Illuminating Angkor Wat: The Cambodia the government wants the world to know


Cameras ready for sunrise at Angkor Wat

Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a spectacular sight that’s worth getting up for. As the rose over the largest religious building in the world, monks could be heard chanting in the distance. Sitting on some steps at the edge of a lily pond, with the towers of the great Buddhist (but formerly Hindu) temple reflecting on the water in front of us, we had a prime spot for this early morning spectacle.

This is the Cambodia that the government wants the outside world to know. Yes, it (somewhat reluctantly) promotes Khmer Rouge history in Phnom Penh, as I’ve discussed in previous posts. But it only really wants the discussion focused on Pol Pot and his close associates to avoid serving ministers of being implicated of any crimes. The ancient Khmer Empire dating back to the last millennium is therefore a safer period of history to promote.

Angkor Wat (City Temple) is the most famous and most visited building in this corner of the world. Built by slaves for Suryavaraman II (who reigned between 1113 and 1152 over an area covering most of Southeast Asia) as a result of Cambodian god-kings wanting to out do their ancestors in terms of size, scale and symmetry, it is an awe-inspiring place to visit. Surrounded by a moat, it features a series of reliefs stretching for some 800 metres and on the upper level visitors can climb the central tower providing amazing views over the surrounding area.

While it may be the largest, Angkor Wat was by no means the only temple built in Angkor at the time of the Khmer Empire – there are literally hundreds in some form of another to be explored across a vast area. Many will recognise Ta Prohm – the jungle temple – from Tomb Raider. Less busy than Angkor Wat, the crumbling towers of this monument, which was built from 1186, are covered in greenery and you feel a long way from civilisation as you explore the narrow and winding passages.


Ta Prohm – the jungle temple

And then there is the awe-inspiring walled Angkor Thom (Great City) itself. The last Khmer capital was built by Jayavarman VII (who ruled from 1181 to 1219) over an area of 10 square kilometres complete with moat to provide an added protection against invaders. By the 14th century Angkor was the largest city in the world with a population of one million.

Zhou Daguan, the Chinese chronicler, described a spectacle put on by King Idravarman III, who ruled over the empire from 1296 to 1308: “All of his soldiers were gathered in front of him, with people bearing banners, musicians and drummers following behind.” Then there were around 300 to 500 women of the palace carrying candles, even though it was daylight, and a procession of goats, deer and horses pulling carts, decorated in gold. And then came ministers and relatives of the king, riding on elephants:

“Their red parasols, too many to count, were visible from far away. Next came the king’s wives and concubines and their servants, some in litters and carts, others on horses or elephants with well over a hundred gold-filigree parasols. Last came the King, standing on an elephant, the gold sword in his hand and tusks of his elephant encased in gold. Surrounding him on all sides were plants in very large numbers.”

The star attraction of the walled city of Angkor Thom today is the 12th century Bayon temple, which features 216 large-scale, smiling faces of king Avalokiteshvara on 54 towers. One of the things that strikes you when you first pass through the gates and enter is how green it is. For a once formidable metropolis, beyond the temples and traces of a royal palaces, there are few buildings remaining, allowing plenty of space for monkeys – who have been known to pinch food from visitors – to roam free. That’s because the homes and shops used by ordinary folk have long gone.

But thanks to an account from a Chinese visitor in AD245 we know a little about the people that lived here. He said “the people live in houses raised above the ground” – this kept residents dry when the annual floodwaters came. And Zhou, the 13th century Chinese chronicler, added: “There’s a market every day, from around six in the morning until midday. There are no stalls, only a kind of tumbleweed mat laid on the ground, each mat in its usual place. I gather a small fee is paid to officials.”

Fall and new Angkor

But then the empire began to lose its way and, in 1432, the Thais sacked Angkor and the old metropolis, with its beautiful temples, was abandoned. Historians have long-debated about what brought about its downfall. Some have suggested rival powers within the kingdom fought each other – rather than protecting their people from outside forces.

When the Angkor empire declined, “Cambodia lost its soul,” wrote Joel Brinkley in his book Cambodia’s Curse. “Until just five hundred years ago, it had been a great nation-state – strong, confident, powerful, respected and feared. But as the state declined, its kings became helpless, even pathetic, vassals of their neighbours.”

Neighbouring Vietnam and Siam (modern day Thailand) took advantage of Cambodia’s weak kings by seizing land and acting as de facto rulers. This idea of being dependent on outside powers is a factor that would repeat itself in the years that followed. Cambodia signed a treaty with France in 1863 permitting timber and mining rights in return for protection from neighbours, but this later turned into full blown colonial rule until 1953.

As for Angkor, which was abandoned after the events of 1432, it was decided not re-build the temples and other buildings of old city when the area was re-inhabited in the 16th century. Authorities instead established a new settlement some seven kilometres away at what is today Siem Reap. However, it is only in recent years that there has been such rapid growth of the modern city – and tourism has been the bigger driver for its expansion.

The old temples Angkor, many of which were hidden away under greenery, were discovered by the French in the 19th century, but for many years the country was off limits to tourists. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge, from 1975 to 1979, Cambodia could not be visited. Yet even when the regime had been officially been removed from power in the capital Phnom Penh, commanders still fought till 1999 and lived in the jungle. The guerrilla army even fired on the temples of Angkor, leaving traces of bullet holes which can still be seen to this day.

Tourism across Cambodia has however really taken off since the start of the new millennium thanks to the improved security situation in the country. Siem Reap – the gateway to Angkor Wat – has perhaps been the biggest beneficiary, attracting everyone from backpackers to those with more discerning tastes looking for a blend of heritage and partying during their holidays.

Take a trip to Pub Street, with its flashing neon lights and booming music, on any night of the week and you will see how much tourism means to this town. From the first bar on this stretch in 1998 (‘Angkor What?’), it has grown to be a popular place to go for those wanting to party till the early hours. What were until relatively recently rice fields have given way to luxury five star hotels for those wanting to enjoy luxury hospitality while visiting the temples.

Angkor Wat and the wider archeological park has become a real money making operation, but some complain that it is not the Cambodian people that benefit from ticket sales. The government awarded a Vietnamese company a 99 year license to operate the site, however it is unclear where the funds from the contract have gone. Visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise, I appreciated just how many tourists visit this place, many of whom will pay $40 for a three day pass.


Lively Siem Reap


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