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Mythbusting: Forget What You Know about Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat: an ancient city hidden in the jungle for over 400 years, abandoned by its people, overtaken by trees. Imagine. A civilization that dominated Southeast Asia for over 600 years. An empire that built the largest religious temple in the world. Gone.

If the Khmer Empire was so powerful, why did they leave?

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Several obvious reasons, to start. Climatic change brought a great drought to the area. Increased maritime trade weakened the Khmer people’s economic stronghold. Society was caught in religious upheaval as most converted to Theravada Buddhism. War was raging with neighbouring countries.

My, how the mighty fall. The city was abandoned and its resources frittered away, disappearing into the jungle. And yet the Khmer people left behind a great legacy – arguably the greatest architectural legacy in a world, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site: Angkor Wat.

A few important facts are missing from the story. Observe.

Angkor was never really lost. It disappeared, fair enough. No one lived there for a very long time. But the Khmer people knew of its existence even after the kingdom broke down. For untold numbers of years, many of the temples were used by fisherman and farmers in the area.

The “re-discovery” of Angkor Wat is credited to a French explorer, Francois Mouhot, in 1860. And yet Mouhot himself acknowledged that Portuguese missionaries also visited the city in the 16th century. He noted this in his journal.

A Chinese diplomat also published a memoir of Angkor Wat in 1850, ten years before Mouhot, at which time a regular flow of visitors began visiting the area.

Discovery? Maybe not

The architecture is still a mystery. The number of stones it took to build the temple at Angkor Wat is estimated to be between five and ten million – more than the Great Pyramid of Khufu – many of which are covered in carvings.

The world’s largest religious monument, it is as high as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris: over 64 metres. It is surrounded by five towers and a five kilometre long,190 meter wide moat.

One of the things that makes the temple so astounding is that it took only 32 years to build. Much smaller buildings in Europe took three or four hundred years to construct, and contained far less stone. Even considering the fifty thousand workers that built it, the speed at which the temple was completed is astounding.

Though scientists and historians have tried for years to explain the speed with which this temple was built, there is no generally accepted theory. Millions of large stones would have been ferried down an 87 kilometre canal. Although a shorter 35 kilometre route has since been discovered, this miracle of construction is still shrouded in mystery.

The Khmer people were originally Hindu.  Surprising given that Cambodia is over 3,000 kilometres from India. How did Hinduism arrive at Angkor Wat?

Monsoon rains carried India traders to Cambodia, along with their religion, art and architecture. The temple itself was constructed by the Khmer king for the Hindu god Vishnu and converted to a Buddhist temple in the 14th century, over 200 years later.

Tenets of Buddhism were already permeating the region by the end of the 12th century.  New monuments featured Buddha and bodhisattvas. Old monuments were subtly converted to Buddhist shrines, though Hindu imagery was left in place.  A brief resurgence of Hinduism came with one Khmer leader in the 13th century, before it lapsed back into Buddhism a century later.

Religious upheaval in Angkor Wat is considered an important factor leading to the collapse of this great civilization.

They were vicious warriors. The history of the Khmer people is carved into the walls of Angkor Wat: wild boar fights, construction of temples, women in the marketplace, etc. Thanks to this visual archive, historians have a good idea of the daily life of the Khmer.

A journal by a foreign diplomat in Angkor Wat casts a wary eye on their military capabilities. Though they did not have any great weaponry, these masters of combat fought with a ferocity that alarmed the visiting diplomat. Significantly, the entire population was required to participate in the Khmer Empire’s ongoing war with the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

The people of Angkor Wat had their own martial art, Bokator, which was nearly lost during the Khmer Rouge period, when Cambodia’s remaining Bokator masters were hunted down and killed. Martial arts were also forbidden during the Vietnamese occupation.

One master, San Kim Sean, escaped to the United States, returning many years later to give this ancient art back to its people, teaching children and finding the other surviving masters, of which there were ten.

Translated literally, Bokator means “pounding a lion.” In other words, don’t mess with the Khmer.

The jungle is eating it. One of the biggest threats to Angkor Wat today is the jungle. Many of the great temples have begun to recede into the jungle. Enormous, hundreds of year old trees are growing around and through the great temples of Angkor Wat, in some cases making the structures impenetrable to visitors.

Perhaps more seriously, its millions of stones are being weathered away by rain, wind and sun. Without constant restoration work, Angkor is set to blow away in the wind. Literally.

New information about Angkor Wat appears in the news yearly. Our fascination with this legendary place continues unabated. Here’s the thing about history: there are no such thing as facts. The deeper historians dig, the more it becomes clear how little we actually know.

Perhaps that’s why Angkor Wat’s history is so tantalizing – it still remains a mystery.

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