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The Xenophile Historian

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A Concise History of Southeast Asia


Before 1500 A.D.

This chapter covers the following topics:

A Geographical Introduction
An Amazing Beginning
The Arrival of the Malays
Other Mon and Malay States
Burma: Pyu, Pegu and Arakan
Early Vietnam
Nan Zhao
Pre-Moslem Indonesia
The Khmers
Dai Viet vs. Champa
The Birth of Siam
Ava and Ayutthaya
Lan Xang
The Long Road from Mecca to Manila
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A Geographical Introduction

The landscape of Southeast Asia is complex. Most of the terrain is rugged hills and mountains covered by jungle, with swamps or an occasional savanna in the lowlands. To the south, shallow seas and far-flung archipelagoes make for relatively easy travel by water. The climate, however, is very predictable; torrential rains are brought in seasonally by the monsoon weather of the Indian Ocean, and the rest of the year is cooler and drier.

The peoples of this region are as diverse as the geography itself. Dominant ethnic groups like the Vietnamese, Thais, etc., have always preferred to live in river valleys and other low-lying areas, which are the best places for growing rice. Usually the highlands are available for anybody who wants them, and they have been settled by various ethnic minorities. The result is that about 85% of the population is concentrated on 15% of the land, with the minority groups thinly spread over the rest. Even the smallest states have ethnic minorities living within their borders; e.g., the people of East Timor speak sixteen tribal languages, in addition to Portuguese. There is no homogeneous society in this part of the world.

Influence from outside has contributed to Southeast Asia's ethnic diversity. Every major city has a Chinese community, started by job-seeking immigrants who have been arriving since the 16th century. In addition, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei have Indian communities, also made up of immigrants who came here for jobs. Every major religion has followers in Southeast Asia: Hinduism (Bali), Buddhism (most of the mainland), Islam (Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the southern Philippines), Confucianism (Vietnam), and Christianity (mostly in the Philippines and Vietnam). There is even a community of 9,000 Jews, the Bnei Menashe, living in Burma/Myanmar and northeast India; since the 1990s, they have been making aliyah to Israel. Finally, the period of Western colonialism left its mark on the region; many countries still have economic and political ties to their former white rulers. For example, the Filipinos know more about the United States than they do about neighboring Malaysia, and Vietnam has nearly as much in common with France as it does with Laos.

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An Amazing Beginning

During the ice age and before the dawn of history, the world's sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today, due to so much of the ocean's water being frozen in glaciers. This meant that instead of having thousands of islands where the Philippines and Indonesia now exist, both archipelagoes were joined to the Asian mainland by land bridges, forming a huge peninsula which geologists sometimes call "Sunda-land." When the glaciers melted at the end of the ice age, those land bridges were submerged, but before this happened, the first people to go there could travel to nearly every part of it without a boat (though not to New Guinea or Australia, which were still separated from Asia by water).

Sunda-Land becomes Southeast Asia.

The original inhabitants of Southeast Asia were a short, hairy, black-skinned race related to the Australian Aborigines, sometimes called Negritos. Today they are found in remote areas, still living a stone age lifestyle, but once they roamed the entire region, hunting, gathering and practicing slash-and-burn agriculture as far north as the Yangtze River.(1)

Archaeological excavations in Thailand (Spirit Cave, Non Nok Tha) and northern Vietnam (Dongson, Hoabinh) revealed a major surprise: the first Southeast Asians had agriculture and pottery at the same time as the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia. In fact, evidence now suggests that rice was grown here a long time before it was grown anywhere else, and even the pottery found here may be the world's oldest. The most impressive discovery was made at Ban Chiang, a hill on Thailand's Khorat Plateau, in the early 1970s; this hill covered a village that was settled continuously, for at least two thousand years. 126 skeletons were discovered intact, buried with the pottery and metal tools it was thought they would need in the afterlife. One 4,000-year-old skeleton was nicknamed "Nimrod" because he showed all the marks of a mighty hunter; he was unusually tall, and buried with deer antlers, hunting weapons, and a necklace of tiger claws. Even the oldest graves contained bronze bracelets, bells and spearheads, dating back as far as 3600 B.C.!

At this early date the Khorat smiths were doing better work than their Mesopotamian counterparts; by 3000 B.C. they figured out that the strongest bronze alloy is made by mixing 1 part of tin with nine parts of copper. They were probably helped by a geographical advantage: Southeast Asia is the world's richest source of tin. Tin is uncommon in the West, and before the Mesopotamians discovered it, they made bronze by mixing copper and arsenic, with brittle and sometimes hazardous results.

Since little archaeological excavation was done in Southeast Asia until recently--thanks to modern problems like the Indochina wars--the discoveries made so far have caused considerable controversy. Traditionally it was believed that the Middle East is the only cradle of civilization, and distant centers of civilization like India, China and Central America somehow learned it from their elder brothers in Egypt and Iraq. The discoveries mentioned above bring this theory into question. Did the Middle East invent everything first? Did the Far East get started on its own, without help from the West? Part of the controversy stems from the fact that in Iraq we can trace the development of metalworking from its earliest stages, while the bronze works found so far in Thailand are products of a fully developed metallurgy. Pro-Thai advocates argue that we have not yet figured out where Mesopotamia first got its tin, so if there was any transfer of metals and ideas, it was from east to west, not the other way around.

At the 1600 B.C. level, archaeologists came across another important discovery: iron spearheads, knives and bracelets. Normally the Hittites of ancient Turkey are credited with being the first people to forge iron, but these objects are just as old as anything the Hittites produced. Around the same time, the people went from dry cultivation to the wet-cultivation of rice in flooded fields that is still practiced today; that greatly increased the total food supply. The carabao, or water buffalo, was domesticated around this time to pull plows, and the discovery of spindles and bits of thread suggest that they already knew how to make cloth from silk (this may have been learned from the Chinese).

Ban Chiang's achievements were limited to agriculture and metallurgy; they had no cities, no writing, no temples and no kings. Warfare seems to have been unknown as well; nobody was buried with any shield or weapon of war, no skeleton found to date shows signs of a violent death, and no settlement shows evidence of having been destroyed by fire or force of arms. They lived simply, turning out their pottery and bronzes until the first millennium B.C., when they vanished as mysteriously as they came. But by that time they had left their mark on other cultures. It now appears that China learned how to make bronze from them, for the Chinese word for copper, "tong," is the same word used in the oldest Southeast Asian languages.

There are hundreds of circular mounds--some as much as twenty feet high--that still await investigation in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, and Vietnam. They are spaced an average of 18 miles apart, and most of them are probably villages. Now that political conditions in the region have finally relaxed, it may be possible to excavate them to see if they can answer the questions raised by the artifacts found so far. Perhaps these hide the missing cities of the Ban Chiang civilization. Unfortunately, when the natives living near Ban Chiang found out that the potsherds in their ground were worth something to foreigners, they dug up and smuggled thousands of pieces out of the country before scholars had a chance to study them. Furthermore, when the villagers ran out of authentic pots to sell, they started making convincing-looking forgeries. The artifacts still lying in those other mounds may revolutionize our knowledge of ancient history, if the archaeologists can beat the looters to them.

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The Arrival of the Malays

In the second and first millennia B.C., new races began to move into Southeast Asia from the north, displacing the original Negritos in the process. Leading the way were the ancestors of the Malayo-Polynesian races, also called Austronesians or simply Malays. They first appeared on the Amoy coast of south China; before anyone in the area could read or write, they crossed the Formosa Strait and settled Taiwan, becoming the native Formosan community of that island (see Chapter 5, footnote 5 of my Chinese history series). They were the first people we know of who grew rice, and they brought it with them wherever they went. On a map you can see there is about 100 miles of open water between the mainland and Taiwan, and a similar distance from Taiwan to the next islands the Malays visited: the Philippines to the south, and the Ryukyu and Senkaku islands to the northeast. We believe that they made all of these crossings by 2000 B.C., and they did it with simple dugout canoes.

The group that traveled up the Ryukyu chain eventually ran into the Japanese, who were at the same level of technology (neolithic), and thus able to stop and absorb them. Those who went to Philippines enjoyed much more success, for this archipelago proved to be an ideal place for growing rice. Up to this point, rice hadn't been very important in south China or Taiwan, since there were several other crops available, but now it became a staple that allowed the first Filipino communities to grow rapidly. By contrast, the Negritos already living in the Philippines were mainly hunter-gatherers; because of their primitive lifestyle, they remained few in numbers, and thus could not compete with the newcomers.

Dugout canoes are not recommended for travel on the open sea; they are unstable and easily capsized when they encounter waves. At some point, the Malays learned to add side boards and outriggers to their canoes, turning them into much more seaworthy vessels. By the time they were done exploring and colonizing the Philippines, they were excellent sailors as well, and thus were ready to take the next big step. Now they continued south, but split into two waves, which landed on the large islands of Borneo and Sulawesi. Because these islands were completely covered by jungle, they weren't very inviting, but the next islands to the south--Java, Bali and Lombok--were smaller and more fertile. Again the local Negritos proved to be no match, and were conquered or expelled. Finally some westward-heading expeditions reached Sumatra, the huge island that marks Indonesia's western limit, and the Malay peninsula; naturally both were quickly settled. Another group of Malays landed on Vietnam's central coast and founded the state of Champa (see below).

By 700 B.C. Dongson-style pottery was turning up in places as far away as New Guinea, indicating that the Malayo-Polynesians had already been to all the places in Southeast Asia where they live today: Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei. During the next 2,000 years they traveled even farther, crossing the oceans to reach New Zealand, Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar. By any standard these were astonishing journeys; the distance from Easter Island to Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, is 203 degrees of longitude--more than halfway around the world!

