Angkor Wat is one of the great achievements of humanity. It is a complex of temples and palaces and related buildings located in modern Cambodia, not far from the Tonle Sap (or Great Lake). The architecture is of staggering beauty and the statuary and decoration astonishing. But the most startling aspect of the complex is its size, which dwarfs any contemporaneous constructions in the western world.
Early civilizations in the Cambodian region were based on the coastal centre of Oc Eo and the somewhat shadowy Funan. Our knowledge of this period is based to a great extent on the tales of travelers, particularly the Chinese and their admirable habit of writing everything down, since archaeological excavations have yet to be developed fully because, in part, of the decades of warfare and revolution in Cambodia and the lack of resources.
The Khmer Empire developed from Funan and was based on a syncretic religion, including Buddhist and Hindu elements, among others. The ideology of the Khmers was for firm rule with the ruler considered a god-king worthy of worship. According to the Hindu aspect of the religion, buildings such as wats or other types of temples took the form of lingas or sacred fertility symbols closely associated with the king who erects them. The king’s role is to accumulate merit by good works such as temples and hospitals which then are extended to everyone in the state. Many kings took as part of their ritual kingly names the element varman or shield, which explains this aspect of their rule.
The founding of Angkor as the capital of a state is considered to date from the accession of Jayavarman II, in 802 CE. Since each king was responsible for accumulating merit both for himself and for his people by supporting the monkhood and building new temples, each subsequent ruler may be credited with one or more new buildings. Particularly notable monarchs included Yashovarman I, Rajendravarman and, especially, Jayavarman VI.
The Khmer Emperors employed large armies based on elephants, a small number of cavalry and large numbers of infantry armed with spears, bows, crossbows and swords. These are beautifully detailed on decorations at Angkor Wat to the extent that their expressions are distinct and clear. A great deal of knowledge about daily life in the Khmer Empire is available by studying these frescoes.
The Khmer armies conquered large parts modern Thailand and Laos and parts of what is now known as Vietnam. At that time of their rise, in the seventh and eighth centuries CE, the armies were confronted by scattered groups of people living mostly in independent city states that were unable to create alliances sufficient to resist the Khmers. Conquered people were brought under strict rule and many could expect lives of slavery. However, social mobility was possible for some and the status of women in society was elevated in some important ways. Life expectancy would have increased as a result of superior technology and medical knowledge.
Constant warfare and the burden of supporting significant programs of social and public works may have played important parts in exhausting the resources of the Khmer Empire. Migrant Tai groups and the fierce Chams certainly did sack the city and it was abandoned, in 1431 according to the traditional date. It was left in glorious isolation in the jungle for hundreds of years until its rediscovery by early European travelers who could scarcely credit what they were seeing. The size and scale of the complex and its level of sophistication was so far in advance of what the travelers had anticipated and that Europeans believed was possible from Asian people. It was, for example, widely assumed that Angkor Wat had been built by Trajan or some other classical figure.