[TEACHING] Virtual Reality Module: Analyzing Representations of Angkor

This is a teaching module I designed for my course, “Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina” at Brown University, Fall 2019. [See below for full teaching module or Download Teaching Module>] I connected with an ambitious, award winning project “Virtual Angkor” which brings the 13th century Cambodian metropolis of Angkor to life through virtual reality and 3D simulation. Led by the talented team of Tom Chandler, Adam Clulow, Bernard Keo, Mike Yeates, and Martin Polkinghorne (SensiLab, Monash University, UT Austin, Flinders University), Virtual Angkor allows students to experience and pose questions about Angkor’s social life, trade networks, structure of power and kingship, as well as architectural layout.

Leo Selvaggio and Kelly Egan at Brown’s Multimedia Lab kindly helped to provide an Oculus Rift and space for my VR teaching module.

How I Integrated Virtual Angkor into a 20th Century Indochina History Seminar

Firstly, I am not a specialist of 13th century Khmer empire. My research and teaching focus is 19th and 20th century Southeast Asia, with a specialization in colonial Indochina and 20th century Vietnam. However, I was ecstatic to see and support an important project for teaching and researching Southeast Asia. Furthermore, I was eager to integrate new pedagogies of embodied learning into studies of history far and distant from the students’ contemporary realities.

Since my course “Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina” focused on the 19th and 20th century Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, I developed a teaching module around critical analysis of different multimedia representations of Angkor (13th and 20th century text, photography, VR). Prior to the session, the student’s background was grounded in 19th and 20th century Cambododge–the French colonial constructs of ‘Angkor’ as a lost civilization and as the foundation of Cambodian national and ethnic heritage. This module was taught towards the end of the semester and at this point the students had read most of Penny Edwards’ Cambodge book. Most of my students were juniors or seniors, but had little to no background knowledge of Southeast Asia prior to this course.

To ground the discussion, we referenced the following texts which were covered in previous weeks:

  • Penny Edwards, “The Temple Complex: Angkor and the Archaeology of Colonial Fantasy, 1860-1906,” in Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945. (University of Hawaii Press, 2007).
  • French travelogue A Pilgrimage to Angkor by Pierre Loti (1921)
  • On the day of the VR experience, we also collectively analyzed the Chinese travelogue  A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People by Zhou Daguan (1296-1297).

The primary goals for the module include the following:

  • Practice textual and visual analysis
  • Critically analyze different historical sources and representations of Angkor (20th century French colonial travelogue, 13th century Chinese travelogue, virtual reality simulation)

The types of guided questions I posed for students during and after the VR experience included the following:

  • What was your experience of Angkor through the virtual reality simulation? (Observe the shapes, colors, subject matter, objects, sounds).
  • What surprised you? What was confusing or curious? What did you want to know more about?)

Lessons from Teaching VR or How VR Transforms Teaching and Learning

Throughout the course, we had practiced critical analysis of colonial representation, historical archives, and provenance. However, it was different to speak theoretically about these manifestations of power. Virtual reality provides a much more active, embodied experience of knowledge formation based on visual, experiential, and vocalization of understanding as an individual and social practice. In other words, in VR students must create meaning through their sensory experiences in combination with conceptual knowledge of history and culture. “Meaning” and “significance” is not immediately apparent nor can be simply explained through conceptual lecture. Instead, students self-direct their own learning by following their visual and affective curiosities: “What is that I see or hear? Let me move closer to examine. Oh it is X, I think? I wonder if it is used for Y.”

I guided their experience with both open ended and focused questions and encouraged students to vocalize what they were seeing, feeling, and thinking. Thus, students also made their learning a process a conversation between what they saw and its significance.

To teach in this present, experiential way challenges me as an instructor to think through the many levels and steps of ‘understanding.’ A student can hear a lecture and understand an idea conceptually through examples. They can see how the idea manifests in primary sources such as texts and photographs. However, they are still removed from the actual process of ‘understanding’ because they are told and directed how they should understand. VR challenges the one-directional system of knowledge dissemination to a sensory based, multi-directional, and non-linear exploration. In other words, one sees and feels in order to learn.

Besides the immense pedagogical contributes of VR to learning, might I also add that VR is incredibly fun? Based off the genuine excited responses from my students, teaching with VR is extremely engaging and sparks a deep sense of curiosity and commitment to discovery.

How to Integrate Virtual Angkor into Your Classroom

The Virtual Angkor team was such a joy to work with and are excited to see Virtual Angkor used in different ways. I can imagine using Virtual Angkor as a module to discuss a wide range of interdisicplinary topics, themes, and methodologies such as the following:

  • a comparative of early modern Asian urbanism, metropolis, and high density urban environments with other cases
  • archives and sources: historical, literary, and archaeological evidence
  • digital humanities and virtual environments
  • Asia and the world, early kingdoms
  • environment, agricultural development, social infrastructure
  • Southeast Asia polities, kingship, Buddhist and Hindu building projects
  • Cambodian history, role of Angkor Wat and national narrative

The Virtual Angkor interactive website provides detailed teaching modules, 360 videos, and helpful background information for instructors. For those interested in SensiLab’s work of modeling and visualization, see their project page here.