Back in Southeast Asia, the Dongson culture enjoyed its best years. Around 500 B.C., craftsmen in north Vietnam began making large bronze drums covered with various scenes, of people riding in boats, fighting battles, or conducting important ceremonies. These remarkable examples of metallurgy were buried with the dead, or served as urns to hold cremated remains. They probably had some sort of religious significance, because many of the tribes living in the region today believe that a person needs a drum to contact his ancestral spirits. To the northwest, around Lake Dian in China's Yunnan province, another bronzeworking culture sprang up after 1000 B.C. The Dian people produced not only drums but drum-shaped containers for cowrie shells (the local form of money), and the lids of the containers are even more elaborate than the drums. These lids have miniature figures of people and their surroundings, a complete diorama. For example, one such display shows 127 people gathered around a platform bearing 16 drums, with a thatched roof stretched over the platform and a giant bronze drum standing nearby. Both cultures were eventually conquered by the Chinese: Dongson in 111 B.C., Dian in 109 B.C.

One other achievement deserves to be mentioned here. Around 1 A.D., at Banawe, in the northern Philippines, somebody left an astonishing work of engineering; using only stone age tools, they carved entire mountains into terraces so that rice may be grown on the slopes. Today's residents on the terraces, a tribe called the Ifugao, still maintain and use them, and the terraces are considered the "eighth wonder of the world" by Filipinos. But Banawe and the journeys across the Indian and Pacific Oceans mark the end of the time when Southeast Asia was a technological leader; for most of the two thousand years since Southeast Asia has borrowed most of its culture from other nations, rather than inventing its own.

Ifugao tribesman
An Ifugao tribesman, with Banawe in the background.
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Behind the Malays came the Vietnamese, Mon-Khmers, Tibeto-Burmans and Thais, all forced to move by Chinese expansion. At an unknown date (no later than 300 B.C.), the Mon-Khmers split into two tribes: the Khmers, ancestor's of today's Cambodians, who migrated down the Mekong River; and the Mons, who went west to settle Thailand, southern Burma, and part of Malaya. Today the Mons are insignificant, numbering around 800,000 individuals and living just east of the Irrawaddy delta, but in ancient times they were an important conduit of civilization. When the Mons reached the Bay of Bengal, one group took to the sea and settled the Nicobar Islands. However, they left the neighboring Andaman Islands to their Negrito inhabitants, who went on to become today's Andaman Islanders.(2) Eventually Mon seafarers made contact with India, which was ruled by an outstanding king named Asoka in the mid-third century B.C. Asoka sent Buddhist missionaries to convert the Mons, thereby beginning Burma's preoccupation with Buddhism that lasts to this day. By 200 B.C. there was a Mon state, with its capital at Thaton, and it enjoyed regular commerce with India and Sri Lanka.

Indian interest in Southeast Asia increased when India and China began to trade with each other in the second century B.C. The trip between India and China was not easy; the direct route was over the Tibetan Plateau, a grueling hike only the hardiest traders were willing to try. Alternatives by land were not much better: either a trek through the mountainous jungles of Burma and Yunnan, or a long roundabout path through barbarian-infested Central Asia. Indian merchants searched for a water route, and they found it in Southeast Asia's seas. The area with the most traffic, the Malacca Strait between Malaya and Sumatra, soon developed a problem in the form of local pirates, but overall this was the quickest and easiest way to travel between Asia's two main centers of civilization. An alternative to Malacca was the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, but that added 90 days to the journey, with no port to stop in on the way; few sailors or passengers looked forward to such a trip.

Although India was already a multi-religious land, Buddhists led the way in exploring the outside world for a while, because Hindu priests, the Brahmans, forbade their followers to travel overseas or to marry outside their caste (which meant any foreigner who had not converted to Hinduism was off-limits). However, word came back to India that Southeast Asians were friendly, and they had some valuable commodities, like rubies, hardwoods and spices. Because the Buddhists had success trading with the natives, eventually some Hindus tried their luck in overseas ventures, and because they were successful, too, they were forgiven for violating the prohibitions of the priests. Consequently, Indian culture went forth with the Indian ships.

Local geography helped in the spreading of that culture. The currents and winds of the Indian Ocean change with the seasons, so ships would often have to wait in a Southeast Asian port for months until favorable winds came, giving those on board ample time to meet the natives. Indian missionaries converted the natives to Buddhism and Hinduism, and soon the local rulers were calling themselves maharajahs and imitating the courts of India down to the smallest details. By the first century A.D., the coasts of Burma, Malaya, Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam were dotted with Indian-style city-states.

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The most fertile ground for these city-states was the lower Mekong valley, in what is now Cambodia and the southernmost part of Vietnam. This area is an excellent place to grow rice, thanks to a unique reservoir, the Tonle Sap. This lake has only one inlet/outlet, a short channel connecting it to the Mekong River at its southern tip. During the four-month rainy season this channel pours floodwater from the Mekong into the lake, raising it as much as 40 feet above its winter level. Then during the rest of the year, when the climate is drier, the channel flow reverses direction, letting the waters of the Tonle Sap out gradually. This process keeps the water level of the Mekong delta constant all year round, and provides fertilizer in the form of silt from upstream.

Late in the first century A.D., the entire lower Mekong region was united under a city named Vyadhapura. Only a Cambodian legend exists to tell us how it happened: according to this tale, one day an Indian Brahman (priest) named Kaundinya was directed by a heavenly spirit to sail eastward. After a difficult journey he reached the Cambodian coast, where a beautiful young woman paddled out in her canoe to greet him. At first Kaundinya was delighted to meet such a charming hostess, until he learned that she was Queen Willow Leaf, ruler of the country and daughter of a serpent god that was a personal enemy of his. When she declared that she would seize his ship and destroy him, he shot a magic arrow into her boat. The queen immediately realized that she was no match for the newcomer and agreed to make peace. Shortly after, the two were married, and their child became the first king of Funan.

We are not certain of the name by which Southeast Asia's first kingdom called itself; it appears to have been Phnom, which means "mountain" in Cambodian. The name we call it, Funan, comes to us from Chinese diplomats, who first visited around 230 A.D. Funan means "King of the Mountain"; both names are a reference to Mt. Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology (Cambodia is quite flat). All of what we know about Funan comes either from Chinese records, or from excavations at Oc Eo, Funan's seaport on the Gulf of Thailand. Before the Chinese arrived, a series of military expeditions made vassals of all the city-states of Thailand and the Malay peninsula, giving Funan complete control of the Indo-China trade. Oc Eo was a bustling center of commerce in its heyday, with traders coming there from China, India, and even Rome (among the artifacts found was a Roman coin, dated 152 A.D.). So many canals were dug in the countryside that the Chinese talked about "sailing across Funan."

Normally the Chinese are not impressed by the accomplishments of other people, but Funan's visitors brought back a favorable report of the country's Malay upper class, which had palaces, abundant treasures, and a system of writing related to Sanskrit. Most of the people, however, were apparently Negrito, for one Chinese described them as "ugly and black," with frizzy hair. This same ambassador was offended by the sight of the Negritos walking around naked, and when he told this to the king of Funan, a law was passed requiring all to wear clothing in public, and the traditional Cambodian "sampot" or loincloth was invented.

Funan peaked as a nation under Jayavarman I (478-514) and then rapidly fell into ruin.(3) Internal discord and raids from the Khmers in Laos weakened the state; by 539 it was paying tribute to the Khmers; in 627 the Khmers conquered it completely. But Funan had established the social, economic, and political patterns that most states on the Southeast Asian mainland would follow for centuries to come.

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Other Mon and Malay States

While Funan was in the limelight, civilization spread from the coasts to the interiors of Thailand and Malaya. Two more Mon states, named Dvaravati and Haripunjaya, were founded around 500 A.D. in central and northern Thailand respectively. In the Malay peninsula, several small states appeared with names like Pan Pan, Lankasuka, and Tambralinga, stretched across the Isthmus of Kra in different locations. The Malay states prospered by offering traders a short cut that was both quicker and safer than the Strait of Malacca: portage by land across the isthmus. The portage was not difficult either, because at one point only five miles of land separates rivers flowing into the Gulf of Thailand and the Bay of Bengal. The Mon States were not in a favorable trading location, so they probably relied on agriculture to make a living.

We know little about these kingdoms today. Numerous artifacts have been found, but all of the inscriptions on them are religious texts; no information on the politics/history of the states can be gleaned from them, aside from the fact that they practiced Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism. The Malay states gradually came under the rule of Srivijaya, the first Indonesian empire, in the eighth century. Dvaravati and Haripunjaya became part of the Khmer empire in the tenth century, and the other Mon state, Thaton, was conquered by Burma in the eleventh. The Mons were never displaced as residents, though; in Thailand they retained their separate ethnic identity during the whole Khmer period, and were absorbed into the Thai kingdoms that were established in the 13th century. They were still the largest ethnic group in the lower Menam (Chao Phraya) River valley as late as 1350.

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Burma: Pyu, Pegu, and Arakan

While the Mons were establishing themselves in Lower (southern) Burma, the ancestors of today's Burmese settled Upper Burma (500-200 B.C.?). The Tibeto-Burmans had acquired a measure of civilization from their cousins, the Chinese, but now their independence and lifestyle was threatened by the growing Chinese state. Preferring physical hardship to bondage, they moved away; one tribe, the Tibetans, went directly west into Tibet, while the rest marched over the mountains of Yunnan and northern Burma to reach the Irrawaddy valley. From here the tribes spread out into surrounding areas, and in 167 A.D. they formed a confederation named Pyu.

The Pyus prospered from the occasional merchant who used the Irrawaddy to go between India and China. They also got along well with the Mons and with India. Chinese visitors reported that Pyu had a remarkably elegant and humane society. Fetters, chains and prisons were unknown, and the only punishment for criminals was a few strokes of the whip. The men wore gold ornaments in their hats and the women wore jewels in their hair; both sexes wore bright blue clothing. Pyus lived in wooden houses with roofing tiles of lead and tin, they used golden knives and surrounded themselves with art objects of gold, green glass, jade and crystal. Unlike the Mons, who had a king in charge of every Mon city, the Pyus governed each tribe by democratic assembly.

