23 Apr 2021



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Temples, oxcarts, and flying boats – Angkor as a tourist destination in the early 20th century


Shortly after gaining control of Cambodia's Angkor temples in 1907, French colonial authorities began promoting the temples as a tourist destination. Step one was to open a small wooden hotel at the main entrance of Angkor Wat. In subsequent years, tourists arrived by steamboat, road, and occasionally flying boats that set down noisily in the moat of Angkor Wat. In the mornings they set out by foot, oxcart, and Model T Ford for temple visits and in the evening returned for aperitifs on the veranda. Numbers never rose above a few thousand a year.

Most tourists were affluent, a few of them big names, including silent film star Charlie Chaplin. For the French, the purpose was both to bring in foreign exchange and to provide eyewitness evidence to the world that the remarkable site was in good hands, a key claim in justifying colonial rule. Some Cambodians, variously seeing Angkor as home and a deeply spiritual site, objected to French management, but their voices were little heard. World War II largely suspended the tourist trade; resumption in recent decades has drawn crowds never imagined in the early days.

About the speaker
John Burgess is an American author and journalist with a special interest in the Angkor civilisation. The son of a diplomat, he lived in New Delhi, Jakarta, and Bangkok as a child. He had an almost three-decade career at the Washington Post as a writer and editor. Since leaving the newspaper, he has focused on writing books about Angkor. His latest is Angkor's Temples in the Modern Era: War, Pride, and Tourist Dollars (2021). He first saw Angkor in 1969 as a teenager and has returned many times.

Image: Four Westerners pose for a photo in a flying boat that landed in Angkor Wat's moat circa 1930. Collection Ville de Biscarrosse (France)—Musée de l’Hydraviation, Origine Tixier.