Reflections on “Cambodia’s Undiscovered Temples”

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.

A photo of Phnom Da by Kenro Izu

A photo of Phnom Da by Kenro Izu

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 Primarily it’s frustrating to me when writers (or anyone really) take historical documents as undisputed fact.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material culture, so it does not seem to have been clearly integrated into the Mekong Delta cultural sphere as historical documents suggest.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.

If you want some basic background on Angkor Borei check out the LOMAP website and Dr. Miriam Stark’s webpage has links to many free PDFs of her articles on this site.

**Are you a rich benefactor and interested in helping fund this project, let me know!





9 responses to “Reflections on “Cambodia’s Undiscovered Temples”

  1. Christopher Golding

    In the recent documentary Jungle Atlantis the bas reliefs are said to be the life of Jayavarman VII. The carvings however a clearly, in my opinion, show the story of Yudhisthira from the Mahabharata. The peace followed by gambling (game of dice), and then a civil war ( kurukshetra war). Just as the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat show scenes from the Ramayana, the Bayon is showing scenes from the Mahabharata. Did you mention the links between Angkor and the Zoroastrian religion?

    • I haven’t seen that doc yet, but there are reliefs all over many different temples. If you’re talking about Angkor Wat, the reliefs are not of Jayavarman VII but of both Suryavarman II and scenes from a variety of Hindu myths, including the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

  2. Christopher Golding

    It is the Bayon at the centre of Angkor Thom that I was talking about. I will quote the parts of Julia Esteve, Roland Fletcher and the narrator that will give the information I am talking about. I have written out what they said word for word the best I could. I am just wondering if they are getting the wrong end of the stick. They seem to be attributing what I believe to be scenes from the Mahabaharata, the story of Yudhisthira, to Jayavarman VII himself.

    “From farmers to fish mongers these carvings reveal the pattern of everyday life in the golden age of Angkor. The Khmer enjoyed games and gambling, cock fighting seems especially popular.”

    Julia Esteve
    “The carving we see here is particularly interesting for comparison with the daily life nowadays. In fact we see preparation for a banquet, we see a lot of food being cooked, for example a pig here held by two men, is about to be put in boiling water, in a cauldron maybe to skin it or just to boil it. Over there we have also a lot of people holding little cups, we can assume of rice wine. And it seems to be a time of peace and it fits well with the idea we have about Jayavarman VII’s reign. ”

    “But the carvings also reveal this to be a land of dynastic rivalries and conflict. Large parts of the Bayon are covered with images of war. They portray a bloody battle between two Khmer armies.”

    Roland Fletcher
    “Jayavarman VII comes to power in a very unpleasant civil war, he is clearly opposed by a significant portion of the Khmer elite and this a violent enough and unpleasant enough phenomenon that he portrays the defeat of a Khmer army on the walls of the Bayon. Essentially this is a method of putting in stone, I’m not going to forget and my descendants are not going to forget, this was a vicious war.”

    “Having won the crown this great warrior King now released a religious revolution”

    Roland Fletcher
    “Jayavarman the seventh was not only a great military leader he also introduces a major religious change in the form of making Mahayana Buddhism the primary religion of the state.”

    “Today budhism is the state religion of Cambodia. It is practiced by 95% of the population. But before Jayavarman VII claimed the throne Angkors kings had been almost exclusively Hindu. Their legacy seen in monuments like Angkor Wat. Jayavarman VII was now using religious reformation as a tool to consolidate his power. ”

    Is there any other evidence, other than the interpretation of the bas relief’s, that indicate there was a great civil war in Jayavarman VII’s time? It seems unlikely to me that after a great civil war Jayavarman VII could have then had the resources to go on and build as many temples as he did. I believe that it is possible that these carvings are being misinterpreted as the life of Jayavarman VII and are just showing scenes from the Mahabharata. There was peace until Yudhisthira lost his Kingdom gambling, on a game of dice, and then there was a great civil war, Kurukshaetra war.

  3. Wow- thanks for the transcript! So to answer your questions, bear with me as I make my way through them.

    Yes. There are Champan, Khmer, and Chinese historical documents that describe the tumultuous time period in which Jayavarman VII (JVII) came to power, we are not just relying on the bas relief depictions. The French epigrapher George Coedes is a good place to start to learn more about these texts as he drew on a variety of historical documents to write his book “The Indianized States of Southeast Asia” (English translation is widely available). There are, in fact, so many historical documents that we have perhaps a more comprehensive understanding of JVII than any other king. (This has also made him ripe for historical fiction- The King’s Last Song, is one I’ve read and enjoyed. The Temple of a Thousand Faces is in my to-read pile).

