Chronology of Key Empires and Kingdoms: The Greater Mekong Subregion

Today the Greater Mekong Subregion comprises Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of China.  Learn more about the epochs from where our regularly consigned items originate. Below are a few of many great kingdoms that once ruled in the Mekong subregion. All with a rich and cultural history of their own.

802 to 1431 Angkor Period Cambodia

The ancient Khmer civilization is divided into three sub-periods: Funan (1st Cen.-550AD), Chenla (550-802AD), and Kambuja or Angkor period (802-1432AD). The Angkor is best known due to the innovation and creation of public monuments during the period. The city of Angkor served as the capital of the Khmer empire which saw the design and building of great architecturally important monuments. In all there were around 50 temples in the capital, the best known and most significant is Angkor Wat. During its peak, Angkor expanded its territory and with it the influence of Khmer arts, culture, and architecture.

Angkor was founded by Jayavarman II (802-835AD) by proclaiming independence from Java, referring to the kingdom of Srivijaya, marking the beginning of the Angkor period. This came with the adoption of Devaraja, the worship of God-Kings, and royal absolutism. During the reign of Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was built as a mausoleum dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The Khmer practiced Hinduism and, to a lesser extent, Buddhism, thus producing monuments to reflect their rituals. However, the Indian influence over the region goes further back to the Funan period, predominant in Hindu worship. Khmers left many Sanskrit texts which would later influence writing systems from emerging kingdoms in the Mekong Subregion. In its decline, Angkor importance declined due to religious doubt and political struggles. Angkor succumbed to multiple incursions by the Siamese of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

849 to 1297 Pagan Kingdom Burma

Around 800AD, the fourth group of immigrants, called Bamar, occupied the region bordering India and China. They captured and adopted the culture of the Mon, who had immigrated to the region earlier from the west of China. In 849AD, King Anawarata conquered and unified ethnic tribes in the region, forming the first Burmese dynasty. In the early days, Pagan stood as a major power in Southeast Asia alongside the Khmer Empire.
Under King Kyanzittha (1084-1113), the Pagan Kingdom prospered and built many public monuments, including Ananda Temple and restoring Mahabodhi Temple. In 1287, under Narathiahapeta (1257-1289), the Mongols led by Kublai Khan (1260-1294), founder of the Yuan Dynasty, conquered Pagan. After the fall of the Pagan Kingdom, the Burmese remained as a small collection of independent Kingdoms until re-unification in Taungoo.

1238 to 1438 Sukhothai Kingdom Thailand

The Sukhothai Kingdom emerged near Angkor's borders when Tai locals rebelled against Sukhodaya, the former name of a Khmer settlement. Before the first Tai ethnic migrated to the region, the Mon occupied central Siam and Burma. Mon-Khmer iconography and archaeological sites exist to this day within the region. Mon-Khmer styles influenced early designs of the city, but as Buddhism flourished, the Tai's developed their own distinctive art styles. King Ram Khamhaeng (1279- 1298) reigned over Sukhothai's golden age, exerted influence over other Tai Kingdoms, and expanded his Kingdom south. After his death, alliances with other Tai kingdoms collapsed, and Sukhothai weaken.

At the beginning of the 14th century, as the Kingdom of Ayutthaya prospered in the south, a weakened Sukhothai was invaded and conquered. By the 15th century, after long periods of rebellion against Ayutthaya, Sukhothai was wholly united with Ayutthaya.

1350 to 1767 Ayutthaya Kingdom Thailand

A Tai-Chinese warrior named U-Thong founded Ayutthaya in 1350. Later adopting the name, Ramathibodi, he expanded its territory by conquering and unifying neighbouring Tai sovereign lands, including Sukhothai. In the 17th century, Ayutthaya prospered as a center of trade. Geographically, it lay at the junction of three great rivers giving the city advantage in warfare and access to maritime trade and fertile land.
Ayutthaya trade policy with India, China, Japan, the Middle East, and Europe played an important role in developing the region. It contributed significantly to the economic influence of the Kingdom becoming one of the most powerful in Southeast Asia. In 1767, under the Konbaung Dynasty, Burmese forces ransacked and destroyed Ayutthaya, causing the fall of the dynasty.

1368 to 1644 Ming Dynasty China

Preceding the Ming Period, China was ruled by the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). Rebellions were common throughout the period. Ethnic Hans were determined to expel the Mongol-led dynasty. Finally, Chu Yuan-chang, or Emperor Hongwu, proclaimed himself Emperor in 1368 and instated policies and military for fear of a Mongol resurgence. This included the revival of the Great Wall of China which was built during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).

Emperor Yongle (1402-1433), the third Ming emperor, presided over the golden age of the Ming Dynasty. He moved the capital back to Beijing and in 1406 built the Forbidden City. Yongle started a vigorous campaign in exploration and maritime trade, which contributed to Chinese exposure to the West. As a result, the Ming period modernised its rule to adapt to Western trade. The Ming Dynasty would give China many outstanding achievements in art, literature, opera, scholarship, and porcelain.

