Visions of Angkor by...Jean Boulbet

by Jean Boulbet

When war refugees became the temple keepers...7 of the 37 Jean Boulbet's photographs kept at Bophana Center were exhibited in Jan.-Feb. 2021.


Published: 2021

Author: Jean Boulbet

Villagers cooking and doing their laundry around the pillared esplanades of Angkor Wat...these most unusual images were taken by explorer, ethnologist and geographer Jean Boulbet in the years 1970-1971.

The Bophana Center presentation gives us the historic background: "In March 1970, the Americans bombed northern Cambodia in order to destroy the Vietnamese forces taking shelter there. The large white banners which could be seen from the airplane were put there by UNESCO to prevent the Angkor site from being bombed. As a result, for around a year and a half, people took shelter in the main temples. For over five centuries, no one had lived at the Angkor sites. Measuring the exceptional and almost anachronistic character of this situation, Jean Boulbet, a map-maker for the French School of the Far East (EFEO), photographed and wrote about the daily activities of the new inhabitants in this historical site."

“Beneath the Shadow of Angkor”, daily life of the refugees camping in the main temples of Angkor.

Photos by Angkor Database and Bophana Center.

The entire collection of Boulbet's photos can be screened at Bophana Center.

Tags: Modern Cambodia, Indochina War, photography, refugees

About the Photographer

Jean Boulbet2

Jean Boulbet

Self-taught ethnologist, poet, archaeologist, botanist, geographer and cartographer, sociologist, linguist Jean Boulbet (2 Jan. 1926, Sainte-Colombe-sur-l'Hers, France - 11 Feb. 2007, Phuket, Thaïland), had extensively explored the Cau Maa' ("hill people" ethnic minority in Vietnam) territory when ethnographer Georges Condominas called him to take charge of the Angkor site forest conservation in 1963, thus helping in saving him from the South-Vietnamese jails.

While completing his studies in geography and ethnology, Boulbet -- nicknamed 'TaBeh' (Granddad (Boul)Bet) by the Khmer -- established the first permanent scientific post in the Phnom Kulen area. After contributing to the cartography of Central Vietnam, Northern Cambodia and Southern Thailand, discovering several important archaeological sites such as Kbal Spean (the Thousand Linga River, in which his ashes would be scattered by his Cambodian spouse, Moey, after his death), becoming fluent in Khmer and minority dialects (stieng, mnong...), he was briefly captive of the Khmer Rouge militia in Battambang in 1975, and managed to escape to Thailand, where he first settled in Nonthaburi.

A "montagnard" himself -- born and raised among the remote hills of Ariege --, a pioneer in fauna and flora preservation, Boulbet saved several endangered species and actively helped to the reforestation after the war.

His life has inspired French novelists such as Pierre Schoendoerffer (in L'Adieu au roi), François Bizot (Le Saut du Varan) and Loup Durand for his literary saga set in Cambodia, Jaraï.

Further references: One of his four grandsons from his daughter Laure (sired with his first spouse, a Cau Maa´ young woman), Danny Blao, has launched in 2012 a blog dedicated to Jean Boulbet.