The people who lived in Angkor Wat

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and a little bit of writing about the people who lived within the Angkor Wat enclosure, largely due to the fieldwork I participated in this summer. In the process of researching this topic I’ve found out a few interesting examples of people living in and around Angkor Wat I wanted to share.

Many people may not know that when the French first began to do research and conservation at Angkor Wat that there were Buddhist monks living very close to the main temple entrance.  There are actually two Buddhist Wats within the Angkor Wat enclosure, called Wat Cheung វត្តជើង (northern wat) and Wat Tbong  វត្តត្បង (southern wat).  The northern wat is near the venders close to the main causeway to the temple, and the southern wat is near the bathrooms.  This postcard I picked up in Siem Reap shows some monk’s houses in front of the main western entrance to the Angkor Wat temple.

Monk's houses in front of Angkor Wat from a 1909 publication by Dieulefils.

Monk’s houses in front of Angkor Wat from a 1909 publication by Dieulefils.

In a recent and fascinating article by Michael Falser,* he describes how French archaeologists/conservators undertook a “resettlement” of these monks because “they supposedly blocked the ‘vue générale’ from the entry gate…” (Falser 2013: 92). As Falser describes, the presence of monks and the use of Angkor Wat as living place of spiritual importance was not inline with the French view of the time as the Angkor region as a park.

As far as I can tell, this vision of Angkor Wat remained the same until the 1970s when the civil war drove many refugees into the Angkor Wat temple to take shelter from the fighting.  In the (also fascinating) book A Century in Asia there is a photo of some of these refugees dated to August 1970.

Refugees in Angkor Wat from "A Century in Asia" published by the EFEO.

Refugees in Angkor Wat from “A Century in Asia” published by the EFEO.

Of course, having people live close to heritage sights can create many tricky issues. The Cambodia Daily has recently posted a story about the problems surrounding new construction within the Angkor Park area.

As part of the Greater Angkor Project and my own ongoing research, we hope to better understand the original inhabitants who were living inside the Angkor Wat enclosure. These two examples provide a small glimpse of how more recent populations have used this space.  I’d be interested in learning more about both examples, if you have any information please contact me!

*Falser, Michael
2013 From Colonial Map to Visitor’s Parcours: Tourist Guides and the Spatiotemporal Making of the Archaeological Park of Angkor. In ‘Archaeologizing’ Heritage?: Transcultural Enganglements Between Local Social Practices and Global Virtual Realities , edited by Michael Falser and Monica Juneja. pp 81-106. Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg.


11 responses to “The people who lived in Angkor Wat

  1. Nice pictures Alison. Do you know how the recent inhabitants regarded Angkor Wat as a place? Was it a “Wat” in the religious sense of the term or was it just a name by then? Especially since you pointed out the presence of the northern ans southern wats. If it was a sacred place, like how we would regard a cathedral or a war memorial sacred, and how did they negotiate their idea of Angkor Wat with them living there?

  2. Good question Noel! I am not sure of the answer to this, and it would be interesting to find some people who survived the KR and remember staying in the temple to get their thoughts. That photograph is all I really know of the situation, but they appear to be living just in the galleries. From how contemporary people worship in Angkor Wat, it seems like Preah Poan and the very upper level of Angkor Wat are the most sacred spaces in the temple and places of worship. I am not sure that the lower levels/galleries have that same status. However, I believe that people could argue they are more sacred than the non-temple grounds surrounding Angkor Wat. I want to say that Zhou Daguan mentions something about people using the bathroom around temples, indicating something about how Angkorian people viewed sacred space, but maybe I’m getting my wires crossed. (I don’t have a copy here or I’d check). It’s something to investigate further.

  3. “vue générale”…ah yes, a “view” which would go on to be propagated by the French and end up on the living room wall of every Cambodian family the world over…

    anyway, this is indeed a fascinating topic, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that “Nokor Wat” didn’t remain inhabited and an important site to locals (and of course eventually completely unknown to the rest of Cambodia) from 1431 right up until the French “discovery” and beyond…

    I wonder about other sites…like Sambour Prey Kuk…and how long they were inhabited by locals? And how do we ever find out such information, especially pre-French contact?

    • Another good question. Well outside of interviewing people for their memories, another good way is to do archaeology! Historic archaeology would tell you more about the more recent occupations. And actually, it does seem that many people inside and outside of Cambodia still knew about Angkor Wat. There’s a 17th century Japanese map depicting the temple and a couple kings returned from Phnom Penh to do some upkeep on the temple. That would be a good topic for another post…the post-Angkorian use of Angkor Wat.

  4. This seems very similar to stories of what happened at Borobudur in Indonesia as well, as far as I can tell. Cool pictures! 🙂

  5. Some very good information there.
    I’m wondering if you know the answer to this question:
    What affects have different groups of people had on the Angkor Wat? How does it affect people.

  6. Hi,
    This was a lovely post. I have always been enchanted about the rich history of Angkor Wat, which has a special charm to it. So it is always nice to read such informative articles about this place. Thanks for sharing the post and the nice pictures as well.

  7. It’s was amazing photo at Angkor Wat. I hope you will share more information about Angkor Wat history in your next post.

  8. I’m glad to read you again. Thanks for this post. Best for you Buddy! and Merry Christmas

  9. Pingback: Stop saying the French discovered Angkor | Alison in Cambodia