From the 6th century onwards the Burmese grew to become the largest of the Pyu tribes. This made little difference until 832, when Nan Zhao, the first Thai kingdom, launched a devastating raid that destroyed the Pyu capital (modern Hmawza, then called Shrikshetra). Leadership of the Burman peoples passed to the Burmese, but not everyone approved of the idea; even today the Burmese majority has trouble getting along with the other Tibeto-Burmans. This is especially true of the Karens, a large ethnic minority living next to the Mons in Southeast Burma; they have been implacable opponents of Burmese rule for most of the eleven centuries since the fall of Pyu. In 849 the Burmese founded their own city, named it Pagan (pronounced "Pah-gon"), and built a wall around it. At the same time the Mons built a new capital city to replace Thaton, named Pegu, on the east edge of the Irrawaddy delta.

The Burmese have a list of kings going all the way back to 107 A.D., but the first king for which inscriptions exist is Nyaung-u Sawrahan (931-964). The story of how he got the crown is worth telling here, because it shows some cultures have very unusual ideas about who is qualified to be king. The previous king, Theinkho, was defeated in battle, and while fleeing he came upon a farm with a delicious-looking crop of cucumbers. He decided to stop there, and picked a cucumber to eat it. What happened next was clearly caused by a breakdown of etiquette; Theinkho didn't seek to get permission before taking the cucumber, and Nyaung-u Sawrahan, the farmer who owned the field, didn't greet the king with appropriate words like, "Your Majesty, pardon, but thou asketh not for that cucumber." Instead, Nyaung came running and screaming, and beat the king to death with his spade! The queen was also there, but whereas you would expect her to declare Nyaung an outlaw and order him slain on the spot, she had him subdued, tied up, and taken into the palace. She was afraid that the people might rise up in revolt when they heard that the king was dead; she may also have been concerned about who would take care of her now. So she crowned the farmer as the new king, and brought him out when conditions looked safe. Nyaung-u Sawrahan is now remembered as the "Cucumber King," credited with turning his original farm into a beautiful garden, and bringing a generation a peace to the kingdom.

On the coast, between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of modern Bangladesh, there was a kingdom named Arakan. Arakan is a wedge-shaped land, 350 miles long and 90 miles across at its widest point; a mountain range named the Arakan Yoma separates it from the rest of Burma, making communications difficult. The Arakanese are closely related to the Burmese--in fact they speak an archaic Burmese dialect that is no longer used by the Burmese themselves--but the barriers of nature have made them more interested in India and the sea than in their brethren across the mountains. Most of them are Buddhists, but Buddhism has never been the state religion the way it has been for the Burmese. In fact, there is a community of Bengali Moslems in Arakan today, the product of Arakan's toleration of Islam when it was an independent state seeking commerce with India.

The Arakanese chronicles claim that their kingdom was founded in 2666 B.C., and they contain lists of kings going back to that date. Inscriptions have been found that mention a very old kingdom in the area (as old as 350 A.D., anyway), but they are written in Sanskrit, suggesting that Arakan's founders were Indian, not Tibeto-Burman. The first evidence of the Arakanese themselves dates to the tenth century, so they probably originated as one of the Pyu tribes, migrating as far west as possible when Pyu was destroyed. The northern half of the country was conquered by Anawrahta, the first important Burmese king, in the mid-eleventh century, but it remained a semi-independent province, with its own hereditary monarch, until full independence was regained two and a half centuries later.

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Early Vietnam

The origin of the Vietnamese people is uncertain. Their language closely resembles the Mon-Khmer tongues, suggesting they are distant relatives of the Mon-Khmers, but there are also similarities with Thai and the Malay languages. The Vietnamese themselves claim one of China's first kings as their ancestor, and there was a tribe that called itself "Viet" (Yue in Chinese) on the banks of the Yangtze River (in China's Zhejiang province) in the first millennium B.C. The theory now accepted is that the Viets migrated to the south after the Chinese absorbed their homeland in 334 B.C. Some Viets settled in Fujian Province; their kingdom, called Man Viet (Min Yue in Chinese), was conquered by China in 110 B.C. The rest of the Viets continued to the Red River delta, intermarried with the peoples already living there, and formed the ethnic Vietnamese of today.

The first Vietnamese state along the Red River, Van Lang ("Land of the Tattooed Men"), is probably a myth--Vietnamese legends claim it was founded in 2879 B.C.! At best Van Lang is a vague memory of the Dongson culture that existed in the region before the Viets arrived. The last Van Lang king was overthrown in 258 B.C. by an immigrant named An Duong Vuong (the chief of the Viets?), who renamed the state Au Loc. Au Loc was in turn conquered by a Chinese general named Zhao Tuo in 208 B.C. But even while the Chinese took over, the masters of China, the Qin dynasty, were overthrown. Instead of submitting to a new emperor, Zhao took for himself a Viet name, Trieu Da, adopted Viet customs, and declared the area under his control--the Red River valley plus Guangdong and Guangxi provinces--an independent kingdom called Nam Viet (Nan Yue in Chinese). At this point true history replaces legends.(4)

For nearly a century Trieu Da's successors used diplomatic and military duels to keep the Chinese out. Then in 111 B.C. Nam Viet was conquered by the Chinese emperor Wu Di. At first the Chinese ruled leniently, introducing many things the Vietnamese welcomed, like writing, roads, canals, improved agriculture, and iron tools/weapons. But the Viets refused to become Chinese; as a result, from the first century A.D. onwards the Chinese attempted a program of total Sinicization. Thousands of Chinese administrators, soldiers and scholars came in, filling the government jobs previously held by Vietnamese. Confucianism, Daoism, and the Chinese language were taught; Chinese customs and fashions became mandatory. Despite all this only the educated elite were affected much, and even they preferred to speak only Vietnamese at home.

The first major rebellion against Chinese rule (39-42 A.D.) was led by Trung Trac, the wife of a noble executed by the Chinese, and her sister Trung Nhi. They gathered the tribal chiefs with their armed followers, attacked and destroyed the Chinese strongholds, and proclaimed themselves queens of an independent Vietnam. The Chinese returned, however, with a new army, re-imposed their rule, and tried harder than ever to assimilate the natives. Another woman, Trieu Au, led a second uprising in 248, but it was crushed in six months; like the Trung sisters, she drowned herself to avoid capture by the Chinese. Three more revolts took place in the sixth century, and the Chinese won every time. After the first uprising the Chinese general, Ma Yuan, erected two bronze pillars on the southern border of Vietnam, marking where the Chinese thought the civilized world came to an end. Beyond those pillars lived only demons, ghosts, subhuman savages--and the Chams.

To the south, in the neighborhood of modern Hue, a different kingdom was getting started. Champa, as that kingdom was called, is first listed in Chinese records under the name "Linyi", and the date of its founding is given as 192 A.D. Ruled by a king clad in cotton, with gold necklaces and flowers in his hair, the Chams brought up pearls from the South China Sea and produced amazingly potent drugs and incenses. Warriors wore rattan armor and rode elephants in battle, often to raid Chinese settlements.

Like their neighbors to the south and east, the Chams were Malays. Because of their location, Champa was influenced by both Chinese and Indian culture at first. Later on, when the Gupta empire arose in India (4th century), a great deal of commerce between India and Champa took place. The result was that Champa's culture became totally Indianized. Sanskrit was widely used as a sacred language, the kings took on Sanskrit names, and the names of Champa's cities were Sanskrit ones as well: Amaravati (modern Quang Nam), Vijaya (Binh Dinh), Kauthara (Nha Trang), and Panduranga (Phan Rang). At the same time Indian and Cham art were identical.

The mountainous coast of central Vietnam could not provide enough farmland to keep the Chams fed, so from the earliest years their society was ship-oriented, depending on both trade and piracy (with no particular preference) to make a living. Most of the raids were directed north towards the Chinese-occupied part of Vietnam, until the Chinese retaliated by destroying Vijaya, the Cham capital, in 446. Champa fell under Chinese rule until it regained its independence in 510. Thirty years later, the decline of Funan gave the Chams an opportunity to expand south, and they advanced all the way to the edge of the Mekong delta.

In the following centuries Champa exchanged raids with the Chinese, Khmers, and Javanese. The skill of the Cham soldiers, their strong sea power and their virtually unassailable land position all contributed to Champa's success. But their piracy made all of Champa's neighbors enemies, and the Chams got more than they bargained for when the Vietnamese turned out to be as aggressive as they were.

Late in the eighth century Chinese control over Vietnam weakened, encouraging raids from Java (767) and the Thai kingdom of Nan Zhao (862-863); in 780 Champa bit off the provinces of Hue, Quang Tri, and Quang Binh. When China's Tang dynasty was replaced by anarchy in the early tenth century, the Vietnamese made yet another bid for independence. This time, under their leader Ngo Quyen, they were successful, and after an overwhelming naval victory in 939 the Vietnamese were free at last.

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Nan Zhao

The Thai (Free) peoples were the last major ethnic group to come into Southeast Asia from China. As with the other groups, few details (if any) are available, but it appears that the Thais originally lived in China's Sichuan province, migrating south to Yunnan to escape assimilation into the growing Chinese empire. By 100 B.C., however, they came under Chinese rule anyway, and the Thais learned the elements of civilization from the Chinese. After the fall of China's Han dynasty (220 A.D.), the Thais regained their independence, and they established a number of city-states where they lived.

