Cambodian People, Society, Culture, and Civilization
Among the earliest kingdoms to have formed on mainland Southeast Asia were Funan and Linyi/Champa (we’ll use Champa hereafter) which were located at present-day Cambodia (including a region formerly known as Kampuchea Krom which is now part of southern Vietnam) and central Vietnam, respectively. Though there might also be some other lesser-known contemporary kingdoms existed in the area, it appeared that Funan and Champa were the most visual, influential, and dominant ones, for they had been actively mentioned in the Chinese foreign embassy activity records.
If we were to dig deeper into the cultural and linguistic evidences, we would find that both Funan and Champa appear to share their identities with people living in the Indonesian archipelagos. Though Funan seems to have a rather murky linkage with Indonesia, Champa has nevertheless had a very strong link with Indonesia. According to the archaeological and historical evidences, it has been accepted that Champa, as a kingdom, was founded by the people of Indonesian origin. These people appeared to be pirates who had been chased away from the Strait of Malacca’s and Sunda’s areas by their Indonesian kins.
Given the fact that Champa had been founded and appeared on the Chinese foreign mission’s records a few hundred years behind Funan, it begs the question whether the Funanese could have been an earlier group of people who had been chased out from the Straits of Malacca and Sunda as well. At this point, we should point out that the Straits of Malacca and Sunda were the most important maritime trade routes in the early day. They provided and acted as a vital conduit for maritime trades between the Far East, Middle East, and beyond—just like the Panama Canal nowadays providing maritime linkage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Thus, whoever controlled the Straits of Malacca and Sunda would control one of the most lucrative maritime routes in the world because they allowed people who controlled them to impose taxes and tariffs on ships passing back and forth.
We could only imagine that back in those old days, the Straits of Malacca and Sunda must have been the most contested areas because of their strategic and commercial importance. As a matter of fact, our imagination couldn’t have been wrong if we briefly looked at the history of colonialism. It was the strategic importance of the Straits of Malacca and Sunda that brought the Dutch to Indonesia. Whether the Straits of Malacca and Sunda played any role in the process, Indonesia was also the first country in Southeast Asia to be colonized by the Europeans.
If we assumed that the Straits of Malacca and Sunda had been the major maritime trade routes since pre-historic time up to the 19th century of the Christian Era, it would be possible that people had been fighting one another countless times to gain control of these areas because they were the economic power bases for global trades which depended mostly on maritime transports. Though we could only hypothesize what had taken place in insular Southeast Asia during the earlier period of its history, it is possible that among the people who had probably contested, lost, and been chased away from the Straits of Malacca and Sunda were the Funanese (Cambodians).
It is conventionally difficult to contemplate a theory as far-reaching as to suggest that distant mainland Southeast Asian people such as the Cambodians had their origin in insular Southeast Asia. However, for the history which is as complex and intertwined as Southeast Asia’s, we probably need to have a far-reaching hypothesis in order to uncover or, at least, come close to the truth.
Based on archaeological evidence and historical records, Funan was located at the southernmost region of the Indochinese Peninsula just a little bit north of what is now called Kamao, Southern Vietnam. Geographically, if we looked at the southern tip of the Indochinese Peninsula in relation to the Malay Peninsula where the Strait of Malacca is located, we would see that the distance between the two regions is surprisingly so close to each other that they could have ideally served as short-cut stopping points for ships traveling from India to China and vice versa. Thus, it is fitting that for people who were looking for places to build maritime ports alternative to the areas surrounding the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, the southern tip of the Indochinese Peninsula would be an ideal spot because it is conveniently located between China, the Strait of Malacca, and beyond.
Whether the Cambodian people have their place of origin in the Indonesian archipelagos or in Northeastern India, only time and further research can determine for sure. But based on some archaeological and historical records, there seemed to be strong evidences, though inconclusive, linking indigenous people of Cambodia to those of Indonesian stocks. If we took off a few later cultural layers such as the influences of Buddhism, Islam, and Indian rituals, we would see that indigenous people of Cambodia and Indonesia (Malays included) have a lot in common. For instance, the belief in Supernatural Beings such as the Neak Ta and the practices of leaving deceased loved ones in the forests or caves.
For the Cambodians, or Khmers, or Funanese, the history began at the place called Oc Eov (a corrupt spelling of the Khmer words O Kaev which were given to the French colonialists by their Vietnamese assistants who could not pronounce the Khmer words properly), located at the southern end of present-day Southern Vietnam. It was probably at Oc Eov’s settlement that the Chinese travelers/sailors reported of seeing “ugly” people with very dark skin and frizzy hair. The Chinese called their country Funan. From the records left behind by these early Chinese travelers, the Funanese are the predecessors of modern Cambodians or Khmers. But, just like other indigenous people throughout the world, the Funanese and their culture were eventually glossed over by the arrivals of new ethnic groups and their cultures.
According to both historical and archaeological evidences, the Funanese appeared to lead a very primitive existence. Their lives revolved around hunting and gathering. They lived in villages surrounded by fences. Little was known about their governmental structure. However, it was likely that the Funanese formed tribal community and appointed or accepted whoever was the strongest or most cunning person to be their leader. Culturally, the Funanese liked to wear tattoos on their bodies and believed in shamanism and spirits. One of the most enduring symbols of spiritual worshiping was the Neak Ta, the omnipresent guardian of both the villages and the forests, which is still being worshiped today by many Cambodians.
The primitive world of the Funanese was first transformed around the 1st century of the Christian era when they came into contact with the Indian explorers/adventurers. According to the Cambodian history, these Indian adventurers or conquerors were not coming from India but rather from Java (Indonesia). The Cambodians or Funanese called them Pream Chvea or Javanese Brahmins and regarded them as warriors. Thus, it was likely that the Indian warriors who came to conquer or colonize Funan were Indian immigrants or traders from Java. Along with these Indian traders/warriors, there must have been Javanese troops, for, in order to conquer or colonize a territory which had already been settled by other people, ones must have forces.
Based on inscriptions and historical records, these “Indian” traders/conquerors arrived in Funan/Cambodia by ships and, after subduing or winning over the indigenous people’s acceptance, they established governmental administration which was modeled after the Indian Raja. Along with these conquerors, Hinduism, a religion which is the foundation of Indian culture, also arrived in Cambodia. It was the arrival of these conquerors and their religion that shaped the early history of Cambodia known as the Angkorian Era.
(To be continued)