century. The Khmer Empire is relatively unknown in comparison to more famous historical powers such as the Han Dynasty of nearby China or the vast Roman Empire, a sad fact which is thankfully being remedied by the increasing number of tourists flocking to Angkor in recent years.
The majority of information we have about the ancient Khmer comes from the 800m long series of bas-reliefs which wind their way around the central temple of Angkor Wat. Amidst the vine-strewn ruins and gnarled roots of the encroaching Banyan trees, visitors can piece together the illustrious history and myths of this venerable empire.
Khmer society was agriculturally based, with the surrounding rice paddy fields still farmed today providing the majority of the community’s food. An impressive and ingenious irrigation system allowed a population of up to a million citizens to thrive at the height of the empire’s power. With a diverse population of rice farmers, nobles, fishermen, brahmin, metalworkers and slaves, Angkor was truly one of the great pre-modern megacities. A city where its residents would pray at elaborate shrines, train for the fearsome standing armies of the empire, or merely enjoy a game of cockfighting with friends.
A hierarchy representative of the Hindu caste system was employed in medieval Angkor, where the main religions were Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism along with local folk and animist beliefs. Surmounting this hierarchy were the kings themselves, who were recognised as living gods responsible for the success and glory of the Khmer people. The abundance granted by these god kings was utilised to construct some of the most beautiful and awe inspiring religious art to be found anywhere on the planet.
Great stone statues of seven-headed serpents known as Nāga; intricately carven reliefs of Apsaras, revered female mountain and water spirits of Hindu and Bhuddist mythology; and a five metre tall statue of the ‘Preserver’ god Vishnu expertly hewn from a single block of sandstone, are just some of the countless treasures to be found in this sprawling jungle complex. The temple-mountains themselves were constructed to replicate Mount Neru, the ancient home of the deities of Hindu and Bhuddist cosmology, and various aspects of the temples were mathematically designed in accordance with the Khmer people’s extensive knowledge of astronomy.
“It is only through travelling the country; be that walking the bustling streets of Siem Reap, pondering the stones of Angkor or talking to the rice farmers whose ancestors have tilled the land for centuries, that we can properly understand what it means to be Khmer, in all its beautiful complexity.”
The Khmer Today
Beyond the ornate extravagance of the temple complex, over the massive water lily lined moat of Angkor Wat, and away from the hustle and bustle of the tourists, one can still find the direct descendants of this mighty empire. Many of these people live in villages built on sites once populated by the ancient citizens of Angkor, and survive on the same rice crop which fed the labourers, artisans and god kings of centuries before. While still patrons of the larger temples like Angkor Wat and Bayon, the local people also uphold many of the older folk and animist beliefs, and to this day still provide offerings to local protective spirits known as Neak Ta.
The Khmer are the largest ethnic group in Cambodia and are a people fiercely proud of their culture and history. A culture and history which is far too often overlooked by foreigners in favour of the more recent events of the 20th century. The Khmer people, like any other, have experienced great highs and terrible lows throughout their history. Surely, it is our duty as travellers to find out for ourselves the truth behind the headlines, the story behind the statistics, the life amidst the history.
Experience is the greatest teacher. And it is only through travelling the country; be that walking the bustling streets of Siem Reap, pondering the stones of Angkor or talking to the rice farmers whose ancestors have tilled the land for centuries, that we can properly understand what it means to be Khmer, in all its beautiful complexity. Only then, can you truly say that you have visited Nôkô Réach, the Majestic Kingdom of Cambodia.
“Before I began researching Cambodia for this article, I wasn’t aware of just how little I actually knew of the country and how much of what I did know was informed by the political events of the last century. Like most people with an interest in South East Asia, I was aware of the ancient beauty of Angkor, but even that paltry knowledge proved insignificant when presented with the rich history of both its construction and its constructors. If anything, writing this article has impressed upon me the importance of discovering things yourself and not relying on common knowledge and stereotypes. There will always be new stories to unearth for those willing to find them. ”