angkor wat cambodia 1994

When War Came to Angkor


EXPLOSIONS and gunfire rip through the quiet of the rainforest—taking us by surprise as we sit smoking grass on the stone pagoda steps, gazing at acres of ornate temple, in a trance and alone, admiring Angkor Wat.

The gates of Angkor Thom - fortified city in 1994
The city gates of Angkor Thom – the “Great City” seen back in June 1994.

Angkor is a world treasure.

It’s one of history’s greatest gifts – a staggering concentration of mind-blowing temples which ranks with the best of any ancient architecture.

As awesome as the Pyramids, the Parthenon, Bagan, Lalibela, Machu Picchu, or the Taj Mahal.

Having said that, Angkor is uniquely itself and the weirdness and immensity of its architecture borders on insanity.

And some historians claim the architects and sculptors were addicted to opium (this would explain much).

bayon temple faces angkor cambodia 1994
Crazy faces of the Bayon temple. Under the right light, it would glow purple; but often just green after the rain.

60 Second History of Angkor

When Europe was floundering in the Dark and Middle Ages, between 802 to 1431 AD, the (Cambodian) Khmer Empire stretched from Vietnam to areas of Laos and Thailand, dominating most of South-East Asia.

And with a population of around 1 million, the capital of Angkor was the biggest city on the planet.

deserted at angkor wat in cambodia 1994
Mighty Angkor Wat – deserted in June 1994.

During the zenith of those centuries, enemies feared Angkor as “the empire of a million elephants” because of its army of war elephants.

Khmer victories brought thousands of prisoners to the capital as slaves for the construction of moats, fortifications and temples.

You see, temple building was an obsession for the Khmer.

banteay srei temple angkor cambodia 1994
The small but delicately carved temples of Banteay Srei were some distance beyond the main areas and a Cambodian Army mortar position guarded the site.

Most Khmer kings built temple-mountains in the center of the city to house the royal linga. (The phallic symbol of the king’s authority identified with the god Shiva, for the ancient Khmers worshiped the Hindu trinity but later, the Buddha).

But building bigger and better temples diminished Khmer focus.

Ignoring the maintenance of vital irrigation systems, agriculture, and the military, the shock came in 1431 with invading Thai armies thrashing the weakened city.

Broken, the Khmers abandoned their capital and moved further east.

military at angkor cambodia 1994
Cambodian Army stationed in Angkor: LEFT: A soldier was necessary to guide me thru the still-mined temple of Preah Khan. TOP RIGHT: Recoiless gun mounted on a temple platform on a hill overlooking Angkor Wat and out to the distant Tonle Sap Lake. BOTTOM-LEFT: Soviet-era Cambodian Army tanks positioned around the perimeter of the outer circuit.

For centuries, dense jungle reclaimed Angkor until the mid-19th century, when the ruins were ‘discovered’ by Western explorers.

French archaeologists restored the ruins during the 20th century, yet it had been closed for two decades because of the Vietnam War and the subsequent Khmer Rouge takeover.

ta phrom temple angkor cambodia 1994
Trees overgrow the Ta Phrom temple. A favourite place to spend hours sheltering from the monsoon downpours, smoking grass.

Temples of Angkor in 1994

Of the original 1000 temples, there were 39 accessible sites.

Yet with the monuments so widely spread and with the main entrance 6 km from the town of Siem Reap, hiring a motorbike was the only way to travel around.

The tense military situation—the peace talks had just broken down—and the continuing civil war with the Khmer Rouge meant very few tourists visited in the early 1990s.

For many hours and even whole days, myself and a couple of other backpackers had temples to ourselves (oh man, this was such a different experience from my return trips to Angkor in 2016 and 2008).

When War Came to Angkor

Back in Siem Reap that evening, the guesthouse owner told us Khmer Rouge guerillas had attacked a village near the Roluos temple group today; killing children.

Sporadic gunfire had shot across the day.

travelers at bayon temple angkor cambodia 1994
RIGHT: Lovin’ it. Backpacker mates Thomas + MRP (below) at the mysterious multi-faced Bayon temple in 1994. We visited several times at different times of the day on different days. Surely, it’s the world’s weirdest temple.

A full ‘crazed backpacker’ account of traveling to Angkor in 1994 will appear in an ebook… Stay tuned.

Travels in Cambodia – 1994

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