Be Your Own Archaeologist In The Siem Reap Temples

Be Your Own Archaeologist In The Siem Reap Temples

French Archaeologists surveying Angkor Wat c1930s

Don a dashing French Colonial Explorer vibe for an adventure into the past and archaeology of the Siem Reap Temples. Let’s do some amateur archaeology to uncover the remarkable story of this area for yourself.  A bullwhip is not necessary, but a Fedora is acceptable.

Guy Pearce 2 Brothers exploring the temples of siem reap
1. Guy Pearce in 2 Brothers. You can still get around on a water buffalo cart if you like.

We are going to explore the archaeology of the area in and around the temples of Siem Reap.  Not through excavating, that’s too hot and dirty, but through the physical clues and evidence that remains today.  Evidence you can discover, to appreciate the layers of history of this amazing country and which will enrich your visit far beyond a few social media posts and eating a spider.

Shaun Mackay Archaeologist in old angkor wat complex
2. Shaun Mackay, a real archaeologist in Fedora waiting for his ride to the excavation site. Photo Courtesy Shaun Mackay

Archaeology is the study of material remains of human activity. Basically anything that humans have used, modified or done something with is archaeology. It is multidisciplinary, so we are going to be historians, landscape analysts, heritage architects and art historians on our journey.  Not one of them requires a bullwhip.

3. The Original French Mekong Exploration Team, 1866 on the steps of Angkor Wat

The Khmer Empire

Cambodia’s Khmer Empire lasted from 802 until 1431 and at its height covered most of South East Asia. 

Khmer Empire Extent
4. French Colonial Map of the extent of the Khmer Empire

The Khmer Capital city at Angkor had a population estimated to be about 1 million people, at a time when London and Paris were muddy towns holding a maximum of 30 thousand. Even many of the temples supported a population much larger than any city in Europe at the time.  But the magnificence of Khmer Empire was completely unknown to the French when in 1863 Cambodia became another of France’s colonial possessions.

5. French Colonial Explorers Cambodia c1860s

Background and History Of Siem Reap Archaeology

When Henri Mouhot was guided through the forest by local Khmers and shown Angkor Wat in 1859 he was stunned.  It was completely unexpected. He could not have known that he was also standing in a former city that was the largest in the pre-industrial world. 

It was built by a civilization which at its height, was more advanced and grander than anything in Europe at the same time since the Romans. It was larger than the contemporary Byzantium Empire.

First photo of Angkor Wat, John Thompson
6. First Photograph of Angkor Wat. John Thomson 1866

However, it took around 150 years after the French explorer first laid eyes on Angkor Wat to begin to understand just how large and sophisticated the Khmer Empire really was. Without the advances in the 21st century in radar technology and its first application to an archaeological use, there would still be little idea of the extent of the Khmer Empire.

It is the equivent of the Roman Empire disappearing. In many ways the Khmer Empire and the Roman Empire were similar, especially in their engineering and building of great monuments, as well as the sheer size of the Empire at its height. Unlike the Romans, other than bridges, the Khmer Empire only built Temples and Sacred Monuments in Stone, even the Royal Palaces were wooden. As a result, Temples are the only buildings which remain visible, but other clues exist.

Lidar Scans 2013 and 2015
7. Lidar Scans 2013 and 2015. The Capital City founded by Jayavarman II on Phnom Kulen is outlined. It held 800 thousand people.

Siem Reap City – Hiding Hints Of History In A Modern Metropolis

If you ever fly into Siem Reap, look out the window at the rice paddies. At certain times of the year, you can make out the grid pattern of the former city under the paddies.  This is a great way to get an appreciation of the size of the former capital and how closely settled it was. On the ground, it cannot be seen.  

Grid of former Capital of Angkor in rice paddies
8. Outline of the features of the Capital City of Angkor are still visible in rice paddies from the air.

Siem Reap is a modern city, most of the buildings are less than 20 years old, however, it’s because of the infrastructure built by the Khmer Empire a millennium before that the city exists at all.  The river that runs through Siem Reap is not natural, it is a canal that was hand dug to connect the Khmer Capital city with the great lake of Tonle Sap. It was a highway used to transport people and resources into and out of the city.  The river has changed course in some sections now and is no longer straight.  A dramatic illustration of how far it has moved is Wat Athvea. This temple and monastery was built on the banks in 12th century about the same time as Angkor Wat. 

