[Photos] Ancient Angkor as seen through the decades

On December 14, 1992 – after miraculously surviving decades of war, strife and looting – Angkor Wat was officially listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, we've scoured through the pictorial archives to uncover some of ancient monument's more iconic moments

Dani Gill
December 14, 2020
[Photos] Ancient Angkor as seen through the decades
Angkor Wat as seen in June 2020, almost entirely empty of tourists due to Covid-19. Photo: Alastair McCready

Pre-covid-19, well over two million tourists per year would travel to Cambodia to sneak a glimpse into the ancient kingdom through the spyglass of Angkor Wat. The temple’s importance as a historical, cultural, and religious symbol stands steadfast to the north of Cambodia’s Siem Reap province, and serves as a reminder of the advanced civilisation that came before us.

December 14 marks 28 years to the day that Angkor Wat and the surrounding complex was given UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site. After succumbing to heavy looting at the hands of an organised crime ring between the 1970s and 1990s, this move by UNESCO allowed for area zoning, the establishment of the APSARA organisation that today oversees the site, as well as a new law on the protection of cultural heritage to come into being.

With this has come more stability for the temple complex, and in theory, ensures its protection for generations to come in the face of ne’er-do-wells, stampedes of tourists, and, ultimately, time.

From the construction of Angkor Wat in the 12th century by the Khmer King Suryavarman II, to the explosion of national and international tourism in the past decade, in the time in between Angkor Wat and the surrounding temple grounds have been party to their fare share of history.

After falling into disuse and disrepair in the 15th century, Angkor Wat was “rediscovered” by the French explorer Henri Mouhot in the 1840s. Entering the 20th century under French Colonial rule, the temple underwent restoration so that it could be positioned as a tourist attraction for wealthy Europeans. The French also constructed a life-sized replica of Angkor Wat in the metropole as part of the Paris Colonial Exposition in 1931, piquing the interest of Europeans.

Cambodia’s independence in 1953 brought more restoration works in the 1960s than the French had ever accomplished. But the 1970s brought brutal civil war and then Khmer Rouge rule from 1975-79, after which the decade-long Vietnamese occupation began. Despite the brutality of the war and foreign occupation, Angkor Wat was, somewhat astonishingly, left largely unharmed.

But in the approach to a new century, a different kind of threat was on the horizon – mass tourism.

A combination of Angkor Wat’s addition to UNESCO’s world heritage list, cheap flights, a growing Chinese middle class, and stability in Cambodia saw international tourism explode in the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s . Tourists – largely from Korea, Japan, North America and Britain – arrived in droves to marvel at the ancient structure. In 1993, just over 7,500 people visited the site, whereas over one million people purchased tickets in 2010 alone.

Visitors to Angkor Wat continued to grow year-on-year at an average rate of close to 16% per annum between 2004-18, with this mass tourism taking its toll on the now-delicate sandstone structure and leading it to appear on Responsible Travel’s map of sites suffering from over tourism.

But in light of Covid-19 and the global tourism drop, however, Angkor Wat is now getting a much deserved rest and greater restoration works are able to take place. With its rich history and combined efforts from national and international governing bodies to secure its preservation, Angkor Wat will continue standing as a significant culture, religious, and historic structure for centuries to come.

In celebration of the anniversary of Angkor Wat becoming a UNESCO world heritage site, the Globe has poured through the archives to compile a collection of images dating from pre-1875, and spanning the decades between 1900 to 2020.

Pre-1897: Angkor-Wat Main entrance from the west-exterior facade. Photo: Emile Gsell, Colonial Office via Archives Nationales
Pre-1897: View from the top of the grand staircase. Photo: Emile Gsell, Colonial Office via Archives Nationales
Pre-1897: Exterior view of the gallery. Photo: Emile Gsell, Colonial Office via Archives Nationales
1907: A family at Angkor Wat. Photo: Sabai Adventures Cambodia.
1910: road to Angkor Wat. Photo: J.G. Mulder via Wikimedia Commons
1920s: Children carrying baskets on the entrance steps. Photo: Tadpole (René), Colonial Office via Archives Nationales
1931: The replica of the temple of Angkor Wat at the Colonial Exposition in Paris. Photo: Source
1936: Tourists visit carvings at Bayon Temple ruins. Photo: Robert Larimore Pendleton via UWM Libraries

1957: Former King of Cambodia Prince Norodom Sihanouk, praying near Angkor Wat. Photo: AFP

The 1950s brought about the end of the French Colonial rule in 1953, and beckoned in the administration of Prince Norodom Sihanouk. In March 1955, Sihanouk abdicated so that he could pursue a political career, while his father, Norodom Suramarit, assumed the throne.

1973: Princess Monique poses in front of the Angkor Wat Temple. Photo: Xinhua via AFP

The 1970 military coup headed by Lon Nol against Prince Norodom Sihanouk abolished the monarchy, with Cambodia’s royal family fleeing into exile in China and later North Korea. Sihanouk would ally with the Khmer Rouge in 1973, with he and Norodom Monineath (Princess Monique) returning to the Kingdom briefly and visiting territory held by the then-Maoist rebels. As the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, Angkor Wat during this time, somewhat miraculously, sustained minimal damage.

1989: A Vietnamese soldier stands guard at the Angkor Wat temple, ahead of the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia later that year. Photo: Kraipit Phanvut via AFP

On January 7, 1979 Vietnamese troops entered Phnom Penh, effectively putting an end to four years of Khmer Rouge rule. That same year, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea was established by the Salvation Front. A lot then happens between 1979 and the eventual Vietnamese withdrawal a decade later, including the ascendancy to power of Hun Sen as prime minister in tenure that continues to this day, as well as continued guerilla warfare as Khmer Rouge troops flee into hiding.

1995: A Cambodian monk watches the beginning of a full solar eclipse with safety glasses. Photo: Doug Niven via AFP

The early 1990s is marked by relative peace in the Kingdom; the Paris Peace Agreement is signed in 1991 officially marking the end of the Cambodian -Vietnamese War, the monarchy is restored in 1993, and the remaining Khmer Rouge guerrillas surrender in 1998. UNESCO’s addition of Angkor Wat to the World Heritage List in 1992 brings about an increase in regulated tourism to the temple complex.

1999: Cambodian dancers perform at Angkor Wat. Photo: Rob Elliott via AFP

The turn of the century sees Cambodia enjoy increasing national stability and an economy growing consistently at around 7% per annum. Millions of Cambodians would be lifted out of absolute poverty during this time, but this era would also see the cementing of political power in the hands of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

With Cambodia’s sustained stability, cheap airfares and a growing Chinese middle class, 2010 and the years that followed saw a substantial increase in tourism to Angkor Wat.

2019: tourists visit Angkor Wat. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy via AFP
2020: Angkor Wat, emptied of virtually all its foreign tourists since March, has returned to a level of tranquility not seen since the 1990s. Photo: Alastair McCready

Entering the new decade, 2020 saw Angkor return to scenes not seen for decades as the Covid-19 global pandemic brought international tourism to a screeching halt in March and the ancient park was emptied of hordes of international tourists. In a silver lining, the visitor downturn has seen the park largely reclaimed by domestic, Cambodian tourists – many of whom are enjoying the wonders of the park by bicycle.

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