Friday, November 28, 2008
Saving Angkor: The Restoration of Cambodia's Ancient Temples
Text and Photos by Rony Zakaria
Each day as the sun begins to rise, the magnificent Angkor
Wat forms a beautiful silhouette against the golden sky. This
morning ritual is attended by thousands of tourists, eagerly
waiting for the right moment to take photos of the landscape,
or just to witness the heavenly scene.
Angkor Wat is one of the many temples of the Angkor
Archaeological Park. Built by King Suryavarman II in the first
half of the 12th century, it was designed to represent Mount
Meru, the mythical mountain in Hindu mythology, and to
act as the central structure of the ancient city. In addition
to Angkor Wat, the Angkor Archaeological Park covers over
400 square kilometres and consists of over a thousand sites,
including the renowned Bayon and Ta Prohm temples.
The region of Angkor served as the capital city of the
Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th century AD, and is
believed by some researchers to have been the largest
pre-industrial city in the world. Studies have shown that
Angkor could have supported a population of up to
one million people.
Yet the Angkor of today is a vastly different scene. During
the civil war of the 1960s, Khmer Rouge soldiers destroyed
temples, plundered its statues and even used bas-reliefs
as shooting targets. While rampant destruction and target
practice was less frequent after the fall of the regime, looting
and thievery still remains a big problem. Many of Angkor’s
magnificent temples have since been reduced to ruins.
Nondescript piles of rubble lie scattered through rice fields,
and many headless statues stand testament to years of war
and pilferage. But despite the region’s rocky past, visitor
numbers approach two million annually. Reports from the
Cambodian Ministry of Tourism also show that up until the
end of July 2008, there were already 1.2 million people visiting
Cambodia, with more than half visiting Angkor.
Such figures reflect the importance of the temples for
Cambodia not only as a national icon, as shown on their flag,
but also as their main tourist draw. The increasing number
of visitors has brought great income for the nation, but not
everyone is excited about this news.
Many preservationists have expressed their concern about
the large number of visitors to the area’s temples. They fear
that tourists will cause further deterioration to the temples,
as many of them were not designed to serve as public spaces;
some temples, in fact, were only accessible to a limited number
of people. As tourist figures grew, the condition of Angkor’s
temples deteriorated even further.
In 1992, Angkor was declared a UNESCO World Heritage
site the same year it was also placed on the List of World
Heritage in Danger. Amendments were also made in the
penal code of the State of Cambodia to introduce sanctions on
the destruction, theft and illicit traffic of cultural property to
enable existent authorities to immediately address the growing
problem. Since then, several restoration projects have begun
on the park’s temples. Many objects from the temples had been
deliberately removed from its original place and transferred to
the Angkor Conservation Office (ACO). Located on the west
bank of the Siem Reap River, the Angkor Conservation Office
(also known as Conservation d’Angkor) was established by
the French in 1908 to conduct archaeological studies of the
Angkor civilisation, and to restore the temples to their former
glory. It has since become a safe haven for sculptures and
items from Angkor’s many temples.
The Angkor Conservation Office is surrounded with
a high concrete wall, and in front, a large, intimidating
steel gate stands shut. Needless to say, the office is offlimits
for public and is certainly not an official tourist spot.
Within the compound, ancient stones, statues and reliefs
rest in neat rows, as if waiting for their turn in a long
According to Professor Thlang Sakhoeon from The Royal
University of Fine Arts, Phnom Penh, over 7,000 items are
stored and kept in the Angkor Conservation Office. Every day,
the professor and a team of archeologists analyse the retrieved
items, identify which site they were taken from, and enter
them into a database. The items then go through a painstaking
cleaning process with chemical cleaners and preservatives
to remove the paint on its surfaces. Many of the recovered
items have multiple layers of paint on them evidence of the
number of times they had changed hands before finding their
way back to the Angkor Conservation Office.
Often, recovered items are broken and the team has to
decide whether or not to put them back together again. To do
this, the team uses blocks, tackles and adhesives to reattach
the broken pieces. On average, a recovered statue goes through
several months of restoration before it is transferred to the
new national museum in Siem Reap.
Since 1993, more than a dozen countries have sent teams
to aid Angkor’s restoration. France, Japan, China, India and
the private United States-based World Monuments Fund are
among those that have taken on the arduous task of restoring
Angkor’s temples. The restoration of Angkor serves as a
powerful symbol of unity in a country still struggling to come
to terms with its violent past.
This is a model of cooperation more than 10 countries
and international organisations coming together in a spirit
of solidarity for the work of preserving cultural heritage,
Cambodian Senior Minister Sok An said.
Angkor’s heritage represents one of the last remaining
sources of information for the understanding of the Angkorian
past. By restoring the temples to their former glory, people
will be able to study them, so as to understand and protect
Angkor’s ancient Khmer identity, and to act as a bridge that
links the country’s past, present and future.
Published in the November 2008 issue of Asian Geographic Magazine
Click to View The Complete Photo Story of Saving Angkor