    There were not clear rules as to the succession of kings, leaving Cambodia ripe for conflict when a king died (competition for the throne was not uncommon in Cambodian history- see also Koh Ker). So, after JVII returned from wherever it was he went and took about claiming the throne, he faced competition. Some of this is described in an inscription at Phimeanakas.

    The part of the documentary you are referring to are I think scenes of Khmers seemingly fighting Khmers in the West gallery. Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques (who have written extensively on Angkor) describes these as enigmatic Similar scenes are also depicted at the temple of Banteay Chhmar (near the Thai border). The appear to depict the quelling of revolts (one could nitpick about this term civil war being the most accurate depiction). Jacques and Freeman think these may specifically be referring to a revolt in the area around modern Battambang, a region called Malyang (this particular event is discussed in two Cham inscriptions).

    Now, it is not entirely incorrect to think that JVII (or rather his artisans) may have been invoking symbols and iconography from Hindu myths in their depiction of historical events. The line between the king and the gods was blurry and it is assumed that living people were used as the models for many sculptural depictions of the gods.

    But these reliefs plus the historical sources is where Julia and Roland were getting their information from. Considering there have been over 100 years of epigraphic and art historical research on Angkor (most of the early work done by specialists in Indian art and religion) it is likely not possible that people would have overlooked or ignored references to these Hindu epics. Especially since there are explicit depictions of scenes from other Hindu myths and the Mahabharata elsewhere at the Bayon (although they were carved later, by JVIII).

    Your last point about resources. Several scholars have noted that when he died JVII left the Cambodian people fairly exhausted. Coedes (1968:177) himself writes that JVIIs campaigns were “a very heavy program for a people who were already exhausted by the wars and the constructions of Suryavarman II and who henceforth would find themselves helpless against the attacks of their neighbors.” I don’t necessarily agree with this statement as Angkor didn’t “collapse” for 200 more years after his JVIIs death, but there was not another king like him.

    There is no doubt that JVII constructed all the temples we attribute to him. First of all, he tells us that he built them (inscriptions). Second, the architectural and art styles are similar. But JVII’s buildings are well known for being fairly sloppily constructed. They are hardly the most beautiful and well-constructed temples of the Angkorian civilization.

    If you want to read more about this, I recommend Coedes. And also Peter Sharrock has written quite a bit about JVII and made many of his publications available for free download here:

    There was also a volume a few years ago called “Bayon: New Perspectives” with many contributions about the Bayon and JVII. Although one historian whose work I admire, Michael Vickery, hated that volume and detailed his issues with it here:
    Michael Vickery has also written more about Champa and its relationship to Angkor/JVII here:

    Also, I recommend anything by Vittorio Roveda for an art historical perspectives on bas relief and Hindu/Buddhist imagery:

    Thanks for your question!

    • Christopher Golding

      I noticed you mentioned that Jayavarman VII went away, then returned and went about claiming the throne. This is again the same as the story of Yudhisthira who was banished from his kingdom for 14 years before returning and claiming the throne. I have a theory that I believe may challenge everything you ever thought you knew about Angkor. I mentioned it to you a while ago on twitter but was reluctant to show my evidence. I recently sent some of my evidence to Elizabeth H Moore, an expert in SEA art. I am still waiting for a reply but hope to hear back soon.

      What I sent her was what I believe is evidence of a Zoroastrian link to Angkor and potentially proof that Angkor is at least 1,500 years older than currently believed.

      Here is what I sent her.

      The time of the temple is, or at least it’s foundation, according to my research is a minimum of 500BC and I personally believe much older.    A date of approximately 500BC is given to Avesta in its current form, but most scholars agree that the information was transmitted verbally before it was written down.  If they are correct, and I have no reason to believe that they are wrong, then the information in that text is also from that time period.  In Fargard 2 of the Vendidad, the myths of Yima Jamshid, there is mention of a Vara being built by Yima.  The shape of the Vara is given as a square.  The quote below is from the website  

      25. ‘Therefore make thee a Vara, long as a riding-ground on every side of the square18, and thither bring the seeds of sheep and oxen, of men, of dogs, of birds, and of red blazing fires19. Therefore make thee a Vara, long as a riding-ground on every side of the square, to be an abode for man; a Vara, long as a riding-ground on every side of the square, for oxen and sheep. 18 ‘Two hathras long on every side’ (Comm.) A hathra is about an English mile.
      19. That is to say, specimens of each species.

