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Rescuing Angkor

An unprecedented effort to reclaim the ancient temples from the Cambodian jungle is racing against a tourist onslaught

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In a clearing of the tropical forest near the entrance to Ta Som, an 800-year-old temple at Angkor, in northwest Cambodia, two architects are having a friendly argument. For the umpteenth time, they’re debating what to do about the towering strangler fig trees that threaten to rip apart sections of this Buddhist temple, five miles north of Angkor Wat, the most awe inspiring and best known of the 44 temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries in the 155-square-mile Angkor district. To Westerners accustomed to romantic images of the ancient religious ruins, the gargantuan roots entwined with the sculptures and doorways may have a picturesque quality. But the trees are a nightmare to the legions of people working to preserve and restore the 100 or so structures in and around Angkor. Roots split walls and crush intricate carvings. Mature trees topple, taking building chunks with them.

 

One of the architects, a rangy Englishman named John Sanday, shakes his head as he looks at two 100-foot strangler figs hugging the entrance to Ta Som in a gnarled embrace. The sinewy roots caused a half-inch crack in the carvings that span the lintel of a 30-foot-high portal. The bas-relief depicts Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist god of compassion and mercy. “These trees are a menace,” Sanday says. “They will live a couple of hundred years at most, and when branches break off, they’ll bring down the gate.”

 

“But the roots are holding the carvings and larger stones together,” says Var Morin, a courtly Cambodian and a former student of Sanday’s. “If we cut the trees down now, the gate will surely fall.”

 

“What if we compromise and cut away most of the trees?” Sanday says. “Then there’s less chance of a storm bringing them down.”

 

“Let me think about it,” Morin says. For now, the trees remain intact.

 

Both men work for the World Monuments Fund, a New York City-based conservation group that has been helping restore Angkor’s temples since 1989. Morin, 45, belongs to the first generation of native Cambodians to work on this national treasure in three decades. It has taken that long for the population to begin to recover from the genocide of 1975-1978, when the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist military force that gained power in the late 1960s, killed some two million Cambodians—nearly a quarter of the population. Vietnameseforces drove Khmer Rouge officials from power in 1979, but rebels loyal to the regime continued to vie for control of the country until surrendering in 1998 to Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge soldier elected prime minister the same year. Now Cambodian professionals—archaeologists, architects, restoration specialists and museum curators—are once again working to preserve Angkor, alongside experts from the United States, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, China and India. Currently, UNESCO and a committee drawn from 30 nations are helping the Cambodian government run the restoration project. The international community expects to assist Cambodia for at least the next ten years.

 

There is nothing quite like Angkor. The temples are adorned by spectacular giant carved heads and elegant basreliefs of buxom celestial dancers known as apsaras. The main attraction, Angkor Wat, is surrounded by a broad moat filled with lily pads and lotus plants. Its five pineapple-shaped sandstone towers symbolize MountMeru, the Hindu-Buddhist home of the gods, amid the primordial ocean. Among other superlatives, Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious structure, rising 213 feet and covering 22 acres.

 

Angkor was a metropolis of a million or so people, the capital of the Khmer kingdom, which flourished for 500 years, peaking in the 12th century. (The word “Khmer” refers to Cambodia’s historically prevailing ethnolinguistic group.) The empire covered nearly all of Southeast Asia before declining by 1600. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, the jungle all but swallowed Angkor. In 1850, the ruins were rediscovered by Father Charles-Emile Bouillevaux, a French missionary, who cut through the jungle and published an account of his two days at Angkor Wat. But the Western fascination with Angkor as a sort of lost paradise was ignited by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who wrote about it following his 1860 expedition: “There are . . . ruins of such grandeur . . . that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?” In this century, Angkor fell into disrepair under the Khmer Rouge, and for some years afterward organized thugs stole hundreds of priceless sculptures and carvings. In 1992, UNESCO designated Angkor as a World Heritage Site, one of 754 internationally protected historic and natural locations. The hundreds of security police in place since 1994 have curbed the looting.