Even at this early date the Thais appear to have been a heterogeneous people. The reason for this is the basic nature of early Thai society. Often a group of Thai villages would band together under one prince to form an alliance called a muang. Most muang were temporary, lasting just long enough to solve a specific problem, but a really successful alliance would stay together for years. It did not take much to get the Thais to migrate, and whenever they were dissatisfied a prince would take his muang and move somewhere else. Population pressure also caused migrations. For example, a prince would want his sons to have as much land as he did; usually he would make his youngest son heir to the original territory and take the other sons with him as he went forth to conquer new lands for them. This process tended to fragment Thai society into many smaller ethnic groups. Another factor was the way they treated the previous inhabitants of the lands they moved into; they enslaved them, rather than killing them or driving them away. Because the Thais were spread out over a large area, sharing their land with non-Thais, they were usually an ethnic minority in their own country, even as late as the 14th century.

In the late 7th century, the Chinese were put on the defensive by an expanding Tibet which threatened to annex all of southwest China. In 713 the Chinese gave up trying to defend the southwest by themselves and formed anti-Tibetan alliances with six Thai city-states in western Yunnan. One of the Thai princes, Pi Logo, brought all six states under his rule; in 738 the Chinese recognized him as the "Nan Zhao" or "Southern Prince." Prosperity came immediately, since Nan Zhao and its capital, Dali, were in a well-defended region, and the land route of the Indochina trade passed through their realm.

When the Nan Zhao throne passed to Pi Logo's son, Go Lofeng, the Chinese had second thoughts about the kingdom they had helped create. Four Chinese armies invaded between 752 and 754, but Nan Zhao defeated them every time. Then Nan Zhao took the offensive, conquering all of eastern Yunnan, Guizhou and even Guangxi. Nan Zhao's best years were in the 9th century, when the previously mentioned raids into Burma and Vietnam were made. After this China and Nan Zhao agreed that friendship was the best policy. They got along fine after that until the Mongol Empire conquered both nations in the thirteenth century. Ever since those days the Thais have been masters of diplomacy, a skill that helped them keep their independence when the West conquered their neighbors.

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Pre-Moslem Indonesia

When Funan fell under Khmer rule, the Indochina trade was taken up by other states. The one in the best location was Srivijaya, on the southeastern coast of Sumatra near both the Malacca and Sunda straits. It was probably in existence as a kingdom before the collapse of Funan, but the first record that mentions Srivijaya is the travel diary of Yijing, a Chinese Buddhist pilgrim who spent nearly 25 years (671-695) traveling between China and India. He visited Srivijaya more than once on those trips and praised its capital, Palembang, for its 1,000 monks and an excellent library of holy texts. One hundred years later Srivijaya not only ruled Sumatra but also the Malay peninsula and western Java, giving it almost complete control over the Indochina trade. And with the growth of powerful new states eager to trade with one another (the Tang dynasty of China and the Islamic caliphates of the Middle East), Srivijaya could look forward to a prosperous future.

Srivijaya never forgot that its prosperity came from abroad. The Srivijayans kept the Chinese friendly with diplomacy, sending merchants to the Chinese court in the guise of vassals offering tribute. To supplement their income as middlemen, local industries were developed in pepper, nipa mats, tortoiseshell, beeswax, aromatic woods, and camphor. The Orang Asli (Forest People) were hired to gather the wood and locate the diseased trees that are the source of camphor, and the Malaccan pirates (Orang Laut or Sea People) were recruited into the Srivijayan navy, to defend the straits rather than plunder them. All of their vassals and allies, on land and sea, were taught that the Srivijayan kings were sons of the gods, and that they had the power to strike down anyone guilty of treason. This idea soon became so widely believed that servants of the monarch routinely committed suicide upon his death.

Despite all this, Srivijaya did have to deal with competition. It appears that their first rival was Melayu (also called Malayu), a kingdom immediately north of Palembang on Sumatra's east coast; its capital was at Jambi. Yijing reported that Melayu "is now the country of Srivijaya." We take that to mean Srivijaya conquered Melayu in the seventh century; Jambi was Srivijaya's number two city from then on.

The most aggressive competitor was the kingdom of Mataram, in central and eastern Java. Mataram's first important king was Sanjaya (732-750), who went forth with his fleet to raid everyone within reach, including Srivijaya, Chenla, and even China. At first the Srivijayans could not resist this threat, but a few years later a second dynasty, the Sailendras, arose in Java. Because the Sailendras were Buddhists, while Sanjaya and his successors were Hindus, Srivijaya and the Sailendras quickly became friends. The Sailendras probably received aid from Srivijaya when they overthrew their rivals in 775. Then Srivijaya and Mataram's new ruler cemented good relations with a treaty and a royal marriage. By 860 the ruler of Srivijaya was also a Sailendra, boasting of his Javanese ancestors.

Whereas Srivijaya depended on trade for its wealth, Mataram was an agriculture-oriented society. Its monarchs showed their devotion to Buddhism by constructing the Borobudur temple in the center of Java. The world's largest Buddhist temple, Borobudur is a five-layered ziggurat, 409 feet wide and 137 feet high. It contains two million cubic feet of stone, fitted together without mortar, with 73 bell-shaped shrines ("stupas"), and 1,460 bas-reliefs. Srivijaya, by contrast, was so preoccupied with commerce that it built no enduring monuments of any kind.

Borobudur was not meant to be a place of worship, but a guide to enlightenment; it has no chapel or altar for prayers/offerings. Going around the rim on each level is a sunken pathway, lined on both sides with reliefs showing scenes from the Buddha's life. Each stage up, the Buddha becomes less involved with the things of this world. The pilgrim who follows all five corridors (a 3-mile walk) emerges on a platform open to the sky, leaving the earth behind. On this platform are three smaller platforms, circular to represent perfection. This is where the stupas stand; each shrine contains an image of the Buddha, partially obscured by stone screens because a mortal can only half understand the Buddha. The highest and largest shrine has solid walls, because the image inside is beyond human understanding.


Despite all this effort, devotion to the Buddha was on the way out, just as it was in Champa, Cambodia, and post-Gupta India. By 850 the Sailendra monarchs of Mataram had converted to the Saivite sect of Hinduism, which teaches that the king is an avatar or living incarnation of the god Shiva, and they started building Hindu temples to match Borobudur, 50 miles away. Because the Srivijayans were still Buddhists, the alliance cooled. When Mataram was overthrown by a rival, the prince of Kediri (a city near Mataram), in 928, the Javanese went back to their old habit of raiding. So hostile did relations become that Srivijayan ambassadors went to China in 992, pleading for aid against the Javanese pirates. The Chinese declined to intervene.

More trouble was coming. Srivijaya's principal customers, China and the Abbasid Caliphate, went to pieces in the early tenth century, causing an economic slump. Then in 1030 came a devastating raid from the Chola Empire of south India; Srivijaya was forced to pay tribute to the Cholas until 1190. There was some recovery in the 12th-early 13th centuries, but the country never prospered the way it did before. The Orang Laut became pirates again, since they could no longer make an honest living. The end came sometime after 1230, when Srivijaya lost control over the all-important waterways. No details are available, but when Marco Polo visited Sumatra in 1292, he found the island divided into eight states, none of them claiming to be the old trading empire.

Meanwhile Java was undergoing problems of its own. In 1016 Kediri was destroyed; no details are available to describe what happened, but an inscription written in 1041 called it "the destruction of the world." The kingdom was restored by the dead king's son-in-law Airlangga, but he then undid his achievement by dividing his kingdom between his two sons to keep them from quarreling over a single throne. Nearly two centuries of strife followed.

Conditions began to improve at last when an adventurer named Angrok overthrew the last Kediri prince in 1222, founding a new kingdom called Singosari. At this time a political and economic vacuum existed in Indonesia, and the new Javanese kings eagerly filled it. The most powerful Singosari king, Kertanagara (1268-92), imposed his authority on the nearest islands: Madura, Bali, the lesser Sundas, and the southern half of Sumatra. But he went too far in 1289, when he mistreated Kublai Khan's envoy, who came from China to demand submission to the Mongol Empire. The Mongols organized a punitive expedition, but Kertanagara was killed by a Kediri rebel, Jayakatwang, before they arrived. Jayakatwang in turn was quickly thrown out by Kertanagara's son-in-law, Kertarajasa, who used the Mongols to defeat Jayakatwang and then turned against them and drove them back into the sea. A new capital city was established at Majapahit. The new king spent the rest of his reign putting down rebellions, with the help of a fine general named Gajah Mada. His reign came to an untimely end, however, when he took Gajah Mada's wife and put her in his harem; the next time the king needed an operation Gajah Mada made sure the doctors cut too deeply. Gajah Mada was the prime minister during the reign of Kertarajasa's daughter (1329-1350), and in these years Majapahit became the center of an empire. Historians have debated the actual extent of Majapahit's empire; some say it encompassed all of modern Indonesia and Malaysia, while others say it only ruled a few key islands directly (Java, Madura, and Bali?) and merely dominated the seas around the rest.

Hayam Wuruk's reign (1350-1389) was the most glorious period in Java's history, thanks in part to the power behind the throne, Gajah Mada. Most of Hayam Wuruk's reign was a time of peace and cultural development, but it began with a dramatic incident. In 1351 Hayam Wuruk asked the still-independent king of Sunda for a daughter to marry. Delighted at the prospect of becoming father-in-law to Indonesia's most powerful monarch, the king agreed. He came with the princess and a splendid retinue to a Javan city named Bubat, where both kings agreed to have the wedding. But Gajah Mada did not approve of the marriage. Just before it was to take place, he intervened and told the king of Sunda that the bride was not the object of a political alliance, but an object of tribute being given by a vassal to his overlord. Realizing that he had been neatly trapped, the king tried to back out of the marriage with the help of his guards, but the Majapahit guards were prepared for this. The king of Sunda and his retinue were overpowered and slain. No record tells us whether the bride lived through the massacre to take part in the marriage. If she did, she must have died soon afterwards, for she is never mentioned in later inscriptions.

