Why Angkor Kingdom Collapsed and Modern Cambodian Corruption

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 - Cambodia
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?

Angkor Wat

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.

6 thoughts on “Why Angkor Kingdom Collapsed and Modern Cambodian Corruption”

  1. The problem of how to let people see wonderful sites like the Angkor Wat, yet keep them it a preserved condition is common around the world. If travellers respected the areas they visited and considered the many others who would like to see these places then the task would be easy. But many tourists and locals only want to grab a piece of history to either sell on or lock away hidden.

    Great site by the way, just found you 🙂

  2. I made a trip out to Siem Reap in Spring of 2006. Truly one of the most breathtaking expansive structures I’ve laid my eyes on. I would advise going very early in the day as there are less people and it’s not as hot.

    I went at 6am with my girlfriend to see the sunrise. Quite a memory.

  3. Its a complex issue, and you need to also take into considertion that Cambodia has a right to its share of tourist dollars, same as any other country. This is like telling Brazil not to cut down the rain forests while the Western World doesn’t have any forests of its own left to cut down. Has to be some way to help Cambodia keep the tourists, while preserving the heritage at the same time.

    EDITOR: Cambodia definitely has a right to Tourism revenue, the problem is that most of it is going to corrupt officials and their corporate cronies

  4. It’s a catch 22 for Cambodia. They need the tourists and their money to maintain the ruins and at the same time the masses of people visiting destroy (unintentionally) it in the long run.

    Maybe one day they will go the same way as China, giving out only a limited amount of visitor passes to the temples.

  5. I have lived in Cambodia in the past 2 or so years. After visiting Angkor Wat last month, I saw a pitiful paradise of the Indian culture (not Khmer at any rate). It would seem that after the whittling down of the Kingdom, nobody in the empire with that kind of civilization was left. What we have is master gangsterism and kleptocracy. Perhaps those people we see driving huge cars on the two main boulevards of PP are descendants of those responsible for the undermined collapse of the brilliant Angkhorian Dynasty. They certainly have the skills to destroy.
    Talking about the revenues collected at the gates of the temples ($20 from foreign visitors and $20 from foreigners permanently living in Cambodia…. (imagine)) goes straight to the pockets of no more than 15 top dogs of CPP. A helicopter flies every evening from Siem Reap to deliver the hard cash. Small wonder a huge ‘home’ is coming up near the Independence monument, along Hun Sen Park belonging to one man by the same name.
    In the meantime, Khmers have long gone back to open defecation with no sanitation and are bereft of hope. No one cares about them. The only leadership they see is when they are ordered out of their residences to be dumped 25km away from the city.
    In short, we don’t need to look too much to the past to know why the Angkor Kingdom could not survive. Greed, self aggrandizement, thuggery and all trickery in the book of backward disrepute.

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