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.


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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