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The Angkor Civilisation & The Abandonment of their Capital City


The Angkor Civilisation was a powerful and sophisticated ancient civilisation that existed in Southeast Asia, particularly in what is now present-day Cambodia, from the 9th to the 15th century. The civilisation’s centre was the city of Angkor[2], which served as the capital of the Khmer Empire[3].

The Khmer Empire was known for its architectural marvels, especially the impressive temple complex of Angkor Wat, one of the world’s most iconic and significant religious monuments. Angkor Wat was initially built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu and later transformed into a Buddhist temple.

The civilisation’s architecture, art, and irrigation systems were highly advanced for their time. However, as the Khmer Empire expanded and faced internal and external challenges, it gradually declined. The reasons for the civilisation’s decline are complex and involve factors such as environmental changes, political instability, and shifts in trade routes.

Today, the remnants of the Angkor Civilisation are a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist destination, attracting visitors from all over the world to marvel at its historical significance and architectural splendour. The civilisation is remembered for its trading network: including rare woods, elephant tusks, cardamom and other spices, wax, gold, silver, and silk from China, and their engineering capacity in water control.

Angkor Wat details Angkor Wat details” by Christian Haugen is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The Angkor Civilisation has a rich and fascinating history beyond what was briefly mentioned above. Here are a few more notable points about the civilisation:

  • City of Angkor: Angkor was the heart of the Khmer Empire and a major political, economic, and cultural centre. The city had a complex urban layout with temples, palaces, reservoirs, and canals.
  • Temple Complexes: Angkor is renowned for its vast temple complexes, including Angkor Wat (see below), Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm, and many others. These temples showcase intricate carvings, elaborate bas-reliefs, and unique architectural styles.
  • Water Management: The Khmer Empire’s engineers were adept at creating a sophisticated water management system. They constructed vast reservoirs, canals, and irrigation networks to control water flow, facilitating agricultural productivity.
  • Hindu and Buddhist Influence: The Angkor Civilisation witnessed a shift in religious practices from Hinduism to Buddhism over time. Many temples were initially constructed as Hindu monuments but were later converted to Buddhist sites.
  • Trade and Economy: The Khmer Empire (see below) was involved in significant trade with neighbouring regions, including India, China, and Southeast Asia. This trade network contributed to the wealth and prosperity of the civilisation.
  • Decline and Abandonment: The decline of the Angkor Civilisation began around the 14th century, attributed to factors such as the depletion of resources, internal conflicts, and the rise of new regional powers. Eventually, the capital was abandoned, and the empire’s centre shifted southward to Phnom Penh[4].
  • Rediscovery: Angkor’s temples were largely hidden in the jungle until the 19th century when French explorers and archaeologists began extensive restoration and excavation efforts.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat at Sunrise
Attribution: Magentic Manifestations, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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Angkor Wat is a magnificent temple complex located in the ancient city of Angkor, near modern-day Siem Reap in Cambodia. It is one of the most iconic and well-preserved architectural masterpieces of the Khmer Empire, the powerful civilisation that ruled over Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 15th centuries.

Key features and facts about Angkor Wat

  • Temple Complex: Angkor Wat is a vast temple complex covering an area of approximately 162.6 hectares (402 acres). It is the largest religious monument in the world, representing the pinnacle of Khmer architecture and art:
  • Hindu Origins: Built during the early 12th century under the reign of King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was initially constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. It was intended to represent Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods in Hindu cosmology.
  • Unique Design: Angkor Wat’s design is a fusion of classical Khmer architecture and innovative features. Its most distinctive characteristic is its central tower, surrounded by four smaller towers, forming a quincunx pattern. A massive moat and a series of concentric galleries and courtyards surround the temple.
  • Bas-Reliefs and Carvings: The temple’s walls are adorned with intricate bas-reliefs and carvings, depicting epic Hindu mythology, historical events, and scenes of daily life during the Khmer Empire. The bas-reliefs are exceptional artistic and narrative achievements, providing valuable insights into the culture and history of the time.
  • Transformation into Buddhist Temple: In the 13th century, the Khmer Empire transitioned from Hinduism to Buddhism. As a result, Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple. Many of the original Hindu iconography and motifs were replaced or modified to reflect Buddhist themes.
  • Conservation and UNESCO World Heritage Site: Despite periods of neglect and environmental challenges, Angkor Wat has undergone extensive restoration and preservation efforts over the years. In 1992, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognising its cultural and historical significance to humanity.
  • Symbol of Cambodia: Angkor Wat is not only an architectural marvel but also a symbol of national pride for Cambodia. Its image is prominently featured on the country’s flag, representing the enduring legacy of the Khmer Empire and its contributions to Cambodian history and culture.
  • Tourist Attraction: Angkor Wat is a major tourist destination, attracting millions of visitors from around the world each year. It stands as a testament to the artistic and engineering capabilities of the Khmer civilisation and is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia.

