Nations and Empires

Well, time flies when you’re a hunter/gatherer. So many nuts and berries, so little time! Thousands of years passed. Populations grew. Settlements coalesced. City states developed. In China, the first dynasties or empires started to form around 2000 BCE, finally unifying around 200 BCE. The teachings of Confucius and Lao Tzu were widely taught. In India, the Mauryans ruled most of the subcontinent by 300 BCE. Hinduism was dominant, though Buddhism was gathering a following.

Singapore Sri Mariamman Temple

The Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple in Singapore

At a time when the Romans were dealing with the confusing case of a Jewish preacher named Jesus, things were just starting to happen in some of the river valleys of Southeast Asia. Turning back to your handy-dandy National Geographic Visual Atlas of the World, page 25, you can see the extensive common borders between China and Myanmar and North Vietnam. Chinese influence in both areas was quite natural. 

The Pagan and Dai Viet Kingdoms

The Yunnan Hans from mountainous south-central China migrated south into the Irrawaddy valley (Myanmar). Some of the earliest bronze tool making has been found here. They began to set up the Pyu city states that would squabble among themselves for a thousand years before finally unifying to become the Pagan Dynasty around 1060 CE. Unfortunately, those voracious Mongols from Kublai Khan’s China would take down the Pagan Empire by 1300 CE. It would be 240 years before Burma was united again. 

The process for growing rice hasn't changed much in hundreds of years.

The process for growing rice hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.

In Northern Vietnam, along the Hong (Red) River, settlers thought to have migrated from the Austronesian islands cultivated rice and organized into the Hong Bang Dynasty as early as 1200 BCE. Over time, there was a short succession of dynasties. By 111 BCE, the Hong valley was known as Au Lac and was part of the Nanyue state ranging north to Guang Dong. The Hans united China, including Nanyue, and Au Lac remained under Chinese domination for almost a thousand years. While the Hong Vietnamese may not have liked being a vassal state to the Chinese emperors, it did give them the opportunity to develop into one of the strongest nations in Southeast Asia. You’ll find an excellent compilation of the highlights of Vietnamese history in Vietnam History: Stories Retold For A New Generation – Expanded Edition.

Much of Vietnamese history is defined by their contentious relationship with the Chinese. Some of the earliest resistance was led by women. Around 40 CE, a briefly successful insurrection was led by the Trung Sisters. Avenging the murder of one of their husbands, the ladies led a revolt against the oppressive Hans. The Emperor sent overwhelming forces and the Trungs committed suicide in 43 CE. Their moxie is still celebrated by the Vietnamese.

The second distaff heroine of Viet history was Lady Trieu. Historians on both sides recorded that she had breasts that were four feet long. We’ll trust that was an exaggeration. Around 248 CE, she inspired a singularly unsuccessful revolt against Chinese authority. The legend of her charisma was bolstered by her steed. She was reputed to ride into battle on a single tusked white elephant. Though she didn’t last long, her quoted disdain of the conventional has remained a rallying cry for feminism down through the ages:

“I want to ride strong winds, trample wicked waves, slay the whales of the Eastern Sea, and not to imitate the common people, bowing my head, stooping over to become someone’s servant or concubine!”

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The stakes that stopped the Mongols and the painting of the battle

It took until 938 CE for the Vietnamese to take advantage of the waning power of the Tang Dynasty and gain independence. The Chinese sent a large naval force to subdue the restless Viets. In an ingenious stroke, General Ngo Guyen had pointed stakes pounded into the river bed of the Bach Dang River, near Ha Long Bay. The small boats of the Vietnamese navy sailed out to confront the larger Chinese ships. At low tide, the lighter Vietnamese boats with shallower drafts retreated quickly, passing over the embedded spikes. The heavier Chinese ships chased the enemy boats and plowed right into the stakes. The impaled ships were sitting ducks for the returning Vietnamese, who promptly showered their adversaries with fiery arrows and destroyed the invading fleet. At last, the Vietnamese were free.

