An Archaeologist's Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and What Makes It Special. Siem Reap, Cambodia. Copyright © 2022 Terence Carter / Grantourismo. All Rights Reserved.

An Archaeologist’s Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park with Dr Damian Evans

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Our archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and what makes it special comes courtesy of Dr Damian Evans, a Cambodia based archaeologist behind some of the most groundbreaking research of the last decade. Home to Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s collection of archaeological sites is one of the richest on earth. But what makes the Angkor sites worth visiting? Who better to tell us than an archaeologist.

Update 14 Sept 2023: We’re republishing this archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park in memory of Dr Damian Evans, who died on Tuesday after a long battle with cancer. Damian left the world with a rich body of research on Cambodian archaeology that forever changed the way that we all imagine and see Angkor. Aside from his groundbreaking work, Damian was a generous, lovely person and will be greatly missed. We’re also re-sharing his guide to how to get the most out of a visit to Angkor’s archaeological sites and this video with Damian in the hope that they enrich the experiences of more travellers to Angkor.

The best thing about living in Siem Reap, Cambodia, is that the UNESCO World Heritage listed Angkor Archaeological Park, home to breathtaking Angkor Wat and other Angkor temples, is just 15 minutes from Siem Reap; other equally-engaging lesser-visited archaeological sites are a day-trip or overnight stay away; and there are even more atmospheric off-the-beaten-track ruins scattered around the country, waiting to be explored, such as Banteay Chhmar and Sambor Prei Kuk.

We never tire of exploring the Angkor temples. I’m a sucker for an Angkor Wat sunrise, I don’t care how many people are watching. I get more out of the bas-reliefs at Bayon each time I see them, especially as we’re researching Cambodia’s cuisine and culinary history – they reveal much about how people cooked and what they ate. And I love that sense of discovery of visiting new temples for the first time. It makes no difference that millions came before me.

Which is why few things irk me more than to hear travellers in Siem Reap complain about being “templed-out” and how they’ve “seen enough piles of rocks for one day”. Scrambling archaeological ruins isn’t for everyone, but a visit to Angkor Archaeological Park for most people is a once-in-a-life experience, so why not make the most out of it?

If tourists are bored after one day at the temples, it says more about their interests than it does about those majestic monuments that are remnants of one of Southeast Asia’s greatest civilisations. So ignore anyone who says “you only need one day at Angkor”, although one day is certainly better than no days if that’s all a tight itinerary allows.

We’ve told you what we love about the Angkor temples and why we think they warrant more than one day before, so we decided to ask a local expert, archaeologist Dr Damian Evans, what makes Angkor Wat and the other Angkor archaeological sites so special. This is part one of a two-part interview.

First Published 8 March 2015; Updated 14 September 2023

An Archaeologist’s Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park with Dr Damian Evans

Meet Dr Damian Evans, former co-director of Sydney University’s Robert Christie Research Centre in Siem Reap, now with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient. We first met Damian when we returned to Cambodia in June 2013 and found ourselves working on stories for The Guardian, CNN, National Geographic Traveller, and Wanderlust, on the release of a report describing archaeological discoveries confirmed by images and data collected from a 2012 aerial survey using Lidar technology.

Lead archaeologist and architect of the project, Damian Evans is not the Indiana Jones stereotype that comes to mind for most people who think of archaeologists as blokes who hack their way through dense jungle with machetes. Damian, whom we’ve seen wearing black more than khaki, admits to spending more time at his desk than on digs, having never stepped into a trench, and loving the tech aspect of his work more.

This is Damian Evans’ archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park and the other Angkor sites, what makes them special and what gets him excited. Our hope is that this guide also gets you excited about visiting Angkor and inspires you to stay longer, and get off the beaten track and explore more of Cambodia.

For more interviews with locals from Cambodia and beyond, see our 14-year-old Local Knowledge series of interviews with local experts and local insiders from around the world.

An Archaeologist’s Guide to Angkor Archaeological Park – Meet Dr Damian Evans

Q. What do you do as an archaeologist working in and around Angkor Archaeological Park and other archaeological sites in Cambodia?

A. For more than a century almost all of the work that’s been done on Angkor-period sites has been narrowly focused on a handful of areas, namely temples, inscriptions, and artwork. In part, this is because these are the most durable and most easily accessible components of material culture here. The stuff of everyday life, on the other hand, was by and large made of non-durable material like wood and thatch and has rotted away over the centuries.

As a result of this, the interpretations of architects, epigraphers, scholars of religion, and art historians have become the dominant narrative in studies of the Khmer past. Reading a standard history of the medieval Khmer is a bit like reading a very old-fashioned history of medieval Europe: epic tales of great men (and they are almost always men) and their god(s), of momentous battles, sieges, sackings, and this kind of thing.

Without meaning to downplay the incredible importance of the work that’s been completed, the historical reality of course is infinitely more interesting, and like many other archaeologists who’ve come to work in Cambodia in the last couple of decades, my objective is to try and fill in some of the missing pieces as best I can using the various approaches and techniques of archaeology.

Q. What makes the Angkor Archaeological Park temples and other Angkor sites so special for an archaeologist?

A. In many ways what was achieved here is unique and in some cases pretty much unparalleled in all of human history, at least before the industrial revolution. From my point of view, it’s the scope and scale of the accomplishments that are amazing – not just in terms of temple building, but also in terms of the total re-engineering of the landscape, and in particular the system of water management.

Archaeologically speaking, Cambodia would have to be one of the richest countries on earth, and yet historical circumstances have created a situation where, until quite recently, modern archaeology had all but passed the country by.

In the last couple of decades that situation has begun to be remedied, in part at first by international teams, but increasingly by the burgeoning Cambodian archaeological community, with leading scholars positioned at places like the APSARA National Authority, the Royal Academy, and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. All in all it’s a very exciting time and place for an archaeologist to be in, and I feel very privileged to be allowed to work here.

Q. Is this why you decided to focus your work as an archaeologist in Cambodia?

A. Actually I’m not sure I really ever consciously made that decision, or even really the decision to become an archaeologist. I began an Arts degree at the University of Sydney with a view to ending up in law school, got kind of side-tracked, and now I find myself here nearly twenty years later with a PhD in archaeology (and still minus a law degree).

To this day I’ve never picked up a trowel or seen the inside of a trench, and what attracted me back in the 1990s – and still does today – was the unique convergence of exciting new technologies; new theoretical approaches to understanding the social and environmental context of the temples; the rich archaeological possibilities that have emerged in post-conflict Cambodia; and being part of a growing body of Cambodian and international scholars who are interested in pursuing some of those possibilities.

Q. Tell us about the Lidar survey you initiated using the airborne technology to chart Angkor Archaeological Park and other Angkor sites, such as those at Phnom Kulen and Koh Ker a few years ago.

A. The discoveries made using Lidar for the most part consisted of confirming things that we kind of knew already or at least strongly suspected. In some rare cases we were taken completely by surprise by what we saw unfolding on the screen in front of us when the data was delivered.

The real value of the technology is the ability to see these traces of early civilisations, traced into the surface of the landscape with near-perfect clarity, to achieve in a few hours of flying what would have taken decades of machete-work on the ground, and to arrive at consistent and comprehensive datasets at landscape scale that allow us to reach conclusions with relative certainty.

The Lidar data also provides such precision and clarity that we’re able to undertake much more sophisticated analyses than we were able to before, and provide the spatial intelligence that we need to target our limited ground resources much more effectively than we have in the past.

Q. Is there anything left to be discovered at Angkor Archaeological Park and other archaeological sites in Cambodia?

A. Sure. There is an immense archive of human activity spanning thousands of years that remains beneath the ground in this region, although that is true of many places in the world. One of the things that makes Cambodia so special is that this stuff is not only beneath the ground, but is also observable directly on the surface, which allows us to ‘read’ the landscape as a kind of archive of interactions between humans and their environment spanning several millennia – if we know how.

Until recently vegetation cover has obscured a lot of that, but technologies like Lidar (and unfortunately other processes like widespread deforestation) have unlocked a lot of the potential for this kind of research. There are many thousands of temples and other archaeological sites across Cambodia, and new ones are being documented on a regular basis all the time.

In terms of the surface archaeology, however, we are in a race against time to document it all – it is only a matter of time before processes like urban expansion, mechanised agriculture, and so on, erase these traces, as has already happened to a large extent in neighbouring countries like Vietnam and Thailand.

Q. As an archaeologist, what most excites you when you visit the temples at Angkor Archaeological Park and or other Angkor era sites around the country?

A. For me, it’s not really the temples or anything like that. It’s the sense of being able to shine some light into the unknown. Angkor is among the signal achievements of human history, and yet there is a tremendous amount that we don’t know about the temples – or more specifically, about the ‘big picture’ questions about what happened around them.

The exciting thing for me is really the sense of discovery involved in beginning to answer some of those questions. This is different from the sense of discovery that’s portrayed in the media, of course, where the narrative is almost all about archaeologists using cutting-edge laser technologies and hacking through the jungle Indiana Jones style with their hired guns to find things that are supposedly “lost”, as in this cringe-worthy piece from the National Geographic a couple of days ago.

There is a bit of that, of course, and (considering 95% of my time is spent in my office writing emails etc) it can occasionally be fun, but it is not the reason why we do what we do, and is far from the most exciting aspect of the work, even if it is the part that really captures the public’s imagination.

Pictured above, Dr Damian Evans at digs just within the walls of Angkor Wat photographed by Terence Carter of course. You can find Damian Evans on Twitter at @archaeoangkor

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A travel and food writer who has experienced over 70 countries and written for The Guardian, Australian Gourmet Traveller, Feast, Delicious, National Geographic Traveller, Conde Nast Traveller, Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia, DestinAsian, TIME, CNN, The Independent, The Telegraph, Sunday Times Travel Magazine, AFAR, Wanderlust, International Traveller, Get Lost, Four Seasons Magazine, Fah Thai, Sawasdee, and more, as well as authored more than 40 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, DK, Footprint, Rough Guides, Fodors, Thomas Cook, and AA Guides.

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