Historical Geography of Cambodia

A Brief Introduction to the Historical Geography of Cambodia

Dr. Steven Martin, Study Abroad Journal

Cambodia is a small country with an awe-inspiring history, where natural resources and the opportunities presented by geography played a leading role in the development of one of the world’s greatest historical civilizations, the Khmer.

Water, Stone, Iron and Wood

The natural abundance of fresh water has always been the basis of agriculture and transport systems, thanks to the Mekong River (Mother of Waters) and the Tonle Sap (Great Lake), two of the world’s greatest hydrologic systems. Meanwhile, ready access to stone, mainly rusty-red laterites and pastel sandstones, provided the building blocks of early civilization in the region. Emboldened with hardwood forests, iron ore deposits, and the mastery of fire, the Khmer were empowered to build houses, fire kilns, and smelt ores and forge the tools and weapons of the largest ancient empire in mainland Southeast Asia.

Cambodia and the Tonle Sap Lake
The historical geography of Cambodia is an amazing field of study with the Tonle Sap (the Great Lake) at the heart of a great civilization.

The Mekong River

The Mekong is one of the longest rivers in the world, and is the symbolic heart of tropical mainland Southeast Asia. Seasonal flooding brings silt and nourishment to the land, and nutrients and freshwater fish to the Tonle Sap, producing two ecologically vibrant outcomes, the floodplain and the flooded forest. The floodplains receive water and minerals from as far away as Tibet, naturally irrigating and fertilizing enormous tracks of low-lying land, perfect for cultivation of rice and other food crops. As the Tonle Sap swells, it creates a flooded forest similar to the Amazon basin, where partially-submerged trees and their root systems create a haven for spawning fish. Historically, fish resources on the Tonle Sap were among the most plentiful on Earth. Elderly fishermen still boast of the days of their youth when the Tonle Sap was so teeming with fish that all they had to do was row their open boats into the lake and wait for a full catch to jump in.

The Tonle Sap

The Tonle Sap is a global hot-spot of biodiversity and a valued sanctuary for migrating birds. It is the largest freshwater lake in Asia, and the Tonle Sap River, the life-blood of the lake, is one of the few rivers in the world to display an astonishing natural feature: the biannual flow reversal. As rains brought by the Southwest Monsoon feed tributaries along the six countries of the Mekong (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), the Tonle Sap River reverses the direction of its flow, and carries an extraordinary volume of water and fish species from the Mekong into the lake. This remarkable hydrologic event occurs from June to October, when the river fills the lake to as much as five times its normal depth and area. In the dry season (November to April), water drains out of the lake and toward the Mekong.

The lake is the key source of food for nearly fifty-percent of the Cambodian people and represents the greatest inland fishery network in Asia. The Mekong and the Tonle Sap remain the life-blood of a country and its resilient people who use their local culture and knowledge to follow the seasonal changes of the monsoon to survive.

Laterite and Sandstone

Laterite, a soil type and stone comprised of compressed soil, is a product of the tropical Cambodian basin, where thousands of years of alternating wet and dry seasons and oscillating floods create the conditions for its formation. As a process, silicates are washed out of the soil, leaving iron and aluminum oxides to build up and form laterite. Khmer architects learned many centuries ago how to cut cubes of this metallic mud-like rock from the ground in large blocks and set them to dry quickly, forming a near lava-like stone perfectly suited to building megalithic structures such as Angkor Wat. Laterite is to Cambodia what limestone was to the Egyptians. It is a workable stone employed as the base of nearly one thousand Khmer temples throughout the country. However, laterite forms coarse blocks pitted with holes. It is difficult to prepare a clean, smooth surface with the aesthetic qualities desired for a religious monument using laterite.

"Laterite is to Cambodia what limestone was to the Egyptians"

Photo: Wet and dry cycles produce laterite soils along the Tonle Sap

On the other hand, sandstone, another resource available to the Khmers, is an exceptional facing stone. Sandstone was also used as a base for carving fine artwork such as bas-reliefs, many of which are still visible today in temples and monuments throughout Cambodia.

Another geographic blessing to the Khmer economy and collective conscious is Phnom Kulen, a forty kilometer long isolated chain of small sandstone mountain plateaus fifty kilometers to the northeast of Siem Reap. The Kulen Mountains are sacred to the Khmer and were the definitive source of sandstone throughout the Angkorian period (early 9th to 15th century). It is a clean and sometimes colorfully pink soft stone, ideal for depicting the Apsara dancers (Khmer celestial nymphs) and many other Hindu and Buddha images still visible today. The Kulen Mountains were a definitive stronghold against invading forces from Java during the early Khmer period, later forming a vital part of the Khmer empire’s political and cultural geography, and are still regarded by Cambodians today as the source of holy waters.