Today, Angkor Wat remains a living heritage, drawing both scholars and visitors alike to marvel at its grandeur and explore the mysteries of the Khmer Empire. Its significance extends beyond its artistic and architectural splendour, serving as a link between the past and present, connecting modern-day Cambodia to its rich historical roots. File:Apsara relief.jpg” by The original uploader was Fuzheado at English Wikipedia. is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

In-Depth Look at the Angkor Civilisation
Here’s a more in-depth look at the Angkor Civilisation, covering its timescale, people, leaders, beliefs, and legacy:

The timescale of the Angkor Civilisation, also known as the Khmer Empire, covers a significant period in Southeast Asian history. The civilisation flourished from approximately the 9th to the 15th century, making it one of the region’s most enduring and influential empires.

Here’s a closer look at the timescale :

  • Early Period (802-877 AD): The origins of the Khmer Empire can be traced back to the early 9th century when Jayavarman II declared himself the universal monarch and established the devaraja (god-king) concept. He laid the foundation for the Angkorian dynasty and proclaimed independence from the Java-based Sailendra dynasty[5].
  • Transitional Period (877-889 AD): After the death of Jayavarman II, there was a brief period of instability and succession disputes. He was succeeded by Indravarman I who stabilised the empire.
  • Middle Period (889-1080 AD): The Khmer Empire experienced significant growth and prosperity during this phase. Notable rulers like Yasovarman I and Suryavarman I expanded the empire’s territory and built several temples and infrastructure projects.
  • Golden Age (1080-1220 AD): The Khmer Empire reached its zenith during the 12th century under the rule of Suryavarman II. It was a time of immense prosperity and cultural achievements. The iconic Angkor Wat temple complex was constructed during this period.
  • Decline (13th-15th centuries): The Khmer Empire faced several challenges during the late 13th century and had to deal with external pressures from neighbouring empires and internal conflicts, leading to a gradual decline. The rise of the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya[6] and other regional powers weakened the empire’s influence.
  • Post-Angkor Period (15th century onwards): By the 15th century, the Khmer Empire’s power had significantly waned. The empire faced invasions and territorial losses, leading to the abandonment of Angkor as the capital. The royal court shifted to Phnom Penh, and the empire’s centre of power contracted.
  • The End of the Empire: The exact date of the Khmer Empire’s fall is a subject of scholarly debate, but it is generally believed to have occurred in the 15th century. The Ayutthayan forces sacked Angkor Thom in 1431, marking a significant blow to the empire. The final decline of the Khmer Empire paved the way for the emergence of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which continued to be influenced by Khmer cultural and political heritage.

The timescale of the Angkor Civilisation covers around six centuries of history, during which it left a lasting impact on Cambodia’s culture, religion, architecture, and identity and the broader Southeast Asian region. The legacy of the Khmer Empire continues to be celebrated and studied to this day, as the awe-inspiring temples of Angkor Wat and other architectural wonders stand as a testament to the achievements of this once-mighty civilisation.

The statue of Harihara, the god amalgamation of Shiva and Vishnu, as the mortuary deified portrayal of King Kertarajasa of Majapahit. Revering the king as God incarnated on earth is the concept of devaraja.
Attribution: Gunawan Kartapranata, CC BY-SA 3.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

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The civilisation was predominantly governed by the Khmer people, who were of Austroasiatic[7] origin and established their dominance in the region. The Khmer Empire encompassed a vast territory that included present-day Cambodia, parts of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Myanmar.

As it is so interesting, a more comprehensive overview of the people who lived in the Khmer Empire is worthy of examination:

