The Royal Geographical Society Hong Kong is inviting me to give a lecture on Angkor on Tuesday, July 15, at 1/f Duke of Windsor Building, 15 Hennessy Road. I’ll also have a chance to sign copies of my book, “The Story of Angkor”. Hong Kong is the only official chapter of the RGS outside of the UK, and it’s an honor to be given this opportunity. For those of you in Hong Kong, if you are interested, please come! Details are on RGS’ website.
My colleague, FinanceAsia reporter Suzy Waite, interviews me about the book for Asia Hacks.
Suzy Waite: What inspired you to write about Angkor’s lost civilization?
JD: I was irritated that I couldn’t find a decent, easily readable book to explain everything that a tourist would want to know. I’m not talking about a guidebook with restaurant tips and canned details about how many meters tall is Angkor Wat. Nor a dusty academic tome. But that seemed to be the only stuff available. Either that, or I was off my meds one year.
Describe your first visit Angkor Wat. How did it affect you?
That was back in 1998. I was there the same weekend Pol Pot died. Back then, Angkor was surrounded by Khmer Rouge. You had to stick to the main paths because of landmines in the forest. I had to bribe soldiers at a checkpoint to see Banteay Srei. It was all very Joseph Conrad.
What impressed you most about the temple complexes?
What didn’t? It’s absolutely amazing.
When you started doing research for your book, what surprised you most about Southeast Asia’s former almighty empire? Why?
I thought it was a known history, and that if I did my research, sifting through those academic volumes, I could synthesize it into something digestible for the non-professors among us. Which I sort of did, except it turns out a lot of Angkor history is unsettled and our understanding of it is changing. It turned out to be a moving target.
In your research, did you uncover anything new?
My research was all secondary, relying on the work of genuine scholars. I didn’t conduct original research; I just repackaged the work of others for a wider audience. But archeologists and other scientists are finding new things all the time, including clues as to why the civilization collapsed in the 15th century.
Angkor Wat was initially constructed as a Hindu temple complex but served as a Buddhist shrine from the mid-14th century. What instigated the conversion?
A civil war completely devastated the city, which discredited the Hindu cults ruling the empire. That opened the door for a Khmer prince who happened to be Buddhist to take power. The more interesting story is how he worked to convert the rest of the society. It wasn’t straightforward.
Which of the bas-reliefs struck you the most? Why?
Many temples boast amazing bas-reliefs on their walls. The most famous are those at Angkor Wat, and deservedly so. My book goes into detail about the symbolism behind these scenes, and how they relate to political messages at the time. The most interesting is one scene called the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, which is a Hindu creation story that Angkor kings used to other ends.
Angkor Wat is famous for the monuments and temples, yet you point out that these are not well made — they never figured out the keystone or how to create a proper foundation. Can you elaborate here?
The vaulted arch is one of the hallmarks of advanced civilization. It’s on the checklist, somewhere after ‘the wheel’ and ‘steel’ but before ‘splitting the atom’. The Burmese figured out how to make a vaulted arch, and if you visit the temples at Bagan – which were built at the same time as those at Angkor – you will find they excelled at making vast and high interiors. The medieval Khmers never figured this out, and their interiors are small, cramped and dark.
Cambodians’ genius lay in the network of hydraulics that covered the country. Have they incorporated this expertise in modern times? How?
This is a perverse story. The Cambodians were lousy at arches but ace at irrigation and water management. But after Angkor was abandoned in 1431, they ran out of ideas. Rulers in the 20th century, from Sihanouk to Pol Pot to Hun Sen, have mostly relied on the idea that the role of government is to make people dig canals. In the countryside, farming practices haven’t changed in a thousand years. Only in the past decade has this begun to improve.
The Bayon reliefs show women in roles of responsibility, and under Jayavarman VII’s rule, had considerable freedom and power. This was pretty unusual, especially when compared to the misogynistic empires of India and China. How did women’s status make Cambodia differ from its neighbours? Is this still present today?
It may have been due to the relative low population of mainland Southeast Asia at the time. Human labour was scarce and therefore women had a bigger say. They could own property and initiative divorces. Also, inheritance was matrilineal, that is, kingship and titles passed to the brothers or sons of the woman’s side of the family. This made for unstable dynasties but a more stable and equitable society. Under the Buddhist regime, women ran the temples. And sexual mores were looser. I think these deep-seated differences make a difference today. Anecdotally, AsianInvestor’s project to name the top 25 women in asset management found plenty of women CEOs in Southeast Asia, far more than in China or India or Japan.
Jayavarman VII’s conflict is interesting: he wanted people to view him as a man of compassion and mercy, but on the other hand, he committed sinful acts to become king. He is both venerated and banished simultaneously to save the kingdom. What other kings and leaders exhibited this conflict, in Cambodia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and how did they handle it?
You can draw some parallels to Cambodia’s King Sihanouk, who tried to tap the same subconscious wavelength when he was banished to Beijing and Pyongyang. It sort of worked.
Rhinoceros horn was the Viagra of the day. Please elaborate.
Classical Angkor’s number-one export to Song-dynasty China!
You’ve written about Angkor Wat. What’s next?
In 2015 I will break ground on writing the story of Bagan. It’s the other great pre-modern city in mainland Southeast Asia, Angkor’s contemporary, and a wonderful place to visit. But whereas Angkor had a rise and fall, Bagan is more connected to modern Myanmar. There is a continuity. So I will tell its story in a different way.
“The Story of Angkor” (Silkworm Books, 2013) is available in paperback and ebook format from Amazon.com, and in airport bookshops in Thailand and Cambodia.