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Wandering in Angkor

2016 © K. W. Bridges

Expedition members (L-R): Will McClatchey, Valerie McClatchey, Trissa McClatchey & Kim Bridges

Wandering in Angkor

A photo essay of an expedition to Cambodia in 2006

Preface We were living in Thailand a little over ten years ago. Will and I were on sabbatical. We thought: “Why not dash over to Cambodia for a tourist visit?� We’ve got the time and opportunity. Cambodia has been a bit cryptic. We know that Cambodia was once the home of a great civilization. The Medieval population of this area was large and prosperous. Then, at some time in the past, the people disappeared. What remains is Angkor Wat, a splendid stone reminder of the past glory. This photo essay details our adventure and brings it up to date with more recent information.


Myanmar Laos Bay of Bengal


Andaman Sea

Cambodia Gulf of Thailand

South China Sea


How does a civilization disappear? Going to Cambodia, we figured, would let us see the evidence. Would we learn more about how the great civilization disappeared? Off we go. Will and Valerie, their daughter Trissa, and myself. We hadn't done much planning. We had an anchor; our reservation for a place to spend a couple of nights. La Noria turned out to be a quiet oasis close to downtown Siem Reap. We arrived too late in the day to head to Angkor Wat. This ancient temple is the focus for most tourists. It is the reason people come to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat would have to wait until morning.

There was, however, time to do something else. Visit TonlĂŠ Sap lake. Why not? We'll see a floating village. This is a fun way to fill up the remaining hours of the day. I'm not one to turn down a boat ride. Sounds like fun. That was the start of our adventure. In retrospect, we were lucky in how we managed our trip. There were three distinct field activities. We visited the lake, walked among the archaeological sites, and went to our tour driver's village. Each activity is a key part of the puzzle (remember? The disappearance of a civilization). We didn't know, at the time, that we were assembling the right pieces. As I said, we were lucky.

This photo essay isn’t just a collection of photos. There are a lot of photos, of course. The images support a search for a deeper understanding of the Angkor Civilization. The story assembles my views on the answer to the puzzle. I’ve relied on many sources. Borrowed images are given credit. Lots of web searches have provided background information.

Start with a Question Why are traditional Cambodian houses on stilts? Trying to answer this question leads us to an understanding of how the dynamics of water has impacted the civilizations in this area over the millennia.

A Very Big Lake

Angkor is in a Floodplain The Angkor region is north of current day city of Siem Reap. It sits on a flat floodplain (known as the Cambodian Floodplain). There are mountains in the north and a very large lake, Tonlé Sap, in the south. Mountain water drains through the Siem and other rivers to Tonlé Sap. However, it is the annual cycle of the Mekong River that dominates the lake’s dynamics. Tonlé Sap connects to the Mekong River through the 75 mile (120 km) long Tonlé Sap River. Water flows south, out of the lake, into the Mekong in the dry season. When the Mekong floods, the flow in Tonlé Sap River reverses. Instead of draining the lake, Mekong river water fills the lake. It also floods the surrounding countryside.

Angkor & Siem Reap Tonlé Sap Mekong River

Tonlé Sap River

Source: Google Earth

Immense Flooding Happens The annual dynamics of the flooding of Tonlé Sap have a profound influence on the floodplain. The lake rises more than 20 feet (7 m). The water area increases five-fold. This dry/flood cycle produces a rich mosaic of agricultural and natural habitats. The flooding brings water and it replenishes the soils with nutrients. The result is one of the world’s most varied and productive ecosystems. Cambodians know there will be floods. They build their houses high above the floodplain. They also maintain a complex of levees and ponds. A short visit didn’t reveal the dynamics of the annual water cycle. Instead, we had to look at data, hints in the landscape and other people’s photos.


Wet Season


Dry Season



6 5 4 3


2 1 0







Receding flood Oct






Rising flood


After: Kummu, M. and J. Sarkkula. 2008. Impact of the Mekong River Flow Alteration on the Tonle Sap Flood Pulse. Ambio 37: 185-192.

Water level (ft)


Our Visit

Water level (m)


50 km 25 mi

Seasonal Floodplain Permanent TonlĂŠ Sap Lake

After: Kummu, M. and J. Sarkkula. 2008. Impact of the Mekong River Flow Alteration on the Tonle Sap Flood Pulse. Ambio 37: 185-192.

Source: Jesse Allen, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC via

Dry season area: 965 mi2 (2,500 km2) Wet season area: 6,178 mi2 (16,000 km2)

Source: Pretre, 12-29-2007 from Flickr

A Few Hours on TonlĂŠ Sap Lake This was our first venture out. We left our hotel in Siem Reap, and headed south. The roads turned to dirt paths outside the city. Our goal is Chong Khneas, a small village about a half-hour drive from our hotel. Farmers houses dot the sides of the road. The buildings perched on stilts in the fields. The road itself is on an elevated berm. Our first look at rural Cambodia is stunning. The countryside and villages are alive with people. Some are walking, while others are on motorcycles or bicycles.

Water Transport The plan is to take a power boat tour from the shoreside part of Chong Khneas out into the lake, Tonlé Sap. We’re going to explore the village floating on the lake. This is the peak of the dry season and the lake level is at its lowest. The average depth is about 3 ft (1 m). Our tour is on a long, narrow power boat. An automobile-sized engine connects to a long, straight drive-shaft. At the end is a propeller and rudder. This is a fast (and noisy) form of transportation. Our boatman, with his big smile, is also our guide. We’re soon off, throwing up a trail of muddy water.

A Variety of Houses The houses on the shore-side end of Chong Khneas sit on stilts or occupy sites on high ground. The houses out on the lake float. They get moored at temporary locations depending on the water level. The houses range from simple to fancy. Friendly people fill many of the dwellings. The children, in particular, look at us with great curiosity.

A Real City The city on the lake appears to be fully self-sufficient. There are stores full of goods. Boats ply the waters selling a variety of merchandise and food. There is a floating church anchored among the houses. Floating structures also provide places for other types of gatherings.

Most People Paddle There are a lot of small boats on the lake. If there is only one person in a boat, the boat is generally paddled from the front. Most are traditionally shaped wooden boats. We did spot something unusual; a boy trying to make headway paddling a large pot. A few power boats zip across the lake.

Life Centers on Fishing TonlÊ Sap is a fish factory. Annual catch estimates range from 300,000 to 500,000 tons. There are a lot of people out catching fish. A recent estimate was that there are about 38,000 full-time fishermen. The fish supply about three-quarters of the country’s animal protein. Fish are an essential element the Cambodian diet. You see evidence of fishing everywhere. Fishing boats speed by. Small boats move nets from place to place. Fishing gear fills the stores.

The Fish Catch Some of the fish in Tonlé Sap are huge. There are reports of quarter-ton catfish. Most of the fish, the important catch, consists of tiny trey riel. Scientists call this Henicorhynchus siamensis; the local name is “money fish”. People catch the small fish using huge nets. Few migration routes connect the vast wet-season habitats to the tiny dryseason refuges. A net placed in the narrow, migratorychannel fills quickly. People stomp on the small, silver fish. This pounds them into a paste. This paste is then fermented. The result is prahok, a key ingredient in the Cambodian diet.

We spotted a fish in a depression on the road. Of course you stop and pick it up. It will be somebody’s meal tonight. This surprising “catch” is today’s only view of fish.

A Mixed Blessing The rich sediments in the waters of TonlÊ Sap bring nutrients to the lake and the fields in the floodplain. This is the source of the productivity in the region. The silt is deposited in the fields. That’s beneficial. Also, some silt stays in the lake. The result is the need to dredge the river mouths and channels. Siltation is a threat to the future of the lake. The important point is that TonlÊ Sap Lake is a key part of a large ecosystem that encompasses the Angkor region. It is the source of the productivity that supports the current and past populations. You need to recognize the role of the lake, and its flooding, if you are to understand the history of this region.

The Ancient Temples

A Nineteenth Century “Discovery” A young French entomologist went to South East Asia to collect insects. Travel was difficult. The places that he visited were relatively inaccessible. Diseases were devastating. This was exciting. This was a real adventure. Henri Mouhot wrote about these travels in his journal. Sadly, Henri didn’t make it home; he died of fever in Laos. But his writing got back. Newspapers published his journal in 1863. And Henri’s story excited the public. Henri wrote of vast areas that were once inhabited. He described, with poetic imagery, jungles swallowing ancient temples. His vision stuck. Western civilization embraced the fantasy of tropical explorers discovering lost empires.

Faรงade of Angkor Wat, a drawing by Henri Mouhot, about 1860. Source: Wikipedia (Angkor Wat)

Focus on Angkor Wat Angkor Wat is the best preserved temple in the Siem Reap region. This is the largest religious monument in the world. The temple is tall and dominates an otherwise flat landscape. This structure sits inside a huge moat. Craftsmen built Angkor Wat in the first half of the 12th century. It took about 35 years to complete the basic construction. This temple was a center for Hindu worship. The religious focus gradually changed to Buddhism. Signs of Buddhist activities are evident today. The temple appears to be nothing more than an ancient ruin. But it has been in use most of the time since it was completed.

The Temples Inspire Awe Henri wasn’t the first European to “discover” Angkor Wat. Portuguese monk António da Madalena was there in 1586. Antonio said that it … is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of. (Wikipedia, citing Higham, The Civilization of Angkor, 2003)

António’s remarks are as valid today as when he made them.

A Guide is Essential An important role of the intricate bas-relief that adorns Angkor Wat is to tells stories. A trained guide knows these stories. We had an excellent guide.

Water: More than an Ornament A large moat surrounds Angkor Wat. Another major water feature is nearby. You can see this on air photos. It is a large reservoir. The reservoir’s west end has some water, even in the dry season. This reservoir fills completely in the wet season. The Angkor region has two large reservoirs that date from the Khmer Empire. West Båråy is the larger of the two. The sides are about 5 x 1.5 miles (7.8 x 2.1 km) long. These reservoirs are ancient, massive, public-works projects. Water storage has been important for a long time. This water-storage system likely began in about 713 AD.

Source: Charles J. Sharp, 2005, Wikipedia (Angkor_Wat)

The Empire was Large and Rich Angkor Wat is in a region that covers about 386 mi2 (1000 km2). With a population of about a million inhabitants, this was the world’s largest empire in the 12th century. Managing the empire required organization and infrastructure. A succession of rulers provided strong control. The flat floodplain was well suited for rice cultivation. There were rich soils and abundant water. Two or three crops were grown each year. TonlÊ Sap Lake made it difficult for hostile neighbors to attack from the south. Dense forests without roads blocked invasions from other directions.

East Baray West Baray

Siem Reap Airport

Source: Google Earth

Angkor Wat

The Ecosystem Supported the Empire The empire enjoyed the favorable weather of the Medieval Warm Period. There was abundant manpower build and maintain the infrastructure. The result was a vast system of reservoirs, dams, ponds, canals and levees. The water system irrigated the rice fields. Abundant water also provided extensive fish habitat. Today, fish from TonlÊ Sap Lake supply half of Cambodia’s protein requirements. The temples matched the population size, its social aspirations and its resources. The system worked. The Khmer Empire lasted from 9th to 13th century AD.

Source: Holger Behr, 2007, Wikipedia (karta_angkorwat.png)

Wandering Off the Well-Beaten Path Over a million visitors walk through, on and around Angkor Wat each year. There are good reasons that tourists come to this special place. The ancient structure is well preserved. It has withstood historical neglect and recent pilfering. Visitors get a satisfying experience in a day. What you don’t seem to get is Henri Mouhot’s sense of discovery. At least I didn’t. There is a solution. Adventure is nearby. Go the short distance to temples such as Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and Ta Nei.

