New Thai temple sparks controversy over claims it imitates Angkor Wat

Cambodia to send inspectors to see if site is too similar to 12th-century complex that is a national symbol

A temple complex being constructed in the north-east of Thailand has become mired in controversy, after it was claimed the design was an attempt to replicate Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument.

The Cambodian government reportedly plans to send archaeologists and temple architects to inspect whether the site is too similar to Angkor Wat, the national symbol depicted on the country’s flag.

Thai authorities, and the abbot behind the construction at the Sihanakhon temple complex, in Buriram province, which has already cost upwards of 100m baht (£2.25m), have denied trying to imitate the temple, saying it has much broader influences.

Khattiya Chaimanee, Buriram’s cultural official, said the design instead reflected the typical features of Khmer stone castles, which could be found across architecture in the south Isan region in the north-east of Thailand. This includes the new temple’s Naga Bridge, a long walkway crafted in the form of Naga, he said.

The design was not an exact match, he said: “In this temple, the temple clusters are lined up in one row, from the biggest to the smallest, which is completely different to the landscape of Angkor Wat.”

But Khattiya added the original inspiration came from the head monk, who, in a dream, saw himself in a past life as one of the troops who helped build the sprawling Angkor Wat complex, which dates back to the 12th century. “So when he entered the monkhood he would like to resume that,” he said.

Officials from the Cambodian embassy in Thailand visited the site last month, after the hashtags #SaveAngkorWat and #Angkorwatbelongtokhmer were shared across social media. The Cambodian culture ministry subsequently quoted the temple’s head monk as saying the design had not copied the design of Angkor Wat or any temple in Cambodia.

However, Cambodian officials have reportedly said they will investigate further. On Wednesday, the director of the ministry of culture, Hab Touch, told Khmer Times that experts would visit Thailand to examine the construction. No date was set, he said, due to Covid-related travel restrictions.

Khattiya said he was not aware of a planned visit.

Pa Chanroeun, the president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said it was unclear how similar the temple was to Angkor Wat but it was a sensitive issue. “Anything that creates the national tension between these two nations should be avoided,” he said.

Previously, a long-running dispute over Preah Vihear – an 11th-century temple which, in a 1962 judgment, the international court of justice determined belonged to Cambodia – has led to clashes between the two neighbours. In 2003, rumours that a Thai soap opera actor had suggested Thailand should take over Angkor Wat descended into riots and a diplomatic dispute.

“If they really appreciate the value of this temple they should come and visit Cambodia and see the real ancient temple,” said Pa Chanroeun.

Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, has been displayed on Cambodia’s flag since independence, though a model of the temple is also featured at the royal palace in Bangkok. In the late 19th century, Rama IV of Siam sought to dismantle a temple at Angkor and rebuild it in Bangkok – though the plot failed after his troops were ambushed. Instead, a far smaller model of Angkor Wat was built in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the Grand Palace.

• This article was amended on 28 August and 10 September 2021 to correct the spelling of Pa Chanroeun’s name, and to clarify that the statement that the temple design “had not copied the design of Angkor Wat or any temple in Cambodia” was from the head monk of the new temple complex, rather than from the Cambodian culture ministry as an earlier version said.


Rebecca Ratcliffe South east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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