The only written report we have nowadays about the medieval Angkor empire is coming from a remarkable young Chinese man who lived some 700 years ago, in the same time as the famous Westerner Marco Polo. It's Zhou Daguan (also: Chou Ta-Kuan), who was a member of a diplomatic mission to Angkor Thom in the years 1296/97 CE. Within fifteen years after he went back to China he wrote a report from his memories, which is titled 'The Customs of Cambodia' (Chinese: Zhenla fengtu ji).
Zhou Daguan? There is no image of him handed down. We don't know, how the medieval traveller looked. Sketch by Asienreisender, 2014
Zhou Daguan's lifetime is not known with certainty. The English wikipedia claims his lifespan from 1266 - 1346 CE, without naming a source. So, Zhou Daguan was presumably 30 years old when he came to Angkor. He certainly was part of a mission together with other Chinese, all of noble ranks. He was coming from Wenzhou, south China, what is situated about in the middle between Shanghai and Hongkong. Wenzhou, meanwhile some 5,000 years old, was in Zhou Daguan's time a mercantile center and, as a port city, a place where many people and ideas from different regions came together. Zhou Daguan's religion was Buddhism, as it was established in the time in Angkor as well. Therefore he had no conflict with the Khmer religion and treated it with respect.
In his time China was under the rule of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty. The Chinese emperor was Timur Khan, the successor and grandson of Kublai Khan. The Angkorean king of the time was Indravarman III (reign: 1295 - 1307 CE). Angkor's state religion then was already Theravada Buddhism, as it is still in Cambodia today.
Zhou Daguan was by far not the first Chinese envoy in Angkor. Since generations Chinese migrants came to Angkor - mostly to settle down there and doing business. An earlier Chinese envoy of Kublai Khan was imprisoned by king Jayavarman VIII (reign 1243 - 1295 CE), who refused to pay the demanded homage to the mighty emperor in the north.
In 1296 CE the Angkorean empire was past it's peak. After Sukothai's rise in the west, and particularly the emerging empire of Ayutthaya after 1251 CE, the Siamese fought the Khmer more and more back to the east. The old Khmer arch enemies, the Chams, took their part in attacking Angkor from the northeast. That must have been very bloody wars. In the long run they led to the complete decline of Angkor. A final death push came in 1431 CE, when Siamese troops conquered and sacked Angkor Thom.
The edition of 'The Customs of Cambodia' on which this article is based on is the 1992 one of the Siam Society in Bangkok. It is a secondary translation into English from an originally 1902 translation by Paul Pelliot from Chinese into French. Meanwhile there is a new translation done by Peter Harris, who worked it directly from the original Chinese into English. It's certainly a professional challenge to translate a medieval Chinese script into a language of our times.
Angkor Wat, the former state temple of Angkor. Nowadays it's the most visited sight in Southeast Asia with between one and two million visitors per year. Zhou Daguan mentioned it rather by the way. In the Angkorean days it was not open for the public. Image by Asienreisender, 2006