In 1860, the Thai King Mongkut ordered Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world) to be moved to Bangkok. Find out what happened…
The Grand Palace in Bangkok’s historic city center is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. Although, one feature there seemed very out of place when I first saw it: a model of Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat. Considering the Thai people and the Khmers of Cambodia were longtime historical adversaries, I had to question whether or not I was seeing it correctly. However, a sign within the royal complex confirmed it was indeed a model of Angkor Wat.
So, why is there a miniature Angkor Wat within the central state temple of Thailand?
King Mongkut of Siam ordered Angkor Wat in the Khmer’s former capital to be dismantled and rebuilt in Bangkok in order to demonstrate Thai dominance over Cambodia. After two expeditions failed to start the massive project, the Thai king relented and instead ordered a model of the Khmer monument built within Wat Phra Kaew.
Of course, there is more to the story. Although defeated, the Khmers were not gone, and certainly not happy with these attempts made by the Thai royalty. Meanwhile, some accounts suggest the Thai kings were trying to claim Khmer heritage as their own.
All the while, as the dominant Thai Kingdom was flexing its muscle over the region, the looming power of the French had begun to push its way into Cambodia and Indochina.
Angkor Wat in Bangkok’s Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew
Rattanakosin is an artificial island sitting on the lazy banks of the Chao Phraya River at the historic center of modern Bangkok. Fortified by a series of concentric canals, this lemon-shaped island played home to the penultimate capital of the Thai state and is today home to the celebrated Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew – which together form a complex sitting as a political and religious symbol at the heart of the nation.
At the center of Wat Phra Kaew is the legendary Emerald Buddha image, from which the temple takes its name. Phra Kaeo Morakot (พระแก้วมรกต), known in English as the Emerald Buddha, is a storied image that has changed hands throughout several historic kingdoms in the history of Southeast Asia. Legends place its origin in India almost 2 millennia ago, with tales that it would bring glory to 5 great empires, with the image’s arrival at its current home at Rattanakosin Island cementing the Thai monarchy’s legitimacy as a stabilizing force within the region’s history.
Likewise, as the Thai monarchs extended their power over the former kingdom of Angkor, a similar desire to display their dominance of the region emerged. This manifested in the Thai King Rama IV (Mongkut) desiring to have the Khmer Empire’s crowning monument Angkor Wat moved to the Thai capital at Bangkok, specifically at a plot of land at Wat Pathum, near the current mega malls of Siam Paragon and Central World.
Such a request would be no small feat, however, as, to this day, Angkor Wat holds the title of the largest religious monument in the world. The record-setting Hindu sanctuary is made of 5-10 million stones, each weighing an average of 1.5 tons.
Following Mongkut’s orders, in 1860, there were reportedly 2 expeditions sent to assess and begin this monumental task. The first expedition was recorded to have been succumbing to the area’s harsh jungle conditions before being ambushed by Khmer rebels still inhabiting the areas around Angkor Wat, ultimately killing the leaders of the expedition, including Mongkut’s own son.
The second expedition reported back the sheer impossibility of the feat requested by the Thai king, with some sources saying that they also surveyed the smaller Ta Phrom as an alternative. However, neither was feasible. The idea of disassembling the monument piece-by-piece, transporting the thousands of pieces over 400 km, and reconstructing them again in precisely the same position was beyond their ability.
Upon learning this, King Mongkut relented and instead ordered a replica of Angkor Wat to be built within the walls of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This model of Angkor Wat was completed in 1869. Unfortunately, King Mongkut did not live to see the completion of this model within the state temple. Instead, the model was completed by his son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).
Thailand’s Rivalry with Angkor
If there were ever a political ‘superpower’ in the realm of Southeast Asia, it would be the Khmer Empire.
Growing out of the unification of previously independent Chenla-period Khmer kingdoms, the Khmer Empire settled its capital near the base of Kulen mountain, where the first emperor, Jayavarman II undertook a Hindu ritual meant to imbue himself with the status of devaraja, or ‘god-king’.