  • Khmer Ethnicity: The Khmer people, also known as Cambodians, were the dominant ethnic group in the Khmer Empire. They are of Austroasiatic origin and are believed to have migrated from the northeastern regions of Southeast Asia into the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River basin, where the empire’s heartland was situated.
  • Austroasiatic Origins: The Austroasiatic language family includes various ethnic groups in mainland Southeast Asia, and the Khmer language belongs to this family. The Khmer people were part of a larger linguistic and ethnic network that extended across the region.
  • Cultural Identity: The Khmer people had a distinct cultural identity that was shaped by their interactions with neighbouring civilisations, such as the Indianisation process that influenced their art, religion, and social structure. While the Khmer people adopted elements from neighbouring cultures, they also retained their unique customs, traditions, and beliefs.
  • Society and Social Structure: The Khmer society was hierarchical, with the king at the top, followed by a powerful elite composed of nobles, priests, and military commanders. Below them were the common people, including farmers, artisans, and traders. The society was organised around the concept of the divine king (devaraja), where the ruler was not only a political leader but also a religious figure with divine authority.
  • Religion and Beliefs (and see below): The dominant religion in the Khmer Empire evolved over time. Initially, Hinduism was the primary religion, with the devaraja being identified as a god-king and the temples dedicated to Hindu deities like Vishnu and Shiva. Later, Buddhism gained prominence, and the temples were repurposed to reflect Buddhist themes and iconography.
  • Agriculture and Economy: The Khmer people were primarily agrarian, relying on rice cultivation as their main economic activity. They developed sophisticated irrigation systems to harness the fertile lands of the Mekong River basin, which facilitated agricultural productivity and contributed to the empire’s prosperity.
  • Art and Architecture: The Khmer people were skilled artisans and architects, evident in the grandeur of their temple complexes, including Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. They were adept at carving intricate bas-reliefs and sculptures, which adorned the walls of the temples, showcasing the empire’s religious beliefs, mythologies, and historical events.
  • Trade and Commerce: The Khmer Empire was actively engaged in trade with neighbouring regions, including India, China, and other Southeast Asian states. The empire’s strategic location along major trade routes facilitated the exchange of goods, ideas, and culture, contributing to its economic prosperity and cultural richness.
  • Decline and Legacy: The Khmer Empire faced internal and external challenges, leading to its gradual decline in the 13th and 14th centuries. Despite its eventual decline, the legacy of the Khmer people lives on in present-day Cambodia, where Khmer culture, language, and traditions remain integral to the country’s identity.

The Khmer people of the Angkor Civilisation used Old Khmer as their language. Old Khmer, also known as Angkorian Khmer, is an early form of the Khmer language, which is still spoken today in Cambodia. The language evolved over time, and Modern Khmer is the contemporary version spoken in Cambodia and the Khmer diaspora.

The origins of the people who established the Angkor Civilisation, known as the Khmer people, are unclear. They are believed to have migrated from various regions in Southeast Asia and Southern China to the fertile lands around the Mekong River in what is now Cambodia. Over time, the Khmer people established their dominance in the area and founded the Khmer Empire, with its capital city, Angkor.

The Khmer people played a pivotal role in the development and achievements of the Khmer Empire. Their cultural heritage, architectural marvels, and artistic achievements continue to be a sour AD of pride and inspiration for Cambodia and the broader Southeast Asian region.

Who were the Leaders?
Throughout its history, the Angkor Civilisation was ruled by a succession of kings. Some of the notable leaders include Jayavarman II, who declared himself the first sovereign ruler of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century, and Jayavarman VII, who came to power in the late 12th century and was known for his patronage of Buddhism and the construction of Angkor Thom and the Bayon.

Citation: Jayavarman VII. (2023, June 21). In Wikipedia.
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The Angkor Civilisation was governed by a line of notable leaders, many of whom played pivotal roles in shaping the empire’s history and cultural legacy. Here are some additional significant leaders of the Angkor Civilisation:

  • Indravarman I: Indravarman I ruled the Khmer Empire from 877 to 889 AD. He succeeded Jayavarman II and continued the expansion and consolidation of Khmer power. During his reign, the Bakheng Mountain Temple (Phnom Bakheng) was constructed, marking one of the earliest temple mountains in the region.
  • Yasovarman I: Yasovarman I ruled from 889 to 910 AD and was the successor of Indravarman I. He is credited with constructing the Eastern Baray, a massive reservoir used for agricultural irrigation and religious ceremonies. He also built the impressive temple of Phnom Bakheng and initiated the construction of Angkor Wat, though it was later completed by his successor.
  • Suryavarman II: Suryavarman II was one of the most renowned Khmer kings, reigning from 1113 to 1150 AD. He completed the construction of Angkor Wat, the iconic temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor Wat is considered one of the most exceptional architectural achievements of the Khmer Empire and remains a symbol of Cambodia to this day.
  • Jayavarman VII (Mahaparamasaugata): As mentioned earlier, Jayavarman VII was a significant leader who ruled from 1181 to 1218 AD. He was a devout Buddhist and shifted the official state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. He is remembered for his massive building projects, including the construction of Angkor Thom, the last and most extensive capital of the Khmer Empire, and the Bayon temple with its distinctive smiling faces.
  • Indravarman II: Indravarman II ruled from 1219 to 1243 AD and was the son of Jayavarman VII. He continued the religious patronage of Buddhism, and some of the last major temple construction projects of the Khmer Empire were initiated during his reign.
  • Jayavarman VIII: Jayavarman VIII ruled from 1243 to 1295 AD and is considered one of the last significant kings of the Khmer Empire. He shifted the official state religion back to Hinduism, undoing some of the religious changes initiated by his predecessor.
  • Indrajayavarman: Indrajayavarman ruled from 1295 to 1308 AD, and his reign marked a period of decline and instability for the Khmer Empire. The empire faced increasing challenges, including territorial losses and internal strife.

