Angkor Wat, shown here in 1980, is the largest temple in Angkor. Photo: John Burgess

Most books about Angkor, the fabulous temple city in northwestern Cambodia, focus on its ancient history, when it was capital of an empire that ruled much of mainland Southeast Asia, then took a long slumber in the forest. A new volume, Angkor’s Temples in the Modern Era: War, Pride, and Tourist Dollars, looks at what came next. French colonial archaeology, early tourism, the temples’ emergence as a symbol of the Cambodian nation and a site to be fought over by rival factions – these and other recent events are part of Angkor’s contemporary history. The author, former Washington Post foreign correspondent John Burgess, first visited Angkor in 1969 and has returned frequently in recent years. Below are edited excerpts from the book, which is being published by River Books of Bangkok.

First conservator

Starting in 1908, conservator Jean Commaille’s initial focus was Angkor Wat. Despite centuries of merit-building effort by resident monks, grass and bushes were flourishing on the grounds and in the cracks of temple stones. Moving through darkened corridors could mean walking on carpets of bat dung. Thigh-deep soil had built up in the stone-paved courtyards of the temple’s second and third tiers.

So clearing was the first big job. Soil was laboriously shoveled from those courtyards and thrown down to lower levels. Vegetation was cut. Two courageous men climbed each of the five towers to pluck out plants that had taken root high up. Down below, modern steam power was applied: a small locomotive known as a Decauville hauled away vegetation and other debris on temporarily laid tracks.

The goal was not only to clear and repair but to re-Hinduize. The French believed that the temple’s conversion into a Buddhist edifice in more recent centuries had made it somehow inauthentic: Its altered form distorted history. So, many of the Buddha images that Cambodians had set up with reverence in chambers and corridors were removed.

Perhaps the most radical step in this turning back of the clock came in June 1909, when Commaille’s men broke into the sealed chamber at the third-tier base of the central tower.

The chamber had originally been almost open-air, with large doorways facing the four cardinal directions, and had apparently housed a large statue of Vishnu, to whom the temple was originally dedicated.

Buddhist retrofitters had walled off the doorways, perhaps as an architectural statement of the new faith’s supremacy. Each sealed doorway became a niche for a Buddha image. But had Vishnu’s image been left inside? Commaille wanted to find out.

First his men removed a Buddha that graced the chamber’s south walled-up doorway. Then they breached the wall itself, which turned out to be of substantial construction including iron bars. Inside – disappointment. No Vishnu image, no inscriptions. Instead a few Buddha image fragments, bats, and a deep hole clogged with dung. Workers used torches to drive out squealing winged residents from one more place in the temple.

This work brought anguish to some Cambodian hearts. Court poet Suttantaprija In, writing in verse infused with a tone of helplessness, (and quoted in Penny Edwards’ book Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860-1945) lamented that Angkor no longer belonged to his people.

Sir Mr. Commaille, the Chief of Works,

Had the statue of Buddha cut out of the southern gateway,

Uprooted from the gateway and taken out

… Its neck broken, the statue was smashed beyond all recognition

It worried me, that they had destroyed the statue.

The time of the religion of the door-deity was over.

… His body was eliminated; he had reached the shore of Nirvana.

The Bungalow

In 1909, Angkor got its first Western-style guesthouse. It was a simple wooden structure with ten rooms, fourteen beds, a salon and a large dining room. Initially called the Bungalow, it would be known in ensuing years by other names – Hôtel des Ruines and Auberge d’Angkor – and acquire a storied history of its own. Depending on what they were accustomed to, guests saw it as unimaginable luxury in a remote place or just one step up from camping out.

But there was one thing whose value could not be denied, something that many guests, arriving tired in the gloom of night, didn’t appreciate was so close until they rose the next morning and looked out the window – Angkor Wat, right there in all its glory, the sun rising behind its towers. The hotel had the ultimate premium location: at the temple’s western moat, a few steps from the entrance causeway.

The Bungalow, just outside Angkor Wat’s main entrance, opened in 1909 as the first Western-style guesthouse at Angkor. Photo courtesy of DatAsia Press Archive

Under a contract signed in 1910, a European manager was to be on the premises at tourist high season. The hotel would offer a continental breakfast for half a piastre and a full for one piastre. Dinner, to include a soup, entrée, vegetable dish, salad, cognac, and wine, would cost three piastres. Someone came up with the idea of providing a true European vacation treat – ice cream. Packed cold for the long journey by boat, it would appear on the menu in the two-day window after a steamboat had arrived.

By October 1911, the Bungalow was doing a modest business – records show it took in a total of 37 people that month. Guests included a Mr. John L. Laid and a Mr. and Mrs. Blanchard and their daughter.

By bringing in foreign visitors, the French hoped to show the world that they were a rightful, responsible steward of this historical gem. But mercantile considerations were in play as well. Even early in the twentieth century, colonial administrators had settled on tourism as an engine of economic growth for Indochina as a whole.

A celebrity thief

In 1923, the young French writer André Malraux was in a bind. He was already semi-famous as a brash new presence in literature and philosophy, but he had run short of cash, due to bad investments in a Mexican mining company. He had read an article about the sculptural riches of the Angkor temple Banteay Srei. To the headstrong young man in Paris, it seemed just the thing for a solution to his financial problems, and some adventure to boot.