The Chinese took every opportunity in succeeding centuries to try to regain the Hong River valley. Against amazingly poor odds, the Viets managed to defeat them each time. The Mongols, of course, took their turn. With Myanmar in the bag, they sent invasion forces three times to conquer “Dai Viet”. In the last attempt, in 1288, the Mongols sent forces by land and sea. Defense against the Mongol cavalry was not effective. However, borrowing from the 250 year old playbook of Ngo Guyen, the Viet general, Tran Hung Dao, impaled and destroyed the Chinese fleet on pointed stakes embedded in the Bach Dang River. The isolated Mongol army retreated and Dai Viet remained free. Victory over the Mongols is celebrated in art and custom as one of the greatest events in Vietnamese military history.

The wide, expansive river deltas of the Hong and the Mekong rivers are separated by a narrow stretch of mountainous seaside. Indian Hindu traders set up early trading ports near areas with beautiful beaches. This tiny population base developed into the Kingdom of Champa. Geography kept them separate from their lowland neighbors, at least most of the time.

Khmer,  Ayutthaya, and Taungoo Empires

The Khmer Empire was the first to dominate SE Asia. By Javierfv1212, via Wikimedia Commons

While the Chinese had a big impact on developments in Myanmar and Vietnam, the mountains seem to have limited the Chinese influence in the Mekong Valley (Cambodia/Laos/South Vietnam). Here, around the 1st century CE, the Funan Empire arose, followed by the Chenla, around 550 CE. These two smaller empires were centered in the Mekong Valley and adjoining coastlines. There was far more interaction with India. By the 7th Century CE, a large Hindu nation, stretching from the base of the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra and Java, was established, called the Srivijaya Empire. Much of its history has vanished, even though it lasted into the 13th Century CE. It was ultimately vanquished by the even larger Majapahit Empire that rose across much of Indonesia and Malaysia, roughly 1290-1525.

The Srivijaya Empire had two important legacies. First, a leader from Java, named Jayavarman II, arrived in the Mekong valley, unified the Mekong groups into the Khmer Kingdom, and declared himself to be Universal Monarch around 800 CE. This set the foundation for the Khmer Empire. The second legacy of the Srivijaya Empire was attributed to Prince Parameswara, a descendent of the last Srivijaya monarch. Chased up the Malayan Peninsula by the Majapahit, he settled on the western coast and founded Malacca in about 1400 CE. He formed an alliance with the Ming Chinese emperor that kept his rivals at bay. Then, he married an Islamic princess and founded the Sultanate of Malacca. This was the predecessor to the Sultanate of Johor, which became a primary piece of current-day Malaysia.

The Mekong River Delta, recently described by a Cambodian tour guide as “like a frying pan”, is surrounded by mountains, except for its coastline. The massive braided river, flowing out of the Himalayas through Laos, is about 8 miles across all channels when it drops about 70 feet over the complex of cataracts at the Cambodian border known as Khong Falls, the widest set of falls in the world. It flows to the sea after combining with the Tonle Sab river which drains the Tonle Sap lake in central Cambodia. During the summer monsoon season, the flow of the Mekong is so strong, it reverses the Tonle Sab and swells the Tonle Sap lake by a factor of ten, creating one of the most abundant fish breeding sites in the world. This climatic pattern defines the agrarian and fishing culture of the Mekong Delta.

Cruise SE Asia

The famous Hindu temple of Angkor Wat

By about 800 CE, the Khmer empire of Jayavarman II, with its capital at Angkor in the central Mekong valley, became the first dominant empire of mainland Southeast Asia. At its most extensive, it covered an area that is now Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and southern Vietnam. (The word, “Khmer,” is pronounced “ca-MEER”.) The stunning achievement of the Khmer Empire was the massive city of Angkor. Located north of the Tonle Sap, (“Great Lake”), in central Cambodia, the city is estimated to have covered almost 400 square miles, ten times larger than any other pre-industrial city in the world. Its population may have reached a million people. The archeological site is one of the premier attractions in the world and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a concise history, pick up Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (Ancient Peoples and Places). For an introduction to local folklore, see Khmer Legends.

Its signature temple, Angkor Wat, was completed by 1150 CE, by King Suryavarman II and was originally dedicated to the

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Every temple needs its dancing girls

Hindu god Vishnu. Its five towers represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, the spiritual home of the Hindu gods. The steps and walls are carved with other divine themes and, of course, the life and victories of the king. Over time, the state religion alternated between Hinduism and Buddhism. The temple site is maintained by Buddhist monks today. It has been described as the “world’s largest religious structure.” It is one of many significant temples and structures spanning several square miles. For a recently updated guide to the Angkor temples, see Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples (Sixth Edition) (Odyssey Illustrated Guides). The original definitive archeological description of the entire Angkor complex was written in 1944 by French archaeologist, Maurice Glaize. It is available free on the Internet, with updated notations, at A separate article follows with a number of pictures from a recent trip to the huge archaeological site.

