BANGKOK — Thailand is often accused by Cambodians of stealing their cultural heritage, from Khon to the Preah Vihear temple. But all these disputes pale in comparison to Thailand’s attempted theft of Angkor Wat.
Speaking at a Thursday panel, Khmer expert and historian Santi Pakdeekham recounted the bizarre and ambitious project that has been mostly forgotten today, which, had it succeeded, would have relocated parts of the nearly millennium-old temple – the world’s largest religious structure – next to where CentralWorld now stands in Bangkok.
The plot to steal Angkor Wat was hatched by King Rama IV in 1859, a year before French explorer Henri Mouhout’s journey to the massive temple that brought it to the world attention.
“His royal wish was to have the temple dismantled,” said Santi, who teaches at Sri Nakarinwiroj University.
In an order passed by the monarch, Siamese troops were to travel to Angkor and disassemble parts of the site so they can be rebuilt at Wat Pathum, which now sits between two major shopping mall complexes in Bangkok’s Siam area.
Another imitation Angkor Wat was also to be reassembled in Phetchaburi province, where the king had a palace built on a mountain.
Explaining the king’s motive, Santi said Khmer culture was deeply intertwined with Thailand’s monarchy, which recognizes itself as descended from the once-powerful Khmer Empire. In one instance, King Narai insisted to Portuguese emissaries that his dynasty could be traced back to the rulers of Angkor.
“[The monarchs] see themselves as coming from there and have since tried to return to conquer the land of their ancestors and claim suzerainty,” Santi said at Matichon Academy.
Incidentally, Santi noted, the province where Angkor is located is known as Siemreap, meaning “the defeat of Siam,” a result of Siamese king Chairachathirat’s failed campaign to re-conquer Angkor in the 16th century.
Sadly for King Rama IV – and luckily for Cambodia – his plan to dismantle Angkor Wat fell apart.
The expedition was ambushed by what was described in royal chronicle as “300 Khmer goons” on the way to Angkor which killed the group leader, Phra Suphanphisarn, and one of his sons, Santi said.
Upset by the failure, Rama IV tried to launch another expedition, only to be dissuaded by his advisors that the task was very difficult and those structures were meant to be there.
As a consolation and show of Thai power over Cambodia, a miniature Angkor Wat was built inside the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok. Rama IV didn’t get to see it, however; he died a year before it was completed in in 1868.
Any claims Thailand had over Angkor ended when French forces invaded and seized Cambodia as its protectorate just before the turn of the 20th century.