Mon-Khmer Migrate into Southeast Asia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

People speaking Mon-Khmer languages settled in Southeast Asia, becoming one of the major language groups in the region.

Summary of Event

The term “Mon-Khmer” is a linguistic label rather than an ethnic one. It refers to people speaking a number of related languages found primarily in mainland Southeast Asia. Two of the main groups of Mon-Khmer speakers are the Mon (also sometimes spelled Mun), who throughout historical times have lived in eastern Myanmar (formerly Burma) and west central Thailand, and the Khmer (also called Cambodians), who are chiefly concentrated in Cambodia, eastern Thailand, and southern Vietnam. In the past, Vietnamese was not recognized as a Mon-Khmer language, and there are still some scholars who question this linguistic classification, but today it is usually recognized as part of the Mon-Khmer family. Other Mon-Khmer languages include Muong, Khasi, and Wa. Speakers of Mon-Khmer languages make up a large part of the population of Southeast Asia. Languages in this family are spread from western India (mainly the state of Assam) to Vietnam and from southern China to Malaysia. The major language groups of the region that are not Mon-Khmer are Tai (which includes Thai and Lao), Tibeto-Burman (which includes Burmese), and Austronesian (which includes Malay and a number of languages in the mountains of central Vietnam).

The fact that so many people in this region speak related languages does not necessarily imply that the people themselves have the same ancestry. Languages can spread across unrelated groups through trade and intermarriage. However, languages that are related to each other can be traced back to specific groups of speakers. The Mon-Khmer languages are believed to have been brought to the region from northwest China or from the Khasi Hills in northwest India by about 2000 b.c.e. The Mon, one of the primary subgroups of the Mon-Khmer, followed the Salween River in what is now the nation of Myanmar. Among Mon-Khmer groups, the Mon are generally believed to have retained the greatest cultural continuity with the ancient Mon-Khmer. The subgroup that became known as the Khmer migrated further east into what is now Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea). During the gradual move into Southeast Asia, the Mon-Khmer groups came into contact with speakers of Austronesian languages, which make up one of the world’s largest language groups and are believed to have spread from Taiwan throughout Southeast Asia and the islands of Oceania. Speakers of Mon-Khmer languages were already well established in Southeast Asia when the Tai groups began to move southward from the general area of southern China into what are now Thailand and Laos some time before 1000 c.e. Over the centuries, the Mon-Khmer groups, the Austronesian groups, and the Tai groups influenced each other linguistically and culturally.

One of the most notable contributions of prehistoric Mon-Khmer migrants to Southeast Asia may have been the introduction of rice farming. Recent archaeological research suggests that the cultivation of rice developed in the Yangtze Valley of China about 6500 b.c.e., spreading outward through Asia. Sites showing rice cultivation and the domestication of animals along the Mekong River have been dated to about 2200 b.c.e., and it is believed that the farmers at these sites spoke languages that later became Mon, Khmer, and Vietnamese. Rice became the major food crop of the region, and it provided the economic basis for all of the powerful kingdoms of the historical period.

Before the arrival of the Tai groups, most of the politically dominant civilizations of mainland Southeast Asia were founded by Mon-Khmer speakers. In the western part of the region, the Mon came into contact with the civilization of India and became an important avenue for the transmission of Indian culture to Southeast Asia. The Mon became the first people in Southeast Asia to take up the Buddhist religion, adopting the Theravāda Buddhism that predominated in South India and in Ceylon. They also adopted the Indian writing system, which later became the basis of the written languages of the Thai, Lao, Khmer, and Burmese. Two of the most important Mon kingdoms were the Dvaravati, which flourished from the sixth to the thirteenth centuries c.e., and the Haripunjaya, in what is now northwestern Thailand, which was originally founded as a Dvaravati colony in the seventh century and lasted until about the eleventh century. Although the Mon kingdoms were conquered and absorbed by the Burmese, Thai, and Khmer, the Mon greatly influenced the societies of their conquerors.

People thought to have been speakers of the Khmer branch of Mon-Khmer founded the early kingdoms of Funan and Chenla in what is now Cambodia in the first centuries c.e. Funan, located in the Mekong Delta, was described by Chinese records, and the kings of Funan sent missions to China from 226 to 649. Chenla is thought to have risen about 550. Its greatest king may have been Jayavarman I, who reigned from 635 to 680 and greatly centralized control through the development of a sophisticated administrative bureaucracy. Like the Mon, the Khmer were heavily influenced by India, although early Khmer society drew more heavily on Hinduism than on Buddhism. About the third century c.e., the Khmer developed a version of Mon-Khmer writing that became the basis of the Cambodia, Thai, and Lao writing systems. About 790, a prince of a small Khmer kingdom who claimed descent from the kings of Funan took the name Jayavarman II and extended his power over a large part of Cambodia. This was the basis of the influential Angkor civilization, named after the huge temple complex built by the successors of Jayavarman II.

The Angkor civilization survived until the fifteenth century and represents the high point of Khmer society. The statues and buildings of Angkor fell into disrepair and were overtaken by the surrounding jungle until French researchers began to restore and study them in the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, the remnants of the Angkor civilization became the foremost national symbol of Cambodia.


People speaking Mon-Khmer languages came to make up much of the population of mainland Southeast Asia and had enormous influence on the economy, politics, and culture of the region. They may have brought rice farming to the region in prehistoric times. During the times of the great kingdoms, especially those of the Angkor civilization, they developed elaborate systems of agriculture for the rice crop.

The Mon-Khmer speaking kingdoms, especially those of the Angkor civilization, played a large part in shaping ideas about kingship throughout the region. The modern kings of Thailand have inherited many traditions passed down from the old Khmer rulers, even though the Thai kings have been constitutional monarchs since the 1930’s. Cambodia, as a nation and a people, originated in the Angkor civilization.

Theravāda Buddhism, first adopted in the region by the Mon, became the predominant religion in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Through the Mon and the Khmer, Indian influences on literature, music, and dance penetrated the elite cultures of all the Theravāda Buddhist nations. The scripts of these nations, also, are products of the Mon-Khmer transmission of Indian civilization.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Robert L. The Dvaravati Wheels of the Law and the Indianization of Southeast Asia. New York: E. J. Brill, 1996. Interprets a group of stone sculptures representing the Buddha’s Wheel of the Law dating from the Dvaravati period, by connecting the sculptures to the cultures of both India and the Khmer in an effort to trace how Indian influences moved into Southeast Asia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coedès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1968. This is the classic work on the kingdoms of Southeast Asia and on the influence of India on them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dumarçay, Jacques, and Michael Smithies. Cultural Sites of Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. A well-illustrated volume that considers the most important ancient cultural centers of Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. It describes the primary features of each site and explains the importance of each for the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higham, Charles. The Civilization of Angkor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. An excellent history of the Khmer civilization of Angkor. Chapter 2, on the prehistoric period, contains conclusions of new research about a little-known time in the history of the region.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ortner, Jon, Ian W. Mabbett, Eleanor Mannikka, James Goodman, and John Sanday. Angkor: Celestial Temples of the Khmer. New York: Abbeville Press, 2002. Illustrated by color photographs and accompanied by a glossary, chronology of construction, and a chart of the kings, this is a unique history and exposition of the cities of Angkor. The text is written by a team of experts on Angkor civilization.

Categories: History