Over centuries, grand and sprawling kingdoms rose and fell throughout Southeast Asia. Borders shifted. Alliances crumbled and formed. So it is remarkable that some of the region’s most spectacular ancient cities still survive; the voices of their residents whisper in architectural elements that are as sweeping as massive temples and as tiny as intricate bas reliefs. As you might expect, the grandest of Southeast Asia’s ancient cities have histories that are inextricably linked: Angkor, Cambodia and Ayutthaya, Thailand.
Angkor was the seat of power for the Khmer Empire as early as the year 802, when the imperial Hindu monarch Jayavarman II crowned himself the “god king.” Under his reign and the reigns of his successors, the Khmer city grew into the largest preindustrial city in the world, totaling 390 square miles and one million people.
More than 1,000 temples were built throughout the city, but none as grand as the resplendent Angkor Wat, built in the early 12th century as a state temple by King Suryavarman II. Many historians call it the largest single religious monument in the world. Its five lotus-style spires are said to represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of deities from Hindu mythology. Its walls and moat symbolize Meru’s surrounding mountains and ocean. Remarkable in scale and design, it is considered a perfect example of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.
Angkor grew into the envy of all surrounding tribes and in 1177 the Cham people moved in and sacked the city. But the Khmers took it back under the leadership of Jayavarman VII, a Buddhist. With his rise, Angkor Wat converted from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism. (Buddhist monks still practice here today and can do so because the moat that encircles the complex prevented the jungle from swallowing its buildings, even during periods of abandonment.)
The causes of Angkor’s rapid decline have been debated for generations. Some believe a plague or earthquake sent its citizens fleeing. Others say that a Buddhist ruler could not sustain such a huge population. By definition, Buddhism did not celebrate individual achievement and so the people of Angkor lacked an inspiring leader around whom to rally and maintain the infrastructure of their huge city. The economy crashed and the population scattered.
Meanwhile north of Angkor, the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya grew into power as the previous capital, Sukhothai, fell into decline. Their approach to governing took the best of both previous Khmer eras: an absolute “god-king” monarchy coupled with Theravada Buddhism. This rigid yet spiritual approach seemed to work for the new capital as it, ironically, sacked city after city in the region.
Angkor could not withstand the onslaught and in 1431 its Khmer leaders fled Siamese forces and set up their new capital at Phnom Penh. By the year 1700, Ayutthaya had blossomed into a city of one million, making it one of the world’s largest cities. Roaming the ancient city’s grounds today, you can imagine its past splendor from its reliquary towers and huge monasteries. As grand as its buildings were its ideas. Here, King Boroma Trailokanath centralized the military and administrative functions of his country and put in place a system of land ownership and social status that would shape the country for centuries to come.
In the 17th century Europeans took interest in Southeast Asia – Dutch, English, Danes, and French were all spellbound by the grandeur of Ayutthaya. As French interests became suspect (were they mere admirers or expectant colonizers?), King Narai made a decision that would shape Thailand’s history up to the present day: He expelled the 600 legionnaires from his city. To this day, the country has never been colonized by an outside power – a claim that other Southeast Asian nations cannot make.
To be sure, the magnificent architecture of the ancient cities of Angkor and Ayutthaya inspire wonder and fascination. And the stories behind the facades help us glimpse life here when these two urban centers thrived.