South-East Asia was once a region where powerful empires battled one another for dominion over vast lands. What remains of these ancient civilizations?
Ta Muan Thom temple lies in no man’s land, surrounded by jungle, politics and a fair share of landmines. This 900-year-old Khmer structure sits right on the border of Thailand and Cambodia, well away from any city (the nearest one, Thailand’s Khorat, is 180km away), and its location has made it necessary for both countries to install soldiers here.
The forces sit in their own clusters, trying to keep out of each other’s way. Thai troops gather in the northern half of the complex, while the Cambodians occupy the southern half. The mood is relaxed; both sides simply want to stay cool in the sweltering mid-day heat. Not too long ago, these men were shooting at one another.
I look up at Ta Muan Thom, surveying the condition and design of this half-collapsed heap of laterite blocks. The temple’s main buildings are still largely intact. A pair of headless dvarapala warrior statues stand guard in one doorway. A nearby lintel displays remnants of intricate stonework, while a damaged apsara (celestial nymph) sculpture is frozen in her eternal dance on another wall.
These ruins, I am told, were looted by the Khmer Rouge when they controlled this area in the 1980s. I thank my Cambodian military escort and he walks me back to his army’s line. On the way, we pass a concrete bunker riddled with bullets. “Pak pak pak!” he says with a smile and points to the Thais behind us. In 2011, these combatants had battled for control of this spot, until both sides agreed to the current truce.
Intriguing as this bit of recent history is, I am interested in another story that goes much further back. I have just crossed from the land of the Siamese into the domain of the Khmers, following an ancient highway that once connected north-east Thailand to the kingdom of Angkor, some 250km to the south. Although little of this road remains, there are structures along the way that attest to its existence. Ta Muan Thom itself is also just one of many Khmer structures that dot the landscape of mainland South-East Asia.
Centuries before the birth of the modern nations that now make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and certainly before any European power arrived in these parts, this swath of the globe bordered by China to the north, India to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east was a patchwork of kingdoms that fought and traded with each other.
These states were no doubt diverse, but they also shared a common cultural influence that defined their era. If today’s world is a Westernized one, the ways back then were those of India — scholars have inferred that merchants, adventurers, teachers and monks sailed from south-east India across the Bay of Bengal, bringing with them the culture that this region came to adopt.
Angkor and Champa: Indochina’s rival kingdoms
I’m on the last leg of a journey that started 12 years ago, when I took it upon myself to see the ancient kingdoms of South-East Asia.
I still remember that blistering summer day in 2003 when my journey began. In the Cambodian border town of Poipet, I boarded a bus that took me on a torturous six-hour ride on a dusty, potholed highway towards the town of Siem Reap. I was cash-strapped back then, lodging at $4 per night guesthouses and relying on street stalls for food. But I was determined to see the exquisite ruins of Angkor.
Like any other visitor, I was fascinated by its structures and artifacts. I explored the ancient capital of Angkor Thom, marveling at the Hindu and Buddhist symbols adorning its crumbling walls and hallways. Hinduism and Buddhism, of course, both originated in India.
At Angkor Wat, I roamed the Hindu cosmic universe, which had been rendered through the architecture of this grand structure — the outer moat symbolized the edge of the world, a swath of land represented the realm of men, and five central towers alluded to the five peaks of Mount Meru, the abode of the gods.
The imagery I encountered at Angkor is present in one form or another throughout South-East Asia. From the mountains of Java to the east, all the way to the plains of Myanmar in the west, ancient connections to India can be traced in architecture, religion, language and the arts.
Angkor is without doubt the best known of the region’s Indianized kingdoms. Legend has it that in the first century, an Indian Brahman married into a Khmer chieftain’s family and started the state of Funan. The Angkor empire is believed to have originated there.
From the 9th to the mid-15th century, Angkor was the dominant force in mainland South-East Asia. At one time, its influence extended to parts of Vietnam, all of Laos and a large chunk of what is now Thailand.
