In the mid-nineteenth century, French explorers began stumbling across the monumental ruins of a centuries-dead empire that had once blanketed mainland Southeast Asia. When word of these jungle-clad “lost cities” reached Europe, the intrigued populace assumed they must have been the work of expatriate Romans or perhaps some far-wandering tribe of Israelites. But as French exploration and colonization of Indochina expanded, scholars began to acknowledge they were the work of a highly sophisticated Southeast Asian culture.
The Khmer, whose descendants inhabit Cambodia today, controlled a vast empire that stretched north to Vientiane in Laos and as far west as the present-day border of Thailand and Burma. From its capital, located at Angkor in what is now northwestern Cambodia, a long line of kings reigned with absolute authority, each striving to build a monument to his own greatness which would outdo all previous monarchs. With cultural trappings inherited from earlier Khmer kingdoms, which in turn had borrowed heavily from Indian merchants that once dominated trade throughout Southeast Asia, the Khmer rulers at Angkor venerated deities from the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons. Eventually, a new and uniquely Khmer cult was born, the devaraja or god-king, which propagated the belief that a Khmer king was actually an incarnation of a certain Hindu deity on earth. Most of the Khmer kings of Angkor identified with the god Shiva, although Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, the most magnificent of all Khmer monuments, fancied himself an earthly incarnation of Vishnu.
In 1177, around 27 years after the death of Suryavarman II, armies from the rival kingdom of Champa took advantage of political instability and sacked Angkor, leaving the empire in disarray. After some years of chaos, Jayavarman VII took control of the leaderless Khmer people, embracing Mahayana Buddhism and expanding his empire to include much of present-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. But the days of Khmer glory were numbered. Soon after the death of Jayavarman VII the empire began to decline and by 1432 was so weak that the Siamese, who had previously served as mercenaries for the Khmer in their campaigns against Champa, were also able to give Angkor a thorough sacking. The Siamese pillaged the great stone temples of the Angkorian god-kings and force-marched members of the royal Khmer court, including the king’s personal retinue of classical dancers, musicians, artisans and astrologers, back to Ayutthaya, then the capital of Siam. To this day, much of what Thais perceive as Thai culture, from the sinuous moves of classical dancers to the flowery language of the royal Thai court, was actually acquired from the Khmer. When the Angkorian empire collapsed, Siam moved in to fill the power vacuum and much of the Khmer culture absorbed by the Siamese was passed on to the Lao.