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 CAMBODIA : Smiles of Angkor 

Angkor: Temple of Smiles

Text and photography by Eric Pasquier 

In 1860, a French naturalist discovered a temple complex strangled by trees and vegetation, buried deep in the Cambodian jungle.

As he hacked away the vines he unveiled what was later to be called Angkor.

This 9th Century feat of art and architecture straddles the Siem Reap river and with its many benevolent Buddha smiles carved into stone, still evokes a mysterious wisdom.

ERIC PASQUIER visits one of the world’s largest archaeological discoveries ever made where restoration continues to this day.

Deep in the jungle of northwest Cambodia, the celebrated site of Angkor is preserved in all its mystery.

The ruins emerge from their distant past, overrun by the thick jungle vegetation and tentacle-like roots that are woven into the stone.

The ensemble of temples here, ornamented with statues of figures with mysterious smiles, has both confounded and fascinated researchers for generations. 

The city of Angkor was founded in 889 by King Yasovarman and became the new capital of Cambodia with the intention of reserving a place for the ‘gods of the universe’. This golden age of Khmer civilization saw the empire at it’s best, but Angkor Wat wasn’t built for another 200 years after this. French naturalist Henri Mouhot stumbled upon the ancient city by accident in 1860, while searching for beetles in the Cambodian jungle. Travelling through the jungle, he wrote, “I am at the gates of hell. All the beings of this empire of death are sleeping beneath me. My destiny pushes me onward.” He referred to the complex as “the Versailles of the Khmers” and his discovery has since attracted archeologists, architects and researchers from all over the world. 
Despite the warnings of a bonze who said that anyone who set foot on the sacred site would be damned for four years, the French explorer returned to Angkor, but died 10 months after making his amazing discovery. 

Another early visitor to the site, Captain Pierre Loti, also wrote of his experience: “As I left Angkor, I looked up at the towers above me covered in the thick green vegetation of the jungle and I was suddenly shaken by an incomprehensible fear when I saw one of these terrible smiles carved into the stone high above my head, and then three, and then five, then 10… they were everywhere, and I had the terrible sensation of being watched from all around…”

The World’s Largest Historical Site:
Built under the tutelage of the successive descendents of the Khmer dynasty, Angkor extends over an area of almost 400 square kilometers. Considered to be the world’s largest open-air museum, this archeological treasure is home to a multitude of monuments and statues dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Situated around several key structures, it offers some fascinating insight into a history of tremendous cultural and archeological value.To the southeast is the ‘Roulos’ group of structures. It was built in the 9th century and is the cornerstone of the site of Angkor. With its three temples – Lolei, Bakong and Preah Ko – and an enormous artificial pool, it represents the oldest traces of Khmer civilisation. Nearby are the major monuments of Angkor: Angkor Thom (the celebrated ‘city of stone’), the majestic Angkor Wat temple and the stunning Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei temples, the latter being the legendary ‘temple of women’. 

Built in the 12th century on orders of the leper-king Jayavarman VII, the walled city of Angkor Thom is spread over nine square kilometers surrounding the Bayon Temple. Located here is the famous ‘elephant terrace’ which is over 300 meters in length and adorned with over 200 faces. To the south of Angkor Thom are the five towers of Angkor Wat. Built over an area of 200 sq km and encircled by an immense moat, this sandstone ensemble – the largest and most famous of the mountain temples – remains a site of extreme national importance. 


Buddhist monks maintained the site as early as the 15th century in an ongoing struggle against the all-engulfing jungle vegetation. The five towers, which later became the emblem of Cambodia, appear on the country’s flag and also on the label of Angkor, the country’s most popular domestic beer.

Even more impressive than the five towers of Angkor Wat and located some 20km further north, is the masterpiece of Khmer architecture: Banteay Srei. Dating back to the 5th century, it is also one of the oldest temples of the region. Smaller than the others, this beautiful monument made of pink sandstone is an impressive sight. It’s a homage to Shiva and is covered in bas-relief sculptures of tremendous craftsmanship and detail, each representing a divinity or asparas, a celestial dancer. In 1901, the captain of a French frigate, Pierre Moti, said of the statues, “They are pretty and smiling under their goddess’ headdress yet always with this tacit expression of mystery in their faces…They are adorned in bracelets, necklaces, precious stones, wearing their pointed crowns they hold in their long, delicate fingers, at times a lotus flower, at times some enigmatic emblem.”


This entire region has been the object of numerous archeological missions. The first was conducted by a French diplomat, Doudart de Lagrée, in 1866. During the laborious task of taking samples and making molds, researchers came across numerous other sites. The first photographs taken created much excitement among the scientists of France’s Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient. Louis Delaporte, an illustrator, set out for Angkor immediately to make an inventory of the specimens to be found there. He returned to his homeland with over 70 sculptures. 

Abandoned to the elements and pillaged by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Angkor has suffered much abuse over the years. Today, thanks to a more stable political climate, historians have been able to resume their research of the site. One of their greatest accomplishments has been the deciphering of the symbolic emblems common to all of the temples. It’s generally accepted that these images are an actual representation of Mount Meru, the sacred dwelling place of the Gods. An accurate chronology of the succession of the dynasties has also been established.


Currently, Angkor is the object of a giant restoration project sponsored by UNESCO and is one of the world’s largest archaeological works-in-progress. There are still many secrets to be deciphered from the fascinating pieces of artwork at Angkor and it will be many years before it reveals all of its mysteries.

Unfortunately, it’s also subject to the most merciless plundering. “Angkor is in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth,” says local Norodom Sinhanouk. “Whatever wasn’t destroyed by American bombs during the war has been left to the fate of vandals and plunderers.” To fight against the theft of their most precious national monuments, Cambodian authorities established a special anti-looting brigade of 520 men. This brigade faces an intimidating task as such a large area of thick jungle is difficult to protect from the thousands of people that visit, some with better intentions than others.

“The sites are invaded by armed gangs, who take away precious artifacts and sell them on the international black market,” says Elisabeth des Portes, the general secretary of the International Counsel of Museums (ICOM), an organisation founded in 1946 to fight the illegal plundering of national treasures. It’s an extremely lucrative business and there’s a steady flow of stolen objects d’art. A sculpted head can sell for almost $10,000 and a statue in its entirety can fetch over $40,000. The stolen works are smuggled through neighbouring Thailand and then on to dealers in Europe, the United States and Japan.

A catalogue listing some 100 missing pieces was published a few years ago by the ICOM and distributed to museums, art dealers, customs agencies and auction houses around the world in the hope of recovering some of the artifacts. The initiative proved successful: a sculpted head representing Shiva, for example, was found in a collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A statuette stolen from the site in 1992 was also found in an auction room at Sotheby’s. 


Currently, Angkor is one of Asia’s most popular tourist destinations: in the year 2000 alone, over 100,000 thousand people came to admire the wonders of 10 centuries of Khmer art. The money generated by the tourist industry made it possible to renovate the 273 monuments that make up the main section of the site. 
Angkor, however, faces yet another threat for survival. The potential revenue made possible by events such as sound-and-light shows have made many people fearful of seeing it turned into a gigantic amusement park, something that could wipe the smiles off the delicately sculpted faces of Angkor and see one of the world’s most important archaeological site’s destroyed beyond recognition.

Copyright © Eric Pasquier / All rights reserved.

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