Kingdom of Funan Flourishes

In the first century c.e. in the Mekong Delta region and the southern coast of Cambodia and Vietnam, the Funan civilization emerged, apparently a predecessor of the eleventh century Angkor, or Khmer, civilization.

Summary of Event

Neolithic peoples of modern Cambodia appear to have come from India, southern China, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. The first known civilization of this region arose in the first century c.e., formed by a people who probably were from the Khmer branch of the Mon-Khmer people, who had migrated into Southeast Asia from southwest China or from the Khasi Hills in northwest India as early as 2000 b.c.e. What is known of them is from second century Chinese chroniclers, who referred to them as the Funan (the Chinese rendering of B’iu-nam) as well as modern excavations at sites such as Oc Eo. Kaundinya
Fan Shih-man

According to legend, the founder of the state of Funan was Kaundinya, who sailed up the Mekong River in the first century c.e., guided by a dream about his destiny. When he arrived at a place near modern-day Phnom Penh, Cambodia, the queen of the country, Liu-yeh, tried but failed to seize his ship. He then married her and founded a dynasty that ruled for nearly two centuries. The place where he arrived is known as the sacred mountain, and Liu-yeh is often called the Naga princess, or princess of the snake goddess Naga. Kaundinya’s origins are unknown, although he might have come from India, as he is attributed with having brought Indianization to the region.

The original settlements were between Chaudoc and Phnom Penh. The first capital city was Vyadhapura, which is near Banam and the Ba Phnom hill in the current Cambodian province of Prey Veng. Later, the capital moved to Angkor Borei, a walled city on the margin of the Mekong Delta. Oc Eo, Funan’s port city, was 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Angkor Borei. At Oc Eo, archaeologists have found a large urban settlement, with a network of canals extending more than 120 miles (200 kilometers) that irrigated rice fields. Some canals drained swamps and some were connected to the sea, the latter permitting calm navigation that bypassed the Gulf of Siam en route to the Malay Peninsula. Oc Eo was a cosmopolitan trade center; commercial relations existed as far away as Persia, though most trade was with India. Oc Eo’s Malay culture coexisted with other cultures, mostly influenced by India. As traders, the Funanese kept records and developed a unique written language based on Mon-Khmer. Funan was known for piracy as well as trading, and traders plundered wherever they could.

Excavations at Angkor Borei and Oc Eo reveal that Funan had several walled cities containing palaces and dwelling houses. The king’s palace had a tiered roof, still common in Cambodia and Thailand. Houses of commoners were built on piles that afforded protection from annual monsoon floods; the roofs consisted of bamboo leaves. Settlements were fortified with wooden palisades.

The Funanese were dark-skinned, frizzy-haired people. Women put their heads through a hole in a fold of cloth, and their hair was knotted. Men wore the sampot, a piece of cloth tied around the waist. Contemporary Cambodians still practice many Funanese customs in matters of dress. The national sports were cockfighting and pigfighting. Families bathed together in large tanks. Trial was by ordeal.

Funan adapted artistic and cultural traditions from India that persist to the present, including the legends of the Naga princess and the sacred mountain. The multiheaded snake goddess, the Naga, is memorialized in statuary now found throughout much of Southeast Asia. Although Buddhism was practiced and is now the state religion of Cambodia, Hinduism was also common in Funan; the official religion by the sixth century c.e. was Saivite, which involved worship of the stars in the sky. Excavations at Angkor Borei and Oc Eo reveal that many Buddhas were carved in a distinctive Funanese style. Sky gods were carved in brass with two heads and four arms or even four heads and eight arms, replicas of which are available for sale in Cambodia today. Other jewelry was manufactured, including gold replicas of Roman coins used as pendants. The Funanese also manufactured an orange pottery.

Funan went on to become the first great power in mainland Southeast Asia. The vast irrigation works enabled agricultural plenty in rice, and the kingdom expanded as the well-fed population increased. As a trading port, Oc Eo was a cosmopolitan center, host to many cultures, languages, and peoples and a recipient of precious minerals and stones that were made into jewelry. However, Oc Eo declined as ships bypassed the inland port to sail beyond the Mekong Delta. One of Kaundinya’s grandsons decided to turn over the conduct of state affairs to Fan Shih-man, who in turn built a fleet, attacked ten kingdoms, and established vassal states along the Mekong from Tonle Sap, the lake that receives the floodwaters of the Mekong River, to the Mekong Delta. During its apogee, Funan occupied the territory from what is now southern Cambodia and Vietnam through most of the Malay Peninsula, and the vassal states paid tribute.


One of Funan’s vassal states, Chenla, occupied what is now northern Cambodia and southern Laos. In the middle of the sixth century c.e., Chenla rebelled against its status as vassal to Funan, conquered the capital of Funan, and assumed dominance in the region. Funan then moved the capital south.

The two kingdoms of Chenla and Funan coexisted until 627 c.e., when Chenla annexed Funan. Chenla then continued conquests westward toward Thailand into the region that was to become the center of the Angkor Kingdom. However, Chenla was wracked by civil war and there was a split in 706 between Upper (Land) Chenla and Lower (Water) Chenla.

At the end of the eighth century c.e., Javanese pirates attacked the coastline of Chenla and occupied some of the Mekong Delta islands, marking the decline of Chenla. In 802, a military commander from Java consolidated control over Chenla territories on behalf of the kingdom of Angkor, which he proclaimed as an independent state. Angkor, thus, absorbed Chenla. In 877, the ruler of Angkor chose as his queen a member of the royal line of both the Funan and Chenla kingdoms. Accordingly, Angkor, the precursor to the present state of Cambodia, may be said to have grown out of both Chenla and Funan.

Further Reading

  • Briggs, Lawrence Palmer. The Ancient Khmer Empire. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951. Reprint. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1999. A fascinating account of the early years of the Cambodian state.
  • Chandler, David P. A History of Cambodia. 3d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. A history of Cambodia, including a chapter on the beginnings (from c. 2000 b.c.e.) and a bibliographic essay. Illustrations, maps.
  • Dega, Michael F. Prehistoric Circular Earthworks of Cambodia. Oxford, England: Archaeopress, 2002. Aimed at archaeologists and anthropologists, this work examines the function and timing of Cambodian earthworks and sites, casting light on the very early peoples of Cambodia and Vietnam. Includes 51 tables; 29 figures, plans, photographs, and drawings; 10 maps; and 10 appendices.
  • Hall, D. G. E. A History of South-East Asia. 3d ed. London: Macmillan, 1968. A detailed history of how modern Southeast Asia emerged from the earliest origins, with sections on Cambodia and its precursors. Illustrations, maps, and a detailed bibliography.
  • Higham, Charles. The Civilization of Angkor. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001. The preeminent archaeologist concentrating in Southeast Asia reports on the latest archaeological evidence of Angkor and its predecessors, including Funan, where reports are often ambiguous or contradictory. Illustrations, photographs, and a glossary.