 

Now Angkor is the fastest-growing tourist destination in Southeast Asia. Foreign visitors increased from nearly 50,000 in 1998 to 316,000 in 2002. (In addition, 300,000 Cambodians visited the complex in 2002.) In 2003, fears of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) reduced travel to Asian nations including Cambodia, even though there were no reported SARS cases there. For 2004, Phnom Penh predicts more than a tourism rebound—a million visitors to Angkor.

 

Four miles south of the temple district, Siem Reap, the laidback garden town where most visitors stay, is struggling to cope with the influx. The resident population has mushroomed from 83,000 in 1998 to 108,000 in 2002. There are plans to install the city’s first water and sewage systems. The recently redesigned airport, just three miles from the temples, now receives 20 flights a day. Developers, including corrupt military leaders who seized property in the turbulent aftermath of the country’s civil war, are throwing up gaudy hotels, restaurants and karaoke bars. “Siem Reap could grow into a big town with pollution, increased traffic and, worst of all, a change in the population’s attitude,” says Etienne Clément, UNESCO’s representative in Phnom Penh. “The friendly and open charm we see today could be badly damaged if the development of the private sector is done without any regulation.”

 

Some officials have proposed all manner of glitz to cash in on Angkor’s appeal, including hot-air balloon rides, electric cars to shuttle tourists around the sites and even a zigzag escalator to take tourists to the top of one temple. So far, such proposals are on hold while officials decide how best to manage the site. “We were concerned that investors would transform Angkor into a Disneyland,” says Tamara Teneishvili, the culture program specialist with the World Heritage unit of UNESCO. Still, a handful of charity productions have been permitted at Angkor Wat, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in a country where the average family subsists on less than $300 a year. In December 2002, Spanish tenor José Carreras, a troupe of 150 Cambodian dancers and 112 orange-robed monks provided entertainment for a gala concert at the ruins to benefit four Cambodian aid organizations.

 

Outside the protected archaeological zone, illegal logging is denuding wide swaths of forest and silting up rice fields. “Apart from the desperate need for water and sewage systems, illegal logging is the major environmental threat to the region,” says Azedine Beschaouch, UNESCO’s scientific adviser for Angkor. Though some have warned that the growing number of visitors will cause irreparable wear and tear to the principal temples, Beschaouch isn’t worried about tourist traffic. “The Angkor site, which is more than twice the size of Paris, can easily handle a million visitors,” he says.

 

Early one morning, Sanday took me to see the work under way on the “Churning of the Sea of Milk,” Angkor Wat’s most famous carving. The 160-foot-long bas-relief of a Hindu creation myth in which gods and demons engage in a 1,000-year cosmic tug of war was unintentionally damaged in a restoration effort by the Archaeological Survey of India between 1986 to 1992. The World Monuments Fund is completing a $200,000 study of the carving.

 

“Taste this,” says Sanday, swiping a hand across the white powder streaked across the stone. Taking a pinch, I taste salt. “That’s saline residue leaching off cement used to restore the gallery,” he says. “It’s gradually eating away the stone.”

 

the restoration experts from the different nations tend to have opposing views on how best to save the temples. On the one hand, Sanday and his team prefer to repair, conserve and stabilize the collapsing structures at Ta Som, Preah Khan (another temple) and Angkor Wat with minimal intervention. They prefer not to use new materials. On the other, some Japanese architects are bolstering the 800-yearold Bayon temple with newly quarried sandstone. “We use new stones only as a last resort and blend them together with old stones by replicating the Khmer’s original construction techniques,” says Takeshi Nakagawa, chief architect for the Japanese government’s team.