      The commentary note from the website gives the measurements of a riding ground to be two hathras, with one hathra being approximately one English mile.  That means that the Vara would be approximately two miles on each side.  
      Angkor Thom matches the shape and size of the Vara mentioned in the Myths of Yima Jamshid.  
      The same text mentions that Yima built another structure.  

      Angkor Wat matches the measurements and construction method given to another structure in the next verse.  In the National Geographic documentary about Angkor Wat, the temple is described as “being like a ship floating on a bed of subterranean water”. Angkor Wat can be described as a house with a balcony, a courtyard and a gallery.  

      26. ‘There thou shalt make waters flow in a bed a hathra long; there thou shalt settle birds, on the green that never fades, with food that never fails. There thou shalt establish dwelling-places, consisting of a house with a balcony, a courtyard, and as gallery20. 20. The last three words are apax legomena of doubtful meaning.

      I find it very difficult to believe that Suravarman II could have built Angkor Wat in the limited time he had, however if he found the ruins of an already built temple he could have restored it in that time.  I believe it is possible that the evidence of construction found at these sites could be from restoration projects rather than building them from scratch.  

      I have lots more evidence from many different sources that also support an earlier date for Angkor.  Is it really likely that a Hindu Suryavarman II, and the Mahayana Buddhist Jayavarman VII would both build separate structures, years apart, that both coincidently match the text of the Avesta?  

      If I am correct then the Vara of Yima Jamshid is Angkor Thom.

  4. I don’t know how to tell you that you are wrong, because you will not listen to me. But here it goes anyway.

    I am always amazed by the arrogance of people who think they have some kind of game-changing idea about some past civilization, but are too lazy or hard-headed to do the legwork and get the proper background in the discipline. They are also the same people who claim that “experts” can’t handle the truth. This is incorrect and it is because these people (I include you in this) do not understand how archaeology works and how research works.

    Archaeology is filled with game-changing finds. Upending the discipline can make someone’s career. No one gets a job, gets tenure, or gets funding by maintaining or proving the status quo. Our understanding of human evolution and the peopling of the New World are two major parts of archaeological research that have been completely revolutionized by recent archaeological discoveries.

    Archaeology is (like all sciences) hypothesis driven. That means we make a hypothesis, come up with expectations, do the research, and then determine if our results meet our expectations. If they do, the hypothesis is supported (NOT proven) if they don’t then the hypothesis is rejected. Also crucial to this process is having multiple working hypotheses, without which one can fall in love with their only hypothesis and only look for evidence that proves hypothesis. This is what you are doing.

    But we will walk through this together. You have a hypothesis:
    -Angkor (the entire civilization? Angkor Wat? Please do not conflate the two) is 1500 years older than believed. This would put it in the first few centuries AD or you think 500 BCE.

    -That puts us solidly in the Iron Age, which has been fairly well-researched in SEA. I wrote my dissertation on this period. There is actually evidence for Iron Age, and even older Bronze Age settlements in the Angkor region. Across SEA we see small-scale societies (i.e. not or minimally hierarchical). There is no evidence they knew how to work stone. They had distinctive burial practices and pottery traditions (earthenware pots made from local clays) and the designs and shapes of pottery show they evolved locally over time.

    -500 BCE is also about the time we first have evidence for contact with foreigners outside SEA- this would be India in the western and coastal regions of mainland SEA and China in northern Vietnam. We see this in the material culture. In some regions, we have evidence for emerging hierarchy in the form of mortuary evidence- some people are buried with lots of grave goods. Others with very little.

    -There is little change in burial styles from the earlier Bronze Age period (prior to contact with South Asia). We don’t start seeing changes in mortuary tradition until the mid-first millennium AD- when people seem to adopting different (Hindu/Buddhist?) mortuary traditions.

    -There are Sassanian coins at Oc Eo that show long-distance trade connections, but are not evidence of any actual Persian people in SEA.