With this perception of divine authority over the Hindu Khmer kingdoms, the Khmer Empire grew to dominate lands which included the vast majority of modern-day Thailand, ruling over several Mon and Thai city-states in the process. However, a series of events led to the gradual fall of the Angkor state in the 14th Century CE as new kingdoms rose up in Thailand to challenge them.
King Borommarachathirat II’s Defeat of Angkor
Despite its centuries of dominance over the region, by the end of King Jayavarman VII’s reign in 1218, the Angkor civilization began a decline from which it would not recover. This coincided with the rise of several independent Thai kingdoms, namely Lanna, Sukhothai, and Ayutthaya.
As the cultural behemoth began loosening its hold on the region, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya seized this time to overthrow their longtime Angkorian rulers. This was not an issue for Lanna, as it occupied the former Hariphunchai territory, which had never been a part of the Khmer Empire.
In the following centuries, Ayutthaya began consolidating its power, eventually absorbing its fellow Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Lanna into its own mandala of influence, the Kingdom of Siam. During this period, the Siamese King Borommarachathirat II invaded and sacked the faltering Khmer capital of Angkor Thom.
Angkor Under Thai Rule and Encroaching Empires
Following the Thai defeat of Angkor, the majority of Cambodian territory was under varying degrees of Thai control for several centuries. This wavered at some points as Khmer rebellions and wars with Burma led to occasional lapses in authority, but Cambodia was effectively a vassal state of Siam and Ayutthaya from 1431 onward.
The 1800s brought with it the looming threat of outside colonial empires. And while Thailand (Siam) had established itself as the regional power in Southeast Asia, it was not equipped to fend off these globe-spanning powers of France and Britain.
The looming threat of France encroaching into mainland Indochina, particularly into Siam’s claims in northern Cambodia, is likely the major factor prompting King Mongkut’s order to disassemble Angkor Wat and move the monument to Bangkok. Not only would this serve to reinforce Mongkut’s (and the Thai Chakri Dynasty’s) claim over the region, it would also be a display of power to the French and British as they were continuing to establish their presence in Southeast Asia.
However, it was exactly this power imbalance that eventually led to Thailand relinquishing its claims on Angkor’s former territories to the French. This along with several other successful political maneuvers between the Thais, French, and English led to Thailand retaining its independence during an era which all other surrounding kingdoms were being enveloped by the colonial powers. By discarding the mandala power model and centralizing its own power, Siam maintained a continuity of rule which continues to the modern day.
Coveting Angkor Wat
One longstanding criticism of Thais by Cambodians, appearing even in online forums to this day, is the appropriation of many aspects of Khmer Angkorian culture into classical Thai culture. This includes architectural features such as the prang, costume and dance rituals, as well as the Thai writing system – a development that is historically attributed to the Sukhothai King Ramkhamhaeng, but is most likely an adaptation of the Khmer writing system to suit the needs of the Thai language.
Curiously, Mongkut was no stranger to this – as he was the king who had rediscovered the ruins of Sukhothai during his monkhood. The Thai king had a well-documented history of antiquarian pursuits. In addition to Sukhothai, his discovery also led to the unearthing of the Ramkhamhaeng Inscription, as well as the now-famous Phra Pathom Chedi – an ancient Dvaravati stupa in Nakhon Pathom that has since been renovated numerous times and competes for the title of the world’s largest stupa.
This Thai adoption of Khmer culture might be easily written off as an extension of the Khmer Empire’s ancient political domination over the region. After all, the Thai kingdoms had all grown within the realm of the Lavo Kingdom, a polity directly controlled by the Khmer rulers at Angkor. This also means that if Mongkut had simply wanted to move an Angkorian monument to Bangkok, there were several much more feasible options at the former Lavo capital of Lopburi, only 60 km away.
