At its peak, the Khmer Empire controlled most of Southeast Asia, including the current areas of Cambodia, Laos, southern Vietnam, and Thailand along the Mekong River, the world’s seventh longest river. The Khmer civilization existed from 802 CE to 1431 CE, practicing Hinduism and Buddhism as the main religions. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire and believed to have been one of the largest cities in the world at the time, with a population of one million. The country was divided into approximately 23 provinces with a sophisticated form of government, including at the local levels. The Khmer used Angkor as a base to invade other countries as well as to control the rebellious nobility, ambitious nobles looking to overthrow the current leader.
The Khmer were master builders erecting enormous temples, massive reservoirs, canals, and roadways throughout the area, spanning the rivers with large bridges. Angkor Wat (6.50), a grand religious complex (6.51) constructed by Suryavarman II in 1122 CE, took 30 years to complete. Jayavarman VII was considered one of the greatest kings and built the Angkor Thom (6.52) complex along with an extensive network of roads connecting all of the towns, adding 121 houses for travelers and traders to stay when they moved about the empire and developed 102 hospitals throughout the empire.
The Khmer Empire produced many temples and monuments supporting and celebrating the God-given authority to the kings. The temples were the home of the Hindu gods and constructed with stepped pyramid structures to reflect the holy mountain of the gods. Low-relief carvings (6.53) found everywhere depicted stories about nobility, military conquests, and the lives of ordinary people in the marketplace or fishing.
Textiles were an essential part of the economy and traded extensively with other civilizations. At Angkor Wat, raw silk was one of the large thriving trades in Southeast Asia. Mulberry trees were grown specifically to feed the silkworms, and wooden looms were busy weaving the raw silk into fabric to send out on the Silk Road trade route. The silk weavers used the ikat technique (6.54) to produce a patterned fabric.
The Khmer were master producers of lacquerware, a process using clay pots and coloring them black by burning wood and using the ashes in the mixture. To the Khmers, black color represented the underworld, red made from mercury representing the earth, and yellow from arsenic representing the heavens. Ceramics were generally used for domestic purposes and not generally traded. Ceramics were also made in the shape of animals or the lotus pattern (6.55).
The empire’s decline started with the revolt from the area of Thailand who started forming their kingdoms and the Mongols, who were invading multiple arenas. The Khmer also had problems with their water system when it became filled with silt as trees were cut down to make rice fields and flood control was compromised. By 1431 a Thai kingdom took control of Angkor and ended the Khmer empire.