    If Persian people were here, we have to see material evidence of them. They would be bringing their cooking vessels, making food, eating, writing things, speaking in their language, burying their dead. There is no evidence of this. There is a small smattering of Middle Eastern ceramics and glass vessels that were traded into Prei Monti in the 9th century – that is the most evidence I have ever seen for any kind of Middle Eastern influence at Angkor.

    Your vague descriptions above could probably fit any number of places in the world if you decided you wanted to make them fit. You also need to explain how your hypothesis better fits the data than the OVERWHELMING evidence for a Hindu/Buddhist influence on the construction of these temples. (See for example:

    You say “I find it very difficult to believe that Suryavarman II could have built Angkor Wat in the limited time he had”

    Actually- that’s not a rebuttal of evidence, it’s just your uninformed opinion. I think he did have time to build Angkor Wat. It probably took about 30 or so years, that seems about right to me. And many parts were left on unfinished and completed later. There have been excavations by the French going down to the foundations. There is no evidence of an ealrier structure. I personally have dug down to natural, sterile soil in the area around Angkor Wat. There is no evidence for people living/working there- especially Zoroastrian people.

    “Is it really likely that a Hindu Suryavarman II, and the Mahayana Buddhist Jayavarman VII would both build separate structures, years apart, that both coincidently match the text of the Avesta? ” LIke I said, you have not given very strong evidence that these structures actually match the text. I bet you could throw a dart on a map and find some structure anywhere in the world that would seem to “match the text.”

    If you want to change how people think about the past, you have to prove your commitment to the discipline. You have to do the background research and explain, point-by-point why your explanation explains the existing material data better than the prevailing theory. In order to do that, you need to study and be familiar with ALL of the relevant historical, archaeological, epigraphic, and art historical data about this time period. This isn’t easy. That’s why not everyone has a PhD. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to be willing to put in serious time and do serious research. Until I see otherwise, i can’t engage with you on this subject any longer.

  5. Christopher Golding

    I noticed you did not ask to see the rest of my research. That is just one part. I have studied the ancient Hindu texts and many other text including the Avesta for over 10 years. I challenge you to find another perfect square structure that measures approximately two miles on each side anywhere else in the world. I do have access to any of the LIDAR images other than the ones shown on the documentary. However I predict that the LIDAR will show that Angkor Wat sits inside another two mile square enclosure south of Angkor Thom. I predict this because that is what is written in the text.

    Stone can not be carbon dated, if I chiseled today’s date into a stone at Angkor Wat would that be enough evidence for an archaeologist a thousand years from now to say that the temple was built in 2014? Archaeology is supposed to be a search for the truth, not the truth that you want it to be or the truth you expect it to be.

    If you find another structure anywhere else in the world that matches Angkor Thom that is also near a site that matches Angkor Wat I would be happy to admit I am wrong, but ignoring the evidence will not make it go away.

    Good luck, and I hope you find evidence of that other two mile square enclosure I predict soon.

    • “However I predict that the LIDAR will show that Angkor Wat sits inside another two mile square enclosure south of Angkor Thom. I predict this because that is what is written in the text.”
      I’ve seen it, it doesn’t. Check Google Earth.

      “Stone can not be carbon dated”
      True – but dates are not based entirely on the C14 or other radiometric techniques. But there are organic materials that can be dated used as part of temple construction techniques. Most dates are taken from associated contexts, including our excavations that are contemporary with the construction of the temple. (see for example, a unit I excavated personally that contained stones from the temple). Excavations were already undertaken at Angkor Wa underneath the central tower by the French. They found no earlier structures.

      “Archaeology is supposed to be a search for the truth, not the truth that you want it to be or the truth you expect it to be.”
      Take your own advice.

      You don’t know anything about the Cambodians or the Khmer. I don’t care if you’ve spent 10 years studying a bunch of texts. You can’t just plop things from one part of the world into the other. And to ignore the thousands of years of evidence showing an indigenous development of the Khmer civilization is, frankly. racist.

      Archaeology is NOT the search for “the truth.” It is a study of the human past through an examination of material remains. Archaeologists come up with theories about the past based on interpretations of the material record [NOT UNRELIABLE TEXTS] that best fits the data. Period.

  6. Christopher Golding

    That should be – do not have access to the LIDAR images –