These are just a few examples of the leaders who governed the Angkor Civilisation. Each king brought his unique contributions to the empire, whether through military conquests, temple construction, or religious patronage. The succession of these leaders shaped the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire, leaving behind an enduring legacy of art, architecture, and cultural achievements that continue to captivate the world to this day.

There were several other leaders who ruled during the history of the Angkor Civilisation. The Khmer Empire had a long and complex history with various kings and rulers. Here are some more notable leaders:

  • Rajendravarman II: Rajendravarman II ruled from 944 to 968 AD. He was a powerful and successful king who expanded the empire’s territorial reach and launched military campaigns against neighbouring regions.
  • Jayavarman IV: Jayavarman IV ruled from 928 to 941 AD and established the capital at Koh Ker, around 100 kilometres northeast of Angkor. He initiated several significant building projects during his short reign.
  • Harshavarman I: Harshavarman I ruled from 910 to 923 AD. He was a pious ruler who built many temples and promoted Hinduism during his reign.
  • Udayadityavarman I: He ruled from 1030 to 1050 AD and was known for his ambitious construction projects and patronage of the arts.
  • Suryavarman I: Suryavarman I ruled from 1002 to 1050 AD. He was a powerful military leader who expanded the empire’s boundaries and initiated the construction of several temples.
  • Harshavarman II: Harshavarman II ruled from 941 to 944 AD. He was a short-lived ruler who continued the architectural and religious traditions of his predecessors.
  • Dharanindravarman I: He ruled from 1107 to 1113 AD. He was the son of Suryavarman I and continued his father’s expansionist policies.
  • Jayavarman V: Jayavarman V ruled from 968 to 1001 AD. He was known for his attempts to revive Brahmanism as the state religion and implemented reforms in the administration.
  • Jayavarman VI: Jayavarman VI ruled from 1080 to 1107 AD. He was a minor king who did not achieve significant military or architectural accomplishments.
  • Tribhuvanadityavarman: Tribhuvanadityavarman ruled from 1150 to 1165 AD. He succeeded Suryavarman II and continued some of his father’s construction projects.

These rulers contributed to the rich and diverse history of the Khmer Empire. Each king left their mark on the empire through military conquests, temple construction, religious patronage, and other significant achievements. The succession of these leaders reflects the complex political and cultural landscape of the Angkor Civilisation, which endured for centuries and left behind a remarkable cultural legacy that continues to be studied and admired by historians and archaeologists today.

The religious beliefs of the Angkor Civilisation underwent significant changes over time. Initially, Hinduism was the dominant religion, and many of the early temples were dedicated to Hindu gods, particularly Vishnu and Shiva. However, around the 13th century, under the reign of Jayavarman VII, Buddhism gained prominence (see below), and many Hindu temples were converted into Buddhist ones. This religious transformation profoundly impacted the architectural and artistic expressions of the civilisation.

The religious beliefs of the Angkor Civilisation were a dynamic aspect of its culture and underwent significant shifts over time. Here is a more detailed exploration of the beliefs and religious practices of the people:

  • Early Hinduism: Hinduism played a crucial role in the early stages of the Angkor Civilisation. From the 9th to the 12th centuries, many of the empire’s temples were dedicated to Hindu deities, primarily focusing on gods like Vishnu and Shiva. These gods were often represented through intricate sculptures and carvings adorning the temple walls. The Khmer kings identified themselves as god-kings and believed they ruled with divine authority, connecting their power to the Hindu gods.
  • Integration of Devaraja Cult: The early Khmer rulers practised the Devaraja cult, in which they were considered God kings, serving as intermediaries between the human world and the divine realm. This concept reinforced the close association between the rulers and Hindu deities, elevating the kings to a divine status.

The religious landscape of the Angkor Civilisation saw a significant transformation during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. He ascended the throne following a period of unrest and chose to embrace Mahayana Buddhism as the state religion. This shift marked a fundamental change in the empire’s religious identity.

  • Patronage of Buddhism: Under Jayavarman VII’s patronage, numerous Buddhist temples, stupas, and monasteries were constructed across the empire. The most famous of these is the Bayon temple, which features massive stone faces believed to represent Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva[8] of compassion. Other Buddhist temples like Ta Prohm and Preah Khan were also built during this period.
  • Religious Tolerance: Despite the transition to Buddhism, religious tolerance was practised in the Khmer Empire. Hinduism continued to be practised alongside Buddhism, with some temples being shared by both faiths. Elements of Hindu iconography were also incorporated into Buddhist temple structures, showcasing the coexistence of the two belief systems.
  • Linga and Yoni Symbolism: Linga and yoni, representing male and female reproductive organs, respectively, were prominent symbols in both Hindu and Buddhist temples. The linga, associated with the god Shiva, and the yoni, associated with the goddess Shakti, represented the concepts of fertility and regeneration.
  • Ancestor Worship: Alongside the major religious traditions, the Angkor people also practised ancestor worship. Ancestors were considered powerful spirits, and rituals were performed to honour and seek their blessings. Ancestor worship played a significant role in the daily lives of the people and reflected their deep connection to their ancestors and familial roots.