So Malraux and his wife Clara set off on the long sea voyage from France to Saigon, where they met up with a childhood friend of Malraux’s. The three made their way to Angkor and checked into the Bungalow. Their cover story was that they had come to make an artistic study of the temples. They toured the main ones. Then, with a caravan of buffalo-drawn carts and hired Cambodians, they set off toward the north.

At Banteay Srei, the team hacked and sawed off about 650 kilograms of sculpture and loaded it into the carts. The plan was to sell the loot in New York, but thieves and treasure made it only as far as Phnom Penh. There they were intercepted. Clara was allowed to return to France, but the two men went on trial in Phnom Penh.

Convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, they never served the time, in part because Clara managed to make her husband a cause célèbre in literary circles back in France. His defenders made legalistic arguments that removing the sculpture wasn’t really a crime because Banteay Srei hadn’t been formally listed as a protected site. They also suggested that, whatever the rights and wrongs of Malraux’s acts, it would be a travesty to imprison someone of his talent and intellect.

The world would hear much more of Malraux in later years. He would become an iconic figure of modern French culture and history, writing influential books, fighting the Nazis as part of the World War II resistance and serving in the 1950s and ‘60s as France’s minister of culture.

Angkor lost in war

Early in the Cambodian war, the Lon Nol government lost Angkor. War arrived at the ancient Khmer capital on the night of June 5-6, 1970. North Vietnamese forces attacked and overran the newly expanded Siem Reap airport. The din of weapons fire carried to the temples, but there was no real fight there. Lon Nol’s troops did not mount a defence, which would have risked damage to the nation’s heritage.

In any case, they were hardly up to keeping out a foe as strong and determined as the North Vietnamese. In the early morning hours, the foreign soldiers in olive uniforms and pith helmets simply moved in and laid claim. Fear and confusion mounted as Angkor’s many residents ventured from their homes and encountered the new masters.

François Bizot, an anthropologist with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient who was living in a community by the Srah Srang reservoir, set out by van for Siem Reap early that morning and came upon a Cambodian military truck that had been hit by a rocket grenade. Dead and wounded lay scattered about. Bizot’s efforts to drive three of the injured to town for medical aid ended with Vietnamese stopping him near Angkor Wat’s east moat. Helpless to protest, he watched as rows of the foreign soldiers marched along the roads, fully in control.

In these first days, the lines of control fluctuated; soldiers moved here and there; no one was sure who controlled what. Lon Nol’s soldiers shelled areas they thought enemy forces had occupied, often hitting villages. Vietnamese rockets and mortar shells fell on Siem Reap, fired with similar disregard for civilian life. Buddhist temples in town took in many of the people who lost their homes, for what would become extended stays.

In 1980, Angkor Wat’s Hall of a Thousand Buddhas was missing most of its images following a decade of war in Cambodia. Photo: John Burgess.

Pre-Covid tourism hub

Siem Reap was becoming part of a pattern that set in across Cambodia – government forces bottled up in cities and towns, the other side ruling the countryside. Still, Siem Reap was a special case. Here the countryside included the temples, which, in principle, at least, the international rules of war protected from attack.

If you get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to see something special, you might expect to be largely alone. Unless the something special is sunrise at Angkor Wat. Early bird tourists arriving at the temple in near darkness find that they are joining a march of the multitudes.

Crowds press through the stone entranceways and build up by the ancient pools located off the temple’s processional avenue. Trod-upon toes, flashlight glare, and sharp elbows as people jostle for position with cameras and selfie sticks – these are all part of the experience.

Yet once the sight begins, once the solar disk edges above the five towers as it has for close to nine centuries, the sight unfailingly dazzles. People fall silent, or let out oohs and ahhs. It is truly a moment to savor – and share. Within minutes, photographs start popping up all over the world on Facebook and Instagram, relayed by a nearby mobile phone tower disguised to look like a tree. Twenty-four hours later, the process starts up again, with a whole new crowd.

Angkor’s reopening in the 1990s set in motion the realization of the old dreams of tourism promoters: Angkor as one of the world’s most popular travel destinations. Roughly two million foreigners are visiting each year – Chinese office workers, Israeli backpackers, German factory hands, Japanese retirees, American honeymooners.

Tourism brings livelihoods for thousands of Cambodians, but concerns arise that the sheer numbers threaten the temples’ physical integrity and dignity.

At the same time, Angkor retains its central place in Cambodian spiritual life. In the western entrance complex of Angkor Wat, there stands a large, four-armed stone image of the god Vishnu. But it is not only Vishnu. It is Ta Reach, prime deity of the temple, possessed of such power that it is said that a bird that dares fly overhead may die and fall from the sky. Foreigners often walk past the great image unknowing, but Cambodians take care to stop to light incense sticks and kneel in prayer.

Each year, at the Visakha Bucha festival, which commemorates the three major events in the life of the Buddha – his birth, his enlightenment, his death – more than a thousand monks and nuns gather at Angkor Wat for a spectacular rite of meditation by candlelight. Closed off to tourists, the great temple regains, however briefly, the identity that its builders intended: supreme place of worship.

In the grounds in front of the temple, monks sit in rows in meditation, each with a candle and mat. Their robes become indistinguishable from the orange flicker of their candles’ flames. Up inside the temple, other monks sit around its stone pools as they strive to focus their practice and improve their chances, ultimately, of attaining the enlightenment that the Buddha achieved.