by Charles Kimball

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. 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.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball