A Visit to the Ruined Cities and Buildings of Cambodia

by Adolf P. W. Bastian

An early exploration of Angkor and surrounding temples by German anthropologist Adolf Bastian.

Margit Hager 2019

Publication: Report read at a Royal Geographic Society (RGS) Conference, London, 1865 (RGS Proceedings, vol. XXXV)

Published: February 13th, 1865

Author: Adolf P. W. Bastian

Pages: 14

Language : English

An ethnologist more than an archaeologist, the visitor (who was to share some of his insights with Anna Leonowens at the Siamese Royal Court) was particularly interested in written sources (inscriptions) and oral traditions. Among his many observations:

  • About Angkor Thom and the reverence still showed to the place in Siamese traditions: 'In Siam every town has a larger or smaller chapel for the honour and the preservation of the Lak Myang (the town pillar), an injury to which would bring destruction on the citizens. The tree is still pointed out at Nakhon Tom [Angkor Thom], under which the leader of the emigration buried the golden umbrella (the emblem of royalty), and by this artifice got possession of the country, which had been before occupied by the Djam [Chams]. The palace was situated on an eminence, and a staircase leads up to what remains of the second story.'
  • About the temple organization of priesthood and servants in 19th century Angkor: 'Connected with the temple of Nakon Vat [Angkor Wat] is the establishment of a number of villages inhabited by a people called Samre, on the neighbouring Khao (mountain) Lichi. Whenever some work is to be performed in the temple, the abbot sends a message to the mountains (1/4 day distant), and the required number of labourers has to be sent by the head man. The nomination of the abbots, who were placed there after the rediscovery of the temple in the year 1570, is now in the hands of the governor of Siemrab. The custom to endow a temple with slaves was prevalent over the whole continent. There were pagoda-slaves connected with the Schwey- Dagon in Rangoon, and there are still slaves belonging to several pagodas in Birma Proper. In the latter country they were, however, mostly supplied by prisoners of war, Arracanese, Kassay, Peguans, &c. &c.; whereas the Samre belong to the aboriginal stock of the population, inhabiting most of the hills around the lake, and thence to Kampot.'
  • About the Sra Srang reservoir: 'In the neighbourhood of Phra-Keoh is an artificial lake, called Sasong (the royal lake), which was built by the kings of Paten Taphrohm for their recreation, and surrounded by pleasure houses. It is now covered with lotus and aquatic plants, but still supplies the villages scattered through the forest with water, as there is no other near. It must have been a work of immense labour, and fills the beholder with doubtful wonder when he compares these witnesses of former centuries with the present state of the country. The whole population of Cambodia of to-day would scarcely be able to raise one of these gigantic structures which abound in ruins.'
  • About the Khmer Empire Northern Road: 'This elevated ridge was the remains of the old highway of the Khamen-boran (ancient Cambodians), who built the stone monuments; and it can be traced, as the natives told me, from the neighbourhood of Nophburi (a large city of Siam, now nearly deserted) straight up to Nakhon Vat [Angkor Wat], from which place it continues to the centre of Cochin China, and none of the people I met with had seen its terminus. Following the serpentine lines of the Indian path, I was put in mind of my wanderings in Peru, where the traveller, winding his way over a broken and intersected ground, climbing hills on one side to descend them on the other, and wading rocky streams brawling down precipitous valleys, sees above his head the remnants of the ancient road of the Incas, which leads along the level of the high plateau in a straight line to Cuzco, the capital. Chasms are spanned by magnificent stone bridges in Peru, and although the difficulties to be overcome in the lowlands of Cambodia cannot be compared with the wild and grand nature of the Andes, the stone bridges which these ancient Cambodians built over comparatively insignificant streams rival in the boldness of their conception and even surpass the Peruvian bridges, and seem to prove that their builders must have been a people accustomed to struggle with the obstacles of mountainous countries. Dwellers in the lowlands would scarcely have thought of raising such immense works to escape the water, which they rather seek for as their favourite means of conveyance.'

Photo: Ta Prohm in 2019 (by Margit Hager)

Tags: Western explorers, legends, Sra Srang, Siam, Modern Cambodia, Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat

About the Author

Adolf Bastian44

Adolf P. W. Bastian

Dr. Adolf Philipp Wilhelm Bastian (26 June 1826, Bremen, Germany – 2 Feb. 1905, Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago), an avid traveler considered as one of the founders of modern anthropology and ethnology as scientific disciplines (as well as 'the father of German ethnology'), visited Angkor as early as 1863.

A pioneer in exploring the concept of "psychic unity of mankind", A. Bastian was a ship's doctor when he came to the shores of Southeast Asia in 1861, starting a four-year travel across the region narrated in his six-volume publication, The People of East Asia.

His accounts of Angkor and Cambodian mores were originally parts of his Reisen in Siam im Jahre 1863 (1867), and Reise dur Kambodja nach Cochinchina (1868) (collations of parts of v. 3-4 of Die Voelker des oestlichen Asien). The English version, A Journey to Cambodia and Cochinchina, by Walter. E. Tips, was published in 2005 (White Lotus Press, Bangkok).