The Story of Angkor

angkorSilkworm Books has recently (September) published The Story of Angkor. It must define the idea of a “slim volume” – just 134 pages.The author, James DiBiasio, blogs here: he has some quite fascinating entries on books both fiction and non-fiction.

Intended as an approachable, entry-level history of ancient Angkor for tourists, Story of Angkor presents the revolution in scholarly understanding of ancient Cambodia that’s taken place over the last decade or so. No visitor to Angkor, and no one interested in Cambodia, can afford not to read it.

Here are some excerpts from an article he was invited to write for New Mandala recently (full article here). He notes that the paradigmatic understanding of the subject was laid out by the great George Coedès in the first half of the 20th century:

“Coedès … argued that Southeast Asia represented a ‘Farther India’, a land of gold that was conquered and colonized by waves of Indians from around 200 BC through 400 AD. His work also gave us the basic timeline of the kings and therefore the monuments. He helped lay out a narrative of a pre-Angkor Cambodia trapped in a dark ages. He and other scholars documented wars between the Khmers and the Chams that defined the rise of Angkor’s first Buddhist king. The shadow of Coedès stretches so long because the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese invasion and destructive poverty have kept international scholarship at bay. Only in the 1990s did meaningful work on Angkor resume.”

Coedès research remains relevant, but “his conclusions seem fanciful. … Most scholars today argue against the idea of Indian colonizers … others suggest that Indian ideas came from Malays and other travellers visiting India and Sri Lanka, rather than from Indians actually settling in Southeast Asia.”

On Angkor, Coedès “believed an early Khmer-speaking civilization grew up around southern Vietnam, based on a port called Oc Eo and a nearby city called Angkor Borei. This fell into disunion and chaos, and was assaulted by enemy invaders, perhaps from Champa or Java.” This is what we read in every guide book and history of Cambodia, but  there’s no evidence to back it up. “The evidence is going the other way, actually: the epicentre of Funan may have not even been where Coedès believed, [but] further west in the Menam Basin.” I don’t think my Cambodian friends are going to like that idea – though perhaps they’ll see it as yet further evidence that the wicked Thais are a bunch of brigands.

My friends will like this: “This year, scholars announced the discovery of a city, Mahendraparvata, on Mount Kulen, some 50 kilometers distant from Angkor… a vast urban civilization on par with the biggest pre-industrial societies of China or Europe.”

The final surprise for me is this:

“Even the dating of the Bayon and Angkor Wat are now under fire. The chronicle of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese visitor in the 13th century, makes so little account of Angkor Wat that some scholars question whether it was even built until after Zhou’s visit – which would completely upend our understanding of it. So the story of Angkor turns out to be far more fluid than the stone remains suggest, and the history of pre-modern Southeast Asia is still up for grabs.”

Story of Angkor should be available from Monument Books, but if you can’t get there, here’s the Amazon page.

(Update: now available on Kindle, $9.99)