The interplay of Hinduism, Buddhism, and local beliefs contributed to the unique and diverse religious landscape of the Angkor Civilisation. The religious practices shaped not only the architecture and artwork of the temples but also the social and cultural fabric of the empire. The religious transformation under Jayavarman VII marked a turning point in the civilisation’s history, showcasing the ability of the Khmer Empire to adapt and evolve in response to changing beliefs and ideologies. This rich religious heritage is a testament to the spiritual depth and complexity of the Angkor people and continues to be a source of fascination and study for scholars and visitors alike.

Citation: Bayon. (2023, May 29). In Wikipedia.
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The legacy of the Angkor Civilisation is immense and far-reaching:

  • Architectural Marvels: The elaborate and exquisite temple complexes, especially Angkor Wat, stand as a testament to the engineering and architectural achievements of the Khmer Empire.
  • Artistic Heritage: The civilisation’s artistry is evident in the intricate carvings, bas-reliefs, and sculptures found in the temples. These artworks depict religious stories, epic narratives, and scenes of daily life, providing valuable insights into the culture of the time.
  • Water Management: The advanced water management systems designed by Khmer engineers continue to be admired for their complexity and effectiveness in sustaining the agricultural productivity of the region.
  • Cultural Impact: The Khmer language, art, and architecture have left a lasting impact on the cultural identity of Cambodia and neighbouring regions.
  • Tourism: The ancient temples of Angkor, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, attract millions of visitors yearly, contributing significantly to Cambodia’s tourism industry.
  • Historical Research: The study of the Angkor Civilisation has been a subject of interest for historians, archaeologists, and scholars, providing valuable insights into the region’s past and the dynamics of ancient civilisations.

Overall, the Angkor Civilisation remains a symbol of the Khmer Empire’s greatness and its cultural and historical significance and continues to inspire and captivate people worldwide.

Advanced Water Management Systems
I’ve mentioned it before: the Khmer engineers of the Angkor Civilisation were highly skilled in designing and constructing advanced water management systems. These systems were crucial for sustaining the agricultural productivity of the region, supporting the vast population, and ensuring the success of the empire. Some of the key water management systems utilized by the Khmer engineers included:

  • Barays: Barays were massive artificial reservoirs or water tanks built by the Khmer to collect and store rainwater. These reservoirs were essential for irrigation purposes and acted as a steady water supply during the dry season. The most famous and largest baray is the West Baray, covering an area of about eight square kilometres, located near the Angkor Wat temple complex.
  • Purpose: Water systems were used by the Angkor civilisation to cope with the vastly changing water quantities included raising their houses on mounds or stilts, building and excavating small ponds at the household level and larger ones (called trapeang) at the village level.[9]
  • Canals and Channels: An extensive network of canals and channels crisscrossed the landscape, connecting the barays to various regions and agricultural fields. These canals facilitated the controlled water flow from the reservoirs to irrigate farmlands, ensuring efficient water distribution throughout the empire.
  • Basins and Dykes: The Khmer engineers constructed basins and dykes to regulate water levels and prevent flooding during the rainy season. These structures helped control water flow and manage water distribution to avoid inundating agricultural lands.
  • Reservoirs and Tanks: Besides the large-scale barays, the Khmer engineers built smaller reservoirs and tanks at the village level to provide water for local communities and support agricultural activities.
  • Water Management at Temples: Water management was also integrated into the design of temples and religious structures. Some temples, like the Angkor Wat, were built with moats surrounding the main complex, serving both as a defensive feature and as a water reservoir.
  • Hydraulic Engineering: The Khmer engineers employed sophisticated hydraulic engineering techniques to ensure the smooth functioning of the water management systems. These techniques involved careful planning, precise measurements, and using gravity to direct the water flow.
  • Labour and Maintenance: The construction and maintenance of these water management systems required significant labour and resources. The Khmer rulers and administrators organised vast workforces to build and maintain the canals, reservoirs, and other infrastructure essential for water management.

The Khmer’s advanced water management systems were a testament to their engineering prowess and ingenuity. These systems enabled the empire to thrive agriculturally, support a large population, and sustain the grandeur of their architectural achievements.