The "Bubat bloodbath" ended the period of conquest. Hayam Wuruk devoted the rest of his reign to building new temples, as evidence that a new period of history had begun. Gajah Mada hired a poet named Prapanca to compose an epic poem, the Nagarakertagama, in praise of the "misunderstood empire-builder." In addition to this, Gajah Mada kept busy with so many other activities that when he died in 1364, a state council decided that no one could replace him, and divided his functions among four ministers. Java enjoyed trade and good relations with every part of the Far East except Sumatra, which launched a short-lived rebellion to restore Srivijaya in 1377.

Java promptly crushed the rebellion, but then declined rapidly. Hayam Wuruk left no son by his queen, so he divided Java between two sons of concubines. As might be expected, a civil war broke out between them, and unity was not restored until 1406. In Sumatra a Chinese pirate named Liang Daoming took Palembang and made it his base of operations, raiding local shipping until a Chinese fleet came and removed him in 1407. The Chinese returned Palembang to Majapahit, but according to their own records the empire now existed in name only. Almost no records exist to tell us about Indonesia's history in the 15th century, but what we have suggests that there was civil strife in every reign. Javanese tradition asserts that Moslems overran all of Java in 1478, but this is not entirely true; an inscription mentions a Hindu king named Ranavijaya as late as 1486. When the Portuguese arrived in the area, they wrote that the coast of Java had a number of petty Moslem states, while a heathen named Pateudra (Pati Udara?) ruled the interior. Pateudra's reign ended in 1518 (or 1527?) when he was overthrown by a nearby sultan, and with that event Indonesia's pre-Islamic history comes to an end. The culture of Majapahit, however, is still alive on Bali, an island of ancient traditions in a Moslem sea.

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The Khmers

The first Khmer kingdom, known as Chenla, adopted the entire culture of Funan for itself. Chenla did not have a strong government, though; it prospered in the 7th century, but in 706 it split into two states, known as "Land Chenla" (Laos) and "Water Chenla" (Cambodia). Land Chenla retained some measure of unity, while constant intrigues for the throne shattered Water Chenla into no less than five smaller states. Around the year 795, all of Water Chenla came under the domination of one of Java's Sailendra monarchs.

Indochina, 8th-century map
Mainland Southeast Asia, eighth century A.D. The violet-colored nation at the bottom is Srivijaya (see above).

The incident that caused the Javan conquest also started the Khmers on the road to greatness. It involved a rash young king, whose name we do not know. According to the Arab traveler who provided this account, one day the young king and his prime minister were discussing what to do about Java, the strongest naval power in the region. The king said, "I have one desire I would like to satisfy."
"What is this desire, O King?" his councilor asked.
"I want to see before me on a plate the head of the king of Java."

When the king of Java heard about the Khmer monarch's wish, he led a fleet of a thousand ships up the Mekong River and routed the Khmers defending the capital. Capturing the young king, he said, "You have manifested the desire to see before you my head on a plate. If you had also wished to seize my country or only ravage part of it, I would have done the same thing to Khmer. As you have expressed only the first of these desires, I am going to apply to you the treatment you wished to apply to me, and I will then return to my country without taking anything belonging to the Khmers . . . My victory will serve as a lesson to your successors." He then lopped off the king's head and said to the Khmer prime minister, "Look now for someone who will make a good king after this fool, and put him in the place of the latter."

The new king picked by the prime minister was an excellent choice: Jayavarman II, a distant relative of the late king who had been living in Java to escape the troubles at home. In the course of his long reign (802-850), he reunited Water Chenla and gave it a new name: Kambujadesa (the origin of the modern names Cambodia and Kampuchea). Jayavarman's first capital city, Mahendraparvata, was northeast of the Tonle Sap, on the Phnom Kulen plateau; its exact location was only discovered recently, after several years (2000-2012) of scanning the area with Lidar technology, to reveal the ruins beneath the jungle.

Despite his success, Jayavarman seems to have been an insecure monarch; he had at least three, and possibly five capitals during his reign. The last capital, where he settled down in 819, was near the northern end of the the Tonle Sap, in modern-day Siem Reap Province. Here he finally found peace of mind by taking part in a sacred Hindu ceremony that consecrated him as an avatar of the god Shiva and declared him and his kingdom independent of any foreign power, especially Java.

Jayavarman II and his high priest.
Jayavarman II in the Devaraja (god-king) ceremony. The priest is annointing a lingam, a phallus-shaped stone representing Shiva; that was the most important image in the temple. From the April 1960 issue of National Geographic.

The next important Khmer king was Yasovarman I (889-900). A few miles north of the Tonle Sap he built a new city, called it Yasodharapura, and it became Cambodia's capital for the next five centuries (now it is called Angkor, meaning simply "city"). Most of Angkor's impressive buildings were built later on, but Yasovarman left his mark by constructing an excellent system of canals and reservoirs around the city, using the technology perfected in the age of Funan. Those canals would later be used to feed the large number of laborers used in Angkor's massive building projects. Fortunately for historians, Yasovarman was a great braggart (all Khmer monarchs were), and he left numerous inscriptions boasting of his achievements: "The best of kings . . . unique bundle of splendors", and "In all the sciences and all the sports . . . in dancing, singing, and all the rest, he was as clever as if he had been the first inventor of them." Then came the ultimate boast: "In seeing him, the creator was astonished and seemed to say to himself, `Why did I create a rival for myself in this king?'"

For the 10th and 11th centuries our only source of information is the inscriptions, but it was a time of growth, in size, power, and cultural sophistication. Land Chenla submitted peacefully to Angkor's rule, and it appears that the states in Thailand and Malaya did the same, during the reign of Suryavarman I (1002-50). Suryavarman's son, Udayadityavarman II (1050-66), fought an inconclusive war with the Burmese, who thought the Khmers were getting too close to Thaton. Suryavarman II (1113-50) conquered Champa and campaigned against the Vietnamese; at one point there was a Khmer army in Thanh Hoa, just 80 miles south of Hanoi.

Khmer Empire.
The Khmer Empire in the twelfth century. The striped area was ruled by the Burmese, but also claimed by the Khmers. From

Back at home Suryavarman II built the masterpiece of Khmer civilization. This was a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu so enormous that it was known as Angkor Wat, the "temple city." Using an estimated 455 million cubic yards of stone, this structure was built with five gilded peaks to resemble the mythical Mt. Meru. The entire structure was covered with endless reliefs showing battles, scenes from Hindu epics, and events in everyday Khmer life. The central peak of the structure was also a mausoleum, where Suryavarman's ashes were placed when he died.

Angkor Wat.
Two views of Angkor. Here is the central complex of Angkor Wat, seen from a distance.

Angkor gateway.
And here is one of Angkor's gateways.

The cost of building Angkor Wat and fighting wars abroad drained the treasury. After Suryavarman II was gone the Chams successfully revolted, and in 1177 they sailed up the Mekong River and plundered Angkor itself. Four years of anarchy followed, but remarkably, the best years of Cambodia's history were yet to come. Royal authority was reestablished by Jayavarman VII, a middle-aged prince who had refused the throne when it was first offered to him years before. Jayavarman routed the Chams, drove them back to their home, and was crowned the new king of Angkor. Champa would be a Khmer vassal, not the other way around.

A man of uncommon vigor, Jayavarman spent the rest of his reign (1181-1219, he lived into his 90s) building more monuments than all of the other Khmer kings put together. Chief among these was a remodeled capital city, now called Angkor Thom ("big city"), which was so big and elaborate that only nearby Angkor Wat could rival it. A convert to the Mahayana Buddhist sect, he erected Buddhist shrines and images all over the city (the sculptors used Jayavarman as the model for statues of Buddha), and converted the temples of his Hindu predecessors into Buddhist ones. Around the country he built and maintained 102 hospitals because, as one inscription put it: "He suffered from the sickness of his subjects more than from his own; for it is the public grief that causes the grief of kings, and not their grief."

Jayavarman VII
Jayavarman VII.

Some historians believe that Jayavarman's building projects exhausted the kingdom. None of the kings after him built anything important; they lived in luxury, performed their god-king rites, but accomplished little. Champa declared independence as soon as it heard the news of Jayavarman's death, and in the west the Menam River valley was lost to newcomers in the region, the Thais. At the same time Theravada Buddhism became the most popular religion, undermining the god-king cult. In the middle of the 13th century the Khmer king himself converted to Theravada Buddhism, perhaps because of the success of the Thais, who were Theravadists already.

When the Mongol ruler Kublai sent an embassy to the Khmers, the current king, Jayavarman VIII, executed the ambassador. Before Kublai could retaliate, however, he changed his mind and sent tribute; he wisely decided not to start a war with the Mongols, while he was waging another war with the Thais. In 1296 a Chinese visitor, Zhou Daguan, visited Angkor and took home a glowing report of the city; to him Cambodia was still the strongest state in Southeast Asia. Angkor remained Cambodia's glittering capital until 1431, but long before that time the political initiative passed to its neighbors.

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For 200 years the Burmese and Mon kingdoms co-existed peacefully. Then a powerful Burmese king named Anawrahta (1044-1077) came to the throne. He conquered Pegu in 1057 and brought back to Pagan Buddhist scriptures, holy relics, and every manner of artisan to decorate his capital. This had a curious result; for more than a century, the conquerors became the conquered. The Mon language became the main language of the Burmese court when Mon administrators were brought in to make the government more efficient. Mon monks came to teach Theravada Buddhism to the mostly animist Burmese, converting the whole country within a generation; they also encouraged good relations with the sect's homeland, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka responded by giving Anawrahta a replica of their most prized possession, the "Tooth of the Buddha." Anawrahta never became a Buddhist himself, but he honored the "tooth" by building a pagoda to house it in. The second king after him, Kyanzittha (1084-1112), was a Buddhist convert, and he built a much grander pagoda that copied the Mon style: a tall thin structure with much decoration on the outside and a simple cavelike interior. But full integration of the Burmese and Mon peoples never came; the Burmese and Mon royal families intermarried, but most Burmese looked down on the people of the south and would not admit them into their society. By the late 12th century the Mon influence had disappeared. In place of the Mon style a new form of architecture developed, one which made the inside of pagodas as ornate as the outside.

