One of the more annoying features of travel journalism about Cambodia is that it fails wholeheartedly to put Angkor in a modern historical perspective. Most travel writers tend to treat the site with breathless hyperbole, fixing the ruins within a mysterious, mythic past without attempting to locate them within modern Cambodian culture. For the most part, the movies of Angelina Jolie offer a more historically accurate vision of Angkor than recent newspaper articles. Thankfully, David Chandler was given a chance to set things right in an excellent article in The Australian newspaper today:
Cambodia is the only country that has a ruin on its national flag and it’s perhaps the only country to praise a ruin in its national anthem. The ruin is Angkor Wat, and these two facts say something about the way Angkor has become a key element in Cambodia’s national identity and its collective unconscious, especially since the country gained its independence from France in 1953.
The effect of the temples and of the myths surrounding them has been enormous and by no means entirely beneficial. Many of the myths surrounding Angkor and the Khmer developed in the colonial era (1863-1953) and only recently have been called into question. Contrary to much popular writing about Angkor, for example, the ruins were never forgotten by the Khmer, nor were the temples lost in the jungle, as many early writers suggested.
Buddhist inscriptions at Angkor Wat date from as late as 1747. When Siam annexed much of northwestern Cambodia in the 1790s, one of the provinces it took – the one containing the Angkorian ruins – was called Mahanokor or Great City. A Cambodian royal seal from the 1840s depicted a three-towered temple, much as the Cambodian flag depicts Angkor today.
In 1860, when French botanist Henri Mouhot supposedly stumbled across Angkor Wat, he was led there by a Cambodian guide and found a flourishing Buddhist monastery on the temple grounds.