Wednesday, 20th May 2015
South East Asia in the footsteps of Henri Mouhot
Today, any trip to Cambodia would not be complete without a visit to Angkor and its famous temples, but its popularisation is partly down to Henri Mouhot, a 19thcentury French naturalist and explorer. While modern myth often suggests that Mouhot discovered Angkor Wat, this is untrue, but he did help to bring knowledge of the destination to the western world.
The Khmer people always knew of the location of Angkor, with its incredible temples, and led a number of westerners to the site over the centuries. While these were relatively few, it is therefore impossible to say that Mouhot 'found' Angkor, but his writings on the subject were rapturous.
"One of these temples - a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo - might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome," he wrote in Travels in Siam, Cambodia and Laos, which was published posthumously.
Mouhot's role in highlighting the stunning beauty of Angkor, has led to the French being involved at the site for centuries. Much of the restoration work on the temples has been carried out under their orders, leading to the site that visitors see today.
The myth of Angkor's lost ruins
A number of organisations including The Royal Geographical Society and The Zoological Society helped perpetrate the myth that Mouhot had found the lost ruins of Angkor. They had sponsored part of his expeditions and were keen to highlight new finds.
In a strange twist to the story, the tomb of Mouhot was in fact lost to the jungle and rediscovered several years later. That is because the explorer died while venturing into the jungle in what is modern day Laos, succumbing to malarial fever. He was buried at a site near the banks of the Nam Khan River. Visitors can visit his grave and see his restored tomb, which is located around ten kilometres from Luang Prabang.
Mouhot left behind a number of published and unpublished works, as well as his diaries. Reading these detailed descriptions of the parts of South East Asia - including Cambodia, Laos and Central Vietnam - makes for an interesting comparison to the experiences modern day visitors can expect.
While the deserted site of Angkor is very different today, full as it is with visitors, the splendour of the place remains. Some of the simple black and white drawings of the countryside and typical dwellings found within Mouhot's books could almost have been contemporary, remaining unchanged.
Related news stories:
A checklist of delicious fruits to try in South East Asia (24th February 2015)
Eat your way through Luang Prabang?s night market (26th May 2016)
How to meet locals in South East Asia (22nd June 2015)