Kyanzittha and his successors built more than 2,000 temples and thousands of lesser shrines in a 25 square mile area around Pagan. Today most of these temples still exist, just a few miles upstream from Mandalay. Some have crumbled due to time and earthquakes, others are maintained by today's faithful. Together these buildings are an architectural masterpiece; the Khmer temple of Angkor Wat, built at the same time, is the only Southeast Asian monument that is more impressive.

The pagodas were important because every king was expected to be an extravagant patron of religion, to show his concern for the spiritual welfare of his people. In fact, a king who did not build new temples risked being viewed as unfit for office, inviting a palace coup. And a lot of kings came to untimely ends; we noted in Chapter 1 that Burmese kings have a tradition of sorts for going out both strangely and violently (see the "Cucumber King"). One king was killed after a dispute over the price of war elephants. Another died when his elephant fell on him. Alaungsithu (1112-1167) was smothered at the age of 101 by a son impatient for the throne. Despite these intrigues, the country as a whole remained peaceful.

The martial spirit that drove Anawrahta to conquer most of the lands that make up present-day Burma was not practiced by his successors. The reason is unclear, but probably connected with Buddhism. The growth in the number of monks, the allocation of resources for their support, and the construction of pagodas may have taken away enough revenue to weaken the government. On the other hand, Buddhism's emphasis on brotherly compassion and cooperation may have made the economy efficient enough to pay its way, and its teachings on peace may have been what actually stopped the conquests. Whatever the reason, the country prospered until an abominable king sat on the throne. His name was Narathihapate (1254-87), and his pagoda, which took six years to build, was so expensive that it inspired a Burmese proverb: "The pagoda is finished and the great country ruined." In inscriptions on the pagoda he bragged about having 3,000 concubines, 36 million soldiers, and that he ate 300 dishes of curry every day. He killed the ambassadors of Kublai Khan when they came demanding tribute for the Mongol Empire. The result was quite predictable--an enormous Mongol army came and ravaged the country, though Pagan itself was spared by the Buddhist Kublai. The king fled and was poisoned by one of his sons. Since that time the Burmese have called him Tarokpyemin, "the king who fled from the Chinese."

With Narathihapate's death the kingdom disintegrated. An extremely long-lived Arakanese king, Min Hti (1279-1374?), declared independence. The Mons reestablished their old kingdom in the south, and Pagan's mercenaries, a Thai tribe called the Shans, set up three city-states in the east. The Mongols tried to incorporate what was left of Burma into their empire as two provinces, but in 1299 the Shans burned Pagan and killed the last member of the Burmese royal family. That brought about a final Mongol invasion, which ended when the Mongol commander accepted a heavy bribe from the Shans to turn around and go home. The excuse that he gave for calling off the campaign was not accepted by his superiors back in China, and he and his staff were executed. After that the Mongols lost interest in Burma, and never came back again. It was the end of Burma's golden age, but the culture established at Pagan lasted with few changes until the twentieth century.

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Dai Viet vs. Champa

Historians distinguish fifteen dynasties in Vietnamese history. Four were the short-lived independent governments that revolted against Chinese rule before 939. The next three also had very short careers, numbering in all eight kings over a seventy-year period. The first of these, the Ngo (939-968), was unable to subdue a dozen local military chiefs and never secured recognition from China. The Dinh dynasty (968-979) was even more ephemeral, but it defeated the warlords and pacified the Chinese with tribute. The early Le dynasty (979-1009) had a very successful king named Le Hoan. He defeated a Chinese invasion in 981 and in the following year he attacked Champa, killed its king, sacked the Cham capital (Indrapura), and came home with an enormous amount of booty. His successor, however, was dethroned by the first monarch of the Ly dynasty. The Ly dynasty replaced the warlords with a Chinese-style civil service bureaucracy at Hanoi, and thus was stable enough to last over two centuries (1009-1225).

The Ly monarchs called their country Dai Viet, but the Chinese name of Annam ("The Pacified South") was used everywhere else. The country prospered, and the government encouraged cultural progress by vigorously promoting literature, art, and Mahayana Buddhism. But Dai Viet's growth was always threatened by external wars. A second Chinese invasion was defeated after a four-year war (1057-61). And the long feud with Champa was renewed. The Chams moved their capital south to Vijaya to keep it out of Vietnamese hands. But in 1044 the Vietnamese sacked Vijaya and killed the Cham king again. Vijaya was sacked a second time in 1069. This time the Cham king, Rudravarman III, was chased into Cambodia, captured, and deported to Dai Viet. He had to surrender the three provinces taken in 780 to regain his freedom.

The Chams made two attempts to recover the lost provinces (1128 and 1132), but another war with the Khmers at the same time reduced Champa to impotence. Then Cambodia took on Champa's role in the Vietnamese-Cham scrap, and the three disputed provinces ended up under Khmer rule.

Dai Viet, Champa, and Cambodia.
Before 1700, the land we call Vietnam was divided between three countries. The Vietnamese themselves only ruled the northern third of the land, around Hanoi and the Red River delta (yellow). The central third of the land was Champa (green), while Saigon and the Mekong delta were part of Cambodia (light blue).

The Khmer victories finished off the Ly dynasty, which was already in decline. After many years of civil strife, it was replaced by the Tran dynasty (1225-1400). The Tran monarchs pursued the same policies that had worked for the Ly dynasty. But now Champa was independent again, and wanted a rematch over the disputed border provinces (they went to the Vietnamese by default when the Khmers withdrew from the area in the mid-12th century). This time, however, the feud barely got started when the Mongol Empire appeared on the scene. Vietnam and Champa quickly put aside their squabble to meet the Mongol threat. Fortunately for them, the Mongols were out of their element; they were used to fighting where the weather was cold and dry, and where the land presented few obstacles to their horses and arrows; the rugged jungles of Southeast Asia are nothing like that. The Mongols attacked and took Hanoi three times (in 1257, 1284, and 1287), and invaded Champa once (1281), but the combination of Vietnamese army and Cham navy inflicted unacceptable losses each time. Eventually the Mongols gave up and withdrew. Later both Vietnam and Champa, like the Thais and Khmers, sent tribute to keep the Mongols from coming back; this allowed the Mongols to think they had been the real winners. The Vietnamese general who defeated the Mongols, Tran Hung Dao, is still venerated as one of the great heroes of Vietnamese history.

Once Kublai Khan was gone, the king of Champa tried to make the new friendship permanent by asking for a Vietnamese princess in marriage. After negotiations that dragged on until 1306, the Vietnamese said they would allow the marriage if Champa gave up the provinces of Quang Tri and Hue. Surprisingly, the Cham king, Jaya Sinhavarman III, accepted. But he died less than a year after the wedding, and his successor started a new war to take back the two provinces. This time the northern kingdom won again; by 1312 the Cham king was a prisoner in Hanoi, and Champa paid tribute to Dai Viet.

In 1326, after several rebellions and an appeal to China, Champa regained her independence. The Chams tried to take back Hue in 1353 but failed. Then came Che Bong Nga (1360-90), Champa's most outstanding king. The series of well-planned raids he made against Dai Viet kept the Vietnamese in a state of terror during his reign. In 1371 he even pillaged Hanoi. All the disputed territory came under Champa's rule. As soon as he was dead, however, the Vietnamese conquered everything as far south as Da Nang, and in 1398 the capital was moved from Hanoi to Thanh Hoa so that the king could be closer to the action.

Then a crisis at home halted Vietnamese progress. A general named Ho Qui Ly usurped the throne. He was a capable and bold reformer, but the supporters of the Tran dynasty called in Chinese aid, and in 1407 a Chinese army removed the usurper. Instead of re-establishing Tran rule, China's new rulers, the Ming dynasty, made the country a Chinese province. It didn't work; the Chinese imposed their language and customs so severely that the Vietnamese revolted almost immediately. In 1418 the rebels found a capable leader named Le Loi, a wealthy landowner from Thanh Hoa. His guerrilla campaign was successful, and ten years later the Chinese abandoned Hanoi. Le Loi proclaimed himself king, changed his name to Le Thai To, and founded the second Le dynasty. After the war the Vietnamese sent gift-bearing emissaries to China to apologize for the "irresponsible behavior" of their guerillas who had ambushed the Chinese (they also sent embassies to apologize for Vietnamese victories in the 10th and 13th centuries). This was in accord with the teachings of Confucius, preserving harmony and saving the Chinese from too much loss of face. The Chinese always appreciated that; the Vietnamese, even when independent, did have Chinese culture.

When the Cham king died in 1441, a civil war broke out among those claiming the throne. Of course the Vietnamese did not pass up this opportunity. Five years later the Vietnamese occupied Vijaya, but not for long, for the Chams soon recovered it. It was Le Thanh Tong (1460-97), Vietnam's greatest king, who struck the most important blow. One hundred years after Champa's raid on Hanoi, his forces overran Champa completely (1471). Most of the land was given to masses of landless soldiers and peasants, leaving only a rump state in the south, around the city of Panduranga. Although the Cham kingdom lingered on for 250 more years, the centuries-old feud was over.

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The Birth of Siam

Nan Zhao was destroyed by the Mongols in 1253, but long before that time small groups of Thais moved out in search of greener pastures. One group already mentioned, the Shans, settled eastern Burma. Others included the Lao, who settled the Khorat Plateau and the upper Mekong valley; the Ahom or Assamese, who have been the dominant group in northeast India since 1228; the White, Red and Black Thai, who stayed in the highlands of Indochina and derived their names from the main color of their clothing; and a group called the Small Thai, who settled in the heart of modern Thailand, the Menam (Chao Phraya) valley. Those Thais who stayed at home became the Zhuang, the largest (12 million) ethnic minority in modern China. Wherever they went the Thais became both settlers and mercenaries. Once they left China they discarded the culture that they learned from the Chinese, since it was now a symbol of oppression. In its place they learned Theravada Buddhism from the Mons, the arts from the Khmers, and developed an alphabet based on the scripts of both.

