ACAM: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hello, dearest fellow travelers! We are now moving from Singapore to Cambodia in the ACAM Project. I’ve been reading A Short History of Cambodia: From Empire to Survival by John Tully, and so far I’m liking it as a very brief overview. One of the things that Tully emphasizes is that there are so few records of Cambodia before the 16th century. Unlike the ancient and well-documented civilizations of China and Japan to the north, the Khmer people live in the hot, wet land of southeast Asia, which doesn’t do so well for preservation of paper. So what we know of the history of Cambodia is largely taken from what visitors wrote about it over the years, and also a bit from stone inscriptions.

Angkor Wat photo by Trey Ratcliff

If it's this magnificent now, imagine how Angkor Wat looked in its day.

The ancestors of the Khmer people built the city of Angkor in the 9th century CE, and at its height it was the largest city in antiquity, with a population of 1 million. One million people in one place in the pre-industrial age! For comparison, London grew hugely in the 16th century and still only reached 225,000. So Angkor, today a giant ruin of temples and not much else, was, for several hundred years, the largest city in the world.

Tully is eager to emphasize that the massive building projects of Angkor were all based on a huge slave population. I got a bit uncomfortable with his descriptions of the “overweening egotism and peculiar religiosity” (p. 25) of the devarajas (god-kings) who ruled over their enslaved subjects and commissioned giant temples. I’m not uncomfortable with pointing out the barbarism of slavery, but there are several other places in the book where Tully draws comparisons between the Angkor people and other ancient peoples, which helps put their culture in context. I mean, when I read about tens of thousands of slaves dragging several tons’ worth of stone to a building location to construct an enormous temple made for the glory of a god-king, the first thing I thought of was the ancient Egyptians. Right? Pharaohs, gods incarnate, built pyramids as massive tombs for themselves, to be filled with materials to carry into the afterlife; and all at the considerable expense of slaves’ sweat and blood. But Tully never draws this comparison, which strikes me as odd.

Maybe the constructions weren’t similar enough for him? He says several times that the wats were an unprecedented religious construction; they were temples and mausoleums at the same time. So they weren’t like a church or mosque, which may have some tombs in it but serves the main purpose of being a place of worship for people; nor were they like pyramids or large tombs, which serve the main purpose of housing the deceased. They were places to worship the deity Vishnu or Shiva, but only through worshiping the god’s manifestation on earth, the god-king’s body. (Or at least this is what I got from re-reading the relevant chapter over and over; please correct me in the comments if I’m missing something.)

Angkor Wat photo by Philip Lock


Speaking of religion, the wats (yep, the Angkor Wat is the largest religious construction of what used to be this major city, and that’s how it got that name) were part of a strain of Hinduism practiced in Angkor, influenced by Mahayana Buddhism and Khmer folk beliefs (p. 39). Tully references historians who believe that the decline of these religions and the rise of Theravada Buddhism contributed greatly to the decline of the Angkor empire. The drive to build monuments glorifying one man, at the expense of thousands of men who literally lived to serve him, was a concept supported by Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist beliefs. Theravada Buddhism, on the other hand, emphasized living a simple life resigned to suffering. This resignation to suffering may have comforted the laborers, but the more democratic focus on achieving nirvana by living a good life rather than making great displays may have stirred up discontent among them as well and undermined the devaraja rule. (Please note that I am not familiar with the particulars of various strains of Buddhism, so I’m paraphrasing Tully here, who is talking about Buddhism as it was practiced 1000 years ago. These may not be the same as current iterations of the religion.)

Tully points to two other major factors in the decline of the Angkor empire: increased raids by neighboring Siam (today known as Thailand), and environmental destruction. The city (which was spread over a large swath of land) depended on a particular system of irrigation canals. Deforestation above the canals caused damage to the water and soil below, which destroyed many fish and introduced still water patches perfect for malarial mosquitoes to breed in.

So the people believe in a more equitable religion, one that denounces material things, right around the time armies are invading, and old farming and forestry practices are destroying the people’s habitat. Easy to see how these factors combined to kill and displace people, and transform the population of a mighty kingdom into a minor city and eventually a grand ruin.

Photos from here; photo 1 taken by Trey Ratcliff, photo 2 taken by Philip Lock.


11 thoughts on “ACAM: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

    • Thanks so much! As the A Country a Month project name shows, I’ll be trying to fit in a lot of research on Cambodia through August. In September I’ll be tackling Vietnam, so there’s always more to come back for.

      Can’t wait to see the pictures of Cambodia on your blog — your photos are gorgeous. I love the flamenco series (and that you said the less interesting performances provided opportunity to really focus on taking photos. Silver linings!).

  1. This is so interesting! I don’t know much about Angkor, but it sounds like a fascinating monument and history.

    I wonder if Tully didn’t draw a comparison to the ancient Egyptians because historians are now pretty sure that slaves did not build the pyramids; the pharaohs paid migrant workers to build the pyramids, and there was little or no slavery at all in ancient Egypt.

    As I do research for my novel, I’m also finding out that ancient and medieval people made up all sorts of stuff about Egypt because it was cool to say you came from there. The Jews did it, and for similar reasons the gypsies (the word “gypsy” coming from “Egypt”) said they came from Egypt because it sounded cooler and caused them less discrimination than the truth, that they migrated from a poor region of India.

    Untangling revisionist history is so wild!

    • Oh cool, Jeanie! Thanks for the clarification. Yep, I haven’t had an update on Egyptian history since Sunday school & World Civ (neither of them totally reliable sources, to be sure).

      So were pharaohs still god-kings to their subjects, just less oppressive than previously thought?

      Also makes me wonder if the Angkor kingdom was as reliant on slave labor as Tully and other historians say. He already admits that they have very little information on Cambodia pre-16th century, so maybe some of the accepted knowledge needs revisiting?

      History is wild, and so fascinating.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing. That’s wonderful! It really useful and makes me want to quickly go there. I can imagine how beautiful to be there! I’ll wait for more information about Cambodia from you. You should try to check my blog, maybe you’ll be interested to visit Indonesia after that hehehehe 🙂

    • Thanks for your interest! Definitely check back for all the countries I’m researching and writing up (and visiting in the near future).

      The pictures on your blog are gorgeous, and make me want to not just visit, but move to Indonesia!

  3. Pingback: Angkor Wat: A Temple, A City, A Breathtaking Sight | Stowaway

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