 

Restoration of the 11th-century Baphuon temple is another story. More than 40 years ago, French archaeologists disassembled half of the temple, a lofty, multitiered pyramid over 130 feet high that was falling down. The plan was to reconstruct it from the ground up while augmenting the original stones with concrete and other modern materials. But when the Khmer Rouge overran the region in 1972, the French conservators fled, leaving 300,000 stones scattered across 25 acres. In 1995, French archaeologists returned to face the daunting challenge of reassembling this three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle—without a blueprint, since the written records had been destroyed. Some 200 restorers have divvied up the puzzle and are trying to fit pieces together the old-fashioned way. “There’s no forcing pieces to fit,” says Pascal Royère, Baphuon’s chief architect. “Each stone has one right spot and each spot has one correct stone. If you are off by ten millimeters in one corner, everything is wrong 20 meters farther along,” he says, with an expression of dismay.

 

It’s something of a mystery how the temples at Angkor have remained upright for so long. Khmer architects stacked sandstone blocks on top of rough-hewn slabs of laterite—a rock as porous as Swiss cheese—without anchoring the pieces together. As a result, many features that a Westerner associates with grand citadels are missing. Rooms are small, ceilings low, arches uncommon. But what the Khmers lacked in building materials or architectural complexity, they made up with flamboyant piety. The more grandiose of these elaborate temples were sanctuaries for the gods. The only people allowed to enter were members of the royal family, their entourage and priests.

 

Today, Cambodian Buddhists—perhaps descendants of the lordly Khmers—still congregate at the temples, lighting sticks of incense in front of statues of Buddha. Chatting quietly among themselves, they seem to ignore the khaki-clad sightseers trekking through the bare rooms, spaces that centuries ago were festooned with hanging silks and jeweled ornaments.

 

Ancestors of the early Khmers settled in the Angkor region in Neolithic times, some 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, attracted by the abundant fishing at nearby Tonle SapLake, an inland waterway that extends 70 miles south to the Tonle SapRiver, which merges with the MekongRiver at Phnom Penh. Trade with India at the beginning of the first century a.d. introduced Hinduism and later Buddhism to the Khmers, who were animists. Under Khmer rule, Hinduism dominated until Buddhism became predominant at the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. (Although the majority of the country’s Buddhist monks were murdered by the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism again became the state religion in 1989. Young novices with shaved heads are once more tending shrines.)

 

The Khmer region was divided into independent kingdoms until the late eighth century, when the future king Jayavarman II swept up from the south and consolidated power in the region, founding his capital near present-day Angkor. His son, Jayavarman III, built one of the first major temples at Bakong, southwest of Angkor Wat, in the mid-ninth century. By the early 12th century, the kingdom was riven by internal strife, and the king, Suryavarman II, embarked on a campaign to expand his empire, eventually subduing present-day Malaysia, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. To honor the gods, Suryavarman II erected Angkor Wat, whose bas-reliefs of supernatural Hindu battles show off his epic victories.

 

“We don’t know for sure whether Suryavarman II himself designed Angkor Wat, or whether he chose an architect of genius,” explains Ang Choulean, director of culture and research for the Cambodian agency in charge of administering Angkor. “But judging from the harmony of the buildings, the space and sculpture, it’s absolutely clear only one individual designed it.”

 

In 1177, the powerful Cham tribe of central Vietnam rebelled against Khmer rule, stormed into Angkor and occupied the devastated city. But an exiled prince, the future Jayavarman VII, mustered a Khmer army that drove the Chams out of Angkor in 1181. Sculptors generally portrayed the Buddhist monarch as a serene figure, but Jayavarman VII was an ambitious ruler determined to leave his legacy in stone. On the ruins of the old city he established the widemoated citadel of Angkor Thom and erected many of Angkor’s major monuments, including Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and the Elephant Terrace. Bayon, his greatest achievement, contains incomparable bas-reliefs honoring his battles with the Chams.

 

Angkor remained the capital of the kingdom until the late 16th century, when it was eclipsed by Phnom Penh, the more accessible MekongRiver port and soon a major hub of Asian trade. Over the next hundred years, the great metropolis of Angkor disintegrated into scattered villages as its crumbling temples were engulfed by the jungle. Only Angkor Wat remained in use.

