Fragile, Lasting Photos: the Last Photographic Testimonies on Angkor before the War

by Angkor Database

Who took the last photographs of Angkor before the Khmer Rouge takeover?

Taizo ichinose angkorthom road 1972

Author: Angkor Database

End of the year 1968, there was no obvious harbinger of the war to come. On the color photographs of young international visitors such as Solange Brand, Angkor temples and the village life along the Stung Siem Reap south only inspired serenity.

On 4 June 1970, thunderclap in an apparently serene sky: Siem Reap Governor issues an order directing all tourists in the Angkor area, and all wives of officials in the city, to evacuate to Phnom Penh. A few days later, rockets fall on Siem Reap airport and on some temples. FUNK (Front Uni National du Kampuchea Démocratique) forces, in coordination with North-Vietnamese companies, attack the FANK soldiers of General Lon Nol, who has just ousted Prince Norodom Sihanouk from power.

Some shells fell on Bakheng temple, where the Vietnamese army had a light artillery post, damaging one tower of the temple-pyramid, some fighting occurred around and in Prasat Bakong, yet during the years 1970 and 1971 European and Japanese tourists kept coming in, and EFEO even opened new work sites at Wat Athvea and Prah Enkosei. In 1972, Jean Boulbet photographed the Cambodian refugees (around 3,000) in Angkor Wat.

On 20 May 1972, the Lon Nol government issued a communication to UNESCO stating that the Angkor area would be kept out of military operations, and at the same moment attempted a catastrophic attack there.

On 8 January 1973, B.P. Groslier noted in his diary: All of Angkor and Roluos evacuated, except for the families of Khmer Rouge fighters. The Bakong monks are rumored to have asked to come back to their temples, and the Khmer Rouge have supposedly promised to organize a custodian force for the temples, but we are still waiting…They claim my expulsion from Angkor is motivated by the fact that I am a CIA agent”…”[1] And in April, Prince Sihanouk and Princess Monineath reach Angkor after a perilous journey from Laos.

For a detailed account of military operations involving FANK, North and South Vietnamese forces, Issarak rebels and GRUNK-KR units, see The Battle for Angkor 1970 – 1975, CNE News, 2021.

Wartime-and-After Photography

  1. War and fine art photographer Marc Riboud came to Angkor for the first time in March or April 1968, then again in 1969, while he was working with Magnum photo agency and completing his book A Journey to North Vietnam (1969). Later on, he read extensively about Khmer art and civilization, often quoting from the works of philosophers Elie Faure and René Grousset, and Angor conservator Bernard-Philippe Groslier, and published his book on Angkor in the 1990s.
  2. Life Magazine ran its last photo report on Angkor before the civil war on June 5, 1970., titled Deep in the Cambodian jungle lie the titanic ruins of a lost empire’. The 5 photos (Angkor Wat, including aerial, and Banteay Srei) were taken by war correspondent Larry Burrows (29 May 192610 Feb. 1971), who was then covering the Vietnam War and killed in Laos one year later along with photojournalists Henri Huet (AP), Kent Potter (UPI) and Keisaburo Shimamoto, a freelancer for Newsweek,
  3. To our knowledge, the last major color photoshoot in Angkor area was Bela Kalmans remarkable 1970 series for the book Angkor, Monuments of God-Kings (published in 1975).
  4. Photgrapher Colin Grafton, who also photographed the Karen insurgency on the Thai-Burmese border in 1973 and 1975, and was about to witness the last performances of dancers from the Royal Ballet (renamed Khmer Classical Dance Ensemble during the Khmer Republic) in Phnom Penh right before the Khmer Rouge takeover — documented in his book Dancers — recalls that November 29th, 1972, was my first day in Cambodia. I had arrived in Sisophon the night before. I knew that the Khmer Rouge had occupied Angkor, so it was not a good idea to go there. However, I’d heard there was another large temple about 63 kms. north of Sisophon named Banteay Chhmar, which could be reached. I found a man with a motorbike and a big smile.” His photos of Banteay Chhmar can be seen here.
  5. Taizo Ichinose, a young Japanese war correspondent, took some photos while trying to reach Angkor Wat and 1973, before being killed by Khmer Rouge forces. According to Colin Grafton, who met Taizo once at a small party, he made a few trips towards Angkor, and on one trip he said he got to within 1.5 kms from the temple. The photo of that so inviting, peaceful, leafy road impressed me, so I went and looked down it. That was of course, after Taizo had disappeared, so I didn’t follow in his footsteps. Maybe I saw the photo from Naoki Mabuchi, who was a good friend of Taizo’s. The photo with Angkor Wat in the distance is familiar, because I went to the same vantage point in 1974 –it was taken with a telephoto lens from the roof of the old Grand Hotel in Siem Reap.” See also Iconic Photos blog post about Taizo (April 2023).
  6. In his poignant account of his love story with Sinan, a young Cambodian woman, The Last Helicopter, Two Lives in Indochina, war reporter Jim Laurie recalls that they planned to visit Angkor in July 1971: We talked about flying to Siem Reap. Was it too late to see Angkor? I felt nervous. Although it was very early in the war, security had already deteriorated around the temples.They never made it, and Jim Laurie had a chance to visit Angkor only in 1979, when he covered the Vietnamese takeover of the country, and then again in 2011, when he came back to Cambodia to honor the memory of Sinan, who had died in exile.
  7. In September 1991, art historian Hélene Legendre-De Konink [Legendre-De Koninck, H. (1991), Les temples d’Angkor survivront-ils?”, Vie des arts, 36(144), pp 48 – 53]gave the following assessment: Les conséquences de la guerre sur les pierres d’Angkor sont moins étendues qu’on a pu le penser. À l’exception d’un monument, le Phnom Bahkeng (à quelque 2 km d’Angkor Vat), qu’on utilisa comme tour d’observation et base d’opération, et où les combats ont été acharnés, peu d’affrontements eurent lieu sur le site même. Ailleurs qu’au temple du Phnom Bahkeng, toujours inaccessible aujourd’hui, les dommages directement attribuables à la guerre n’auraient pas, de façon générale, affecté les monuments dans leurs structures. Dans le cas précis d’Angkor Vat, sur une longueur d’une dizaine de mètres, le célèbre bas-relief historique était endommagé par des bombardements en 1972; sa restauration est presque impensable. Les douves du temple, pour leur part, transformées en rizière sous les Khmers rouges, ont retrouvé par la suite, avec leurs contours, leur aspect d’autrefois.” [“The consequences of the war on the stones of Angkor are less extensive than one might have thought. With the exception of one monument, Phnom Bahkeng (some 2 km from Angkor Wat), which was used as an observation tower and base of operations, and where the fighting was fierce, few clashes took place on the site itself. Elsewhere than at the Phnom Bahkeng temple, still inaccessible today, the damage directly attributable to the war would not, in general, have affected the monuments in their structures. In the specific case of Angkor Wat, over a length of around ten meters, the famous historical bas-relief was damaged by bombings in 1972 ; its restoration is almost unthinkable. The temple’s moat, for their part, transformed into a rice field under the Khmer Rouge, subsequently regained, with its contours, its former appearance.”]
  8. Starting from the beginning of the 1990s, several photography books dedicated to Angkor were released. Famous ones included Riboud’s The Serenity of Buddhism (Thames & Hudson, London, 1993), Kenro Izus Light Over Ancient Angkor (Friends Without A Border, 1996), while Mark Standen’s Passage Through Angkor (1994, international edition 1997) dealt with the daily life around the temples and the effort to prevent further art looting. In 2005, photographer Baku Saito (BAKU斉藤) published with researcher Olivier Cunin The Face Towers of Banteay Chmar 幻都パンティアイ・チュマールの神々(ed. Shinichi Nishimoto, NOTO Printing Co. Ltd, Tokyo).


[1] Quoted in Maxime Prodromides: Angkor, Chronique d’une renaissance, p 275.

Above: from Larry Burrows’ photo essay in Life, 5 june 1970.

Above: two undated photos by Marc Riboud (©Marc Riboud)

Above: two photos from Colin Grafton’s series in Banteay Chhmar, 1972 (@Colin Grafton)

Above: Angkor Wat causeway captured by Jim Laurie in November 1979, right after Vietnamese troops secured the area.

Above: Preah Khan 11, from Solange Brand’s exhibition Angkor 1968.

Above: two scanned half-frame Kodachrome slides by east med wanderer, October 1968. (Flickr).

Main photo: The road to Angkor Thom photographed by Taiso Ichinose shortly before his death in 1973.

Tags: photography, wars, Modern Cambodia, modern history, khmer rouge, Vietnam War

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