In 1761 Giuseppe Vasi wrote a guide book for visiting Rome in 8 days; by the same token (although in a rushed way) these pages cover a short stay at the archaeological area of Angkor in Cambodia.
The ancient Greeks referred to Egypt as "the Gift of the Nile"; Cambodia can be regarded as "the Gift of the Mekong" because the periodic floods of this gigantic river greatly helped the development of the Khmer civilization. Most of the inhabitants of Cambodia refer to themselves as Khmers, a tribe who came to this part of Southeast Asia from India during the early centuries of the 1st millennium AD. In the 9th century the Khmers founded an empire which included today's Cambodia and parts of the neighbouring countries (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand). The empire reached its peak in the early XIIIth century with the construction of Angkor Thom, a large city surrounded by walls. Then the ongoing wars with aggressive neighbours (chiefly the Thai to the north and the Champa to the east) and a failure to maintain the irrigation system of the rice fields, led to the decline of the Khmer Empire: in the XVth century the capital was moved from Angkor to a more secure location in the south of the country. The timber buildings were burnt and the waterways were damaged so that the enemy would not attempt to revive Angkor: over time marshes and forests covered the area.
(left) Bellin; Carte des royaumes de Siam, de Tunquin, Pegu, Ava, Aracan. circa 1760: the red dot shows the site of Angkor; (right) clickable simplified map of the archaeological site
M. Mouhot dedicated the last four years of his life to
exploring the interior of Siam; he first travelled through
that country, then through Cambodia, and afterwards reascended the Mekong as far as the frontiers of Laos;
visited one of the savage and independent tribes inhabiting the district between those two countries and Cochin
China; then, after having crossed the great lake Touli-Sap, he explored the provinces of Ongcor and Battambong,
where he discovered splendid ruins, especially the Temple
of Ongcor the Great, which is nearly perfect, and perhaps
unparalleled in the world.
Henri Mouhout - Travels in the central parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos: during the years 1858, 1859, and 1860 - 1864 - From the preface written by Charles Mouhout, brother of Henri and curator of the book.
Illustration from Mouhout's book
Ongcor was the capital of the ancient kingdom
of Cambodia., or Khmer, formerly so famous among the
great states of Indo-China, that almost the only tradition
preserved in the country mentions that empire as having
had twenty kings who paid tribute to it, as having kept
up an army of five or six million soldiers, and that the
buildings of the royal treasury occupied a space of more
than 300 miles. (..) In the province still bearing the name of Ongcor, which
is situated eastward of the great lake Touli-Sap (..) there are ruins
of such grandeur, remains of structures which must have
been raised at such an immense cost of labour, that, at
the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and
cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic
works? One of these temples - a rival to that of Solomon, and
erected by some ancient Michael Angelo - might take an
honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It
is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome,
and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in
which the nation is now plunged.
Unluckily the scourge of war, aided by time, the great
destroyer, who respects nothing, and perhaps also by
earthquakes, has fallen heavily on the greater part of the
other monuments; and the work of destruction and decay
continues among those which still remain standing, imposing and majestic, amidst the masses of ruins all around. (..) This place was probably chosen for the capital on
account of its central position. It is situated fifteen miles
from the great lake, in an arid and sandy plain, although
the banks of the river would appear to have been a preferable site, more fertile, and offering greater facilities for
Before I proceed with my description, I must express
my gratitude to the excellent missionary of Battambong,
the Abbe E. Silvestre, who, with exceeding courtesy and
indefatigable energy, accompanied me everywhere, guided
me through the thick forest which covers a portion of
the site of the original building, and by whose assistance
I was enabled to accomplish so much in a limited time.
The western travellers (chiefly missionaries) who visited Angkor in the XVIth/XVIIth centuries could not believe that the gigantic ruins they saw were the work of the ancestors of the poor inhabitants they met in the region.
The almost British landscape of today's Angkor
European conquest, abolition of slavery, wise and protecting laws, and experience, fidelity, and scrupulous
rectitude in those who administer them, would alone effect
the regeneration of Cambodia. It lies near to Cochin
China, the subjection of which France is now aiming at,
and in which she will doubtless succeed: under her sway
it will become a land of plenty. I wish her to possess
this land, which would add a magnificent jewel to her
crown; but it is also my earnest desire that she may
make a judicious choice of governors, and that the name of
France, my dear and beautiful country, may be loved,
respected, and honoured in the extreme East, as it should
be everywhere. Mouhout
In 1863 Cambodia became a French protectorate. French archaeological missions cleared the main buildings from the thick forest which had covered them and restored some of the ancient canals to reduce the marshes and improve health conditions. In parallel they looked for evidence of Angkor's historic past: accounts of Chinese and Portuguese travellers, a few inscriptions and the narrative reliefs which were found on the walls of many buildings, all contributed to a reliable reconstruction of Angkor's history.
Today the archaeological site of Angkor is the "golden mine" of Cambodia: it attracts a growing number of visitors and it has a very positive effect on the economy of the country, which is recovering from a nightmarish recent past; the modern town of Siem Reap near Angkor is the fastest growing location of Cambodia; accommodation is mainly at the upper end of the scale with many five stars hotels and resorts. The ancient monuments have the added benefit of being placed in a well kept botanical garden.
