Stop saying the French discovered Angkor

I suppose I’m a bit of a curmudgeon and therefore get fairly easily annoyed. One of my biggest pet peeves is the old myth about how the French, specifically the explorer and researcher Henri Mouhot, “discovered Angkor” in 1860. This myth is based on an idea that the  Cambodians had no knowledge of their past, and therefore helped the French justify their colonial rule in “restoring a nation to its past grandeur” (Dagens 1995:47).  As Angkor has been in the news lately, due to the recent BBC documentary, this factual inaccuracy continues to be perpetuated.  It’s time for this myth to die.

A drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot.

A drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot, who did not discover Angkor.

[A note before I jump in: I am hardly the first person to point out that Mouhot did not discover Angkor or that Angkor was not completely forgotten. But I notice that this bit of misinformation is frequently cited and pops-up on Google searches in a variety of places. [See examples here, herehere, here, and here for example]. Or, it is implied that few people “beyond local monks and villagers” knew of Angkor, which is also incorrect due to Angkor Wat’s importance as a Buddhist pilgrimage site (see below).  After hearing yet another person mention this in casual conversation, I thought it was time to return to this topic, briefly.]

Here’s what we do know.  In the early 15th century CE, a variety of socio-political, and probably environmental, factors contributed to a shift of the Angkorian capital to the area around Phnom Penh. Conflicts with Ayutthaya and a breakdown of the water management system may have served to push people out of the Angkor region, but it is also important to remember that increasing trade with China, and the improved access to this trade in the Phnom Penh area, served to pull people further south as well (Chandler 2008: 92).  While the Angkor region appears to have been de-populated and many of the temples fell into disrepair and were abandoned, the region was not entirely forgotten. The temple of Angkor Wat was specifically the focus of continued occupation and worship until the French colonial period.

Here is a brief (though not comprehensive) list of the activities at Angkor Wat from the “collapse” of the Angkorian Empire to the French Colonial period.

-Cambodian legends describe how Angkor Wat was rediscovered in the mid-16th century CE by a Cambodian king on an elephant hunt (Thompson 2004). While the exact details of this legend are fuzzy, we do know from evidence at Angkor Wat itself that King Ang Chan did return during this period. Inscriptions describe how in 1564 he commissioned the completion of bas-reliefs on the northeastern gallery of Angkor Wat, which had been left unfinished in the 12th century.  King Ang Chan may have also been involved with the hidden paintings that were recently identified at Angkor Wat.

Detail of part of the 16th century CE bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.

Detail of part of the 16th century CE bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat.

-The first westerner to visit Angkor Wat was apparently a Portuguese Capuchin friar named Antonio da Magdalena in 1586.  (A brief description of his account, as told to Diogo do Couto, can be read in Dagens 1995: 133-5).

-Several members of the Khmer royal family returned to Angkor Wat in the mid-late 16th century, leaving several inscriptions around Angkor Wat. It was during this period that the upper level of Angkor Wat, called the Bakan, was transformed from a Vaishnavite sanctuary, to a Buddhist one. Several openings of the central sanctuary were covered with images of the Buddha. It was also this period that Angkor Wat appears to have been transformed into a Buddhist pilgrimage site (Thompson 2004).

-Angkor Wat was an important spiritual center not just for Cambodians, but for people in surrounding regions. In 1668 a French missionary described how Angkor Wat was “renowned among the Gentiles [heathens] of five or six kingdoms,” (Dagens 1995: 27).

-The first plan of Angkor Wat was drawn by a Japanese pilgrim sometime in the early 17th century, and was copied later in 1715.

Japanese plan of Angkor Wat from 1715

Japanese plan of Angkor Wat from 1715.

-In the early 18th century CE, a Cambodian “court dignitary” built a large stupa in honor of his wife and sons just outside the eastern gallery of Angkor Wat. A large inscription, written in Khmer verse, describes the construction of this stupa. Members of a family in Siem Reap still gather at the stupa once a year to pay homage to their ancestors (Thompson 2004: 104-106).

Inscription by a Cambodian court dignitary describing the construction of the stupa on the eastern side of Angkor Wat.

Inscription by a Cambodian court dignitary describing the construction of the stupa on the eastern side of Angkor Wat.

The stupa on the eastern side of Angkor Wat, constructed in the early 18th century CE. Here you can see members of a family from Siem Reap paying homage to their ancestors in the stupa.

