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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads

Back to Cambodia, part 5

Published Monday, March 1, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

World teams work to restore ancient site in Cambodia


Mercury News Vietnam Bureau

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- "Look at this thing -- a sure sign the French were here," a young, non-French archaeologist says disgustedly, kicking at a piece of smooth, 20th-century concrete that's propping up a 12th-century stone column. "We spend a lot of time getting rid of this old French stuff. But at least these are mistakes we can fix."

French archaeologists began "fixing" Angkor Wat and other ancient temples here 100 years ago. Ever since -- in between monsoons, wars, coups and communism -- the French have continued to uncover and restore numerous temples in the fabled Angkor complex, the spiritual center of the Khmer people that once held more than 60 temples and a million residents.

And now, as Cambodia limps toward political stability, additional international teams have arrived to resume work on the monuments. In a kind of Restoration Olympics, the Cambodian government has awarded more than a dozen nations particular sites to reclaim, with each team invoking its own philosophy of conservation. Some of these approaches are called "discreet," others are called "invasive" or "interventionist."

Despite their different approaches and occasionally snide remarks, the restoration teams remain collegial. They have, after all, joined battle against common enemies -- several hundred years of neglect, corrosively steamy weather, religious vandalism and rampant looting, all of which have brought the great Angkor gods to their stony knees.

The jungle has done its share of looting, too, swallowing entire temples in a rapacious tangle of vines, brush and bamboo.

"You can't fight the jungle," says Andrew Dennis, an American, the assistant field director of the Preah Khan restoration project, which employs 70 skilled workers and five Khmer professionals.

Aggressive restorations

But some teams do fight it. Instead of trying to groom or "manage" the jungle, some projects have simply torn it out by its roots. At the Bayon temple site, for example, the only remaining trees of any size are those shading the Japanese field office. At the Terrace of the Leper Kings, a French site, what used to be jungle now resembles a soccer field.

Indian conservationists, meanwhile, waged a kind of chemical warfare, spraying harsh cleansers on the lichens that grow inexorably on Angkor's red sandstone and laterite walls.

"The stones," Dennis says, "were absolutely shocked white from all those chemicals."

But conservationists working here tend to be understanding of such early (and even radical) experiments.

"It's like the people who first used Scotch tape," says Dennis, who has worked on the restoration project for four years. "They didn't know it would eventually yellow everything they stuck it on. But you try things and you learn."

The French have been trying and learning longer than anybody. While Americans were shooting each other at Gettysburg and Antietam, French explorers were sketching (and looting) at Angkor. By the turn of the century, the École Franaise d'Extrême Orient was sending out its first archaeological teams.

"The French have a good team here and they have the most experience in restoring our temples," says Uong Vuorn, director of the Department of Cultural Conservation. "They make good plans and hire lots of our (Cambodian) workers.

"The Americans are good for repairing, but they work slowly. The Japanese do a lot of rebuilding, but they bring in all their own equipment and they don't hire so many local people. The Germans did a lot of necessary technical repairs to the foundations at Angkor Wat. The Chinese are still researching their project (at Chau Say Tevoda), but they will be rebuilders, like Japan."

The French are fortifying the 11th-century Baphuon pyramid before restacking its 300,000 scattered stone blocks. Earlier teams had drawn careful plans of how the 10 acres of stones were to be reassembled, but those plans were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge era of the 1970s.

"We have had to inventory every single block," says Pascal Royere, 34, a French architect. "It's an enormous job, but not impossible."

Royere says the $4 million project will be finished by 2004.

Next door to the French, a Japanese team is dismantling the elaborately carved Bayon temple, erected by the last of the great builder kings, Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181-1219 after Angkor was invaded and sacked by a rival kingdom. As part of their ground-up rebuilding effort, the Japanese have even employed a global positioning system to map their site.

Meanwhile, the minimalist Americans, under the banner of the New York-based non-profit World Monuments Fund (www.worldmon, are spending about $250,000 a year to prop up the 12th-century Preah Khan temple, which will be kept in its partially ruined and overgrown state.

In conservation terms, Preah Khan is a kind of first cousin to Ta Prohm, the haunting temple that has been left purposely untouched -- a concept that has drawn considerable academic fire. The American team working at Preah Khan prides itself on its philosophy of "discreet conservation" -- virtually no concrete, no iron reinforcing rods, and certainly no Japanese-style dismantling. The approach is decidedly low-tech, and automobile jacks, crow bars and block-and-tackle rigs are used to handle the massive stone blocks.

The World Monument Fund concept also requires leaving many trees in place, even if they've pushed through stone walls or created now-leaning towers.


"For 500 years these trees have been part of this temple's history, and we feel it's inappropriate to remove them," Dennis says. "Admittedly, it's a very controversial philosophy."

Dennis points to a towering sprong tree, with strangler figs clawing up its trunk. The tree looms majestically and ominously over the Hall of Dancers, and if the tree falls, the hallowed hall will be demolished.

"Eventually we'll have to cut that tree, and when we do it will be awful," Dennis says. "Other projects would have cut it down a long time ago."

Political misfortunes have taken the biggest toll on the monuments. In the 13th century, Hindu extremists hacked away at thousands of carvings, etching pointy beards onto Buddha faces and in some cases turning Lord Buddha figures into dancing girls. Siamese invaders sacked the temples in the 15th century, and 20th-century Vietnamese soldiers treated them badly, too.

In Preah Khan, for example, less than 20 years ago Vietnamese soldiers sent to oust the Khmer Rouge from power beheaded countless stone statues. Their armored vehicles scraped against elaborately carved walls and their tanks left ugly tread marks in 800-year-old paving stones.

"The Khmer Rouge pretty much left the temples alone," Dennis says, although there are numerous and well-documented cases of pillaging by some radical communist leaders who controlled Cambodia from 1975-79.

Looting continues

The looting continues, even today, and prime Angkor pieces can bring $20,000 or more in antique shops in the River City section of Bangkok, Thailand.

Cambodian military officers have been implicated in several major thefts, including three attacks on the Conservation d'Angkor, a warehouse that stores the region's most valuable pieces. More than 6,000 pieces have been removed from their original sites to keep them from being stolen.

In one particularly brazen assault, 300 Cambodian soldiers encircled the Conservation and used a rocket launcher to blast through its gates. Security guards were unable to resist because they had been disarmed earlier by a U.N. peacekeeping force.

More recently, 117 stone carvings were taken from a remote 10th-century temple, and Preah Khan's most important piece of statuary was stolen. The piece was recovered en route to the Thai border and now sits locked away in the government warehouse.

"It has to stay there," Dennis says with a sigh. "If we put it back, it will just be stolen again. That's just a fact."

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED The World Monument Fund staff can arrange private tours of the Preah Khan temple in Angkor. For more information, send e-mail to:

©1999 Mercury Center.

Back to Cambodia, part 5

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