Seeing the Forest Encroach The roots of giant fig trees crawl over walls. Blocks of stone have fallen to the ground. Vegetation covers the delicate basrelief stories. What is the role of conservation? Have they forgotten these out of the way places? Conservationists decided to leave some of the temples alone. There is some stabilization so that visitors are safe. They installed elevated walkways after our visit. These structures provide access in ways that preserve the temples. Civilization and the forest have established a sort of compromise. Each exists with the other in this sacred place.

The Countryside

The Land is Carefully Sculpted We headed out into the countryside with our driver and guide. We surprised them with an off-beat request. We asked them if we could see how they live. We were soon at our driver’s home. It was the rural setting that we wanted to see. We’ve left the ancient sites and come to a small village in modern Cambodia. The village sits on a landscape that is flat and lined with embankments. Annual floods are not likely to be very deep here. But it appears that the people use this resource.

A Focus on Diversified Agriculture Our driver’s family is building a variety of resources for the future. There is a pond that provides both water and fish. This must reflect the Khmer history and the modern-day realities of annual flooding. A throw-net was at hand. They showed us how to catch the fish in the family pond. They planted an orchard with a variety of fruit trees. Ducks, chickens and turkeys wander the property.

An Hydraulic Society Did the ancient Khmer Civilization use hydraulic devices like water wheels? There is evidence of the early use of water wheels in China. Unfortunately, wooden structures decay. There is no trace of ancient waterwheels in the Khmer region. People have not found drawings of such devices on the temple’s inscriptions. We saw a waterwheel on a stream near Siem Reap. These are not complicated machines. They serve an important water-lifting function. If there were ancient waterwheels, there would be stone images.

Modern Conservation

Source: Kasem Thianthongdee (2016)

Conservation is a Major Concern There is a large effort to preserve and restore the Angkor region. You see signs of contributions from many governments and NGOs. Conservation efforts balance the goals of preservation and providing public access. Several million visitors come here each year and the number is likely to grow. The crush of people is the big problem for the temples in the main Angkor Wat area. In remote areas, forest incursion looks severe. A lawless period, starting in the 1970s, added other damage. There was a theft of many (likely thousands) of Buddha heads. You can see evidence restoration with new replacement heads and other newly created sculptures.

Source: “Another Header” 2012

Recent Discoveries A multi-national team of researchers has been exploring the Angkor region with LIDAR. This technology uses lasers to probe the landscape. Now, researchers can see the topographic details by looking through the forest canopy. A 2015 survey reported finding more cities of the Khmer Empire. The survey also increased the size of the cities. The LIDAR data reveals much more detail about how the ancient cities functioned. In particular, there is more information about the water supply systems.

Terrain model beneath the tree canopy at Banteay Chhmar. Source:

LIDAR allows a new examination of ancient events. Recent research has examined at the decline of the Khmer Empire. People think that the depopulation of the area is the result of an invasion. Most likely, the neighboring Thai forced the Khmer south. Current evidence indicates otherwise. The decline was due to climate change and neglect of the water-management systems. It will take time to assimilate the new research. It is exciting to see how this new technology (LIDAR) allows us to look at an important historical site in new ways. The spirit of discovery remains in Angkor.

Digital terrain model of Kompong Svay beneath the vegetation cover. Source:

Postscript I’m like most tourists. I take a lot of pictures. Most of these lie dormant. I store the photos with the expectation that some day there will be time to do something with them. One benefit of the wait is that the image-manipulation tools are better. Now, I can pull out details once hidden in the shadows. It is also easier to post the stories on the Internet. I've discovered that putting off the organization of the photos isn't such a bad idea. This lets me return to the images and make more sense of what I have seen. Such is the case in this story. I had time to learn more Khmer history and the context in which it developed.

Acknowledgements I want to thank all of the people who made this expedition a very memorable and educational experience. The people of Cambodia were – to a person – very welcoming and helpful. Thank you, everyone.

Wandering in Angkor  

A retrospective view of a 2016 trip to Cambodia. This photo essay attempts to tie the typical "tourist view" into the deeper history of the...

Wandering in Angkor  

A retrospective view of a 2016 trip to Cambodia. This photo essay attempts to tie the typical "tourist view" into the deeper history of the...