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This teaching module is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Download Teaching Module>

Video of Teaching Module Brown University, Fall 2019, Multimedia Lab

Photographs from Teaching Module Brown University, Fall 2019, Multimedia Lab


Module: Analyzing Representations of Angkor

Activity Goals: In this classroom activity, students will learn to critically analyze different multimedia representations of Angkor. They will learn how to identify important key visual aspects (clothing, colors, architecture, space, sounds, etc) and interpret their historical and cultural significance. They will compare their own experience of a simulated virtual reality simulation with two textual first-person historical travel narratives. After this session, students will develop a strong grasp of visual analysis of different media and apply this technique for their final research project.


Recall the previously read and discussed texts:

  • Penny Edwards, “The Temple Complex: Angkor and the Archaeology of Colonial Fantasy, 1860-1906,” in Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945. (University of Hawaii Press, 2007).
  • Travelogue A Pilgrimage to Angkor by Pierre Loti (1921)


  • Primary Textual Source:
    • “Chapter 6 The People” from Travelogue A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People by Zhou Daguan (1296-1297)

The instructor will guide the students to recall previous weeks’ discussion on Angkor from 19th-20th century colonial sources. The students will then read a short excerpt of Zhou Daguan’s 13th century travelogue independently and then answer the following questions in pairs:

  1. What was your experience of Angkor through reading the travel text? (Reflect on the words, tone, and word choice. What surprised you? What was confusing or curious? What did you want to know more about?)

The instructor will then facilitate a shared discussion on the above questions and provide historical context for the source from Peter Harris’ introduction and David Chandler’s forward for the text.


  • Visual Media:
    • Virtual Angkor: https://www.virtualangkor.com Virtual Angkor project (SensiLab, University of Texas, Monash University, Flinders University) is an immersive virtual reality and 3D simulation of 13th century Angkor metropolis. (ongoing)

Students will take turns using the VR headset (3 minutes each) to explore separate visual media scenes in Virtual Angkor. During each scene, the instructor will ask guiding questions to the group drawing from the Visual Thinking Exercise questions. Order of scenes: 1) Road 2) Marketplace 3) Sculpture Workshop 4) Village 5) Wat Gate 6) Map 7) Wat Residencies 

Visual Thinking Exercise

Step 1: See and Describe (without Interpretation)

  • What is going on?
  • What do you see that makes you say that? (Specific details which support your observation. Observe shapes, colors, textures, mood. Note the position of people and objects in relationship to each other.)
  • What more can you find?

Step 2: Interpret and Make-Meaning

  • How is Angkor represented?
  • Who is the subject matter (architecture, humans, nature, objects, etc)? Why is this important?
  • What is not represented?

Step 3: Further Investigation and Visual Evidence

  • What is the historical, political, and economic context of the source?
  • Who produced this source?
  • Why was this source created?
  • Who is the primary intended audience?
  • What was the historical context in which this was produced? (Consider historical events, global politics, economic concerns)
  • What does this visual source reveal that is different than textual sources?
  • How does this visual source differ from other visual sources (VR and photographs)?


After the VR experience we will regroup to discuss the following Critical Analysis Questions.

  1. VR Experience:
    1. What was your experience of 13th century Angkor through VR?
    2. Reflect on the feelings of embodiment, the sounds, the sights, the depth. Think through the thoughts that came up. What surprised you? What was confusing or curious? What did you want to know more about?
  2. Comparative Media: Text and VR
    1. How does reading Zhou Daguan’s travelogue text differ in experience than VR embodiment?
    2. How does VR world and the experience of embodiment transform your understanding of 13thcentury Angkor?
  3. Critical Thinking:
    1. What is absent in the virtual world of Angkor? What is not represented in the Zhou Daguan and Pierre Loti travelogues?
    2. How does your own first-person experience of Angkor compare with Pierre Loti’s and Zhou Daguan’s first person travelogue account of Angkor?
    3. What does each source reveal about history of Angkor, colonial Cambodia, and colonialism?

Supplemental Primary Sources:

  • Travelogue A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People by Zhou Daguan (1296-1297)
  • Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-Lu (Veritable Records of the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644) http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/
  • Photographs from Angkor: An Introduction by George Coedès (1931)

Supplemental Reading:

  • Roland Fletcher, Damian Evans, Christophe Pottier and Chhay Rachna, ‘Angkor Wat: An Introduction,’ Antiquity 89, no. 348 (2015): 1388-1401.
  • Tom Chandler and Martin Polkinghorne, ‘Through the Visualisation Lens: Temple Models and Simulated Context in a Virtual Angkor,’ in Old Myths and New Approaches: Interpreting Religious Sites in Southeast Asia, ed. Alexandra Haendel (Clayton, Victoria: Monash University Publishing, 2012).
  • Google Arts & Culture “Visualising Angkor: Part 1 – Envisioning a Living City” https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/DAKCaZFzDpVCKw
  • Google Arts & Culture “Visualising Angkor: Part 2 – A New Reconstruction of Angkor Wat” https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/UwKSRNSRibIZKg

Photographs and Video footage by Leo Selvaggio and Eric Kim.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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