Khmer (802 – 1431)

The great rulers of Cambodia and their wide-ranging empire.

The Customs of Cambodia
14th century

Who were the Khmer?

The Khmer Empire was a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom located in Southeast Asia. It flourished from 802 to 1431 CE, making it one of the longest-lasting civilizations in the medieval period. At its peak, the Khmer Empire covered most of modern Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.


The Khmer people were known for their impressive cities and monuments, such as the Angkor complex, which was the largest urban center in the world at the time. Their cities featured intricate stone carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, as well as majestic Buddhist sculptures.

Many of these structures were lost to the world for hundreds of years, until they were rediscovered by archaeologists in the 19th century. In the decades since, historians have tried to piece together what life in this empire was like.

Lack of sources

The Khmer Empire did have a writing system, which can be found on the walls of some of their temples, but apart from these stone inscriptions, none of their writings survived to the modern day.

Not many accounts from foreign visitors are available to historians either. In fact, only one primary written account has survived the passage of time. It was written in the 13th century by a Chinese diplomat – Zhou Daguan – who spent a year living in the Khmer Empire.


During this time, he wrote *The Customs of Cambodia*, which provides insight into Khmer society, including descriptions of festivals, ceremonies, food, and trade. This source is incomplete, and only includes about a third of Zhou’s original writings, but considering the lack of other sources, the surviving fragments are invaluable.

The origins of the Khmer

The Khmer people are believed to have originated in the Mekong Delta, where they built a traditional agricultural community. The farmers mainly grew rice, which was a staple part of their diet.

By the 1st century, these agricultural communities had grown into several small kingdoms. Funan was a maritime kingdom that traded with India and China, adopting elements of their culture, including Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. Chenla appeared slightly later, and continued where Funan left off.

Kingdoms like these continued to rise and fall in the region, often warring with each other along the way. It was not until the end of the 8th century, when a man named Jayavarman appeared, and combined these smaller, warring kingdoms into a large, unified state.

Jayavarman II

The story of Jayavarman – the first Khmer ruler – would never have been known by modern historians if not for the Sdok Kok Thom temple in Thailand. On one of the temple’s intricate walls, an inscription explains how Jayavarman rose to power.

According to the inscription, he traveled to South East Asia from a place called Java, which may or may not have been the modern island with the same name. He led a series of successful military campaigns, building a federation of states, and in 802 CE, he named himself chakravartin, or ‘universal ruler’, during a ceremony on Kulen Mountain.

His descendants became impressive figures, who controlled the region for many centuries to come. *The Customs of Cambodia* describes one of these figures: “Behind them comes the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand. The elephant’s tusks are encased in gold.”

City infrastructure

The Khmer Empire is renowned for its impressive infrastructure, with sprawling cities that included temples, baray reservoirs, extensive highways, and hospitals. These hospitals may have been part of the world’s first public healthcare system.

The most famous of their cities is the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province, which covers an area of over 1000 square kilometers, making it almost as large as modern-day Los Angeles. The city included majestic palaces and market squares.

*The Customs of Cambodia* described how “All official buildings and homes of the aristocracy, including the Royal Palace, face the east.” This source also said that the market squares were run by women; supposedly, women were in charge of trade and commerce.

Religion and worship

In the early years of the Khmer Empire, people were predominantly Hindu. The first king, Jayavarman, was a devout follower of Shiva, and built numerous temples throughout his empire to honor the Hindu gods.

By the 10th century, Buddhism had become more popular among the Khmer people, and many of their temples were converted into Buddhist shrines. Traditional animism was also common; the empire’s religion was generally quite diverse.


The Khmer had a festive approach to worship, and enjoyed big celebrations and parades. Wrestling, horse racing, music and dance were all important parts of their culture. Bon Om Touk was an annual boat race which still takes place in Cambodia today.

The rival Cham

The Khmer Empire was not the only power in Southeast Asia during this period. In the 1100s, they clashed with rival states, especially the Cham people of modern-day Vietnam.


The two sides were evenly matched, and exchanged pieces of territory back and forth. In 1145, the Khmer briefly held the Cham capital at Vijaya, and in 1177, the Cham looted the Khmer city of Angkor. This was a humiliating event in Khmer history, and left the empire looking fragile.

This changed when a Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII, managed to defeat the Cham in 1203, and claim their territory as his own. He is generally regarded as the Khmer’s greatest king. Without him, the empire might have fallen, but with him, they managed to survive.

The decline of the Khmer

The decline of the Khmer Empire has puzzled historians for centuries. It happened during the 14th century, later than Zhou wrote *The Customs of Cambodia*, which means the source does not offer any insight to explain what happened to them.

Some historians have pointed to ecological factors, like drought or disease. Their decline coincided with the spread of the Black Death through nearby China. This plague killed millions of people in China, and might have had the same effect in the Khmer Empire.

Whatever the cause, the Khmer Empire declined in strength, which left them open to foreign invasion. In 1431 CE, the kingdom of Ayutthaya, in neighboring Siam, swept into the empire and claimed the territory as their own.

The legacy of the Khmer

The most noticeable legacy of the Khmer Empire is probably the site of Angkor, which draws millions of tourists every year. It was only rediscovered in the 19th century, hidden beneath a layer of overgrown jungle.

The distinctive towers of Angkor Wat – the city’s massive temple complex – appear on the modern Cambodian flag. The country is proud of its Khmer heritage, and sees the ruined cities as a source of national identity.

This national identity was abused in the 20th century, when a nationalist group forced its way into power. Their reign was a period of violence and terror, when more than 10% of the country was killed. They called themselves the Khmer Rouge, in reference to the former empire.

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