Angkor: Built with the blood of slaves for your tourism pleasure

I was teaching classes at a local research institution. I arrogantly would always trot out the notion of the Angkor Empire in my examples. Angkor was, in my opinion then as now, a horrendous deformation of humanity, where slave labor and mass dehumanization resulted in the piling of rocks into beautiful monuments. The vast majority of modern Cambodians, however, for a host of reasons which are increasingly well understood(2) think of the Angkorean regime as the golden age of Cambodia. Historically, this cannot have been true, at least not for the masses of people who lived under Angkor’s rule. Instead, modern Cambodians appeal to Angkor primarily as an offense against the constriction of the Cambodian nation (in terms of territory, glory, and regional power), a notion explored very well by Thongchai Winichakul for Thailand.(3) In my classes, I would ask people if they would want to have lived during the Angkor era. All my students smiled beatifically and replied that yes, they would.

I then asked them if they were under the impression that they would have been kings, queens, or if they would have been the slaves who built the palaces. Their smiles dropped, and their responses were a combination of shame and sullen silence. I was frustrated too. I supposed I had expected some sort of ‘a-ha’ moment where their eyes would suddenly open onto a vista of oppression and slavery of which they were unaware. This is what I mean by referring to my previous arrogance.

It is an extreme rarity to read nuanced and academic accounts of Cambodia as they happen, which is what makes Deathpower in Cambodia a great read. Probably less of a great read for anybody who yells “wanker” whenever I mention an obscure theorist or add footnotes (Erik listed Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus amongst his heavy holiday reading).

Oddly enough, as an outsider I tend to display the same arrogance about Cambodian food. Not many Cambodians enjoy discussing that banh xeo, loc lac and samlor machou yuon in all likelihood had Vietnamese (or even Khmer Krom) origins nor do they find it as interesting to discuss how these dishes became so intimately entwined in a monolithic idea of Cambodian cuisine and modern-day Cambodian nationalism. They’re all Cambodian foods now because Cambodians have so thoroughly claimed ownership over them and modified them to their own tastes, but it’s rare to find a local who does not believe that Khmer culture (and as an extension, food) magically appeared sui generis in the hazy Angkorean past.

See: Remembered Villages, Imagined Communities

8 thoughts on “Angkor: Built with the blood of slaves for your tourism pleasure”

  1. To quote Lady Playboy
    ‘Yuon no good, yuon steal everything’

    and that is before she gets onto the heated subject of Tom Yam Soup

    ‘Siam no go, Siam want to take everything from Cambodia, Siam no good. Tom Yam food Khmer!!!’

    Bless her little cotton socks.

  2. Further to the subject of Khmer national anxiety over their ongoing existence check out an article by Caroline Hughes entitled “Khmer Land, Khmer Soul: Sam Rainsy, Populism, and the Problem of Seeing Cambodia”

    In her view, such sentiments as expressed above are pandered to by popularist politicians who play on Cambodian’s very real fears that Cambodia is in very real danger of slipping into non-existence, with the assistance of the current regime and especially given their recent border agreements. It is a vexatious issue for all Cambodians, beyond what I believe most of us comprehend.

  3. Besides which, maybe their fears are not unfounded, the continual stripping of Cambodia’s natural resources, of its forest, of the paddy that floods across the borders, pushing up the price of bran, it does sometimes seem as though Cambodia’s natural endowments and productive resource base is slowly but surely slipping away from them. For a people who collectively have so little, I’m not surprised that even the slightest news of border or water agreements between Thailand or Vietnam instills what we might consider overly neurotic responses.

  4. Hey Phil, Thanks for the nod: as a student of religion who’s obsessed with the production of food in culture, it’s great to have such an excellent page as yours take note. I think that Caroline Hughes’ article, noted by Maytel above, BTW, is an excellent one. I do have concerns that by basing her analysis so firmly in the representation sphere of politics, she tends to miss the fact that it is precisely in the representational political sphere that rabid anti-Vietnamese sentiment is produced and sustained. While there is a shocking degree of anti-Vietnamese feeling in Cambodia, at all levels of society, it rapidly becomes clear that those who can argue a rationale for it do so on the basis of subsistence and autonomy, and that those who resort to merely racist arguments tend to do so on the basis of preserving personal, familial, or political privilege and power.

  5. We can debate about the Khmers current mentality until the cow come home and it would be all interesting. But when I read your quote about the dehumanization of slave who built those Khmer temples, I wonder whether I should feel guilty for having both visited Angkor Wat and Rome. Should the current day Italians also feel guilty every time they use water that the aquaduct brought and benefit from million of touists? Should we dismiss the Roman civilization and Pax Romana also?

  6. Yes, we can and those cow’s ain’t yet home, but I suspect chickens may be on their way home to roost. Not to be an apologist for Khmer culture (not that they need one) but I personally believe it is naive to put Khmer attitudes towards Vietnamese and Thai as simply a case of racism. No doubt that Khmer fears about the Vietnamese and Thai are exploited by popularist politicians, but to a country and a people who came very close to complete nihiliation due, in large part, to outside geopolitical meddling it is perhaps not surprising that it continues to instil a large degree of hysteria. I’m not arguing that such attitudes are justified on the grounds of subsistence or autonomy and niether on the basis of perserving the present status quo, but I do believe that they go beyond what we in the west merely understand as racism and instead fall squarly in the realm of longstanding historical grievances. Grievances of the Khmer people that by all appearances look set to continue, rightly or wrongly and whether we the “enlightened westerners” agree with it or not.

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