The Last Angkor Kings

A black and white image of a collection of the iconic Buddha faces at Bayon temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The last succession of Angkor kings was during the Empire’s most turbulent period. Which ultimately ended in 1309. The Angkor kings from Suryavarman II to Srindravarman are found in our guide below.

Suryavarman II (1113-1150)

Suryavarman II was a highly ambitious Khmer king. He was the builder of the most impressive temple of the Angkorian Empire, Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat is dedicated to the  Hindu god, Vishnu. It has five towers linked by galleries to resemble the heavenly residence of the Hindu gods. It is 65 meters (182 feet) high while the sides of the rectangular enclosure measure 1.5 km by 1.3 km (almost a full mile). Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat 200 meters (60 feet) wide. In addition to Angkor Wat’s enormity, it also houses thousands of sculptures and stone carvings showcasing Khmer artwork.

Angkor Wat took 37 years and over 50,000 craftsmen to complete the construction of this temple. Suryavarman II, not only responsible for the construction of  Angkor Wat but was also a warrior. He was often unsuccessful in his military campaigns. Defeated more than once by the Chams in the east, he also unsuccessfully waged war against the Vietnamese Ly Dynasty.

Although, he did conquer the Haripunjaya Kingdom to the west, one of the Mon tribal states in central Thailand. He then extended his power north as far as the southern border of modern Laos and as far south as the border of the Grahi Kingdom on the Malay Peninsula. His territory radiated to the border of the Bagan kingdom (ancient Burma) to the West.

Other monuments built during the reign of Suryavarman II, in addition to Angkor Wat, are Beng Melea, Banteay Samre, Chey Say Tevoda, and Thommanon.

Minor Reigns (1150-1181) No records exist to explain how Suryavarman II died. The last inscription referring to him was carved in 1145 when he was preparing to invade Vietnam. It is likely he died sometime between 1145 and 1150 on a battlefield. His death led to the decline of the Angkor Empire for a short time and the succeeding kings were both weak and tyrannical.

Yasovarman II seized power from Dharanindravarman II and, in turn, was ousted by Tribhuvanadityavarman. Each of the three kings only reigned for short periods. Dharanindravarman II (1150-1160), Yasovarman II (1160-1165), and Tribhuvanadityavarman (1165-1181).

In 1177, a Champa king, who was the bitter enemy of the Khmer, attacked the Angkor Empire by sailing his troops along the Mekong River. A fierce naval battle was fought on the Tonle Sap and resulted in the painful defeat of the Angkor Empire and its subsequent fall into the hands of the Champa. The Khmer king Tribhuvandityavarman was under the subjugation of the Champa until 1181.

Jayavarman VII (1181-1219)

Being a Khmer prince, Jayavarman VII ruled over a Champa province or vishaya, which was under the Angkor Empire’s authority. When the Champas seized the Angkor Empire in 1177, Jayavarman VII fought against the intruders and was able to re-capture the capital of Yasodharapura, where he ascended the throne in 1181. The war with the Champa kingdom did not end immediately but continued for another 20 years. In 1203, Jayavarman VII won a final victory and conquered the Champa kingdom. Jayavarman VII was the last great king of the Angkor.

He liberalized and unified the country and built the new capital of Angkor Thom, which lies on the plain of Siem Reap north of Angkor Wat. At the centre of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple, famous for its 50 towers, each bearing the large faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (a lord Buddha) on all four sides.

These faces are thought to be copied from the actual face of Jayavarman VII, and whose smiles are so gentle that it is often referred to as “the Khmer smile.”

This great king was a devout Buddhist of the Mahayana sect. In addition to Angkor Thom and Bayon, Jayavarman VII also built other impressive temples and monuments such as Ta Phrom, Banteay Kdei, Neak Pean, and Sras Srang.

Jayavarman VII constructed an extensive road network throughout his empire and thus linked all the major towns to Angkor. This efficient road system facilitated the transportation of agricultural products and goods.

