Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins

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.

See: Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins

3 thoughts on “Colonial myths of Angkor Wat in ruins”

  1. Good to see someone lay out the basics in plain language.
    The article emerges from the “Angkor – Landscape, City and Temple” conference happening in Sydney at the moment.

    Also, Chandler’s History of Cambodia is available in Khmer. At $3.50 a pop it’s a good gift.

  2. At long last an eloquently written and succint piece of writing from Chandler (far more than I can say for his book). I hear his son is involved in the Sydney Uni Angkor project.

    However, I do find the fact that Sydney Uni is spending even more money conducting further research into this over hyped and over inflated economy somewhat annoying. There is more to Cambodia than Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge, although you wouldn’t think it looking at most Western scholarship on the country.

  3. I am a building worker and I was astounded by the scale of the buildings at angkor.This would have been the biggest building site in the world-ever.

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