Siem Reap River
9. Siem Reap River. Wat Athvea marked with red arrow. The river formerly ran to the left of Wat Athvea

When the canal first came into use, small docks were built along its banks. They were the local centers where the rice and other produce was collected for transportation.  This prompted the building of small villages and eventually Wats near these docks.  The oldest Wats in the city were established in this way, they are all built near the river. 

Siem Reap River 1948
10.Market Dock, Siem Reap, 1948

Siem Reap was originally just one of these small villages.  The name is said to be a celebration of the victory in a legendary battle by the Khmer over a Kingdom of Siam, now modern Thailand. According to this tradition, the name means Siam Defeated.  This another clue to the past, it hints at traditional enemies and the political situation.

Siem Reap Grows to a City

Siem Reap grew and swallowed the surrounding villages as the French, stunned and delighted by the awe inspiring temples, began to travel here to explore.  Soon they began promoting the area for adventurous tourists, tapping into the 19th Century equivalent of a Gap Year, the Gentleman’s Grand Tour. 

First Tourists Angkor Wat 1866
11. First Tourists at Angkor Wat 1866

This prompted the expansion of the local market and the village grew into a town. By 1925, the Raffles Hotel had opened, the old market was provided with a building, and a town center with brick buildings had begun to spring up.  Some of them survive and can be found around the perimeter of the Old Market.

Siem-Reap-market 1921-35
12. The ‘Old Market’ when new in 1925. Note buildings behind, they are still there.

Today you can see people using the river much as they did for hundreds of years in the past. If you go down there early in the morning, you may see men setting out nets in wooden boats.  If they are dressed in a sarong and krama[1], you are seeing a sight that hasn’t changed for generations, it is living history. Watch the monks walking around collecting alms of a morning for another example of the ancient and modern co-existing in this remarkable city.

13. Monks walking along the river, Siem Reap

There are other clues to the history of the city remaining, mostly in the Wats. They are all interesting and worth a visit, most have beautiful gardens and ancient trees.  Many still have historic buildings giving you a glimpse into the architectural traditions of the past.

Wat Danmak was built for King Sisowath in 1904, it held the Royal Palace in the largest Pagoda in Siem Reap. In the years 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge used it as a military depot.   

In here you can find a reminder of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and their desecration of the Wats in the Khmer Cultural Center.  Now used as a library, the building has a mural painted on the interior wall. The mural depicts a bucolic countryside with animals on the banks of a river and sacred icons painted in the sky.  The painting was used as target practice by the Khmer Rouge. However, it gives us a remarkable insight into the thoughts of the individual soldiers doing the shooting.  Animals and other mundane features of the painting have bullet holes in them. Not one is in any of the sacred images.  Despite the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and the fact that when this occurred, they were  actively sacking the Wat, no one was brave enough to shoot anything sacred. We must remember that the vast majority of those soldiers were very young and from rural villages, but it shows that the brainwashing didn’t entirely work.

Wat Damnak Mural
14. Mural in Wat Damnak Khmer Cultural Centre
amimals as target practice khmer rouge
15. Detail of mural showing bullet holes in animals.
Sacred Images Mural Wat Damnak
16. Detail Mural, Directly above the animals, no scared icons were shot.

Finding the Khmer Empire in Siem Reap

Wat Athvea, mentioned above, is still a working monastery, it has been in continuous use since at least the 12th century. However, that date is when the temple in the Angkor Wat style was constructed, it is likely it was an operating Wat prior to that[2]

Wat Athvea Khmer Empire
17. Wat Athvea built in the 12 century around the same time as Angkor Wat.

Another of the Wats, Wat Enkosei has the ruins of Brick Prasats built in the 10th century in the grounds. It is probably the earliest Wat in Siem Reap.

Khmer Empire Prasats Siem Reap
18. 10th Century Brick Prasats, ruins behind indicate it was once a much larger temple complex

If you enjoy a round of golf, you can play on a course that has an 11th Century Roluh Bridge between the 9th tee and 10th hole.