As long as Southeast Asia was ruled by strong empires like Pagan and Kambujadesa, the Thais were no threat. But when those empires weakened in the thirteenth century the Thais found a vacuum they could fill. In several places along the Menam River Thai mercenaries revolted, setting up independent muang or city-states in place of Khmer rule. The most important of these was Sukhothai, founded around 1238 on the upper Menam, and Lan Na ("One Million Rice Fields"), farther north on the same river. Lan Na's first ruler, Mangrai (1259-1318), was an excellent monarch, who defeated and conquered several rival muang around him and made his kingdom both civilized and powerful. The nearest rival was Haripunjaya, the Mon state that had dominated northern Thailand previously; he conquered its capital, Lamphun, in 1292. He even defeated the Mongols when they invaded Lan Na in 1296 and 1301. After making a few counter-raids of his own into China, Mangrai sent elephants and other gifts to the court of the Great Khan, and Sino-Thai relations were fine after that. In 1296 he founded an impressive new capital, Chiangmai, and the kingdom of Lan Na is usually referred to as Chiangmai after this.

Mangrai's successors quarreled over the Chiangmai throne for eleven years (1318-29), and by the time stability returned the southern kingdom of Sukhothai had clearly become the leader among the Thai states. Sukhothai's first two kings are obscure, but the third was a multi-talented monarch named Ramkhamhaeng (1279-1317, also called Rama Khamheng, or Rama the Brave). Under him Sukhothai grew from just another muang into a "super-muang"; most of Malaya, Laos, eastern and central Thailand came under his rule, and he also made vassals of the Mons in Burma. Ramkhamhaeng was a fearless warrior, but most of the time he did not have to fight; his reputation went ahead of him and caused most enemies to submit without a battle. He made two trips in person (1294 and 1300) to pay tribute at the court of the Great Khan, thereby escaping the Mongol raids that fell upon the rest of Southeast Asia.(5)

On top of other things, Ramkhamhaeng claimed to be the inventor of the Thai alphabet. Whether or not this is true, the oldest known Thai inscription was written by him. Dated 1292, it portrays Sukhothai as a rich and happy state, active in trade, and governed by a paternal monarch; taxes were modest, all citizens (both Thai and non-Thai) were treated with equal justice, and everyone followed Buddhism. Allowing for some exaggeration of the country's virtues, the picture presented still shows a remarkable contrast to life under the Khmer god-kings, who demanded much in labor and taxes to support themselves and a religion that had little relevance to the commoner's life. One of the universities in present-day Thailand is named Ramkhamhaeng University in honor of the king's intellectual achievements.

Ramkhamhaeng's inscription.
The Ramkhamhaeng stele. Click here for an English translation.

King Ramkhamhaeng was able to be a good ruler, warrior, diplomat and patron of Buddhism and the arts--all at the same time. His successors were not so gifted; his son, Lo Thai, devoted his energy to Buddhism and neglected everything else. Under him it became difficult to rule the kingdom from a capital that was far removed from the centers of agriculture and population. Many muang on the kingdom's periphery seceded, claiming that their submission to Ramkhamhaeng was now null and void. One of these local princes, Rama T'ibodi I, revolted and founded a new capital, Ayutthaya (also called Ayuthia or Ayudhya), on the lower Menam. Sukhothai's fifth king, the monkish Li Thai, recognized superior leadership and abdicated to him. That marked the beginning of Siam's Ayutthayan era, a time future Thais would regard as a golden age.

Chiangmai monument.
Thai kings got along well in the thirteenth century, so today in Chiangmai you can see the statues of three kings together. From left to right, these statues represent Ngam Muang (the ruler of a minor muang), Mangrai of Lan Na, and Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai. In 1287 these kings formed a strong pact of friendship.

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After the Mongols abandoned Burma the Shans had an opportunity to make a great nation of their own, but they threw it away by constantly fighting among themselves for most of the 14th century. One of the Shan chiefs, Thadominbya, broke out of this pattern by founding a kingdom around the city of Ava, close to Pagan (1364). What made Ava different was that it was Burmese, not Shan; Thadominbya embraced Burmese culture and traced his ancestry to the Pagan kings, giving himself an air of legitimacy that the other Shan princes did not have. Ava was not very successful as a nation, though; it was surrounded by enemies (Arakan, Pegu, and the Shan states) and whenever it tried to conquer one of them it was forced to back down by threats or invasions by the others. In 1527 the Shan state of Mohnyin sacked Ava itself, pillaging pagodas, slaughtering monks, and making bonfires of the contents of monastic libraries.


The first king of Ayutthaya, Rama T'ibodi I, did much to make his kingdom the strongest on the Southeast Asian mainland. He took the Tenasserim coast from Pegu, extended his power into most of Malaya, and began to carve up the Khmer empire. At home the country's law code was revised. But many problems were left for Rama T'ibodi's successors to solve. The most persistent of these was Sukhothai, which now wanted the independence it had so cheaply surrendered in 1349. From 1371 to 1438 Ayutthaya had to direct a northern campaign against Sukhothai almost every year. Ayutthaya's chief rival, Chiangmai, supported Sukhothai.

At home there was an almost constant struggle for control of the throne. Without an established formula for succession, any member of the royal family could become king. Many of the early Ayutthayan monarchs were deposed or murdered as a result.

The next important king, Boromoraja II (1424-48), was the third son of the king before him; he never expected to inherit the throne himself, but both of his elder brothers killed each other in a duel fought on elephants. Boromoraja finished the long war with the Khmers that his ancestors had started, by capturing Angkor in 1431. The Khmers abandoned their capital to the jungle and moved their court to the neighborhood of Phnom Penh. A Khmer king continued to rule from there, but tribute was paid to Siam for most of the next four centuries. Never again would Cambodia be more than a third-rate power.

Sukhothai was next on Boromoraja's list. When he took the city, he made its submission permanent by making his son, the future king Trailok, governor of the city. But by no means was the northern conflict ended. Now Sukhothai became the object of aggressive attacks by its former ally Chiangmai. The Siam-Chiangmai conflict persisted, with a few breathing spells, for the rest of the 15th and early 16th centuries, a stalemate because Siam had the advantage of numbers while rugged Chiangmai had extremely defensible terrain.

The greatest ruler of 15th-century Siam was Borommatrailokanat (1448-88), usually called Trailok for short. He completely overhauled the government, dividing the central administration into five departments (interior affairs, the capital city, the royal household, finances, and agriculture), with appointed, not hereditary officers in charge of each. New laws determined the social status of everyone and the amount of land that could be owned, ranging from 4,000 acres for the highest official to 10 acres for the ordinary free man. Since government workers were not paid salaries, this system also designated how much income they could receive. There was plenty of land for everybody at this time, so nobody was in danger of starvation. In the courts, fines and punishments were made proportional to the status of the plaintiff. The purpose of the whole system was to regulate natural human inequality for the sake of the proper functioning of society.

Court ceremonials were greatly expanded, borrowing some ideas from the Khmers; these ceremonies were described in a 718-page book, The Royal Ceremonies of the Twelve Months, written in the late 19th century. To resolve the question of succession, every member of the royal family was ranked by his relation to the current king; if a family member was removed from royal descent by more than five generations, he was declared a commoner and no longer eligible for the throne. King Trailok also appointed a second or vice-king, called an Uparat (heir apparent), so the people would know who their next king would be long before he actually took the throne.

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Lang Xang

The Lao communities on the Khorat Plateau and the upper Mekong were not united under a Lao ruler until the 14th century. Lao legends claim that their kingdom got started when the son of the ruler of Luang Prabang fled to exile in Cambodia, where his wife bore a son. This prince, Fa Ngum, was given an army by the Khmers and he marched up the Mekong River with it, conquering first the communities of central and southern Laos, then Xiengkhouang on the Plain of Jars(6), and finally Luang Prabang itself, where he was crowned king in 1353. The new kingdom was named Lan Xang, the "Land of a Million Elephants." He devoted the rest of his reign to enlarging the state, until it was considered an equal by its older neighbors. The internal balance of power, however, was delicate, and Fa Ngum himself was deposed by one of his ministers in 1373 because his wars demanded too much from his subjects; he also took the women of the kingdom for his harem as frequently as he conscripted the men as soldiers.

Fa Ngum's successors brought peace & prosperity to Laos by political marriages with Siam and Chiangmai. The long period of calm lasted until 1478, when a Vietnamese invasion captured Luang Prabang, forcing the king to abdicate and flee. The unfortunate king's younger brother, Souvanna Banlang (1479-86), stayed behind to regroup the scattered Lao forces and liberate the country. The Vietnamese were defeated badly enough to follow a policy of good relations with Lan Xang for the next two centuries.

Another period of calm followed until the Lao king Phothisarat (1520-47) got involved in the on-and-off war between Siam and Chiangmai. The last king of Chiangmai died childless in 1543, and Phothisarat, whose mother was a Chiangmai princess, promptly claimed the empty throne. So did Siam and a Shan prince named Mekut'i. Laos won the first round, and Phothisarat placed his son, prince Setthathirat, on the Chiangmai throne. However, the Laotian king died only thirteen months later, and Setthathirat had to hurry to Luang Prabang to claim his father's throne before somebody else did. That gave Siam and the Shans a second chance. All three kingdoms were fighting over Chiangmai when a revitalized Burma appeared on the scene.

