Rescuing Angkor

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

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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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