Khmer Empire Bridge Phokeethra Golf Club
19. 11th Century Roluh Bridge at the golf course Phokeethra Country Club. Photo Phokeethra Country Club

How to Read the Temples

The progression of building materials and the layout of the temples helps us to put them into a timeframe and understanding this will show you how to ‘read’ a temple.  The progression of building materials is our first big clue as to when a temple was constructed. 

Prior to the Khmer Empire there were two Chenla Kingdoms and Jayvaraman II united them to form his Empire.  The Chenla Kingdoms also built many temples and some of those survive as well.  They built their temples in brick, as did the early Khmer Empire, so when you see a brick temple, you are seeing a Chenla or early Khmer Empire temple. 

chenla temple
20. Chenla Temple c8-9th centuries

The foundations were made of Laterite. Laterite is a soft stone with a high iron content, when it is cut and exposed to the air, it hardens dramatically due to the iron and makes great foundations. It is a red colour and resembles swiss cheese.

The next progression of the materials are Sandstone and Laterite.  The temples were clad with sandstone over laterite and carved into wonderful images and patterns.  The best example of Khmer sandstone carving is arguably the Banteay Srei temple. This temple uses pink sandstone, and it is so magnificently carved, the reliefs stand out in 3D.

Banteay Srei
21. Banteay Srei intricate carvings into pink sandstone

Layout of the Temples

The earliest temples built by the Khmer Empire resemble those built by the Chenla, there was no dramatic stylistic change, it happened gradually.   These were brick stupas built in lines, with carvings directly into the brick. Many were covered with lime mortar and brightly painted. 

22. Kravan Temple. Brick carved temple 10th Century

However, once more than five stupas were needed, they began to be arranged with a central stupa and the others around the four cardinal points; North, South, East and West.  The next step was arranging the temple buildings on eight points to represent the Hindu universe.  Angkor Wat and the Bayon are the pinnacle of these temples.  The three temple plans below illustrate this growing complexity.

23. Phnom Bakheng Temple Plan built late 9th century. The central Stupa is surrounded by four more on the Cardinal Points.
24. Temple Plan of Ta Keo built late 10th Century. Stupas become more ornate and larger, outbuildings (called libraries) begin to be constructed in the grounds.

25. Temple Plan  of Angkor Wat (inner temple only), built early 12th Century. Stupas are connected, more outbuildings (not shown) and covered galleries are included.

State Temples are all built to represent the scared Mount Meru. They become Temple Mountains, Angkor Wat is the best example. But there are many others, the first being Phnom Bakeng which incidentally is a great place to see sunrise or sunset.

26. Phnom Bakheng, built for Yashovarman I in late 9th century.

Temples built for other purposes like universities, or by non-royals are flat, and do not rise with a central tower.  The most beautiful is probably Banteay Srei, the only temple not built by Royalty. The most well-known is Ta Phrom, built to be a temple monastery that supported around 80 thousand people. Another great example is Preah Khan, a temple that most tourists miss but would be a national monument in any other country.

Preah Khan
27. Preah Khan built late 12th Century as a university temple. The only two story library that survives is on the left.

Buddhist Temples were built beginning with the reign of Jayavarman VII. However, his State Temple, the Bayon, built in the center of Angkor Thom still represents the sacred mountain.

Bayon Angkor Thom
28. Bayon, Angkor Thom, State Temple of Jayavarman VII the first Buddhist King. Built 13th Century.

Landscape Archaeology For The Wider Picture

Now we are going to take our archaeological journey a step beyond and look at the wider area. We are going to do Landscape Archeology to understand how it all fits together.

The sheer number of Temples and monuments around Siem Reap is bewildering, there’s more than 50 in the Angkor Archaeological Park alone.  Then there are many more outside the Park.  Without a big picture, these amazing temples and sites will become a confusing blur jumbled together. 

Phnom Kulen, Where Your Investigation Begins

In 802CE when King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire he held a ceremony on Phnom Kulen which proclaimed him a God-King.  This event is considered to mark the beginning of the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman then established his Capital City here and today it is difficult to believe that around 800 thousand people called it home.