Along these roads were built 121 resting houses to accommodate the travellers and officials, and 102 hospitals to accommodate the sick. The reign of Jayavarman VII was regarded as the peak period of the Angkor Empire as well as of the Khmer civilization, which began to decline gradually after the death of this great king in 1219.

Indravarman II (1219-1243)

Indravarman II, Jayavarman VII’s son, took the throne in 1219. It is believed that many of the great works initiated by Jayavarman VII were continued and completed by Indravarman II. Interestingly, few historical records about this king remain. They were probably destroyed by his enemy, who was also his successor.

Now the Angkor Empire’s power began to decline. In 1220, the Khmers retreated from many of the Champa states they had conquered earlier. At the same time, the Thais succeeded in driving the Khmer from the western frontier and established the first Thai kingdom of Sukhothai, whose descendants were to become the major threats to the Angkor Empire in the next two centuries.

Jayavarman VIII (1243-1295)

Jayavarman VIII was a strong believer in Hinduism and a brutal enemy of Buddhism. He was responsible for the massive destruction of the Buddha statues in the empire; the original number was estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

The main Buddha statue in the central shrine of Bayon was found sliced into three pieces and was replaced with the Hindu god Harihara. Jayavarman VIII transformed many Buddhist temples into Hindu shrines. During his reign, the Mongol troops of Kublai Khan attacked the border of the Angkor Empire from the east in the year 1283. Jayavarman VIII did not wage war with the Mongols. He decided to pay tribute instead and so his empires survived. In 1295, Jayavarman VIII and his tyrannical regime were overthrown by his own son-in-law, Srindravarman.

Srindravarman (1295-1309)

The first inscription engraved in Pali indicated that the royal family had adopted Theravada Buddhism as their main religion, and thus the king was no longer regarded as deva-raja or “god-king.”

Theravada Buddhism was introduced from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and gradually influenced every level of the Angkor Empire. In 1296, Chou Ta-Kuan, the Chinese ambassador from the Yuan Dynasty (Mongols), visited the Angkor Empire and wrote an important historical document in the Chinese Chronicles about the Khmer.

It is this chronicle that gives the majority of the information known about day-to-day Khmer life in the Angkor area. Minor Reigns (1309-1431) Following the reign of Srindravarman, there were very few historical records. The last stele engraved in 1327 was in Pali and no more inscriptions were found for the next two centuries. No more major temples or monuments were built during this period.

The Khmers were no longer able to maintain their vast irrigation systems efficiently. Various dykes and canals silted up. The rice crops, previously cultivated two to three times a year, dropped drastically since the Khmers could no longer prevent floods in the monsoon season.

They also didn’t have enough water storage capability in the dry season. As productivity dropped, the empire was weakened. The first Thai kingdom of Suhkothai, emerging after the Khmers were driven out in the early 13th century, was later absorbed by another Thai state, established as the Ayuthaya kingdom in 1351 by Ramathibodi I.

The Ayuthaya kingdom became a major threat to the Angkor Empire and in 1431 a large Thai army marched on the road built by King Jayavarman VII from Chao Phaya River Basin through Aranyapathet to attack Angkor and sack the city.

This marked the end of the Angkor Empire. Now the Angkor area began its own Dark Ages. There were few inscriptions found in later centuries. The West knew nothing about the existence of the Khmer civilization until the French botanist Henri Mouhot published his description of this lost empire in 1861(one year after he rediscovered Angkor Wat). He was amazed by the magnificence of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

His announcement aroused the interest of the Westerners and subsequently attracted explorers, historians, archaeologists, and thieves.

In 1863, Cambodia became a French colony. After annexing Siem Reap (Angkor) and Battambang from Thailand in 1907, the French established the Angkor Conservation Center in 1908 to conduct archaeological studies of the Angkor civilization as well as to restore the various Khmer temples.

These activities were abruptly ended in 1972 due to civil war, followed by the reign of terror imposed by the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979). Angkor Wat and the other Khmer temples were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

Archaeological activities have been restarted with funding from UNESCO in order to preserve this World Heritage Site for future generations.

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