The history of this empire is captured in many of Angkor’s ruins, most notably at the Bayon temple. The walls here feature bas reliefs of bullock carts, farmers, fishermen and market vendors, as well as visual accounts of battles and myths.
Blackened in parts, these artworks have otherwise survived the ravages of time remarkably well; even more amazingly, many of these depictions of daily life still exist in the flesh in today’s Cambodian countryside.
Also portrayed at Bayon are warriors from Champa, a rival kingdom based in what is now Central Vietnam. Identifiable in the murals by their distinctive headgear, the Chams fought the Khmers in a series of wars that spanned the 11th and 12th centuries.
In 2005, I had visited the remains of their civilization at My Son, some 70km south-west of Danang. Many of the ruins were undergoing restoration at the time, but it was clear that their types and uses were similar to those in Angkor. Their architectural styles, however, did differ. While Khmer temples were usually constructed with laterite rock, Champa buildings were made of red brick. To me, the latter also appeared to be more massive, with squat foundations and a unique saddle-shaped roof design.
My Son served as the religious capital of Champa for over a thousand years. The site suffered much damage from American bombing during the Vietnam War, but many of its artworks survived. The Museum of Cham Sculpture in downtown Danang showcases this kingdom’s versions of the gods and deities that populate Hindu legends. There are also representations of the male and female reproductive organs — the lingam and yoni — which lie at the inner sanctums of every Hindu temple.
The Maritime Empires of Srivijaya and Majapahit
While the Khmers and the Chams were battling it out in Indochina, the Srivijaya empire was gaining prominence in the islands to the south. This state had its seat of power in Sumatra, and it used the surrounding seas to spread both the Hindu and Buddhist faiths to neighboring lands. By way of native sailboats called prahu, Srivijayan influence spread east to Java, and up north to the Malay peninsula and parts of what is now southern Thailand.
Its legacy persists today, sometimes in quite subtle ways. The names of Thailand’s Chaiya district and the Philippines’ Visayas region, for instance, are believed to be corruptions of “Srivijaya”. You can also find Hindu-Buddhist terms in just about every major language in the region. For example, the Tagalog word diwata derives from the Hindu devata, or deity.
The empire’s physical legacy is even more impressive, as one can see from a number of landmarks in Central Java. In 2008, I travelled to Jogjakarta, a bustling Indonesian city with gritty streets and charming Dutch colonial-era buildings. With the help of an eternally smiling, chain-smoking ojek (motorbike taxi) driver named Dudut, I headed out to the countryside to see the ancient ruins of Srivijaya.
Just outside the city, the sprawling temple complex of Prambanan dominated the horizon, its 47m central tower looming above the otherwise low-rise countryside. Back in the time of the Srivijaya, Prambanan had more than 200 individual structures. Today, a total of 18 temples still stand on these grounds. Seen from afar, its layout — again, an embodiment of the Hindu universe — seemed to be its most striking feature. Up close, however, it was the artwork that captured my imagination. Scenes from the Ramayana and Bhagavata Purana (both Hindu epics) adorned the main temple’s inner balustrades, alongside depictions of the familiar apsaras, devatas and dvarapalas.
North-west of Jogjakarta, another great structure beckoned — Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument. I paid my visit during Visakha Puja, an important religious holiday that saw monks from all over Asia congregating here to commemorate the birthday of the Buddha. There was an orange-robed contingent from Thailand, and a yellow-clad group of Mahayana devotees from Malaysia, among other places. With flowers in their hands, the monks walked solemnly clockwise around the temple — a homage to their vow to keep the Buddha’s teachings at the center of their lives. This stirring scene of quiet devotion would have been a common sight in the days of the empire. Borobudur was most likely built in the 8th century, when Srivijaya was reaching its peak. The empire didn’t last too long, however, because another state rose to challenge its supremacy.