It’s difficult to believe unless we look at it through our archaeology lens and travel a bit further than the waterfall and village. Off into the jungle and down dirt tracks we will find the evidence we are looking for. Throughout the jungle are monuments and temples, attesting to a large population capable of building them. 

Rong Chen Phnom Kulen
29. Prasat Rong Chen, Phnom Kulen. One of the many treasures in the jungle of the sacred mountain.

Let’s look at the shape of the mountain, it has a large plateau capable of supporting a huge population.  Next look out from the mountain, it has a 360 degree view over the immense plain below. Imagine the military advantages for a new King in a new Empire which he was still subduing.

Shaun Mackay, David Brotherson, and Tse Siang Lim. Photo Rothsophal Nguon
30. Archaeologists Shaun Mackay, David Brotherson, and Tse Siang Lim and photographer Rothsophal Nguon inspect the views from Phnom Kulen. Photo courtsey Shaun Mackay

However, Jayavarman II had more important reasons for choosing Phnom Kulen for his ceremony and coronation than the mundane of food and defence. Phnom Kulen was also known as Mount Mahendr, the representation of the sacred mountain where Hindu Gods lived.  By choosing this location he was legitimizing his rule and in turn adding another layer of significance to the mountain.

Today it is still the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, and the monuments to that reverence lay everywhere on the mountain.  The river is carved with thousands of sacred Yoni and Linga; creative fertility icons. This makes the water sacred and fertile before tumbling over the waterfalls and eventually reaching the plain of Angkor. These carvings are estimated to be around 1000 years old.  The huge reclining Buddha in the temple in the village was consecrated in the 14th century.  This indicates that a large population were still invested in the site 500 years after Jayavarman II and a century after the decline of the Empire when Royal Court moved south of the Tonle Sap.

31. Preah Ang Thom Pagoda, Phnom Kulen. 14th Century Reclining Buddha

If you look closer at the rocks around Phnom Kulen, you will find the individuals who have left their mark here. And there is some remarkable ancient and modern rock art on the mountain.  We are going to look at the modern, as it records events of the last century.  Phnom Kulen became a Khmer Rouge stronghold, they too recognized its defensive advantages.

This art is naïve, it was done by people not trained in art or rock carving, and it was done by people caught up in horrendous events. Individuals who were trying to understand the events taking place around them left this poignant record for future generations.

Rifle Rock Art Phnom Kulen
32. One of many images of rifles and weapons etched into the rocks of Phnom Kulen

Cambodia was bombed during the Vietnam War by American B52 bombers.  Someone has etched a image of these aircraft and other aircraft overhead. Other rock art has depictions of a rifles.  

Bombing Rock Art Phnom Kulen
33. Aircraft shown overhead, a possible record of the secret bombing campaign by the USA.

The mountain was quarried for the sandstone to build many of the temples, including Angkor Wat.  Look out for the quarry marks on the sides of the mountain.  Those sheer cliffs are not natural.  There is a site in a riverbed near the base of the mountain which was obviously a quarry.

Quarry Site PK
34. Ancient Quarry, Phnom Kulen

Red Jungle Bananas
35. Insiders tip; when you visit Phnom Kulen try the Red Bananas that only grow here, they are delicious.

Rolous Group – The First City On The Angkor Plain

The next Capital of the Khmer Empire was built at Rolous, at the foot of Phnom Kulen.  From our archaeological landscape analysis, we can see that it was built next to the floodplain of the Tonle Sap and close to the conjunction of several major streams coming off the Kulen Hills.  By the time the first temple was built here, the Khmer Empire was secure. The change in temple architecture happened here. Preah Ko and Lolei follow the linear arrangement and are brick temples, but Bakong is a temple mountain built of sandstone.

Preah Ko
36. Preah Ko built 879

37. Lolei built 893
Bakong Rolous
38. Bakong built 881, the first State Temple Mountain

Angkor Archaeological Park

Then the Khmer Empire settled into the Capital City in today’s Angkor Archaeological Park and built a plethora of temples and monuments.

As you travel around the park, you should now be able to make sense of the enormous number of temples and place them in a general timeframe. So now let’s zoom in on one temple to find the archaeological evidence of individual people, Angkor Wat.