Khmer guide Seng Ratha identifies sandstone bas-reliefs depicting ancient stories of conflict between the Khmer and Champa Kingdoms.

Iron and Fire

The early Cambodians developed a mastery of fire and built kilns to smelt ores, cast iron, and fire ceramics for pots and bowls used in households and temples for storing foods, water, and oils. Iron ore was an important natural resource in Khmer history, and ore deposits began to be exploited during the pre-Angkor period. The Khmer demonstrated an early understanding of technologies needed for casting iron, particularly for tools and weapons. The need for iron ores and production drove development and distribution networks, including roads throughout the basin. Iron gave the Khmer purpose, unity, and regional superiority.

In this Day and Age

Angkor, formerly a city of nearly a million people, is the result of a complex interaction of cultural and industrial influences, whose natural resources provided the setting for a globally unique historical geography which gave birth to a civilization that, at its zenith, was arguably the greatest in the pre-industrialized world.

Today, there is a renaissance of Khmer architectural and engineering spirit, unmistakably visible in the construction of new buildings and hotels in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and around the country. After the horrors of the Pol Pot period, Cambodia has recovered as swiftly as jungle growing back over a ruined temple, and now the country is back on track as a vibrant economy which is one of the major engines of development at the heart of the ASEAN region. Perhaps more than ever, the sustainability of Cambodia’s unique natural resources and the natural gifts of her geography will once again play leading roles as a new Khmer civilization once more steps forward to take its rightful place among the world’s oldest and proudest human cultures ♦

About the Research

Dr. Steven A. Martin - Study Abroad Journal

This research was first inspired through associates and experiences at the 2014 Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA) in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

PHOTO: Prof. David Blundell (left) -- Dr. Steven Martin (center) -- Prof. Charles Higham (right)

Special thanks to Peng Ponna (William) at Paññāsāstra University and our guide, Ratha Seng in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

PDF available online at the Faculty of International Studies, Prince of Songkla University, Phuket, Thailand.

Study Abroad Journal Film - Short Recordings Made During Field Research

Aspara Dance, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Beng Mealea Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia

1000 Lingas, Phnom Kulen, Siem Reap, Cambodia


 

Learn More About Professor Charles Higham's Research in Cambodia

Pre-Khmer Civilization of Ancient Funan

Author's Choice for Best Video on Angkor

Angkor Wat, Land of the Gods

The Jewel of Travel

The Jewel of Travel

Dr. Steven A. Martin, Study Abroad Journal

I remember a statement by a man from Israel I met on a bus ride en route to the Dead Sea. He told me, “Travel makes you smarter but less happy.” It seems somewhat eccentric now that I needed to experience so many places, iconic places, to know the world and find enlightenment. Traveling became my purpose, my inspiration, my destiny. I was a traveler in search of the truth. I had to know the Far East and the Middle East. I had to see the Amazon and Outback. I was incomplete without Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa. I needed Madrid, Paris and Rome. Certainly I couldn’t omit North America.

"I had been seduced by the vastness of global knowledge and at the same time deeply concerned through personal exposure to the complexity and magnitude of today’s global issues"

And so I ran to the arms of the world, trusting that the more I knew, the more I would enjoy life. The first ten countries I approached romantically, with enthusiasm and optimism. At this point my great expectations were fulfilled. I was seeing the world, having fun, and living my dream of travel.

With the next ten countries things got more serious and I was driven to continue the quest. I had been seduced by the vastness of global knowledge and at the same time deeply concerned through personal exposure to the complexity and magnitude of today’s global issues. My hopes for personal fulfillment had turned into a dilemma.

Beyond thirty countries lurked the twilight zone, a place where fantasy and reality coincide. My enthusiasm for travel was muddy with concern, confusion and frustration. While in pursuit of my colorful dream, I had directly encountered social exclusion, human suffering, and injustice among race and religion. Adding environmental concerns to this experience, there was also a war on nature in every corner of our world. Retrospectively, I had more questions than answers.

Had I become a cynic? What were the real reasons behind social, racial and religious conflict and war? And most importantly, who was I? I felt somewhat bewildered and innominate, a blip on the radar screen of life.

I had seen DDT and pesticides sold with bare hands in Ecuador and discovered gold and oil companies spilling mercury and lead into Amazon tributaries. I had witnessed organized religion tearing apart a Holy Land. I had endured air pollution in China so thick that I could actually feel my life expectancy drop with each breath. I had encountered aggression, violence, and immeasurable queries regarding health and hunger in India and Africa. I had seen unthinkable things dumped into our seas and oceans in nearly every country. These were a few of the serious global issues that were hard to ignore.