1486 to 1752 Taungoo Dynasty Burma

The second Burmese Dynasty, Taungoo was founded by King Minkyinyo (1486- 1531). His successors, Tabinshwehti (1531-1550) and Bayinnaung (1550- 1581) are credited for reunifying most of the scattered kingdoms that once was part of Pagan, conquering the Mon and unifying Upper and Lower Burma. Tabinshwehit led expansionist campaigns and attempted to conquer Ayutthaya, starting a centuries-long series of wars referred to as the Burmese-Siamese Wars. Bayinnaung launched the second military campaign to conquer Ayutthaya, successfully making Ayutthaya a vassal of Burma for some time. During this period, Taungoo was one of the most powerful and largest territorial empire in southeast Asia.

In 1599 Taungoo's political power weakened due to rebellions from several domestic tribes and vassal states. In 1613, many foreigners lived in the Mekong Subregion due to growth in maritime trade. A Portuguese named Philip de Brito y Nicote exercised unchallenged control over Lower Burma until Anaukpetlun (1605-1648), the grandson of Bayinnaung, once again reunified Burma marking the period called restored Taungoo (1600-1752). Thala (1629-1648), Anaukpetlun's successor, moved the capital from Pegu to Ava and enjoyed a relatively peaceful reign. In 1752, the Mons in Lower Burma rebelled by conquering Ava, causing the fall of Taungoo.

1644 to 1912 Qing Dynasty China

The Ming dynasty was succeeded by the Qing dynasty in 1644 by the peoples of the independent Manchu State, who lived beyond the border of the Great Wall. With a relatively weak state accelerated by natural disasters and years of political decline, the Manchus were able to penetrate Beijing, causing the fall of the Ming Dynasty. The Manchu's assimilated into Han Chinese culture, and Manchu Emperors adopting Ming administrative form of governance, in which they allowed Han ethnics to hold office. The dynasty became a patron of Chinese language, arts, and values. While this enabled Chinese arts to flourish it also preserved Manchu ethnic customs that co-existed with the dominant Han culture. Under Qianlong (1735-1796), Qing was at the height of its power, leading extensive military campaigns, the empire becoming the largest in Chinese history.

In the mid 19th century, the dynasty was plagued with internal rebellion, a series of reforms helped modernised China for a period. However, Qing could not resist foreign aggression, and failures in reforms carried through to the 20th century. Such failures steered to the Chinese nationalist party, led by Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925). In 1905, the dynasty issued constitutional reforms to appease the nationalist. However, this proved insufficient, and in 1911, the Chinese revolution led to Xuantong abdication in 1912, ending the Qing Dynasty, resulting in the Republic of China.

1752 to 1885 Konbaung Dynasty Burma

In 1752 Alaungpaya (1753-1760) recaptured Ava from the Mons a year after the fall of Taungoo, reestablishing the third and last Burmese dynasty. Continuing policies from the Taungoo, Alaungpaya led expansionist campaigns over the region. In 1821, a series of border disputes with India alerted the British, who ruled India from 1858 to 1947, consequently leading to the first Anglo-Burmese war and subsequent campaigns that led to British colonial rule.

1782 to 1932 Rattanakosin Kingdom Thailand

The Rattanakosin period was preceded by the short-lived Thonburi period, founded and ended with Taksin (1768 -1782), a year after the fall of Ayutthaya. General Chao Phraya Chakri ordered Taksin's execution. Chakri moved the capital across the river from Thonburi to Rattanakosin (today known as the Royal District of Bangkok) and proclaimed himself King Rama 1 (1782- 1809). In doing so he established the Chakri dynasty that still reigns over Thailand. King Rama I built the Grand Palace, modelled on Ayutthaya. He is also credited for bringing the famous Emerald Buddha to Bangkok. Much of the artistic style of the Thonburi and early Rattanakosin period was a direct mimic of the late Ayutthaya kingdom. During the reign of King Rama IV (1851-  1868) and King Rama V (1868- 1910), the Thai court embraced a Western political mode and was able to maintain its sovereignty by negotiating with Western powers that were at the time colonising Southeast Asia. In 1932 a coup forced the Monarchy into a Constitutional Monarchy, ending absolute rule.

Further Reading

Baker, C. and Phongpaichit, P. (2014) A history of Thailand, Cambridge University Press

Briggs, L.P. (2018) The Ancient Khmer Empire

Chapman, W.R. (2013) A heritage of ruins: the ancient sites of Southeast Asia and their conservation,  University of Hawaii Press

Hall, D.G.E. (1981) A History of South-East Asia, Macmillan Asian Histories Series

Hucker, C.O. (2020) The Ming Dynasty Its Origin and Evolving Institutions, University of Michigan Press

Middeton, J. (2015) World Monarchies and Dynasties,  Routledge

Prakitnonthakan, C. (2019) The origins of Sukhothai art as the Thai golden age: the relocation of Buddha images, early Ratanakosin literature and nationalism, South East Asia Research, 27(3), 254-270

Smith, R. J. (2015) The Qing Dynasty and Traditional Chinese Culture, Rowman & Littlefield