From the 13th century onwards, the Majapahit expanded from East Java to eventually absorb the Srivijaya kingdom and much more. Traces of this empire can still be found —when today’s Indonesians refer to Nusantara, they are actually drawing from the concept of a unified realm that has its beginnings in the the largest extent of the Majapahit empire during its golden age in the 14th century. Sadly, not much physical evidence of this remains. The most significant Majapahit ruins can be found in East Java — in the ancient capital of Trowulan and in clusters within the Dieng Plateau.
The western kingdoms of Pagan and Sukhothai
To the far west, just across the sea from India, two other kingdoms grew strong enough to ward off the Khmers. In the fertile lands around the great Irrawaddy River, a Burmese king named Anawrahta set the foundations of what would eventually become the nation of Myanmar.
His Pagan Empire may have lasted only 250 years, but its influence is still palpable. The Pagan adopted Theravada Buddhism from India, a religion that is now the dominant belief system not just in Myanmar, but also in neighboring Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
I first laid eyes on Bagan, Anawrahta’s capital, in 2008. At that time, Myanmar was still locked in political isolation, and its government was wary of tourists even though the country needed them. Thanks to an invitation from Myanmar’s tourism bureau, though, I managed to arrive as a journalist to document this mysterious land.
It was with much curiosity and a tinge of trepidation that I finally set foot there, my official guide no doubt watching me for signs of “subversive activity”. A political question or a conversation with a local regarding the then-ruling junta, I suspected, would have been enough to earn me a visit from the Burmese cops.
Nonetheless, I was fascinated by the ruins of Bagan, the capital of the Pagan kingdom. From the 9th to the 13th centuries, over 10,000 religious monuments were built here in a city measuring roughly 100sq km. Today, over 3,000 temples are still scattered across these dusty plains in central Burma. From this spot, a succession of kings gradually enlarged their domain, uniting a region that now makes up much of modern Myanmar.
To the immediate east, the ancient capital of Sukhothai tells the story of how a Thai tributary state managed to gain independence from their Khmer overlords. Much like Pagan, this empire was short-lived, lasting merely around 150 years after its birth in 1238. However, its existence marked a revolutionary time for the early Thais, who adapted Indian culture to suit their own. This was when Siamese culture began to come into its own. Theravada Buddhism became the state religion, and the Thai alphabet was devised from the original Khmer script. Sukhothai was later annexed by Ayutthaya, a rival kingdom from the south that consolidated its rule into an area that now defines Thailand.
The winds of change
History has shown that all empires that rise will also fall. In the 1300s, Angkor began to decline for reasons that are still debated. Most scholars believe that a number of factors — a drought, constant warfare with nearby kingdoms, a change from Hinduism to Buddhism which undermined the power of its kings — caused it to succumb to a Thai invasion in 1431.
At around the same time, Champa was annihilated by the Chinese-influenced Dai Viet. Pagan was devastated by the Mongols in 1287, while to the south, the Majapahit was dismantled by emerging Muslim states. Then came the strangers from the far West — the Europeans, who would eventually colonize this region and supplant its Indianized cultures with their own.
For the moment though, I am still very much immersed in the 13th century. From Ta Muan Thom, I head south in a rented car, following Route 68 until I find myself somewhere between the towns of Chong Kal and Srei Snam. I drive off the road and onto a dirt path, which leads me to one of the last remnants of the old Khmer highway.
The Spean Top bridge is made of laterite blocks and resembles a Roman viaduct with its long columns and picturesque arches. Nearby are the deserted ruins of Prohm Kel, one of 18 dharamsalas (rest houses) that sheltered travelers on this ancient road. These are ghosts from the distant past, remnants of a truly rich regional history that is neglected by today’s Westernized schools.
I pay my respects to Jayavarman VII, the Khmer king who ordered all this infrastructure to be built. Then I drive south, towards Angkor Wat, where my quest started all those years ago. It is late afternoon when I arrive — just in time to watch dusk fall over its five towers, the peaks of Mount Meru. My journey is complete.
This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of Smile magazine.