Travel has taught me that I must, as far as possible and without surrender, be tolerant and amenable toward a great many things, whether I really like it or not. It has shown me that when people believe strongly in race, religion or politics, they may indeed harbor dangerously vested interests, bigotries or intolerance. I’ve come to realize the troubles of others are actually troubles of my own.

Albert Einstein once said, “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Do you want to comprehend the current state of our world? If your answer is yes, then you’re destined to carry the burden of your knowledge. When directly faced with the social, political, economic or environmental misfortune of others, I inevitably feel concerned and accountable, as if the more I know — the more I owe.

I recall the final flight home from my first trip around the world, gazing through the small oval airplane window, and reflecting on my cherished travels abroad. I had explored a grand total of forty countries in my life and knew the tones of as many languages. I realized that at the very least, the limits of my language were the limits of my world, and while I had received a priceless education, it had been profoundly sobering. As my eyes fixed below on the puffy white clouds that blanketed the earth, I grew serious and aged by the ways of the world. Perhaps the jewel of travel had come at an infinite price.♦

The Jewel of Travel guides us through a true account of a journalist's personal life experience, identifying how the romance and enthusiasm of travel matches up with the reality of global awareness.

Dr. Steven Martin with Study Abroad Journal and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito on expedition to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in the western Amazon

The Jewel of Travel was originally published as “Great Expectations,” winning top honors in the 1999 Hawaii Community College Literary Competition, the 1999 State of Hawaii League for Innovation Literary Competition, and the 1999 International Honor Society Academic Publication Nota Bene International Honor Society Anthology.

Tiputini – Treasure of the Amazon

Tiputini – Treasure of the Amazon

In 2003, the Study Abroad Journal visited the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station located deep in the Amazon's Yasuni National Park and Biosphere Reserve. As lead researcher I was personally exposed to the sensitive and fragile nature of the contiguous area, and wrote the following recommendation on behalf of the the Study Abroad Journal and the Universidad San Fransico de Quito (USFQ).

Study Abroad Journal strongly recommends that the Tiputini Biodiversity Research Station and surrounding neighborhood be entirely cosseted specifically for the purposes of study and conservancy in the name of all humanity -- and the intact area be placed under protective international supervision. This plan should be developed as soon as possible.

Above the forest canopy, an outpost of the Tiputini Biodiversity Station with Franklin, our Quechua guide

As part of the globalizing world, Ecuador’s universities share in the opportunity and responsibility of caring for the environment, and to cultivate the sustainable management of the Amazon Basin. In this context, we must support USFQ and all Ecuadorians to safeguard the rainforests’ vital natural beauty and diversity for future generations, insuring against destruction of the Tiputini area’s natural treasures.

Ecuador's Western Amazon – On the way to the Tiputini Biodiversity Station

Presently, many people in Ecuador are not deeply concerned about the conservation and protection of natural resources in the Amazon, and without these concepts in mind, and the lack of education in this respect, individuals cannot realize the extent that contaminates enter into the environment. Affecting all our lives, it’s difficult to know how seriously future planned developments will further affect and penetrate the Amazon’s land, water and sky.

The first priority is to help students and scientists to understand how much damage is being made from our environmental ignorance. These serious impacts are not only on Ecuadorians and their younger/incoming generations’ health, but also Ecuador’s future and long-term economy, which greatly depends on a sustainable environment. USFQ and Tiputini promote programs and awareness that innovate and cultivate environmental sustainability.

USFQ and Tiputini bring environmental awareness into the classroom and the education system, assisting Ecuador’s education engine to power and encourage research that innovates environmental sustainability, creating jobs and economic drive to research, monitor, and promote awareness.

Quechua guides at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station – Study Abroad Journal

USFQ sets a wonderful example as a progressive university that demonstrates responsibility. Ecuador’s future economy depends on its environment and setting a good example will be contagious to other universities! Ecuador must sustain and perpetuate the Tiputini station and support its isolation. If jeopardized, the unique biodiversity of this environment can never be reestablished or duplicated, resulting in the irreparable loss for Ecuador and all humanity regarding science, health, medicine, and the many educational mysteries still waiting to be unraveled.

Sincerely,

            Dr. Steven A. Martin, Study Abroad Journal

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The original Study Abroad Journal Tiputini Biodiversity Station support letter is available in English and Chinese:

Tiputini Biodiversity Station: a biological treasure trove in western Amazon rainforest