Island publisher renews quest to solve mystery of Angkor Wat Women

Island publisher renews quest to solve mystery of Angkor Wat Women

By Rick Catlin – The Islander Feb 10, 2009Island publisher renews quest to solve mystery of Angkor Wat Women

Holmes Beach resident Kent Davis could have been forgiven if he had given up his dreams of publishing books on Asian history, supporting a Cambodian school, and decoding the mystery of the 1,780 female statues at Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia.

Island publisher renews quest to solve mystery of Angkor Wat Women
Sophaphan & Kent Davis in front of their destroyed home on the morning of April 17th, 2008. Davis’ research focuses on Cambodia. Coincidentally, the fire struck on the same day the Khmer Rouge genocide began in Phnom Penh in 1975.

Davis and his wife “Pa,” a native of Thailand, were lucky to be alive after an April 17, 2008, house fire destroyed their Holmes Beach home.

Also lost in the blaze were more than 20,000 research pictures Davis had taken of the famous Cambodian temple complex, along with his priceless collection of some 2,000 books and documents on Southeast Asia, including many rare and first edition volumes. The research materials and book collection were not covered by insurance.

When the fire broke out, Davis was preparing to republish “Angkor the Magnificent,” a 1924 book written by Titanic survivor and American socialite Helen Churchill Candee. Candee’s tale of Asian adventure was heralded then as one of the most provocative descriptions of the lost Khmer civilization, and her book is credited with opening Cambodia to American and English tourism prior to the outbreak of World War II.

Island publisher renews quest to solve mystery of Angkor Wat Women
Angkor the Magnificent

The fire, however, destroyed Davis’ original editions of the book, his working manuscripts and original research photos.

But Davis does not give up easily.

After working diligently throughout the year, Davis finally completed his revisions of the book and in November received the first copies of his new expanded edition of “Angkor the Magnificent.”

The next day, he flew to Cambodia to donate copies of the book to libraries, spend two weeks retaking 7,000 photos of Khmer temples and visiting research libraries to replace documentation lost in the fire.

Davis also arranged to send textbooks and clothes to the Srei Devata Middle School that he and his wife built with proceeds they earned from the 2005 sale of the Siam Garden Resort in Anna Maria.

Kent and Sophaphan Davis at the opening ceremonies of Srei Devata Middle School in Kampong Thom, Cambodia.
Kent and Sophaphan Davis at the opening ceremonies of Srei Devata Middle School in the village of Bak Sna, Kampong Thom, Cambodia.

Now back in Holmes Beach, Davis plans to continue his three-year research project investigating the significance of the 1,780 female statues at Angkor Wat, each distinctly different from another. The stone images, carved between 1120 A.D. and 1150 A.D., might represent a single generation of Khmer royal women, the ancestors of modern Cambodians. This could make them the largest collection of ancient portraits on earth, with the exception of the Terra Cotta Army in China which is entirely composed of men.

Davis is hoping his research will unlock the mystery of the identity of the women.

He plans to publish the first phase of his research later this year in a book entitled “Daughters of Angkor Wat.”

“The Khmer civilization was one of the most advanced on Earth, but, in modern times, the Cambodian people have been decimated by colonial subjugation, war and the recent genocide of the communist Khmer Rouge regime,” Davis said. “My mission is to help restore education and the legacy of history in their country.”

In March 2008, Davis completed his first publication on southeast Asia, “Earth in Flower,” which documents the history of Cambodia’s sacred dance tradition.

When the Khmer Rouge and dictator Pol Pot came to power in the 1970’s, more that 90 percent of the country’s dancers and an estimated 1.5 million people died in the communist genocide of the population, made famous in the movie “The Killing Fields.”

Davis's charred office that contained his original research papers and rarest books.
Davis’s charred office that contained his original research papers and rarest books.

Following his fire and destruction at his home, Davis pledged to continue his literary efforts, even if he had to start again with just his few remaining notes and drawings.

Davis kept that promise.

“The house fire and possessions lost did not define me. That’s not who I am,” he said.

“These are all transient things. Pa is from Thailand and we lived in Southeast Asia for many years. The Buddhist mentality there is that material things are worth nothing. What you do with your life is worth something.”

“Completing these books and continuing our efforts to support the school is fulfilling something in our lives. These are not things that the fire could destroy.”

All of Davis’ projects and links to related websites can be found at www.Devata.org. Both “Earth in Flower,” and “Angkor the Magnificent” are available from Internet bookseller Amazon.com, Davis said.

Island publisher renews quest to solve mystery of Angkor Wat Women

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