Rescuing Angkor

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 2)

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.


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.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus