Angkor Wat: 1931 vs 2015, Part I

I recently took a trip to Angkor Wat, which I’ve wanted to do since I was a child. It just so happens that my great-grandfather, FPM, shared my passion for ruined temples too, and I still have his holiday snaps from his visit in 1931.

After showing these photos to our guide, he immediately turned into some kind of temple Sherlock, finding the exact position FPM must have stood in to capture the shots. I then recreated them, whilst standing awed at the insanity of the situation. Falling leaves, etc.

I managed to match a surprising number of them, so to prevent epic page load times I’ll be splitting up the shots into two posts. If you want to see bigger versions, just click on the photo in question. The next instalment will be with you next Tuesday so if historical photos are your thing, please check back next week as well. If they aren’t then sorry, it’ll be a dry couple of weeks for you.

So here for your viewing pleasure (although mostly mine, let’s be honest) are FPM’s shots, and mine. The captions are his, the commentaries are mine. Let’s not discuss who the better photographer is…

[View of Angkor Wat from present Buddhist monastery]

I love how this view has hardly changed at all. Save for a tiny bit of scaffolding. I suppose it’s one of the most iconic views, and where droves of people will watch the sunrise daily over the pool of reflection, so it’s bound to be well preserved.

[Angkor Wat, third stage]

Note the installation of preventative barriers so people don’t just go wandering through the place, and the subtle shoring up of a wall or two. It actually surprised me just how open the site was; you could generally clamber about wherever you wanted, especially in some of the smaller temples that are no longer active.


[View from top of Angkor Wat looking westward]

Oh hi, Extremely Brightly Dressed Tourists. No, don’t mind me. I did wait for ages for them to move, but they really loved that small patch of shade. On a more serious note, this is just an example of the increase in tourism to the site since 1931. It’s got far wider implications for the use and preservation of the site than just messing up my photos.


[Corner of Angkor Wat from south aspect]

A restored lion has appeared here, as well as some scaffolding over one of the galleries. Constant repair work goes on around the site, funded by various countries of the world. We spotted work by France, Germany, China, and the US. But absolutely nothing by the UK. Apparently we’re donating ‘soft skills’. Cue epic eyeroll.


[Statue of the Leper King, Royal Palace]

There’s quite an interesting story behind this statue here. This is actually a statue of the God of Death, known in Cambodia as Dharmaraja. However, when the statue was rediscovered by locals after being lost in the forest following the dissolution of the Khmer empire, they couldn’t read the inscription at the base which named the statue. So they invented their own name, calling him The Leper King due to the lichen that grew on the statue, giving it the appearance of having leprosy.

Also, the photo that FPM took is of the original statue, now housed in a museum. The statue we saw is a replica, and the two smaller statues that were at his sides are now spaced out around the terrace.


[Terrace of giants or demons, Royal Palace, Angkor]

I think these are actually Garudas – a sacred bird with a human body which appears frequently in statues and motifs around the site. It’s an important figure in both Buddhism and Hinduism, so suits the dual nature of many of the sites. This terrace is where the King would receive important visitors, and originally would have had wooden galleries built on top.


[Causeway to temple of Bayon. Guardian lions and garanda. Angkor Thom]

Slight mis-spelling of Garuda in the caption, and sadly one of the upright Garudas behind the sacred lion has disappeared or, as our guide eloquently put it, has been lost to time. He also points out that these lions aren’t really lions, they’re mythical creatures called Kuchasey (according to our guide). These mythical creatures symbolise the kind of other-worldly animals you might find in heaven, because the temples themselves are supposed to be models of heaven. Everything you see there (the statues, carvings and layout of the temple itself) is highly symbolic and is designed to evoke the heavenly realms.

[Sacred banyan growing out of and destroying shrine. Bathing tank of Neak Pean, Angkor]
As you can see, things have changed quite a bit between these photos! Our guide informed us that in the mid 1930s, the tree which was consuming the sanctuary of healing at Neak Pean on the left was struck by lightning in a storm, and the whole temple collapsed. The French rebuilt the temple and work is ongoing to restore the walls of the pools. It’s quite fenced off now, so I struggled to recreate FPM’s angle entirely, but you get the general idea.
[Sacred Horse, Neak Pean]

This slightly melancholy specimen is the horse representing Balaha, also at the bathing sanctuary at Neak Pean. It was thought this sanctuary was built so that people could come and bathe here for healing. The main central pool, where the horse lives, was surrounded by four smaller pools at the cardinal directions. In a little covered porch at the side of each pool was a representation of a human head, a horse, an elephant, and a lion representing earth, wind, fire and water. You could pour water over a statue, which would then emerge from the mouth of the statue as holy water, and be used for healing.

[The Hindu temple – Angkor perched on an eminence]

And we finish on an enigma. On our final day, our guide wasn’t able to join us but gave us detailed instructions as to how to find this last site. He assured us it was to be found at Preah Ko, the back tower nearest the road. This is said temple, and I have to say, I’m not convinced of the match. It looks pretty close, but some things don’t add up – the pillars on the front don’t match, for example, and there doesn’t appear to be another tower to the left of it as there is in my photo. I don’t know, the restoration work has been pretty extreme in some places, so maybe that’s why it’s so different. Our guide was infallible when spotting other sites, so there’s no reason to think he wasn’t right on this one, too. What do you think?

I mostly just like the picture because it shows restoration work in action in the 1930s. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be very keen on climbing that ladder….!

Well that was a bit epic. I hope you’ve enjoyed your trip back in time with extra bonus free Khmer history lessons – which was your favourite before and after? Were you expecting things to be more different, or less?


Edit: You can now read part ii here.

Linking up with CaityMarcellaMichelleAmanda & Bonnie for Travel Tuesday



  1. 2nd June 2015 / 08:19

    Oh wow, this is AMAZING! I remember your original post on these photos, but it’s even better to see them side-to-side, I am in awe 🙂 I also found it really surprising how you were pretty free to just wander around, I really didn’t expect that before visiting. Can’t wait to see the next instalment too! 🙂

    • 2nd June 2015 / 23:07

      I’m so glad you liked it! Yes, the freedom we were allowed as visitors to the temples were quite bizarre to me. Great for me personally, but it makes me worry about how much longer the structures can take it 🙁

  2. LydiaCLee
    2nd June 2015 / 08:40

    I absolutely love you have the ’31 shots and then took the same. Excellent post. I fell in love with Siem Reap – it’s a total game changer. Amazing people.

    • 2nd June 2015 / 23:08

      I’m really pleased you like it! I fell in love with Siem Reap too. What a place. I was devastated when we had to leave – I don’t have that with too many places.

    • 2nd June 2015 / 23:09

      I know! Not many people get the chance to do that. Our guide was making sure we went to all the best places, so our great grandchildren would have some good footsteps to retrace too…!

  3. 2nd June 2015 / 14:32

    This is amazing. It is so cool that you got to see the same place as if through your great-grandfathers eyes!! This inspires me to go look through some of my parents and grandparents old travel photos! What a good idea!

    • 2nd June 2015 / 23:10

      I know, I feel very lucky. Both to have such a well travelled great-grandfather and to be able to retrace his steps! If you do look through old travel photos please post them for me to look at. I love that kind of stuff (as you may have guessed… ahem).

  4. 2nd June 2015 / 15:06

    That is so cool! What a great idea to recreate those shots! That’s worth more than any souvenir you could buy!

    • 2nd June 2015 / 23:11

      I know! It’s priceless. My family have really loved looking at them too; much more than they would have appreciated a tea towel!

  5. Andrea On Vacation
    2nd June 2015 / 21:13

    This is the best post! I loved Angkor Wat but seeing it compared to 1931 is so neat! I’m glad to see not that much has changed (besides the tree).

