Though critically panned and easily forgotten by most of us, the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider has certainly left its mark in Angkor, Cambodia, one of its principal shooting locations. Home to over a thousand temples built by the Khmer Empire, the Angkor region is currently visited by over 2 million tourists each year. Many of them now flock to see the tree-choked Ta Prohm, which was featured prominently in the movie and is known popularly in Cambodia as the “Angelina Jolie Temple” after the film’s star.
Lara Croft’s Cambodian scenes follow Jolie tumbling into the depths of Ta Prohm and filching a piece of a mystical artefact, dubbed (with staggering imagination) the “Triangle of Light.” After neutralizing a six-armed stone behemoth, jumping off a waterfall and conversing with local monks in fluent Khmer, the impressive Croft departs Cambodia for pastures new, leaving in her wake a pervading air of nostalgia. There is now a Tomb Raider cocktail served regularly near Angkor, mixed according to one of Jolie’s favorite recipes (Cointreau, lime and soda), and the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism once named the actress the “patron saint of Cambodia.”
However, not of all of Angkor’s historical tomb raiders have been remembered with such fondness. The temple site has been a hotspot for Western looters ever since it was first described by French explorers in the late 19th century. Among the most notorious of these pilferers was French novelist Andre Malraux, best-known today as the author of the modern classic Man’s Fate. A heavyweight intellectual in his day, he was a major influence on Albert Camus and was regularly rubbing shoulders in Paris with the likes of Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1958, Charles de Gaulle appointed him the Minister of Cultural Affairs.
Malraux is also memorable for his passion for adventure. A frequent traveller, he made a number of trips to Asia during his lifetime, one of which provided the inspiration for Man’s Fate, set in Shanghai during the failed 1927 communist insurrection. However, it is the very first of his overseas excursions that interests us here.
At the age of 22, Malraux was broke. He had lost all his mining stock in a 1922 crash, obliging him to find a new source of income — and quickly. By combining his considerable knowledge of global art with a natural disposition toward adventure, he devised a cunning solution: sail to Cambodia (then in French-governed Indochina) and quietly relieve a Khmer temple of its valuables. He would then sell these to enthusiastic buyers in New York. He bounced this idea off of the Ministry of Colonies disguised as a plan for an earnest archaeology mission. They bought it, and in October 1923, Malraux and his wife Clara set sail for Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Once in Vietnam, they met up with Malraux’s childhood friend Louis Chevasson, who would help them extract objects from the temple. Following the course of the Mekong River northwards, the group arrived in Siem Reap, a town near the Angkor temples. After buying supplies and hiring some locals as drivers and porters, they set out for the site that Malraux had in mind.
In the early 1920s, the Banteay Srei temple was still something of a mystery. Malraux first heard about it when he found a rare book at the Bibliotheque Orientale in Paris, which gave an account by a certain Lieutenant Marek, who had rediscovered the temple in 1914. Located about 16 miles northeast of the main Angkor temples (including Ta Prohm), it took several days to reach on horseback from Siem Reap. Heavily concealed in the jungle, they began to wonder at one point if the temple was still standing. Local villagers, when questioned, didn’t seem to know of its existence. Finally, one old man had a vague recollection of a trail leading to a mound of stones a few miles away. After hacking through the thick undergrowth, it emerged at last: a small, pink sandstone jewel.
If there was a Triangle of Light concealed within the walls of Banteay Srei, Andre Malraux would have known about it. As it was, he had his eyes set on more modest prizes. The most valuable statues in the temple were apsaras, sculptures of dancing goddesses, which could fetch more than $12,000 apiece. In total, Malraux and Chevasson removed seven items from Banteay Srei. Being unskilled tomb raiders, they did a clumsy job, damaging some of the pieces in the removal.
It ended disastrously. The trio brought the goods back to their steamboat and arrived in the city of Phnom Penh shortly afterwards, tying their ship up at the docks. Then on Christmas Eve 1923, shortly before midnight, they received a surprise visit in their cabins. The French authorities had been on to them for weeks. Even before the Malrauxs first arrived in Siem Reap, the governor-general of Indochina had received information from Paris which left doubt as to the party’s real intentions. Malraux was sentenced to three years incarceration and Chevasson to 18 months.
Clara wasn’t sentenced at all, and so she returned to France to garner the support of the Parisian intellectuals. Her strategy prevailed, sparking a wide campaign for Malraux’s release, spearheaded by the Surrealist Andre Breton. Their letter of protest boasted signatures from such notables as Andre Gide, Francois Mauriac, Max Jacob and the Gallimard brothers. The gist of their argument was that Malraux showed promise. In the words of Judith Thurman, it was as if they were insisting that “one sort of national treasure shouldn't be punished for pillaging another.”
This letter was read out to the Court of Appeal in Saigon, which ended up giving a new ruling: a suspended sentence for Malraux and Chevasson of one year and eight months respectively. The two friends never had to go to prison.
The statues were finally returned to Banteay Srei in 1925. Then from 1931 to 1936, the temple was the subject of restoration efforts, prompting Malraux’s biographer Oliver Todd to ask, “Would so much attention have been paid to this ‘precious jewel’ of a temple if Malraux hadn’t looted it? Did this thief not, finally, save Banteay Srei?” Indeed, this once obscure site is now one of several major attractions at Angkor today. And while Malraux was never quite dubbed the “patron saint of Cambodia,” there is now a restaurant in Siem Reap named after him.
Malraux drew from his Cambodian adventure when writing the novel The Royal Way. It tells the story of two men trekking through the Cambodian jungle to steal statues from a Khmer temple. Vannec is a cultured art-hunter, but Perken just wants the money to buy machine guns. He hopes to conquer a vast swathe of mountainous land and bring together the local tribes under his rule. While never achieving the lasting fame of Man’s Fate, The Royal Way was greeted positively upon its release and is well worth the time. This, at least, is more than can be said for Tomb Raider.
Ben Simmonds is a recent graduate of McGill University, where he studied neuroscience. He currently lives in Montreal, working as an editor and book reviewer.
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