The ancient temples of Angkor have entered the digital age before most of modern Cambodia has.
From the intricate bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat to the watchful smiles of Bayon, more than 100 temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park have been digitised and mapped at a first-person perspective, meaning it’s now possible to roam the cradle of the Khmer Empire from your living room.
Since July, tech giant Google, in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism and the APSARA Authority, has stitched together more than a million photos to create 90,000 panoramic images that allow a 360-degree virtual tour of Angkor.
Google funded the project – launched yesterday to a throng of international press – entirely on its own, but it is expected to be a boon for Cambodian tourism while creating a repository for Khmer culture and history.
The imagery will also be available at the online Google Cultural Institute, where nearly 300 Angkor-related artefacts are already displayed.
Google, which has also deployed its Street View cars to the streets of the Kingdom with an eye to adding more ground-level maps of Cambodia, remains better known for its search engine and other functional tools than its cultural contributions.
But Manik Gupta, who leads all of Google’s mapping efforts, says such cultural projects are not divorced from the company’s aim of “organising the world’s information” and then making it freely accessible.
“Obviously, everyone knows that Angkor is the eighth wonder of the world, [but] it’s hard to imagine the sheer beauty of this site and the cultural significance unless you actually go visit it, and for us … it’s [about] really helping Asia and the rest of the world bring their culture online – that is the reason we do this,” he said.
The company has done similar projects at UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Taj Mahal in India, the Palace of Versailles in France, Pompeii in Italy and Mount Fuji in Japan, though the Angkor temples are the largest cultural artefacts that have been mapped in this way, the company says.
Gupta admits that Cambodia’s low internet penetration – 2.7 million web users out of 14 million people as of 2012 – means the imagery will largely be accessed by foreign users, but says he hopes Cambodians will feel “proud they have these iconic temples available” to the world.
The imagery offers high-definition, close-up views of intricate carvings such as the celebrated Churning of the Sea of Milk bas-relief at Angkor Wat, which depicts Lord Vishnu coaxing demons and gods into churning the ocean to produce the elixir of immortality.
But it also provides a glimpse into the monuments’ more recent past. A piece of graffiti carved into a column at Angkor Wat by a French traveller marked “Le 8 Novembre 1885” was clearly visible during a digital tour.
In order to capture temple interiors and exteriors where Street View cars can’t travel, a team of five Cambodians working for Google traversed the sites on foot, wearing camera-laden backpacks known as Trekkers.
Weighing 18kg, with 15 camera lenses sitting well above the wearer’s head and shooting pictures every 2.5 seconds, it is these camera platforms that create the 360-degree panoramic views from every ledge, crevice and stairway of the centuries-old temples.
Orm Rotha, a 34-year-old from Pailin, was one of those who spent months slowly walking around the temples with a Trekker, but he laughs away the idea that it was a physically gruelling job.
“I am very happy to work with Google and especially to bring the beautiful images of Cambodia, such as Angkor Wat, to the world to let them know better about what Cambodia [has to offer],” he says, standing at the foot of the temple, remaining enthusiastic after hours of helping curious journalists try on the gear.
“I never thought that our country will have these Street View images like in other countries . . . and I am so grateful and proud that I can bring the image of Cambodia to the world.”
This imagery, while hopefully finally defeating the notion that Angkor encompasses only the single site of Angkor Wat, will also hopefully bump up tourist numbers, said Khoun Khun Neay, deputy director-general of the APSARA Authority.
“The collection of images will show anyone with an internet connection the intricacy, beauty and sheer scale of the site, which measures more than 400 square kilometres,” he says.
“This constitutes a tool for promotion of tourism. I suppose that people everywhere can [view this] virtually … and after that they would like to come to see [in person].
It’s a way for promotion of the site.”
Skyrocketing numbers of tourists visiting the temples in recent years has led to concerns that the ancient monuments, particularly Angkor Wat, are being damaged.
“Tourists coming more and more, of course this becomes a problem for us … but it’s a matter of management, and we are working on that,” Khun Neay says.
“[But] let’s make a comparison, Pompeii in Italy, they receive regularly, every year, 10 million tourists [and] the site is very small in comparison with Angkor. Now we are 2.5 million [here], I think we have more room to take in more tourists.”
In a statement, Minister of Tourism Thong Khon praised the technology for allowing Cambodia to share its “breathtaking wonders” and said the virtual imagery would not only result in more tourists, but also tourists visiting more diverse areas.
Sun Chanthol, minister for commerce, said the project “will surely contribute to the growth of our tourism industry, an industry that is already driving significant economic growth and employment in Cambodia”.
Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, admits that a digital rendering of Angkor, no matter how high-definition or detailed, will never be able to match the real thing.
“Watching the sunset over Angkor Wat is a physical, beautiful, emotional experience that I don’t think can be replicated online. So if you ask me, ‘Hey, you’re doing all this, is this going to replicate the physical?’ I don’t think it can. It never will. These places have stood for hundreds of years … purely because the physical is critical.”
But to Sood, that doesn’t mean that culture should be excluded from those who can’t afford to make the trip.
“There are millions and millions of people who just don’t have access to any of this stuff, physically, either for financial reasons or just a lack of being able to travel to these locations. And those are the people that I’m very interested in connecting with this information.”
Khun Neay, from the APSARA Authority, puts it more simply.
“I think it’s important to let people have a choice … you know you see a picture of a lady, but if you meet her in person it’s a different feeling. We don’t fear that problem.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KOAM CHANRASMEY