Rescuing Angkor

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

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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.”


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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