700-Year-Old Words That Still Ring True

The only written records of ancient Cambodia that survive today are inscriptions on temple walls and the account of a Chinese ambassador, Zhou Daguan, who visited the court at Angkor Wat in 1296. Reading his descriptions of the country, its famous temples, and the everyday life of its villagers, one is struck by how much some of them resemble when you see in that area today. 

“Cambodia is an excessively hot country and it is impossible to get through the day without bathing several times. Even at night, one or two baths are imperative.” (We averaged three or four showers a day, to wash the sweat off our bodies and the dust off our feet.)

“Palaquins are made from one piece of wood, curved in the middle, with the two ends rising vertically and carved with flowery motifs plated with gold or silver. At a distance of one foot from each end, a hook is fastened and to these hooks a large piece of material, folded loosely, is attached with cords. The passenger sinks into this cloth and two men bear him away.” (These mobile hammocks are how some members of the royal family are still carried today on ceremonial occasions. Regular fixed hammocks are still seen all over the place.)

“All along the coast, salt is obtained by boiling seawater. In the mountains too, there is a mineral with a taste far superior to that of salt.” (monosodium glutamate crystals—still absolutely everything) “The natives have no knowledge of vinegar: if they wish to make a sauce bitter they add to it leaves from the hsien-p’ing tree.” (We’re not sure what that tree is, but Cambodia’s national dish, a delicious fish curry called amok, uses a particular kind of tree leaf for flavoring. And unlike the Thais next door, the Cambodians still don’t use much vinegar.)

“Men of the people own their houses, but possess no tables, benches, basins, or buckets. An earthenware pot serves to cook the rice and an earthenware stove for making the sauce. . . . To hold the sauce, they fashion leaves into little cups which, even when filled with liquid, let nothing escape.” (Earthenware stoves are still common in village homes, and furniture is rare. And fancy restaurants still use leaf cups to serve condiments or curries.)

Her family house, though basic, was very clean, with a glass-front cabinet to hold clothes and wooden walls partitioning off two bedrooms

“In this country, it rains half the year; the other half has no rain at all. From the fourth to the ninth moon there is rain every afternoon and the level of the Great Lake may rise seven to eight fathoms. Large trees go underwater, with only the tops showing. … However, from the tenth moon to the third moon of the following year, not a drop of rain falls; the Great Lake is navigable only by the smallest craft and the depth of the water is only three to five feet.” (You can see evidence of this on our post and gallery about life on the great Tonle Sap lake.)

Farther out on the lake, fishing families live in floating houses that can move with the changing water level

“Children of the laity who attend the Buddhist schools become novices of the monks who teach them. When they have grown up, they return to lay life.” (This still happens all of the time, especially for poor rural boys.)

“Straw thatch covers the dwellings of commoners. In this class too, wealth determines the size of the house, but no one would venture to vie with the nobility.”

Zhou’s descriptions of the Angkor temples we have seen in ruins (which were originally brightly painted) help us to imagine their bright towers (which were covered in gold or bronze leaf, like the spires of famous temples now), their impressive construction, and the kings who built them:

“At the (magical) center of the kingdom rises a Golden Tower (Bayon) flanked by more than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers. On its eastern side is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden Buddhas spaced in the stone chambers. North of the Golden Tower … rises the Tower of Bronze (Baphuon), higher even than the Golden Tower: a truly astonishing spectacle.  Further north is the residence of the king; rising above his private apartments is another tower of gold. These are the monuments which have caused merchants from overseas to speak so often of ‘Cambodia the rich and noble.’”

Each tower is carved with four faces (looking north, south, east, and west) and topped with a lotus flower

“Above each gate are grouped five gigantic heads of Buddha, four of them facing the four cardinal points of the compass; the fifth head, brilliant with gold, holds the central position. On each side of the gate are elephants carved in stone.”

“The walls, about 12 feet in height, are built entirely of cut stone blocks set close and firm, with no crevices for weeds to grown in.”

City gate with giant heads
Perfectly cut building stones

He also described processions of the king from his palace, in images that recall some of the scenes carved on the walls of Angkor temples 150 years earlier:

“When the king leaves his palace, the procession is headed by the soldiery; then come the flags, the banners, the music. Girls of the palace, three or five hundred in number, gaily dressed, with flowers in their hair and tapers in their hands, are massed together in a single column. The tapers are lighted even in broad daylight. Then came other girls carrying gold and silver vessels from the palace and a whole galaxy of ornaments, of very special design, the uses of which were strange to me. Then came still more girls, the bodyguard to the palace, holding shields and lances. Following them came chariots drawn by horses or goats, all adorned with gold; ministers and princes mounted on elephants were preceded by bearers of scarlet parasols without number. Close behind them came the royal wives and concubines, in palaquines or chariots, or mounted on horses or elephants, to whom were assigned at least 100 parasols of gold. Finally the Sovereign appeared, standing erect on an elephant and holding in his hand the sacred sword. This elephant, tusks sheathed in gold, was accompanied by bearers of twenty white parasols with golden shafts. All around was a bodyguard of elephants, drawn close together, and still more soldiers for complete protection, marching in close order.”

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