Angkor Temple Cambodia Travel

Angkor Civilization’s Influences on Southeast Asia


Angkor’s Formation

If South-East Asia had a civilisation that was equivalent to the Ancient Greece in Europe, it would have to be the mighty Angkor Empire that dominated all of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and several smaller swathes of Myanmar and Vietnam.

My Son Ruins Vietnam

My Son Temple in Danang Vietnam – Influence by Cham / Khmer Culture

It all started in 790AD, where Prince Jayavarman II declared – out of a power vacuum – that he would be founding a new empire that would unite what we call modern-day Cambodia. This was to be the Angkor Empire, and Prince Jayavarman II could not have imagined how far it would eventually spill out from Cambodia and dominate most of the region at the height of its power.

Ruins of Angkor

Today, the remnants of the Angkor Empire can be found in a 50km squared area around the city of Siem Reap in Cambodia, with more and more ruins being found all the time. In fact, Angkor’s ruins even spill over the border of modern day Cambodia and exist in places such as Champasak, in southern Laos, as well as the Preah Vihear temple on the Thai-Cambodia border.

For example, the Thai city of Lopburi has the Khmer temple of “Prang Sam Yot” in its downtown district, and is frequently visited by tourists for its population of mischievous monkeys that are fed by local Thai people during the ‘Monkey Festival’ that takes every November!  The Angkor style temples in places such as Lopburi are very different to traditional Thai temples such as those found in Chiang Mai.

Prang Sam Yot Temple

Prang Sam Yot Temple in Lopburi, Thailand – Influence by Angkor Architechture

Angkor’s Indian Roots

The Angkor temples are actually the same style as the temples found in Southern India, as Angkor itself was founded by close descendants from the Indian subcontinent.

Angkor followed Hinduism for many years due to these Indian roots, and this is the reason why most temples in Angkor have exquisite carvings of Hindu deities alongside Buddhist sculptures when Angkor converted to Buddhism sometime in the 14th century BC.

You can also see these exact same architectural styles in Yogyakarta and Borobudur in Indonesia, a testament to just how far the Angkor/Indian influences stretched in South East Asia.

Pawon Temple, Borobudur, Java, Indonesia.

Bas-relief Adorned Wall of Pawon Temple, Borobudur, Java, Indonesia – Influenced by Angkor Civilization

But perhaps there is no better example of how Angkor’s Indian-Hindu religious culture eventually blended with Thai Buddhist culture than the “Kinnara”, which is a mythological character in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology: When you are in Thailand, take out a baht currency banknote and you will see a Kinaree symbol on every single denomination; irrefutable evidence that Angkor/Khmer culture has even influenced Thai money!

Traditional Dance

However, the Khmer Empire did not influence South-East Asia with just its religion and its temple architectural stylings: Culturally, it had an impact on traditional dancing in Thailand, known as ‘Khon’ dancing. But whereas the Thai version only has 14 dance moves, the Cambodian version has 24 passed down from generation to generation from the ancient Angkor culture. Today, you can see this incredible performance dancing in places such as Luang Prabang in Laos, Bangkok in Thailand, and Phnom Penh in Cambodia. You will likely see the contrasts and variations in each culture, but Cambodia still has the most complex dance moves.

Cambodian Dancing Girls

Cambodian Girls Performing Traditional Dance – Not Very Different From Thai Traditional Dance

Khmer Language

But what about the Khmer language? Well, the languages of Thailand and Laos are also both heavily influenced by the original Khmer script, which again – like many elements in Angkor-era Cambodia – has its roots in the ancient Indian Sanskrit language.

In fact, Khmer is a lot like Latin or ancient Greek in the sense that it was used over virtually all of Indochina at the height of the Angkor Empire’s power. Subsequently, both Thai and Laotian language, in particular, took numerous words from the ancient Khmer alphabet, making a few adaptations to account for the fact that Thai and Laotian are tonal languages, whereas even today modern Cambodian language stands out in south-east Asia as being toneless.

Martial Arts

Perhaps when you visit Thailand, Lao, Cambodia or Myanmar on your travels you would like to go and see a live kickboxing fight, which is incredibly popular in all of these countries to the point each considers it their national sport!  The Thai’s call it ‘Muay Thai’, the Laotians ‘Muay Lao’, the Burmese ‘Lethwei’ and in Cambodia, ‘Pradal Serey’. However, Cambodians today take great pride in the fact this exciting martial art has its roots in the very early formation of the Khmer Empire. Rightfully so, they see ‘Pradal Serey’ as not just part of their cultural heritage, but a part of south-east Asia’s heritage as a whole!

Cambodian Martial Arts

Kids Practicing Pradal Serey Martial Arts – Reminiscence of Muay Thai Boxing

Each variation has a slightly different style using kicks and punches, but Cambodian Pradal Serey fighters are unique in that they tend to use more elbow blows than the other styles in South East Asia. Indeed, the knock-out blow will most often be by the elbow rather than by a kick or punch.

The Khmer Empire’s Demise

Although the Khmer Empire entered its demise in the late 13th century, and then was ultimately conquered by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1431, its downfall actually nurtured some long-lasting influences too.

Angkok Thom

The Ruins of Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ayutthaya was initially a city-state but later conquered Angkor and some other part of south-east Asia. Ayutthaya is a short train ride from modern-day Bangkok and is considered by many Thai’s as the birthplace of what is now modern-day Thailand.

The Khmer Empire’s Legacy

However, after Ayutthaya conquered the Khmer Empire and sacked Angkor, they brought back many Buddhist and Hindu artefacts, as well as many of the religious ideas held by the Khmer people and its religious and political elites.

Angkor Wat

Magnificient Angkor Wat, Siem Reap Cambodia

For example, although Ayutthaya’s main religion was Theravada Buddhism, numerous scriptures taken from the Khmer culture’s blend of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism were taken and subsequently transferred into social and political laws that were enforced and interpreted under the jurisdiction of Brahmin (Hindu) priests.  In fact, this original Khmer blend of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism – with the native Theravada form of Buddhism endemic to Ayutthaya – actually merged over time to create an entirely new religious tradition called Tantric Theravada.

Today, the merging of these religious sects can be found throughout Thailand and Cambodia: For example, Hindu deities such as Ganesh can be seen alongside Buddha figures in temples, homes and restaurants, especially in southern Thailand (such as Krabi Province), but also throughout the main cities in Cambodia such as Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang.

Angkor Artifacts

Hindu deities at Temples in Cambodia

Finally, if you fly into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, look out for the dramatic giant carving that depicts the famous battle scene between gods and demons in the Indian-epic called the Ramayana: This work of art is a true testament to how the Khmer Empire influenced Thai Buddhism into creating their own version of the Hindu classical myth.

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