John Burgess (1951, North Carolina, USA) first visited Cambodia in 1969, in his teen years. The son of a diplomatic family, he lived in India, Indonesia, and Thailand as a child. A former Washington Post foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia, he is the author of Stories in Stones: The Sdok Kok Thom Inscription and the Enigma of Khmer History and more recently The Stairway Guide’s Daughter, a work of fiction set in the 12th century at the clifftop temple of Preah Vihear, famous for its 2,400-step stairway.
In his 2021 book Angkor’s Temples in the Modern Era: War, Pride and Tourist Dollars, Burgess studied the political, economic and cultural resonance of Angkor in modern times, from the emergence of Cambodian nationalism to the explosion of mass tourism in the 2000s. Looting and restitution, a topic that has come forefront in the recent years, was also assessed. About that, the author remarked in 2021: "Theft had been a problem at Angkor basically from the start of the French era — indeed Delaporte’s bringing pieces back to France can be seen, for some of them, as government-sanctioned theft. He had pledged to the local Siamese lord not to take things. When tourism began, all visitors seemed to want a souvenir. To reduce the incentive for pocketing something when the guide wasn’t looking, the French began selling small ancient items that their experts deemed to be of no interest. During the war years, theft reached astounding heights in the general chaos and lawlessness that reigned. It picked up again with the demise of the Khmer Rouge. I was in Angkor in 1980 as a journalist and saw newly beheaded sculptures. The trade continued largely unchecked for years. As a result, most every free-standing piece of sculpture that you see at Angkor now is a replica, because the original disappeared long ago or has been taken to safekeeping storage." (Interview with The Diplomat, 23 Feb 2021)
Read a 2021 Khmer Times profile, 'Angkor By the Book'.