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The Long Road from Mecca to Manila

Arab merchants first started sailing from the Middle East to China in the early seventh century A.D. Like the Indians, they used the ports of Malaya and Sumatra as places to stop and rest on the long voyages to and from Canton. If they made any converts to Islam at this early date, they must have been few in number. The oldest evidence of Islam in Southeast Asia is a woman's tombstone on eastern Java, dated 1082 A.D. It is possible that the natives did not find Islam appealing until it spread into India (after 1000), where a form of mysticism called Sufism quickly became popular. The many doctrines taught by Sufis combined Moslem and pagan ideas and turned out to be more compatible with Far Eastern culture than the orthodox Sunni doctrine of Arabia.

When Islam did make converts, the natives were not willing to give up the Hindu-Buddhist-animist combination they had practiced previously, since their whole heritage was tied up in it. Instead, in typical Oriental fashion, they modified Islam to fit into the way of life that already existed. For example, Indonesia is 90% Moslem today, but on holidays they still have plays which re-enact stories from Hindu myths such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The whole country was also proud of a United Nations-led project in the early 1980s that rescued the ancient Borobudur temple from the ravages of time and the jungle. Clifford Geertz, a British journalist who visited Java in 1960, recorded a typical prayer given by a Javanese villager to begin a feast. The prayer honored the guardian spirits of the village and of the master of ceremonies, the household angel of the kitchen, the ancestors of all the guests, and the spirits of the fields, waters, and a nearby volcano. The prayer ended piously with "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."

The first predominantly Moslem state appears to have been Acheh, located on the northwestern tip of Sumatra. The two outstanding travelers of the Middle Ages, Marco Polo and his North African counterpart, Ibn Battuta, visited Acheh in the course of their journeys, and both stated that it was converted to Islam around 1250. Next Islam spread along the trade routes, establishing numerous enclaves on the coasts of the islands. Often the natives converted so that they could get a share of the lucrative Indian Ocean trade, since now that there was a choice between doing business with Moslems and non-Moslems, the Arabs naturally felt more comfortable buying and selling to the former. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were particularly good years for Islam, because during this time Islam also became a way to express political opposition, first against Hindu-Buddhist Majapahit, and later against the Christian Europeans.

From Java and Sumatra it is quick and easy sailing to Borneo, and the same can be said of the trip from Borneo to the Philippines. The expanding commerce of the Moslem traders encouraged the peoples east and north of Java to convert. In the Philippines the nearest islands to Borneo, like Jolo and Basilan, were converted first, followed by the tribes on Mindanao. As in Indonesia, the missionary traders converted the coastal communities of Mindanao but completely bypassed the stone-age tribes living in the interior, since they were almost inaccessible and played no part in the commercial network. Like the Chinese and the Europeans, they were eventually attracted to Luzon, since Manila Bay is one of the finest harbors in Asia. A Moslem sultan named Suleiman established himself in Manila just before the Spaniards arrived there in 1571.

The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, 1200-1600.

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The first Moslem State in Southeast Asia with real power was Malacca, founded in 1401 by a fugitive prince named Parameswara. He came from the Sumatran city of Jambi, so you can call him the last Srivijayan prince. Malacca had a superb location for commerce, right at the narrowest point of the strait by the same name, but otherwise was not very promising. The port was poor, and so was the surrounding land, which could not grow enough food to feed a large population. Finally, the kingdoms of Siam and Majapahit both claimed the whole Malay peninsula for themselves. For Malacca to survive it needed a powerful ally, and it was found in China, which at the time was sending huge naval expeditions into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These fleets, numbering hundreds of ships and thousands of men, were led by an admiral named Zheng He (pronounced "Jung Huh"), who happened to be a Chinese Moslem. To secure Chinese support, he went to the Ming dynasty court and offered homage and tribute to the emperor; the emperor responded by officially declaring Parameswara the rightful prince of Malacca, and a loyal vassal under Chinese protection. After that, when China warned "Hands off Malacca!" the Thais and Javanese listened and obeyed. Then Parameswara invited Moslem merchants to visit his state by charging them less for port duties and expenses than they were paying in Sumatra. Sometime before his death in 1424, Parameswara converted to Islam, changing his name to Megat Iskander (Mohammed Alexander) Shah. Most of his people followed his example, but not right away--the next two kings had both Moslem and non-Moslem names.

By the time the Chinese naval expeditions stopped coming (1433), Majapahit was no longer a threat, and Malacca had grown rich enough to hire the mercenaries needed to keep Siam at a safe distance. Malacca was now Southeast Asia's busiest port, receiving ships from the Middle East, India, China and Indonesia. The Indonesian ships were the most important in the long run, because they brought spices from the Moluccas islands, near New Guinea. These islands, soon to be called "the Spice Islands" by Europeans, are the world's largest source of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, mace and camphor. The demand for spices in the West was at an all-time high, because European and Middle Eastern diets at this time were terribly bland without them; moreover, they helped make spoiled meat tolerable, which made a difference in the era before refrigeration was invented. Spices were also widely used as medicines, and merchants considered them to be the ideal cargo: a nonperishable commodity that can be worth a lot of money without taking up a lot of cargo space. Unfortunately for Western Europe, the spices were brought west by a relay of merchants (Indonesians, Chinese, Indians, Persians, Arabs and finally Italians) and every time the cargo changed hands the price went up. A bag of cloves selling for three ducats (about $450 in 2014 dollars) in India could cost almost fifty times as much by the time it reached Venice. Obviously, whoever could get the spices without dealing with middlemen would make a huge profit, and the high price of spices prompted one of the countries farthest away, Portugal, to regard them in much the same way modern nations regard oil; the nation that controlled pepper could control the world! In the early fifteenth century Portuguese sea captains started sailing far into the Atlantic, looking for a way to reach the Orient by sailing around Africa. Thus the Age of Exploration got started, culminating when a sailor named Christopher Columbus tried an alternative route to Asia and discovered America.

This is the End of Chapter 1.


1. The Chinese record dealings with ethnic groups like the Vietnamese, the Hmong, and the Thais all the way back to the first centuries of their long history. Since the Chinese only lived in the Yellow River valley at this early date, their non-Chinese neighbors must have once lived in China too. These groups later moved south to their present locations when the Chinese expanded into the lands across the Yangtze River after 1000 B.C.

2. Though the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are closer to Burma/Myanmar, today they belong to India, because when Britain ruled over them, the islands were administered as part of their Indian territory. The modern world is not a friendly environment for the Andaman Islanders, who have lived in isolation for most of the ages since their ancestors crossed the Bay of Bengal to settle here. When they came into regular contact with outsiders in the eighteenth century A.D., there were an estimated 7,000 of them, divided into five tribes. Diseases, alcohol, and physical abuse at the hands of the British, Japanese and Indians subsequently decimated their population; it's the same sad story that we hear wherever indigenous peoples meet civilization. Two of the tribes are now extinct, and the rest only number between 450 and 700 individuals.

One tribe, the one on North Sentinel Island, may be the most isolated tribe in the world. If they know what civilization has done to other indigenous peoples, it will explain their really bad attitude. The Sentinelese are hostile to anyone who visits their island, more so than other primitive tribes that are hard to get along with, like New Guinea headhunters. And this is nothing new; seven hundred years ago, Marco Polo reported that the Andaman Islanders were "a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch." The rest of the world decided to avoid North Sentinel Island and its implacable inhabitants; today's Indian government has declared the island and the waters surrounding it off-limits, to make sure the Sentinelese do not suffer the same fate as the other Andamanese tribes.

Somehow, when waves from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami washed over the island, the Sentinelese survived. When a helicopter flew by a few days later, it snapped pictures of the natives aiming bows at it, telling the crew not only that the Sentinelese were still there, but also that they did not want any help. In 2006, two fishermen strayed too close to the island's shore; the natives attacked and killed them, and buried their bodies in shallow graves. A coastguard helicopter was sent to recover the bodies, and the natives shot arrows at the great metal bird; realizing that they would face a hail of arrows and poison darts if they persisted, the helicopter crew left without landing. Then in 2018, a young missionary from the United States, John Chau, went there and was also killed; because of all the warnings he ignored, he immediately became a Darwin Award winner. Thus, for the foreseeable future, it looks like the best way to keep the Sentinelese alive is to keep them alone.

3. Early Cambodian kings showed their devotion to Hinduism not only by building Hindu temples (we'll see a lot more of that later), but also through their names. "Varman" meant "protege of," and Jaya was the Hindu god of victory, so Jayavarman meant "Protege of [the god] Jaya." Indeed, the kings went on giving themselves names ending in "varman" until 1336, more than a hundred years after they converted to Buddhism.

4. The capital of Nam Viet was present-day Guangzhou (Canton). The tomb of Nam Viet's second king, Van Vuong (137-125 B.C., called Zhao Mei in Chinese), was discovered there in 1983. Built to resemble an underground palace, it contained a fine collection of artifacts, including ten swords, a suit made of jade pieces tied together with silk thread, and a supply of pills made of sulphur, crystal, arsenic, calcite and alunite. Van Vuong believed this drug would keep him from growing old, but archaeologists now think the king poisoned himself with his own "pills of immortality."

5. It was around this time that the Chinese started calling Sukhothai "Xian," and neighboring states like Vietnam called it "Syam." From these names we get "Siam," Thailand's official name until 1939.

6. The Plain of Jars got its name from the huge, ancient burial urns that dot the landscape (see the picture below). It has strategic value for its tin and iron deposits, and because it is the only significant piece of flat land in northern Laos. Many battles were fought over the Plain of Jars in the Second Indochina War. No one knows who made the stone jars, or what kind of tools they used to shape them. Because American planes dropped millions of bombs on Laos during the war, and because we know a lot of those bombs landed on the Plain of Jars without exploding, only a few areas of the site are safe for archaeologists and tourists, and at the rate Laotian minesweepers are going, it may take the rest of the twenty-first century to locate and remove all the bombs. In the meantime, an Australian university is using pictures taken by drones to create a virtual reality version of the sites that have not been cleared of bombs yet.

The Plain of Jars.

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A Concise History of Southeast Asia


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