If you wander into Monument Book Store on the riverside to the south of Old Market, you’ll discover, among many others, about half a dozen shelves piled high with guidebooks to Angkor. You may then spend several good hours puzzling over which one to get. Now, most of your problems have been solved with the recent publication of one single book, and I’ll get to that shortly. First though, I’d like to look at some of the more established works which are also worth looking at.
A Record of Cambodia – The Land and its People is a translation by Peter Harris of the accounts of a Chinese emissary who visited Angkor in 1296, when the empire was still at the height of its reach and strength. Zhou Daguan spent a year here and carefully recorded details of daily life, from the architecture, the customs and religions, trade, the natural world, holidays, agriculture and much more. His is the only surviving witness of daily life at Angkor and his perspective is fundamental to much of what we understand about the capital of the Khmer empire at this time. Some of his accounts will shock you, while you can still see scenes that he described more than 700 years ago being acted out today.
The temples of Angkor are renowned for the unique beauty of the carvings that adorn them. The ancient Khmers excelled at this art form, employing a complexity and artistry that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. The carvings depict scenes from the Hindu epics, especially the Ramayana, the Buddha’s life and Buddhist legends as well as representations of great battles and ordinary scenes from daily life. The best account and explanation of all these can be found in Vittorio Roveda’s book, Khmer Mythology – Secrets of Angkor. He carefully describes the legends involved, and the elements and symbols employed by the Khmers, in a way that will add another dimension to your experience of the temples.
With Ancient Angkor Claude Jacques and Michael Freeman have produced a lovely, insightful guide to the temples that fully employs Jacques’ academic expertise and Freeman’s photographic skills. The text is authoritative and lively, and beautifully illustrated. Lightweight and easy to carry even in a pocket, it is one of the most popular guides to the temples available.
Dawn Rooney is an art historian who has focused on Angkor, and other parts of Southeast Asia, for more than 30 years now. Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples is her principal guidebook and is regarded as one of the most authoritative on Angkor, providing a richly detailed account of the history, art and architecture of the temples. Her large book may be a little heavy for porting around the Angkor Park, and there is a lighter version with condensed descriptions that may be more convenient.
The latest to be produced is a work by Michel Petrochenko. No historian or academic, he is in fact a photographer for whom the temples have evidently become an object of fascinated devotion. His book, Focusing on the Angkor Temples, was 10 years in the making and it shows. It adroitly presents an enormous wealth of information in a way that is engaging, easy to consume and absolutely teeming with fascinating little nuggets of information. It’s what every guidebook should be like, appealing as it does to almost every conceivable customer, without alienating anyone either. Whether you’re an academically minded nerd, a geek who loves random bits of esoteric information, an aesthete, or simply looking for superficial little bits and pieces that will enhance your connection to what you’re seeing at the temples, this book will work for you. It’s all there, and very easy to navigate. Temple plans are broken down and colour coded making it easy for readers to situate themselves and hunt out the interesting little details that he illuminates.
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