The success of these water management systems contributed to the flourishing of the Angkor Civilisation and significantly impacted the cultural and economic prosperity of the empire. Today, the remnants of these ancient water management systems are still visible, and they continue to be a subject of admiration and study by historians, archaeologists, and water management experts worldwide.

Decline and Abandonment
The end of the Angkor Civilisation, its decline and eventual abandonment were a complex result of several factors:

  • Environmental Changes: The region experienced environmental challenges, including deforestation and changes in water management practices. These factors might have contributed to declining agricultural productivity, affecting the empire’s food supply.
  • Economic Decline: The Khmer Empire’s extensive trade networks started to decline due to shifts in trade routes and the rise of competing regional powers. This led to a reduction in the empire’s economic prosperity.
  • Internal Conflicts: The empire faced internal political instability and power struggles, with factions vying for control. These internal conflicts weakened the empire’s ability to address external challenges effectively.
  • External Invasions: The Khmer Empire faced invasions and raids from neighbouring powers, including the Siamese (from the area now known as Thailand) and the Chams (from present-day Vietnam).
  • Religious and Cultural Shifts: The gradual shift from Hinduism to Buddhism under King Jayavarman VII led to the transformation of many Hindu temples into Buddhist sites. This shift in religious practices might have caused divisions and conflicts within the empire.
  • Population Movement: The abandonment of Angkor as the capital might have been influenced by population movements towards the south of the empire, where new centres of power and administration were established.

While no single event can be pinpointed as the sole cause of the Angkor Civilisation’s end, it was likely a combination of these factors that led to the gradual decline and eventual abandonment of the city of Angkor and the shift of power to other regions in Cambodia. Despite the decline of the Angkor Civilisation, the Khmer people and their culture endured and continued to shape the history of Southeast Asia.

The Khmer Empire left behind various records and inscriptions that provide valuable insights into its history, culture, and society. These records were mostly inscribed on stone steles, temple walls, and other durable materials, which have allowed them to survive to this day. Some of the key forms of records left by the Khmer Empire include:

  • Inscriptions: Inscriptions were carved on stone steles and temple walls to commemorate important events, religious rituals, and the deeds of the rulers. These inscriptions provide valuable historical information and insights into the political and religious life of the empire.
  • Chronicles and Literature: The Khmer Empire produced several historical chronicles and literary works. The most famous of these is the “Kouprey Stone,” an inscription that chronicles the reign of King Jayavarman VIII and provides valuable historical details about his rule.
  • Religious Texts: As the civilisation went through shifts in religious practices, religious texts related to both Hinduism and Buddhism were produced, offering insights into the spiritual beliefs of the time.
  • Legal and Administrative Documents: Some inscriptions and records related to the administration and legal system of the Khmer Empire have been found, shedding light on the governance and organisation of the empire.
  • Art and Iconography: The temples and architectural structures of the Angkor Civilisation are adorned with intricate carvings and bas-reliefs that depict religious stories, historical events, and scenes of daily life. These artworks serve as visual records of the culture and beliefs of the time.
  • Trade and Diplomatic Relations: Some records provide information about the Khmer Empire’s trade relations with other regions and its diplomatic interactions with neighbouring powers.

It is important to note that deciphering and interpreting these ancient records can be a challenging task. Epigraphers, historians, and archaeologists have worked diligently to understand and translate the inscriptions and texts, contributing to our knowledge of the Khmer Empire and its significant contributions to history and culture. The records left behind by the Khmer Empire continue to be valuable sources for studying the ancient civilisation and the evolution of the Khmer language.

The people of the Angkor Civilisation, known as the Khmer people, were intelligent. The civilisation demonstrated high intelligence and sophistication in various aspects, contributing to its remarkable achievements.

  • Architecture and Engineering: The construction of the temple complexes, including the awe-inspiring Angkor Wat, showcases their advanced knowledge of architecture and engineering. These temples’ intricate design, massive stone structures, and precise alignments demonstrate their impressive technical skills.
  • Water Management: The Khmer people were skilled in developing sophisticated water management systems. They built vast reservoirs, canals, and irrigation networks to control water flow, sustaining agricultural productivity in a challenging environment.
  • Artistic Creativity: The intricate carvings and bas-reliefs found in the temples display the Khmer people’s artistic talents. The artistic expressions depicted religious stories, epic narratives, and daily life scenes, highlighting their creativity and storytelling abilities.
  • Trade and Diplomacy: The Khmer Empire’s extensive trade networks with other regions and its diplomatic relations with neighbouring powers demonstrate their intelligence in commerce and political interactions.
  • Language and Writing: The development of Old Khmer, their written language, and the creation of inscriptions on stone steles and temple walls reflect their intellectual and communication abilities.
  • Religious and Philosophical Thinking: The Khmer people’s religious beliefs, including the shift from Hinduism to Buddhism, demonstrate their capacity for philosophical thinking and adaptation.

