Angkor Wat’s modern history reclaimed from French colonialists, and the cultural politics of Unesco

The Khmer empire temples of Angkor are Cambodian, aren’t they? For decades the French considered them theirs; then came Unesco, and now China is muscling in.

Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage, by Michael Falser, De Gruyter, 4/5 stars

The amount of ink spilled on the 12th century Angkor temples complex might not fill Cambodia’s Tonlé Sap Lake, but it sometimes feels like it could. The Khmer empire monument is a Unesco World Heritage centre, a global must-see on tourists’ bucket lists, and the only archaeological monument featured on a national flag.

Yet Michael Falser still finds a lot to say in his recent book, Angkor Wat: A Transcultural History of Heritage, by focusing on the modern history of the Angkor complex, with the objective of dismantling European narratives of cultural-heritage making that date from the 19th century.

Heritage is never divorced from politics and is therefore a complex and sensitive topic, one which raises critical questions about the cultural politics of Unesco and other specialised agencies, particularly in developing countries.

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