Ongcor Thom - Surrounding Wall. The outer wall is composed of blocks of ferruginous stone,
and extends right and left from the entrance. (..) At the four cardinal points are
doors, there being two on the east side. Within this vast
enclosure, now covered with an almost impenetrable
forest, are a vast number of buildings, more or less in
ruin, which testify to the ancient splendour of the town. Mouhout
Angkor Thom was the last capital built by the Khmer Empire in this part of the country: Angkor means city, Thom means great: Angkor Thom has the shape of a square: each side has the length of approximately two miles: the area includes buildings of previous periods. It was surrounded by thick walls and by a large moat: this defensive structure was due to the fact that the previous capital had been taken and sacked by the Champa in 1178. It was founded by King Jayavarman VII, the prince who led the Khmer reaction and forced the Champa out of the country (varman was a suffix added to the king's name in India and Cambodia). It was built between 1181 and 1216.
The Southern Gate (a detail is shown in the image used as background for this page)
A partly-destroyed road, hidden by thick layers
of sand and dust, and crossing a large ditch, half filled
with blocks of stone, portions of columns, and fragments
of sculptured lions and elephants, leads to the gateway of
the town, which is built in the style of a triumphal arch.
These remains are in a tolerable state of preservation,
and are composed of a central tower, 18 metres high,
surrounded by four turrets, and flanked by two other
towers connected together by galleries. At the top are
four immense heads in the Egyptian style; and every
available space is filled with sculpture. At the foot of
the great tower is a passage for carriages; and on each
side of it are doors and staircases communicating with the
walls, the whole building being constructed of sandstone. Mouhout
The moat surrounding the city was not crossed by bridges, but it was interrupted by a sandstone carriageway in conjunction with the gates. King Jayavarman VII was the second king of Cambodia to have embraced Buddhism and he celebrated the faith he was trying to pass on his people, by having faces of Avalokitesvara placed on the sides of the gate towers. Avalokitesvara (the Lord who looks down with compassion) is one of the bodishattva (enlightened beings) of the Buddhist tradition.
The imposing southern gate provides an introduction to the culture and beliefs of the Khmer. Two large Naga are the first wardens of the gate: Naga is an odd-headed Cobra snake; the varying number of heads (3-5-7-9) gives a different meaning to the Naga. It is also a symbol of the Khmer people, because, according to a legend, Prah Thon, the founder of the Cambodian nation, fell in love with a young woman who eventually told him she was the daughter of Bhujang Nagaraja, king of the snakes and lord of the seas. Prah Thon agreed to meet his beloved's father to obtain approval to their marriage. Bhujang Nagaraja had nine heads and was followed by other snakes with three, five and seven heads. As a wedding gift he and his fellows drank all the water covering Cambodia and Prah Thon and his wife settled in the new country and gave origin to the Khmer people.
The deva (angels) and the asura (demons)
The Khmer culture was based upon Hinduism and deva (angels) and asura (demons) were placed behind the Naga as additional wardens of Angkor Thom. It must be noted that the negative aspect of the asura evolved over time and that most likely in the XIIIth century they were regarded as presiding over moral and social matters, with the deva looking after natural elements.
The kings and their court lived in timber buildings of which nothing is left. They were placed on a monumental terrace decorated with elephants. Elephants played a great role in Cambodia, both in peace and at war, and they are by far the most portrayed animal in the many reliefs and statues which decorate Angkor.
(left) A devata (minor female deity); (right) a Garuda, a mythical bird-like creature
The walls, still intact, are covered with bas-reliefs, disposed in four rows, one above another, each
representing a king (..) and by his side
a number of women. All these figures are covered with
ornaments, such as very long earrings, necklaces, and
bracelets. Their costume is the langouti, and all wear
high head-dresses terminating in a point, and apparently
composed of precious stones, pearls, and gold and silver
The terraces are decorated with Garuda and devatas: they appear on almost all the monuments of Angkor. Garuda is a Hindu deity: in Angkor it represents martial prowess. Devatas can be regarded as equivalent to the Nymphs of the Greek mythology; they protect forests, river crossings, villages, caves, mountains, etc. They are portrayed holding long strings of jasmine.
The central terrace
The walls of the central terrace are decorated with Garuda in the act of supporting the terrace, very much like Atlas holding up the world of the Greeks. The steps are decorated with Naga and giant stone lions. These are portrayed in an unrealistic way, an indication that the Khmer were not familiar with these beasts and that their iconography was based on tradition, rather than actual observation (see page three for a larger image of a lion).
|Day One - Page One||Introduction - Angkor Thom (Southern Gate and Terraces)|
|Day One - Page Two||Angkor Thom (Temples)|
|Day One - Page Three||Angkor Vat|
|Day Two - Page One||Prah Khan - Ta Som|
|Day Two - Page Two||Banteay Srey|
|Day Two - Page Three||East Mebon - Pre Rup|
|Day Three - Page One||Baksei Chamkrong - Ta Prohm|
|Day Three - Page Two||Prasat Kravan - Phnom Bakheng|
|Day Three - Page Three||An excursion to Tonle Sap|