I had meant to blog this article on Angkor Borei and Cambodia’s southern temples from Conde Nast Traveler when it was published (a year ago!), but I was in the thick of finishing my dissertation and it got pushed to the back burner. It’s worth a read, especially as there are so few travel pieces written about this part of Cambodia. Be sure also to click through and check out the amazing photos by Kenro Izu that accompany the piece.
Of course, I have a few gripes. I’m one of probably a handful of people who have taken a particular interest in Angkor Borei and the Mekong Delta, so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing about this place. Secondly, an archaeologist reading a travel piece like this is probably not unlike a doctor getting frustrated with the wild inaccuracies while watching House. Primarily it’s frustrating to me when writers (or anyone really) take historical documents as undisputed fact. So the author, Lawrence Osborne’s, statements that Angkor Borei was called Vyadhapurya and that “Funan, after all, was a maritime state controlling the seaborne trade between India and China,” are not correct. Chinese emissaries visited a place called Funan believed to have been in the Mekong Delta, but the exact location was not clear. Scholars debated for years about where Funan was located before settling on Angkor Borei (and neighboring Oc Eo in Vietnam). Furthermore, there is not any clear archaeological evidence that Funan controlled a large area. In my own research I argue that there was some control over trade, but this is actually quite difficult to discern and I’ve gotten challenged on it by my colleagues. Excavations on peninsular Thailand have slightly different material culture, so it does not seem to have been clearly integrated into the Mekong Delta cultural sphere as historical documents suggest.
Osborne mentions the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project, but didn’t do any follow-up work to investigate what any of the findings from this research project were. He also implies that one of the Harihara sculpture from Ashram Maha Rosei was looted during recent conflicts, when it was in fact collected in the 1800s by the Etienne Aymonier.
In general, this article provides an atmospheric description of visiting some interesting and less-touristed temples, but the historical background is poorly researched. Perhaps this problem could have been remedied if the Angkor Borei museum was in better shape. The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts has constructed a beautiful new building to store the artifacts, but the interpretation is out of date and lacking. Dr. Miriam Stark and I, along with our Cambodian MOCFA colleagues, have actually been working on updating the museum with all new wall panels and interpretive materials, exhibit cases, and facilities updates. Unfortunately, our most recent funding application was not successful**, but I hope in the next few years we’ll find the funding to give this museum the make-over it needs. And with this make-over, I hope that Angkor Borei and the Mekong Delta will become less “mysterious” and better known by both Cambodians and tourists.
**Are you a rich benefactor and interested in helping fund this project, let me know!