    • 2nd June 2015 / 23:13

      I’m really glad you liked it, it certainly was a magical trip. The next post contains some more changes, but much fewer than I was expecting. There’s been a lot of restoration work going on in those parts!

  6. 3rd June 2015 / 11:55

    It is amazing how little the structures have changed. Such an interesting way to photograph things.

    • 3rd June 2015 / 15:03

      I know, I was really surprised. There’s lots of work going on to clear up the temples and surrounding areas, but I wasn’t expecting them to look smarter than 1931!

  7. 3rd June 2015 / 13:26

    What a fascinating way to experience Angkor Wat…walking in your ancestor’s footsteps. It’s a pretty special place.

    • 3rd June 2015 / 15:04

      It’s an incredible place, and the ancestor’s footsteps definitely made it even better, but I’d have still fallen in love with it without. It’s just amazing.

  8. 3rd June 2015 / 22:31

    Wow, that’s pretty incredible–the chance to recreate his exact photos! I will actually be going to Angkor Wat later this month, so I think I found your post especially interesting because of that!

    • 17th June 2015 / 12:01

      Oohh I’m excited for you – I hope you have an amazing time, I wish I could go back already too! I hope the heat/rain isn’t too bad for you – although to be honest I’d have adored the temples in any weather. Safe travels!

  9. Elaine J Masters
    3rd June 2015 / 23:07

    I’ve seen many posts on Angkor Wat but nothing comparing what was with what is. Excellent forensics!!

    • 17th June 2015 / 12:00

      Thanks! It’s all down to our guide – he was absolutely incredible and knew exactly where each photo was taken from. Amazing knowledge. I had the best time visiting, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!

  10. 4th June 2015 / 05:46

    This is fascinating! Hard to believe not a lot have changed in some cases. I think I prefer the state of certain temples / statues in 1931.

    • 17th June 2015 / 11:59

      I know, me too. I certainly prefer the state of the crowds…! The restoration work really has been quite extensive and I’m surprised at just how good some of the temples look, all things considered.

  11. 4th June 2015 / 10:13

    I find this entirely fascinating. Angkor Wat is such an incredible place to visit but to add this angle to it and hunting to find the same sights and angles would have been so much fun.
    Thanks for joining in #WednesdayWanderlust, hope to see you back next week!

    • 17th June 2015 / 11:59

      It did give it that extra dimension of amazingness! I just had the best time ever, and I feel very lucky to have the historical connection, as well. Thanks for hosting!

    • 4th August 2015 / 13:52

      I’m glad you liked it! Thanks for hosting!

  12. 3rd August 2015 / 09:36

    Such a fascinating comparison … I can’t believe how intact and similar it still looks with all those years in between! You’re so lucky to have been able to have access to your great-grandfather’s photographs … absolutely incredible.

    • 4th August 2015 / 13:54

      I know, I was amazed. I really expected it to look totally different. The extent and skill of the restoration work that was/is being done is outstanding. And most of all I’m so lucky to have such a cool, well travelled great-grandfather who left us such treasures!

  13. Alexa Cayce
    3rd August 2015 / 14:44

    this is so neat that you have these old photos and that you were able to recreate the shots! I hope to vist this site some day!

    • 4th August 2015 / 13:54

      I know! It was literally the coolest thing ever. I hope you can visit one day too, it’s just a magical place.

  14. 3rd August 2015 / 18:44

    Fantastic – what a great idea. We used to visit places on direction of my Grandpa but never had the chance to do this. It would make a great family album to pass down the line

    • 4th August 2015 / 14:10

      I know, our guide kept telling us that he was adding the best locations to the “2015 edition” so that our great-grandchildren would have some good places to visit! Quite funny.

  15. Ahila Thillainathan
    31st May 2016 / 06:25

    Loved this photographic journey through time. One of my favourites, besides Angkor Wat, is Kbal Sbean. Did you get to visit it as well? Thanks for sharing this post on the last linkup of Travel Tuesday, Rachel 🙂

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