Webinar on “Angkor (c. 9th-15th century): People, Monument, City, and Statecraft”

In this webinar, Dr Heng Piphal delved into the city of Angkor, urban infrastructure and its associated social aspects, the people who lived there, and most importantly, the relationship with its provincial centers.


Wednesday, 21 July 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “Angkor (c. 9th-15th century): People, Monument, City, and Statecraft” by Dr Heng Piphal. Dr Heng is a postdoctoral researcher at Northern Illinois University and has worked and researched extensively on the archaeology of Cambodia. The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History Programme of Southeast Asia and moderated by one of the programme’s conveners Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan.

Dr Heng Piphal gave an overview of the history of Angkor. Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The Khmer Empire is one of the best-known ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia, and a fitting starting point for the Archaeology and Art History of Southeast Asia webinar series. Dr Heng focused on the idea of the ‘city’, from which the name Angkor is derived from, and discussed Angkor as an ancient state, an “un-lost city”, and being “lost in the city”. 

Dr Heng first gave an overview of the history of Angkor, located between the Tonle Sap and Phnom Kulen in modern-day northwest Cambodia. Recent research suggests that the empire’s population is estimated at between 500,000 to 900,000 people, while the urban core  – the ‘city’ – supported a population between 76,000 – 150,000. He also pointed out how Angkor, like cities of today, can be described in terms of physical and social infrastructure. Relying on a variety of sources such as evidence from bas-reliefs, archaeological data, artistic visualisations and text, Dr Heng showed how different forms of infrastructure manifested. These include an extensive road system, both within the walled enclosures and connecting to provincial centres in modern-day Thailand and Laos; state-run education (religious schools) and health care (hospitals or arogyaśālās); and how various religious festivals spur the mass movement of peoples to and from urban centres – much like how it continues today.

Dr Heng suggested that cities – both ancient and modern – are sensory-overloading experiences. Ordinary citizens of the Khmer empire visiting the capital would be overwhelmed by the denseness of the population, belittled by the towering glittering buildings, and confused by the gridded layout of the city. Conversely, the later colonial powers could not conceive how a recently defeated population could be responsible for the grand ruins in the forest and attributed their origin to a long-lost civilization. Today, Angkor continues to astound as a global tourist attraction and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

A lively question-and-answer session followed, with participants asking about the hydraulic management and decline of Angkor, the location of centres of production, and aspects of daily life in ancient Cambodia. The webinar attracted over 270 participants, mostly from Singapore and Southeast Asia.

This webinar series is supported by Temasek Foundation.

(Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Watch the recording here.