Overall, the achievements and enduring legacy of the Angkor Civilisation are a testament to the intelligence, ingenuity, and cultural sophistication of the Khmer people. Their accomplishments in architecture, engineering, art, language, and governance showcase a highly developed and intelligent ancient civilisation.

The Khmer Empire
The terms Angkor Civilisation and Khmer Empire are often used interchangeably, but there is a distinction between the two. Let me clarify:

  • Khmer Empire: The Khmer Empire refers to the historical empire that existed in Southeast Asia from the 9th to the 15th centuries, centred around the capital city of Angkor. The empire was known for its powerful rulers, expansive territorial control, and impressive architectural achievements, including the famous temple complexes of Angkor. During its golden age, the Khmer Empire was the dominant political and military for AD in the region, with significant influence over present-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and parts of Vietnam and Myanmar. It engaged in extensive trade with India, China, and other Southeast Asian regions, contributing to its wealth and prosperity.
  • Angkor Civilisation: The Angkor Civilisation refers specifically to the cultural and artistic achievements of the Khmer Empire, particularly during the height of its power in the 9th to 15th centuries. It is characterised by its architectural wonders, including the temples and religious complexes built in the Angkor region. Angkor served as the political and religious centre of the Khmer Empire, where the Khmer kings built their grand temples dedicated to Hindu deities and, later, to Buddhism.

Under the Khmer Empire, several other significant civilisations and urban centres thrived alongside Angkor. While Angkor was the most prominent and served as the capital of the empire, there were other cities and regional centres that played essential roles in the Khmer civilisation, some notable examples being:

  • Hariharalaya: Before Angkor became the capital, Hariharalaya was the first major capital of the Khmer Empire during the reign of King Jayavarman II. It was located near present-day Roluos, around 15 kilometres east of Angkor. Though its physical remains are not as well-preserved as Angkor, Hariharalaya was a crucial early centre of Khmer power and administration.
  • Koh Ker: Located about 100 kilometres northeast of Angkor, Koh Ker served as the capital of the Khmer Empire during the reign of King Jayavarman IV (928-941 AD). During this period, several significant temples and monuments were constructed at Koh Ker, showcasing the distinctive architectural style of the time.
  • Banteay Chhmar: This temple complex is located in northwest Cambodia, near the border with Thailand. It was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 AD), a significant ruler of the Khmer Empire. Banteay Chhmar is renowned for its intricate bas-reliefs and stone carvings, similar to those found in the temples of Angkor.
  • Preah Khan of Kompong Svay: Located in the northern part of Cambodia, Preah Khan of Kompong Svay is a vast temple complex built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. It was dedicated to the king’s father and played an essential role in the region’s administration.
  • Phnom Kulen: This mountain range, located northeast of Angkor, was considered a sacred place during the Khmer Empire. It served as a source of water and was a significant religious site with several temples and shrines constructed on its slopes.
  • Phnom Bakheng: Situated just west of Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng was an essential temple mountain dedicated to Shiva. It predated Angkor Wat and served as the state temple during the reign of Yasovarman I in the 9th century.
  • Beng Mealea: This temple complex is located around 40 kilometres east of Angkor and was built in the architectural style of Angkor Wat. It is believed to have been constructed during the reign of Suryavarman II.

These are just a few examples of the many urban centres and temples that thrived under the Khmer Empire. Each of these sites contributed to the rich cultural, religious, and architectural heritage of the Khmer civilisation. The Khmer Empire’s extensive network of cities and temples showcased the empire’s power, influence, and contributions to the history of Southeast Asia. Today, these archaeological sites serve as important historical and cultural landmarks, attracting visitors from around the world to witness the magnificence of the Khmer Empire.

Closing Words
The Angkor Civilisation stands as a remarkable testament to the ingenuity and creativity of the ancient Khmer people. Throughout its existence, this impressive civilisation achieved unparalleled heights in architecture, engineering, and culture, leaving behind an enduring legacy that continues to captivate historians, archaeologists, and tourists alike.

The architectural wonders of Angkor, with Angkor Wat at its pinnacle, demonstrate the Khmer’s mastery of construction and their devotion to religious and cultural expressions. The intricacy of the temple carvings, the grandeur of the city’s layout, and the advanced water management systems all reveal the sophistication and technical prowess of the Khmer engineers and artisans.

Beyond the tangible achievements, the Angkor Civilisation’s cultural contributions were equally profound. The coexistence and transformation of religious beliefs, from Hinduism to Buddhism, reflect the empire’s adaptability and openness to new ideas. The legacy of religious tolerance and the integration of diverse influences enrich the cultural heritage of modern-day Cambodia and Southeast Asia.

