Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Angkor Memories: Chou Ta Kuan's excellent adventure

Angkor Memories: Chou Ta Kuan's excellent adventure

Angkor Memories: Chou Ta Kuan's excellent adventure

IN the last years of the 13th century, China's Manchu Dynasty had grown impatient

with the perceived lese-majeste of Angkorian civilization.

Rather than the expected pledges of homage and gifts of tribute, a Manchu diplomatic

mission dispatched to Angkor in 1281 was summarily imprisoned upon arrival in Cambodia,

never to be heard from again.

Four years later, a second Chinese mission, consisting of a Chinese ambassador and

a court official named Chou Ta Kuan, was sent to re-establish ties with Angkor.

While the success or failure of Chou's mission has been lost to history, his stay

in Cambodia produced "Customs of Cambodia", the only first-hand written

description Angkorian civilization "at the height of its splendor".

Between 1296-1297, Chou traveled extensively throughout Angkorian Cambodia, documenting

a fairy tale-like kingdom of golden towers and mass slave labor ruled by King Indravarman

III.

While Chou's "Customs of Cambodia" provides a brief but comprehensive forty

section treatise on aspects of Angkorian society ranging from "Aborigines"

to "Writing", the work has long been criticized by historians for its "middle

kingdom prejudices".

Descriptions of Angkorian traditions are peppered with commentary such as "absurd"

and "utterly ridiculous", while Cambodians themselves are unflatteringly

referred to as possessing "neither discipline nor strategy".

Chou's salacious descriptions of "easily persuaded...highly sexed" Cambodian

women whose "sexual impulses are very strong" suggest that his investigations

were far from strictly scholarly in nature.

Chou took pains to describe not only what sexual activities were available to travelers,

but where and how they could be procured, as Chou's report on the custom of nude

female group bathing attests.

"On days of leisure the Chinese treat themselves to the spectacle...I have heard

it said that many of them enter the water to take advantage of what opportunity offers."

While praising some aspects of Chou's work, historian David Chandler bemoans Chou's

emphasis on "exotic revelations of 'barbarian' life."

In "History of Cambodia", Chandler describes Chou's "Customs of Cambodia"

as a tantalizing missed opportunity of historical scholarship.

"Although (Chou) provided a newsreel - or perhaps a home movie - of his stay

in Angkor, our appetites are whetted for the feature film he might have produced

had he known (or cared) about the gaps that have persisted ever since in the historical

record."

MOST VIEWED

  • Hun Sen: Stop Russia sanctions

    Prime Minister Hun Sen said sanctions against Russia as a result of its military offensive in Ukraine should be stopped as they have produced no tangible results, and predicted that a global food crisis would ensue in 2023 as a consequence. Speaking to an audience at

  • Chinese tourists 2.0 – Coming anytime soon?

    Regional tourism is grappling with the absence of the prolific travellers and big spenders – the Chinese tourists. Cambodia, which has welcomed over two million Chinese tourists before Covid-19, is reeling from the economic loss despite being the first to fully open last November ‘To put

  • PM reflects on shoe throwing: Free speech or act of violence?

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on May 17 questioned whether a man who threw a shoe at him while he was in the US was exercising freedom of expression or if it was an act of hostility. Hun Sen was referring to an incident last week when

  • Siem Reap’s Angkor Botanical Garden opens

    The Angkor Botanical Garden was officially opened on May 19 with free entry for both local and international visitors for the first six weeks. The garden was established on a nearly 15ha plot of land in Siem Reap. “After the first six weeks, Angkor Botanical Garden

  • Pub Street on the cards for Battambang

    The Battambang Provincial Authority has announced that it is considering establishing a Pub Street in the area around the heritage buildings in Battambang town in a bid to attract more tourists. Battambang provincial governor Sok Lou told The Post that the establishment of a Pub

  • Hun Sen: Don’t react to hostility

    Prime Minister Hun Sen urged tolerance and thanked members of the Cambodian diaspora for not reacting to the hostility on display towards him by others while he was in the US to attend the May 12-13 ASEAN-US Special Summit in Washington, DC. In an audio