 

Obscure records indicate that although Portuguese explorers and missionaries stumbled across Angkor in the 16th century, the ancient city was little known to the West until Bouillevaux’s 1858 memoir and, especially, Mouhot’s account, which was published posthumously in 1863 and caused a worldwide sensation. (Mouhot died of fever and exhaustion in 1861 in Laos.) His lyrical descriptions of Angkor Wat paid homage to its builders, speaking of an “Eastern Michelangelo creating his masterpiece.” In the 1870s, French archaeologist Louis Delaporte collected 70 sculptures from Angkor, many of which are now in the GuimetMuseum in Paris. (Cambodia was under French colonial rule from 1884 to 1953.) In 1923, André Malraux—later to become a renowned novelist, philosopher and France’s first culture minister—was arrested by French colonial authorities for stealing four carved apsaras from the tenth-century templeBanteay Srei. When the 22-year-old author was put on trial, he was forced to return the statues and was given a year’s suspended sentence.

 

In 1907, a French archaeological research organization took charge of conserving Angkor’s mysterious temples. “Here magnificence and simplicity come together, timelessness and decay, beauty and the harsh realities of war and toil that drove the creation of this magnificent place,” says Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund.

 

At Preah Khan, a temple three miles north of Angkor Wat, Sanday guides me past rows of garudas, carvings of birds’ heads on human figures, which were placed around the temple to ward off evil spirits. Sanday says that in the 12th century Preah Khan was a monastic site surrounded by schools, hundreds of shops and dwellings, with a population of 97,840 packed into the 140-acre enclave—according to inscriptions on a six-foot-high stele deciphered in 1939 inside the temple. The architect ushers me into the roofless Hall of Dancers—a space ringed by friezes of carved apsaras. There, dancing barefoot across the stone floor to the accompaniment of a tinkling xylophone, chime-like cymbals and drums is a troupe of teenage girls, splendid in their iridescent orange, scarlet and green silk saris. Their hands flit like birds and mime the story of a blessed couple flying off to heaven. Later, a quartet of young male dancers join in, and the youths bob and dip teasingly around their partners. “We like to inject a little life into the old stones whenever we have the chance,” Sanday says.

 

The retreat at Banteay Srei, or “Citadel of the Women,” represents the apogee of Khmer art. Built in the late tenth century, it is set in the midst of a village ten miles north of Angkor Thom. Its pink sandstone walls—alive with ornate carvings of flowers, vines, columns and miniature temples—contrast to the tableaux of fighting, clubbing, clawing, devouring and killing drawn from parables in Hindu epic poems.

 

All told, some 6,000 of Angkor’s sculptures and carvings are stored in the 96-year-old Angkor Conservancy, a seven acre compound in Siem Reap protected by guards armed with semiautomatic weapons who patrol a double-perimeter wall. (Security was beefed up after a 1993 raid in which 300 renegade looters stole 31 statues and killed a guard.) A small number of scholars and visitors, fewer than 200 a year, are allowed into the repository. A conservator named In Phally points to several hundred Hindu and Buddhist statues in a conservancy warehouse. “With all those gods, it looks like heaven down there, doesn’t it?” he says.

 

Phally grew up on the conservancy grounds—his father was buildings superintendent until the Khmer Rouge executed him in 1976—and these days earns a mere $10 a month. Still, he intends to keep his job. “I must protect the country’s heritage,” he says, “I can’t think about the money.”

 

Despite the very real dangers to Angkor’s treasures posed by aggressive commercial development and the swelling tide of visitors, it is hard to imagine the place losing its magic. There are still countless places in which a person can lose himself (or herself). One can encounter a statue of a forgotten 12th-century queen tucked away in a small alcove in Preah Khan or discover at Ta Prohm a hidden carving of Siddhartha on horseback setting out on his quest for enlightenment. Nature is trying its best to pull the temples down, stone by stubborn stone. But the temples are winning the battle, with lots of help from international experts. In fact, this spectacle of human wonder and blind persistence, the struggle between the stately monuments and the hungry trees, only adds to Angkor’s grandeur and enduring fascination.

About Richard Covington

Richard Covington is a Paris-based author who covers a wide range of cultural and historical subjects and has contributed to Smithsonian, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

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