In addition to contacts with the Indians, Javanese, Mons, Khams, and Chinese, the Funanese/Cambodian population, society, and culture have also been shaped by their interactions, from the 15th century onward, with other ethnic groups such as the Thais, the Vietnamese, and the French. It was the amalgamation of interactions with these various groups of people and their cultures that seemed to shape and define the identity and culture of modern Cambodians. However, before we jump into modern Cambodia, we should perhaps look at the cultural and societal structures of ancient Cambodia first.
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Little is known about how early Cambodian society was organized before the arrivals of Indian/Javanese traders/settlers. However, from archaeological and historical evidences, it appeared that early Cambodians led a rather simple life, or “subsistent lifestyle”–as some historians would have put it. Their society was largely built based on the dictates of nature rather than the dictates of mankind. In this context, early Cambodians were probably hunters and gatherers whose rhythms of life followed the rhythms of nature. Because hunting and gathering of foodstuffs tends to require collective efforts in order to ensure success and to maximize the outputs, this phenomenon would certainly lead to the formation of a society which was based on the premise of collectivism.
In terms of territorial administration, early Cambodians appeared to structure their territorial administration somewhat based on a federation system. They called their kingdom or country phaendey and the territories of which they ruled or put under the sphere of their influence sroks. Phaendey or kingdom referred to the overall territories, which a certain monarch had conquered or persuaded to submit to his or her rule whereas the sroks or nokors referred to the territories (in some cases kingdoms) that were subjugated into the larger sphere of influence. Please notice that the Cambodians nowadays used the term srok interchangeably to mean district or county as well. However, the term srok or nokor here mean territories or kingdoms populated by distinct ethnic groups of people and ruled by chieftains or lesser monarchs. For example, sroks or nokors Cham, Leav (Laos), Siem (Siam), et cetera, would mean the territories or kingdoms of Champa, Laos, and Siam, respectively.
Traditionally, the Cambodians used mountains or bodies of water to mark the borders of their kingdom. Because early Cambodia, as a kingdom, depended largely on the ability of her monarchs to muster and extend their overall controls or influences over various semi-autonomous territories which were populated by different ethnic groups of people, the Cambodians have never had a fixed and firm demarcation of their territorial borders. The present boundary was only drawn in the 19th century by French colonizers who ruled over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia roughly from the 1860’s to the 1950’s. Thus, throughout much of Cambodian early history, we found that the kingdom of Cambodia sometimes stretched over vast areas under the rules of certain monarchs who were able to assert their influences over distant territories while other times the country was moderate in size.
It is perhaps worthwhile to look into how the Cambodian governmental structures were like throughout history, especially, the uses and development of the terms Phaendey and Sroks. There seems to be no evidence suggesting when the terms phaendey or daendey and sroks entered into the Cambodian vocabulary. However, based on historical context, these terms might have dated back to the Angkorian Era when the concept of universal monarch began to take roots in Cambodia. The term phaendey could probably be intertwined with the concept of a universal monarch (sdach phaendey) because he was the only master of his domain and his phaendey means territories (including those under the rules of other monarchs) of which he, the universal monarch, was able to consolidate under his rule.
Organizationally, the Cambodians of antiquity appeared to structure their governmental administration along the concept of a federation system possibly similar to the former Soviet Union in the late 20th century. The kingdom as a whole would be composed of a number of vassal kingdoms and autonomous territories which would answer to the central kingdom, Cambodia, and her universal monarch. It was those vassal kingdoms and territories that the Cambodians used the term sroks to identify them.
In the administrative scheme of things, each srok had a semi independent leader either a vassal monarch or a chieftain. Their roles were to protect the interests of their own turfs vis-à-vis those of the universal monarch who acted as a grand council and protector, or, in some cases, prosecutor, for all of them. As far as government was concerned, the relationships between the Cambodian monarch and his administrative staffs, namely leaders of the sroks, were largely based on a patronage structure. As a matter of fact, we could still see this patronage structure remains in practice today.
Like most monarchic empires throughout the ages, whose rules of governance were usually based on absolutism, the Khmer Empire (though comparatively small in size) was eventually fallen apart after several hundred years of existence. As the empire fell, the influences of the universal monarch waned, new or renewed kingdoms emerged, the administrative structures began to change as well. This was what happened to the Cambodian kingdom in the late 14th century. The event coincided with the Mongol invasion and occupation of China. As the Mongol invaded and occupied China, the Tai people, an ethnic minority living in the Chinese southwestern province of Yunnan, moved down the Mekong River valley to settle in northern Siam (Thailand). There they commingled with the Siamese and eventually formed the kingdom of Sukuthai from where the present kingdom of Thailand was originated.
Sukuthai (and subsequently Ayutthaya) played a pivotal role in the demise of the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire. It not only challenged the Cambodian hegemony over Siam but also subdued and broke down the power structure of the Cambodian kingdom. After the rise of Sukuthai, we saw that the concept of universal monarch and the term phaendey as a political administration began to fade away from the realm of Cambodian politics. The term srok was also modified to signify a large region instead of a vassal kingdom. Subsequently, in the 19th century, after the arrival of the French colonial rulers, the Cambodian political administration was once again changed to reflect the taste of French politics. The French drew the boundary of the Cambodian kingdom and divided it into provinces (khaets), districts (sroks), communes (sangkats), and villages (phums) similar to that of France. So, this is what remains of the Cambodian kingdom–a country now bureaucratically cloaks in French clothes and survives largely through the wits of its easygoing and placid people.
Throughout its historical journey, Cambodia, as a nation, appeared to be full of paradoxes. To most observers, the Cambodian people, from the past to the present, appear to be socially, economically, and politically unremarkable, yet they were able to manage to build one of the greatest civilizations on earth. Throughout their history, the Cambodians have been, from time to time, subjected to the most horrific tragedies and abuses ever occurred to humankind, yet they were able to rebound, regroup, rebuild, and preserve their society and culture. At times, the survival of their culture and identity as a people appeared to be rolling down toward the abyss of extinction, yet they were able to manage to rescue themselves from the graveyard of history. These Cambodian paradoxes are perhaps one of the most misunderstood and interesting phenomena of Cambodian history. Take the building of Angkor, for instance. When the monuments at the Angkor complexes were discovered by the European explorers in the 19th century, not many of them believed that such grandiose civilization could have been founded by the backward and apparently unremarkable Cambodians. However, evidences showed that they did it. Just how did these backward people manage to do it, nobody seems to be able to give a satisfactory answer to that question either because it appeared to be part of the Cambodian paradoxes.
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