On Sept 3, 1858, French explorer and scientist Henri Mouhot arrived in Singapore, his first stop on what would become a three-year journey criss-crossing Thailand, Cambodia, Southern Vietnam and Laos, taking copious notes and drawing people and places he encountered.
His journals, published simultaneously in France and England in 1863, would lead to Mouhot being described even today—exactly 150 years after the start of his journey—as the man who “discovered” Angkor.
Granted, other European travelers and missionaries had reported on Angkor and, of course, Cambodians knew where the former Khmer Empire’s capital was located.
But Mouhot’s description of Angkor’s monuments made the European public aware of Cambodia and Angkor, and sparked a fascination for Khmer art in France that would lead the French government to embark on the restoration of Angkorian monuments in the early 1900s.
In his book “Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Annam,” which White Lotus Press in Bangkok reprinted in 2000, Mouhot wrote of Angkor, “The work of giants! The expression would be very just, if used figuratively, in speaking of these prodigious works, of which no one who has not seen them can form any adequate idea; and in the construction of which patience, strength, and genius appear to have done their utmost in order to leave to future generations proofs of their power and civilization.”
Speaking of Angkor Wat, which he spells Ongcor, Mouhot begins his detailed description by saying that the temple makes the traveler “forget all fatigues of the journey, filling him with admiration and delight, such as would be experienced on finding a verdant oasis in the sandy desert.”
Later in the book, Mouhot writes, “What strikes the observer with no less admiration than grandeur, regularity and beauty of these majestic buildings, is the immense size and prodigious number of blocks of stone of which they were constructed…. What means of transport, what multitude of workmen, must this have required, seeing that the mountain out of which the stone was hewn is thirty miles distant.”
Mouhot spent three weeks at Angkor toward the end of 1859, having arrived in Cambodia about nine months earlier. His first contact with the country in Kampot town had not left a good impression on him.
“There are few travelers in Europe, America, or probably anywhere else, who have not had cause to complain of the offensive manner in which custom-house officers perform their duties and often exceed them,” he observed. While their counterparts in Europe use insolence and tyranny, Cambodian custom officials, he wrote, “are licensed beggars. ‘A little salt-fish, a little arrack, a little betel, if you please,’—such are the petitions; and the more you give, the less strict will the search be.”
Poverty in some parts of Cambodia appalled him. As its monuments show, Angkor had been, he wrote, “the capital of a wealthy, powerful and civilized state.” However, after the Khmer of Angkor, he wrote, “their successors…appear only to have known to destroy, never to reconstruct.” The Cambodia Mouhot visited in 1859 had been in the throes of civil war for about two centuries as princes feuded for the throne.
Mouhot did not live to see the enthusiasm for Angkor that his writings would trigger. He died of fever in Laos in November 1861. He was 35 years old.
His journals and drawings were brought back to Europe by a medical doctor of the British consulate in Bangkok and turned over to Mouhot’s wife and brother, who lived on the English island of Jersey. They were the ones who organized the notes and illustrations to have them published—not an easy task, as Charles Mouhot wrote in the preface of the book, since some were jotted-down words written in pencil, illegible for anyone who did not know his brother’s handwriting.
Henri Mouhot had lived in Russia and traveled throughout Europe prior to his trip to Southeast Asia. Considered a good Greek scholar, he spoke Russian and Polish, and had studied drawing and photography as well as ornithology and entomology.
British scientists wrote several papers in the “Annals and Magazine of Natural History” on the collection of specimens he had shipped to London during his Southeast Asian trip, his brother wrote. Though he was a French citizen, Mouhot’s expedition was funded by British geographical and zoological societies, having not received in France the encouragement he had anticipated, Charles Mouhot added.