However, the decline of the Angkor Civilisation also serves as a poignant reminder of the impermanence of empires. Factors such as environmental challenges, changing trade routes, and political instability played a role in the eventual decline of this once-thriving civilization. Yes, despite its eventual decline, the Angkor Civilization continues to inspire and provide valuable insights into the complexities of human history. It serves as a testament to the human spirit’s capacity for innovation, creativity, and resilience.

From their determination to build awe-inspiring temples to their mastery of water management and engineering, the legacy of the Angkor Civilisation continues to captivate historians, archaeologists, and tourists alike. History has, in many other cases surrendered explanations but there is one mystery that remains: Why did Angkor’s rulers abandon the site and resettle near modern Phnom Penh? Theories include defeats in battle and shifting religious observances, (because the Khmer’s Hinduism was gradually replaced by Theravada Buddhism during the 13th and 14th centuries), but the mystery has puzzled scientists for centuries.[10]

Sources and Further Reading


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End Notes and Explanations

  1. Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: [chat] and
  2. Explanation: Angkor (lit. ‘Capital city’), also known as Yasodharapura  was the capital city of the Khmer Empire. The city and empire flourished from approximately the 9th to the 15th centuries. The city houses the Angkor Wat, one of Cambodia’s most popular tourist attractions. Source:
  3. Explanation: The Khmer Empire was a HinduBuddhist empire in Southeast Asia, centred around hydraulic cities in what is now northern Cambodia. Known as Kambuja by its inhabitants, it grew out of the former civilisation of Chenla and lasted from 802 to 1431 AD. Historians call this period of Cambodian history the Angkor period, after the empire’s most well-known capital, Angkor. The Khmer Empire ruled or vassalised (subordinated) most of mainland Southeast Asia and stretched as far north as southern China. At its peak, the Empire was larger than the Byzantine Empire, which existed around the same time. Source:
  4. Explanation: Phnom Penh is the capital and most populous city of Cambodia. It has been the national capital since the French protectorate of Cambodia and has grown to become the nation’s primate city and its economic, industrial, and cultural centre. Phnom Penh succeeded Angkor Thom as the capital of the Khmer nation but was abandoned several times before being reestablished in 1865 by King Norodom. Source:
  5. Explanation: The Shailendra dynasty derived from Sanskrit combined words Śaila and Indra, meaning “King of the Mountain”, also spelt Sailendra,Syailendra or Selendra) was the name of a notable Indianised dynasty that emerged in 8th century Java, whose reign signified a cultural renaissance in the region. The Shailendras were active promoters of Mahayana Buddhism with glimpses of Hinduism, and covered the Kedu Plain of Central Java with Buddhist monuments, one of which is the colossal stupa of Borobudur, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Source:
  6. Explanation: The Ayutthaya Kingdom, the Empire of Ayutthaya (1569–1767), or the Ayutthaya Empire, was a Siamese kingdom that existed in Southeast Asia from 1351 to 1767, centred around the city of Ayutthaya, in Siam, or present-day Thailand. European travellers in the early 16th century called Ayutthaya one of the three great powers of Asia (alongside Vijayanagar and China). The Ayutthaya Kingdom is considered to be the precursor of modern Thailand, and its developments are an important part of the history of Thailand. The Ayutthaya Kingdom emerged from the mandala/merger of three maritime city-states on the Lower Chao Phraya Valley in the late 13th and 14th centuries (LopburiSuphanburi, and Ayutthaya). The early kingdom was a maritime confederation, oriented to post-Srivijaya Maritime Southeast Asia, conducting raids and tribute from these maritime states. Source:
  7. Explanation: The Austroasiatic languages, are a large language family in Mainland Southeast AsiaSouth Asia and East Asia. These languages are scattered throughout parts of ThailandLaosIndiaMyanmarMalaysiaBangladeshNepal, and southern China. Austroasiatic constitute the majority languages of Vietnam and Cambodia. There are around 117 million speakers of Austroasiatic languages, of which more than two-thirds are Vietnamese speakers. Of these languages, only VietnameseKhmer, and Mon have a long-established recorded history. Only two have official status as modern national languages: Vietnamese in Vietnam and Khmer in Cambodia. The Mon language is a recognised indigenous language in Myanmar and Thailand. In Myanmar, the Wa language is the de facto official language of Wa StateSantali is one of the 22 scheduled languages of India. The rest of the languages are spoken by minority groups and have no official status. Source:
  8. Explanation: In Buddhism, a bodhisattva or bodhisatva is a person who is on the path towards bodhi (‘awakening’) or Buddhahood. In the Early Buddhist schools, as well as modern Theravāda Buddhism, bodhisattva refers to someone who has made a resolution to become a Buddha and has also received a confirmation or prediction from a living Buddha that this will be so. Source:
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