The Snapshots In Time Left By People Of The Past On Angkor Wat.            

Angkor Wat was never abandoned, it remained a living building used since its dedication in 1150, to the present day.  Millions of people have been through the temple, and some have left evidence of their visit behind. Now we become architectural archaeologists to look for the evidence of individuals in this amazing edifice.

The Craftspeople

Incredible as it may seem, Angkor Wat was not completely finished, and you can find the evidence in the artworks decorating the building.

Unfinished columns decorations. Look at the base of the columns as you walk around the temple. You will see how they were done, step by step as there are many in different stages of completion.

Unfinished bas relief.  If you look closely, you will find evidence of where the bas relief was unfinished or the carver changed their mind. Or possibly in this case, was trying to insert a joke and was stopped?

Incomplete monkey warrior
39. A monkey warrior who was going to bite his enemy on the behind.

Bored Novice Monks?

Look for the amateur depictions of sacred icons and animals etched into the walls and columns.  These must have been made by someone who spent a lot of time in the temple. The people who carved these were interested in the myths, legends and icons already carved into the walls of the temple, so they were most likely religious.  The guess, and it can only ever be a guess, is that these were made by novice monks.

Apsara graffiti Angkor Wat
40. Amateur Apsara, Angkor Wat

Buddha graffiti Angkor Wat
41. Buddha?

Deer graffiti Angkor Wat
42. Deer with possible target practice marks.

French Colonization Of Cambodia

The French Colonial period is also evident on the walls of Angkor Wat.  Some left beautifully carved memorials of their visit. There is a French Solider head depicted wearing a Kepi Cap, and some beautifully done inscriptions.

Kepi cap graffiti Angkor Wat
43. French Soldier in Kepi Cap, possibly by DB in 1929.
French graffiti on a column in one of the courtyard galleries of Angkor Wat 1993
44. French Colonial Graffiti. Image Australian War Memorial


Conquering Armies like to leave their mark behind and show their superiority by desecrating sacred sites of the vanquished. Angkor Wat is no exception.  There is graffiti left by armies from the Cham 1000 years ago, through to UNTAC in 1993.

The Japanese also left their mark during their occupation of South East Asia in World War 2.  In the central tower, the holiest of places, you can see the Imperial Red paint and Japanese text painted and etched into the walls.  There is a great deal of Japanese writing etched into the walls.

Japan WW2 Graff AW
45. Japanese text possibly WW2

Evidence Of A Battle

On the southern side of the temple is evidence of a battle. This side of the temple was restored with concrete in the 1950s and 60s. There is bullet holes in the concrete and this tells us that the battle happened after the restoration works. So we can rule out WW2.  

After the military coup of 1970, the Khmer Rouge took over the Park, five years before taking the entire country.  The battle could have occurred then, or during the Vietnamese invasion of 1989, or during the clearing of the Khmer Rouge entirely from the temples by the UN in 1993.

Bullet holes sth side AW
46. Scars in the temple from a battle. Bullet holes
mortar scars sth side AW
47. Scars in Angkor Wat from a battle. Possible mortar, grenade or booby trap.

The Khmer Culture

The biggest and most wonderful artefact of the past you will find is the culture of the Khmer. They blend their ancient past with the modern day gracefully. The exquisite hand gestures of the Apsaras carved into the temple walls can also be seen in the most trendy dance clubs being made by thoroughly modern women.  Monks, dressed as they have been for time immemorial using the latest tablet or mobile phone.

The Khmer were noted for their hospitality by Chinese merchants who left journals of their visit here in the 11th century. You will still find that friendly hospitality in Cambodia in the 21st Century. This unique and stunningly beautiful place deserves exploring.

Friendly Monk Photography Teacher
48. One of the friendly modern monks you will meet in any of the modern Wats of Siem Reap. This Monk was teaching a child photography and their history.

Insider’s Tip: It is not compulsory to eat a spider, but silkworms go well with a beer.

[1] Krama is a Cambodian cotton scarf that Cambodian put to an amazing array of uses.

[2] Insider’s Tip; don’t try to play with any puppies you find here, the mother dogs don’t like it and you may have to be rescued by the monks.

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