The stupa on the eastern side of Angkor Wat, constructed in the early 18th century CE. Here you can see members of a family from Siem Reap paying homage to their ancestors in the stupa.

-Another French missionary, Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, visited Angkor and Angkor Wat in 1850, publishing his account of his visit in 1858, two years before Henri Mouhot arrived.  Additionally, a translation of the Chinese Missionary, Zhou Ta-Kuan’s  visit to Angkor in the late 13th century had been published in 1819 (Dagens 1995).  Still, Westerners had a hard time envisioning Angkor until Henri Mouhot visited and his journal and drawings were published.  It was these images that captured the imagination of the West.  Mouhot never claimed to have discovered Angkor, this topic was not discussed in his publications, and as detailed above, Angkor was well-known in the region.  As Dagens (1995: 41-42) notes “the word was bandied around…until the idea that Mouhot had ‘discovered’ Angkor simply became an accepted fact.”

-As part of our excavations with the Greater Angkor Project in 2013, we also found evidence for continued use/occupation of the enclosure around Angkor Wat into the 17th century, in the form of Chinese tradeware ceramics.

-The French moved out a group of monks that had been living in front of Angkor Wat when they arrived in the 19th century.

So, all this is to say that the temple of Angkor Wat specifically was never abandoned by the Cambodians and continued to be an important spiritual center for hundreds of years after Angkor.

But the way that the Cambodians perceived of their past was complicated and not well-understood or investigated by the French. Penny Edwards has explored how the French used the  past to shape the modern Cambodian nation in her book Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945. She discusses how the Khmer monks and others that the French interviewed had a “non-linear historical perspective,” which caused the French to think that the Khmer people had no memory of their past and who constructed the temple of Angkor Wat (Edwards 2007: 25).  She says that

“Khmers living in the vicinity of the temple [Angkor Wat] did not identify with Angkor as a monument of Khmer nationhood or a lodestone of national pride, but rather as a religious site connected in popular belief-systems with celebrated monarchs and mythical figures.”

During the French Colonial period the Angkor Wat and the Angkorian past became an integral part of the Cambodian nation and national identity. Angkor Wat first appeared on the Cambodian flag during the French Protectorate period and has remained, with a few brief exceptions, ever since. While the French Protectorate certainly influenced our perceptions and understanding of Cambodian history, it is important to acknowledge that they did not discover Angkor. Many Cambodians were already aware of Angkor Wat and knew it played an important role in their past.  However, Mouhot’s writings did popularize Angkor in the West and that was a significant milestone.  So let’s give him credit for that and stop saying he discovered Angkor.

Read more:

Chandler, David. 2008. A History of Cambodia. 4th ed. Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books.

Dagens, Bruno. 1995.  Angkor: Heart of an Asian empire. Thames & Hudson, London

Edwards, Penny. 2007.  Cambodge. The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.

Thompson, Ashley. 2004. Pilgrims to Angkor: A Buddhist “Cosmopolis” in Southeast Asia?. Bulletin of the Students of the Department of Archaeology 3:88-119.

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9 responses to “Stop saying the French discovered Angkor

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  4. philipcoggan

    Sounds like Henri was just good at PR.

    • Well, he died before his journals were published. Maybe if he’d been alive he would have been able to contextualize his work.

  5. I think the thing about Henri is that he was the first foreign visitor to have the imagination and writing skills to express the awe that everyone feels on seeing Angkor, and the first to have, albeit posthumously, a platform (French journals and books) that conveyed his awe to people beyond Cambodia.

  6. Absolutely- and the drawing skills as well! Without those images, I think people had a hard time imagining how amazing Angkor was. He definitely represents a major turning point in how the West thought about this place and that has had a long-lasting impact.

  7. Nobody says that in France!!! Everybody here knows that the temple complex was first “discovered” by a portuguese monk. The French explorer Henri Mouhot just popularised Angkor in Europe through his publication of travel notes published in 1869 “Voyage dans les Royaumes de Siam, de Cambodge et de Laos et autres parties centrales de l’Indochine”

    • I think you are the only person I’ve ever met who knows that fact. I would be surprised if it was widespread knowledge, a lot of the English language media (documentaries, guidebooks, news articles) repeat this misinformation, which is why I wrote this post.