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Cambodia Table of Contents


The Time of Greatness, A.D. 802-1431

Bas-relief friezes in galleries of the vast Angkor Wat complex in Siemreab depict Cambodia's land and naval conquests during its "time of greatness," the Angkorian Period, which spanned the years from A.D. 802 to 1431 (see The Angkorian Period , ch. 1). During this time, the Khmer Empire, by force of arms, extended its dominions to encompass much of Southeast Asia. The warrior kings, who actually led troops in battle, did not customarily maintain standing armies but raised troops as necessity required. Historian David P. Chandler has described the relationship between the monarch and the military: Though the king, who led his country into battle, sometimes engaged his chief enemy in single combat, Khmer military strength rested on the junior officers, the captains of militia. These men commanded the loyalty of peasant groups in their particular locality. If the king conquered a region, a new captain of militia would be enrolled and put under an oath of allegiance. The captains were simply headmen of the outlying regions, but their connection with the king enhanced their status. In time of war they were expected to conscript the peasants in their district and to lead them to Angkor to join the Khmer army. If the captains disobeyed the king they were put to death. The vast majority of the Khmer population were of the farmer-builder-soldier class.

Little is known conclusively about warfare in early Cambodia, but much can be assumed from the environment or deduced from epigraphic and sculptural evidence. The army was made up of peasant levies, and because the society relied on rice cultivation, Khmer military campaigns were probably confined to the dry season when peasant-soldiers could be spared from the rice fields. Battles were fought on hard-baked plains from which the padi (or rice) had been harvested. Tactics were uncomplicated. The Khmer engaged their foes in pitched frontal assaults, while trying to keep the sun at their backs. War elephants were widely employed, for both tactical and logistical purposes. Late in the Khmer Empire, the ballista (a kind of catapult, often shaped like a giant crossbow) took its place in regional warfare. It probably was introduced to the Cambodians by Cham (see Glossary) mercenaries, who had copied it earlier from Chinese models.

The Khmer Empire's principal adversaries were the Thai, the Vietnamese, and the Cham from the powerful kingdom of Champa in central Vietnam. Warfare, seemingly, was endemic, and military campaigns occurred continuously. The Cham--attacking by land in 1177 and again by water in 1178--sacked Angkor twice. In 1181 a young nobleman who was shortly to become Jayavarman VII, and to emerge as one of the greatest of the ancient Khmer kings, raised an army and defeated the Cham in a naval battle. After his death, ca. 1218, Kampuja entered a long decline, resulting in eventual disintegration.

Data as of December 1987