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The race which produced the builders of Angkor developed slowly by the fusion of the Mon-Khmer racial groups of Southern Indochina during the first six centuries of the Christian era. Under Indian influence, two principal centers of civilization grew up. The older in the extreme south of the peninsula was called “Funan” (the name is a Chinese transliteration of the ancient Khmer form of the word “Phnom”, which means “hill”), a powerful maritime empire which ruled over all the shores of the Gulf of Siam. In the mid-6th century, the Kambuja, who lived in the middle Mekong (north of present day Cambodia), broke away from Funan. Within a short time, this new power known as Chenla absorbed the Funanese Kingdom. In the late 7th century, Chenla broke into two parts: land Chenla (to the north) and water Chenla (to the south along the Gulf of Thailand) dominated by the Chinese. Land Chenla was fairly stable during the 8th century, whereas water Chenla was beset by dynastic rivalries. During this period, Java probably invaded and controlled part of the country.
At the beginning of the 9th century, the kings set up their capital in the present province of Siem Reap. For nearly six centuries, they enriched it by temple after temple, one more sumptuous than the other, in the Angkorian area of some 400 square kilometers in the Siem Reap Province. Evidently, two hundred temples as well as their sanctuaries are best known for their architecture and sculpture.
The first founder of Angkor was King Jayayarman II (802-850), who built one of his residences on the plateau of the Kulen in 802. Jayavarman II’s nephew, Indravarman I (reigning 887-889), constructed a vast irrigation system at Lolei, and then built the tower of Preah Ko in 879 and Bakong in 881. Indravarman I’s son, Yasovarman (reigning 889-900), dedicated the towers of Lolei to his memory in 893 and founded a new capital to the northwest which was to remain the very heart of Angkor. The Eastern Baray, an artificial lake of 7-km length and 2-km width, was being prepared.
Yasovarman’s son, Harshavarman I (900-923), who was at the foot of the Phnom Bakheng, consecrated the little temple of Baksei Chamkrong, and built Prasat Kravan in 921. Harshavarman I’s uncle, Jayavarman IV (928-941), reigning in the northeastern Cambodia, near the present town of Koh Ker, erected several majestic monuments. King Rajendravarman (944-968) returned to Angkor in 952 and built the Eastern Mebon and Prè Roup in 961. In 967, the Brahman Yajnavaraha, a high religious dignitary of the royal blood, erected the temple of Banteay Srei, about 20 km northeast of the capital. King Jayavarman V (968-1001) founded a new capital around Takeo Temple.
In the 11th century, King Suryavarman I (1002-1050) seized Angkor and founded a glorious dynasty. It was at this time that the Gopura of the Royal Palace of Angkor Thom was finished with the sober pyramid of the Phimeanakas at its center. He also erected the temple of Phnom Chiso, some part of Preah Vihear, and Preah Khan in Kampong Svay District.
Suryavarman I’s son, Udayadityavarman II (1050-1066), built the temple mountain of Baphuon and Western Baray. Udayadityavarman’s brother, Harshavarman III, succeeded him in a period of 1066-1080. But violent strife soon led to the fall of the dynasty. King Jayavarman VI (1080-1113) continued to build Preah Vihear Mount in Vat Po and Phimai.
King Suryavarman II (1113-1150) extended his power from the coast of the China Sea to the Indian Ocean and built the temples such as Angkor Wat, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Preah Palilay, Preah Pithu, and Banteay Samrè. After these dazzling achievements, Khmer civilization appears to have begun to decline accompanied by internal strife and an attack by the Chams.
Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) was the most fascinating personality in Khmer history. He re-established his rule over all southern Indochina. He has been best known for his huge building program. Firstly, he built Ta Prohm (1186) and Preah Khan (1191) to dedicate to his parents. Secondly, he erected Banteay Kdei, Srah Srang, the Terrace of the Leper King, the Terrace of the Elephants, Neak Pean, Ta Saom, Ta Nei, and some others in other parts of the country. Thirdly, he founded his great capital, Angkor Thom. Finally, in the center, he built the Bayon temple with its two hundred stone faces.
It is understandable that the country was exhausted after these enormous efforts. The decline of the Angkor era began after the death of King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century. Due to the Siamese invasion and the limitation of the irrigation system, Khmer power declined so much that the king was finally obliged to move to the vicinity of Phnom Penh in 1431. Resulting from a series of Siamese and Cham invasions, the country was put as a French protectorate in 1863.
By 1884, Cambodia was a virtual colony; soon after it was made part of the Indochina Union with Annam, Tonkin, Cochin-China, and Laos. France continued to control the country even after the start of World War II through its Vichy government. In 1945, the Japanese dissolved the colonial administration, and King Norodom Sihanouk declared an independent, anti-colonial government under Prime Minister Son Ngoc Thanh in March 1945. The Allies deposed this government in October. In January 1953, Sihanouk named his father as regent and went into self-imposed exile, refusing to return until Cambodia gained genuine independence.
Sihanouk’s actions hastened the French Government’s July 4, 1953 announcement of its readiness to grant independence, which came on November 9, 1953. The situation remained uncertain until a 1954 conference was held in Geneva to settle the French-Indochina war. All participants, except the United States and the State of Vietnam, associated themselves (by voice) with the final declaration. The Cambodian delegation agreed to the neutrality of the three Indochinese states but insisted on a provision in the cease-fire agreement that left the Cambodian Government free to call for outside military assistance should the Viet Minh or others threaten its territory.
After regaining Independence in 1953, the country has had several names:
1. The Kingdom of Cambodia (under the Reachia Niyum Regime from 1953 to 1970);