However, it seems to stem beyond that. Following the conquest of Angkor by Borommarachathirat II and the Ayutthaya Thais, they actively adopted many aspects of art and culture from their conquered counterparts. Additionally, several Thai monarchs continued to claim a lineage back to the Angkorian devarajas, even pointing such relationships out to European diplomats in the 1800s. This stemmed to King Mongkut, who ordered the movement of Angkor Wat to Bangkok in 1860.
Like the aforementioned Emerald Buddha, Angkor Wat was a cultural symbol, along with many other aspects of Khmer culture was now perceived as the rightful inheritance of the Thais as the now-dominant power in the region. Although it was ‘rediscovered’ by the French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860, neither Angkor Wat nor the many other monuments at Angkor had been lost to the Khmers, their kings in Phnom Penh, or the Thai royals.
In addition to making a show of power to the French, it is likely this perception of cultural inheritance also played a role in Mongkut’s order to move the crown jewel of Khmer monuments to the Thai capital.
Capital of the Khmer Empire, located near modern-day Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Walled city and final capital of the Khmer Empire built by Jayavarman VII.
Signature monument and Hindu temple mountain built by Khmer king Suryavarman II.
City in central Thailand and historic capital of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, which was succeeded by the Thonburi Kingdom in 1767.
King of Ayutthaya from 1424–1448.
Chulalongkorn (King Rama V)
King of Thailand (Siam) from 1868-1910.
Southeast “God-king” who was imbued with the divine right to rule the earthly realm.
Mon-Burmese ethnic group based in modern Nakhon Pathom, Thailand. Responsible for the introduction of Buddhism (Theravada sect) to Thailand.
Common English name of Phra Kaew Morakot, a legendary Buddha images which is currently housed in Bangkok after changing hands through several empires.
Political and religious complex in Bangkok’s historic city center that served as the home of Thailand’s king.
Dvaravati kingdom in northern Thailand centered in the modern town of Lamphun. Eventually conquered by the Lanna Kingdom.
Austroasiatic ethnic group native to Southeast Asia and the majority inhabitants of the modern nation of Cambodia.
Hindu-Buddhist kingdom which ruled much of Southeast Asia from their capital at Angkor.
Thai kingdom based in northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. Its capitals included Chiang Rai, Wiang Kum Kam, and Chiang Mai.
Dvaravati kingdom in central Thailand centered in the modern town of Lopburi. Eventually conquered by the Khmer Empire.
Political system found in historic Southeast Asia where tributary states surrounded a central power without being directly administered by them.
Mongkut (King Rama IV)
King of Thailand (Siam) from 1851-1868.
A Khmer Hindu tower representing Mount Meru and taking the form of a lotus bud. Thai architecture later adopted the design into their Buddhist temples.
Legendary king of Sukhothai who is popularly credited with creating the Thai writing system.
Inscription discovered by King Mongkut at Sukhothai which is allegedly the first instance of Thai writing created by Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai.
Thai kingdom and successor to the Thonburi Kingdom. Based in Bangkok and founded in 1782, the Rattanakosin era lasted until 1932, when political reforms transformed the kingdom into the modern nation of Thailand.
City in central-northern Thailand and abandoned capital of the Sukhothai Kingdom.
Wat Phra Kaew
Common name of Wat Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram, known in English as the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and part of the Grand Palace complex.
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- Kasetsiri, Charnvit. “Thailand and Cambodia: A Love-Hate Relationship.” Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, 30 Mar. 2014, kyotoreview.org/issue-3-nations-and-stories/a-love-hate-relationship/.
- Peleggi, Maurizio. Thailand: the Worldly Kingdom. Reaktion, 2007.
- Rojanaphruk, Pravit. “That Time Thailand Tried Moving Angkor Wat to Bangkok.” Khaosod English, 29 Sept. 2018, www.khaosodenglish.com/news/2018/09/28/that-time-thailand-tried-moving-angkor-wat-to-bangkok/.