At the height of its power, 300 years before its collapse in the 15th century, the kingdom of Angkor controlled a large part of what is now Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam and its capital was the largest pre-industrial city known to man.
Angkor Wat Collage photo credit: meilyn
Australian ABC TV foreign correspondent Eric Campbell travelled to Cambodia to investigate The Double Mystery of Angkor:
- Why such a sophisticated civilisation died out. Was it due to deforestation and use of intensive irrigation practices including redirecting rivers?
- The mystery of modern day Cambodia – where does all the money tourists spend at Angkor Wat go?
According to “Angkor Wat,” the name itself, “Angkor,” derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “holy city.” “Wat,” of course, in Khmer means “temple.”
The temple complex called “Angkor Wat,” located near Siem Reap in northeast Cambodia has come to represent a whole complex of wonderful temples and stone masonry and artwork throughout the area.
It is the single largest religious structure in the world, and surely one of the world’s wonders of art and architecture.
In fact, within an area of 120 sq. miles, the ruins contain some of the most imposing monuments in the world, including about a thousand temples, mainly Hindu and some Buddhist; the ancient city, however, had an extent some three times that size, and was home to perhaps 750,000 people.
– The Civilization of Angkor
The Angkor kings oversaw a building program between the 9th and 16th centuries that even today is breathtaking in scale and audacity.
Angkor Wat is the biggest and most famous of these monuments but hundreds of others also survived.
Why the Angkor Kingdom Collapsed
No-one can say definitively why Angkor collapsed and there have been many contradictory theories over the years. However current research, being carried out by a joint French-Australian-Cambodian team, gives a very strong clue.
Based at the University of Sydney, the Greater Angkor Project uses the latest technology such as radar remote-sensing data from NASA and aerial surveys using ultralights and helicopters.
The team has painstakingly compiled a detailed map which reveals that Angkor was the largest pre-industrial urban settlement known to man, stretching for over 1,000 square kilometres. It was the size of Los Angeles, and totally dependent on an elaborate irrigation scheme.
As Sydney University archaeologist Damien Evans explained to correspondent Eric Campbell, Angkor was a completely artificial landscape, stripped bare of forest cover and totally remodelled, even to the extent of moving entire rivers.
The Greater Angkor Project’s findings give a stark warning to Cambodia’s corrupt and greedy rulers, and to modern societies worldwide. ‘We are facing similar issues’, says Evans, ‘The same mistakes are being repeated today’.
Modern Cambodian Corruption in “Scambodia”
In 1999 the rights to sell tickets to visit Angkor Wat and the other temples were sold off by the Cambodian government to a private businessman. Of the millions of dollars raked in from over 2 million tourist visitors a year only a small proportion comes back to the heritage park.
Long before the movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was released, real tomb raiders were stripping Angkor Wat of priceless statues and selling them to an eager international market based in Thailand. Angkor Wat managed to survive the Khmer Rouge but it looks like it will finally fall to the lure of the dollar.
This is unfortunately typical of a country that is rated as one of the top 10% most corrupt in the world by Transparency International, locals and even some tourists who’ve been ripped off there call it “Scambodia”.
Growth in Tourism Degrading Environment around Angkor Wat
Cambodian authorities, meanwhile, are grappling with the problem of how to preserve the precious ruins within the temple precinct from increasing numbers of visitors. Just 7,600 people ventured to Angkor in 1993, when it was added to Unesco’s World Heritage list.
Since then, with Cambodia becoming accepted as a “safe” destination, tourism has boomed. The government is expecting three million visitors in 2010, and many of those will head to the temples. Angkor Wat is now one of south-east Asia’s leading attractions.
Tourism, which brought impoverished Cambodia $1.5bn in revenue in 2006, is helping the country to rebuild after its long dark period.
But Soeung Kong, deputy director-general of the Aspara Authority, which oversees Angkor’s upkeep, told Agence France Press recently: “The harm to the temples is unavoidable when many people walk in and out of them. We are trying to keep that harm at a minimal level.”
Teruo Jinnai, Unesco’s senior official in Cambodia, said: “When you have such a huge mass of tourists visiting, then we are concerned about damage to the heritage site and the temples and the monuments. Many temples are very fragile.”
The main problem lies in Siem Reap, the nearby town that has mushroomed in recent years to accommodate the growing numbers of tourists. There are more than 250 guesthouses and hotels, and they have been sucking up groundwater and destabilising the earth beneath Angkor.
At least one monument, the Bayon temple, famous for the serene faces carved on its 54 towers, is collapsing into the sandy ground – a development confirmed by its sinking foundations, and widening cracks between its carefully carved stones.
– Metropolis: Angkor, the world’s first mega-city
Watch the story for yourself (19 min 33 sec in length) below by clicking on the play button:
If you can’t see the video player than you should open this URL in Windows Media Player: http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2008/scambodia_200k.asx. A transcript of the video is at http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/content/2008/s2236876.htm
ABC TV’s team of Foreign Correspondents take you on a unique journey to places few others venture, for a colourful look at the culture and lifestyle of people who don’t usually make international headlines. Their mixture of serious and light-hearted stories will inform and entertain you.