By the 1300’s, the Khmer Empire started to weaken. One of its princes, Fa Ngum, decided to leave the court in Angkor and to stake his own claim in the upper reaches of the Mekong River above Khong Falls in what is now northern Laos. His Lan Xang dynasty took hold in Vientiane on the shores of the river. The strong connection between the Khmer people of Laos and Cambodia has persisted through the times of empires, colonialism and communism.

By 1400, the Ayutthaya (Purple) had pushed the Khmer (red) back into the Mekong Valley. SE Asia was fragmented. By Javierfv1212, via Wikimedia Commons

At about the same time, the mid-1300’s, Hindu kings in the Chao Phraya River valley (pronounced “chow-FREE-ya), established a city north of present-day Bangkok, called Ayutthaya. (On the back beat: “a-YUT-tea-Ya.”) They rebelled from the Khmer, pushing them back to their own valley. By 1405, the map looked something like this:

The old capitol of Ayutthaya is just north of Bangkok. The name of the city is a derivation of Ayodhya, India, the birthplace of the important Hindu hero/semi-deity, Rama. Most guidebooks will tell you it sits on an island formed by the confluence of three rivers. In fact, a study of ancient maps suggests the resourceful, defense-minded Siamese dug canals that redirected the waters of three rivers to create a moat around the city. An informative website that includes an essay on the waterworks of the ancient city is found at There is also an excellent essay on the history and significance of elephants in Thai culture. Alternatively, pick up Ayutthaya-Venice of the East.

The site of Ayutthaya contains some well-preserved structures, including a miniature version of Angkor Wat. Though less extensive than Angkor, it is as historically important as the capital of one of the dominant empires and enduring cultures of Southeast Asia. If you’ve already seen the major temples of Bangkok, consider an excursion to the ruins of Ayutthaya.

You’ll notice on the 1400 map above that Northern and Central Vietnam continue to be separate, thanks to mountains. By 1471, the Mac Dynasty in Northern Vietnam had conquered the Champa Dynasty in Central Vietnam and extended down the coast. For the time, the Khmer kept them out of the Mekong valley. Meanwhile, back in the Irrawaddy valley, (Myanmar), an eager little king of Taungoo in northern Burma, Tabinshwehti, unified the valley by conquering his much stronger southern rivals. His successor, Bayinnaung, not to be outdone, swept across Southeast Asia, and, by 1580, established the largest empire that would ever exist in the region, covering Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos.

All Hell breaks Loose!

It proved to be a flash in the pan. The Siamese in Ayutthaya beat the Taungoo back to their own valley and then subdued the Khmer. Vietnam still managed to stay separate and, in the midst of its own civil war, began to creep into the lower Mekong valley. The southern part of the Malay Peninsula had unified during this time and was ruled by the Sultan of Johor. By 1605, the map looked like this:

The furthest extent of the Ayutthaya Empire, 1605. By Xailang, via Wikimedia Commons

Now things get interesting.

  • In Burma, the Konbaung overthrew the Taungoo and unified the Irrawaddy valley, (1759).
  • Feeling their oats, the Konbaung overran Ayutthaya, (1765-67), completely destroying the city.
  • Luckily for the Ayutthaya kingdom, the Chinese invaded Burma, completely distracting the Konbaung who were forced to retreat to defend their home turf, (1767).
  • A smaller Ayutthaya empire survived in the Chao Phraya valley as Siam.
  • Civil war in Vietnam, 1771-1802, resulted in a united Vietnam, from the Hong valley in the north to the Mekong valley in the south.
  • The Burmese, having fended off the Chinese, headed west and invaded the Brahmaputra valley of India, 1800-26.
  • The British in India got even by taking back the Indian provinces, 1826.
  • The Khmer and Laotians were bounced back and forth like ping pong balls, mostly between Siam and Vietnam, leading to war between the two larger powers, 1831-34.

All this upheaval swung the doors wide open for Europeans to invite themselves in for a feast.