The Art Newspaper brings an update on Angkor Wat situation and what is being done to preserve its treasures and history

Conservation projects are urgently needed, however hope is found underneath the Phnom Penh museum


Phnom Penh

It was reported in The Art Newspaper in November 1990 that three heads had been stolen from the entrance to the Victory gate at Angkor Thom. We know now that only one left the country and that two were recovered by the Cambodian authorities before they crossed the Thai border and are now in safe keeping in the basement of the Phnom Penh museum. It appears that a considerable amount of material has been recovered in this way, together with a number of recently excavated objects from sites south of the capital. Of even greater interest is the fact that a number of sculptures from Angkor, thought to have been stolen, sacked or destroyed at Angkor during Pol Pot’s regime, were in fact surreptitiously moved to the museum during the period 1970-73 and placed in storage. Since that date they have never seen the light of day and remain stacked in the basement store. Lovers of Khmer sculpture will rejoice at this news and that the “sack of Angkor” may soon be at an end. Persistent rumour has it that quantities of Khmer objects have found their way out of the country and that the finest can all be traced back to one well known European expatriate operating from Bangkok; indeed one prominent East Coast American institution is rumoured to have been equivocal in its purchasing policy which, Cambodian sources maintain, has included inventoried Khmer artefacts from Angkor.

In Phnom Penh UNESCO has arrived. But instead of finding money for urgently needed conservation projects, the organisation’s local director has, with classic nonchalance, spent the last six months in finding suitably opulent offices for the organisation, early proposals offered by the government having been turned down as “inadequate” or “lacking in status”. The local rumour circuit has it that UNESCO will spend at least $100,000 on lavish restoration of their offices (this should be compared to the local per capita GNP per person of $100), but that since the present encumbent’s two previous offices had both featured in The Architectural Review, nothing less would do.

The good news from Phnom Penh is that, with the return this November of Prince Sihanouk, it seems fairly certain that the museum and its amazing, little-known collection will be revamped. There remain countless problems to be surmounted however: Phnom Penh does not boast a secure electricity supply (although the Japanese may be sending two mobile shipborne generators), and consequently the museum does not have an independent supply at night and is plunged into darkness. During the rainy season (six months of the year), the rising level of the Mekong River floods the storage basement feet deep in dirty water, submerging all the stored sculpture. The Friends of the Phnom Penh Museum wish to raise $10,000 to buy an independent generator and pump to keep the basements dry and to provide security lighting at night to discourage robbers.

Last year it was impossible to visit what is usually considered to be the finest Khmer temple at Banteay Frei, some forty kilometres north-east of Angkor since the Khmer Rouge were in possession. It is now possible to arrange an official escorted visit for parties at a cost of $150 per head. The quality of the architecture and carvings exceeds even that of Phnom Rung, now in Thailand. In the midst of the rainy season the road was atrocious and the round trip by motorcycle took five and a half hours, but it was worth it. Banteay Frei is the only complex built from gres rose or pink sandstone (the project exhausted all the gres rose in the quarries in the Koulen Hills so that none remained for later buildings). Constructed to the traditional Khmer scheme on five “levels”, it differs from Angkor in that these are not reflected in the elevation. With the exception of the eastern side, the carvings, finished by the seventh decade of the ninth century, remain as sharp and exquisitely undercut as the day that they were executed. This may be due to the sheltered site but more probably the fact that the sandstone is fractionally harder than that used at Angkor. The decoration is a mixture of Indian and Khmer motifs, perhaps with the introduction in the Makara of some elements which may have filtered down from China. Happily Banteay Frei has escaped the war and the attentions of pilferers almost intact. Only two Apsaras heads have been mutilated and almost all the outside seated sculpture (with the exception of two heads, one of which may be in storage at the Phnom Penh museum) remains in situ. The lintels and tympanum remain pristine, as recorded in the old literature, astonishing in their complexity, executed long before Romanesque sculpture in Europe could attempt refinements of this kind.

A September visit to the Angkor complex showed that the situation has not radically deteriorated over the last year (see The Art Newspaper No. 2, November 1990, p. 13). The Indian team making structural repairs has finally completed its contract and left. Fortunately they do not appear to have been allowed to interfere with the highly important bas relief sculpture cycles, which remain in good condition.

Other factors now threaten this unique architectural complex which the Cambodian administration has applied to have placed on the index of world class monuments through UNESCO.

Last year, reports were filed of whole-scale theft and small-scale vandalism dictated by a desire for pecuniary gain. But overexploitation of the site by tourism could have far-reaching results. The unstable nature of the existing Cambodian government means that no money is being spent on archaeological sites (though they are being kept clear of undergrowth) and that not inconsiderable revenues (at least by local standards) deriving from the current fairly limited tourism are being siphoned off elsewhere. (The provincial authorities charge prospective tourists $100 for the first, and $40 for each succeeding day at the site.) In the past, Cambodian administrations have been a byword for graft and corruption, and the present one is no exception. There is reason to fear that extremely lucrative licences for a plethora of hotels near the site and for mass tourism contracts with Thai companies will go to the highest bidder, regardless of infrastructure or of environmental considerations. Furthermore, the gres stone from which the complex is built is quite delicate and friable. Thousands of tramping feet will quickly erode weathered and crumbling masonry which is already showing signs of disintegration. Even more questionable is the scramble to adopt the Angkor conservation project. The Japanese appear front runners here though it has been suggested that the Japanese university professor concerned (who has absolutely no experience of conservation projects of this ilk but does have access to seemingly limitless amounts of cash) wishes at all costs to have his name attached to Angkor for posterity. There is no doubt but that Japanese money wishes to commercialise Angkor. Visions of megahotels, an enlarged jumbo-capacity airport, six-lane motor road to Thailand, theme parks and the sanitised approach that has overtaken Prambunan and Borobadur in Java, leap to mind. One of the first things the Japanese are rumoured to wish to do is to remove all encroaching forest from the site. Fortunately, a group of educated expatriate Khmers in France are taking steps to oppose the Japanese “Disney World” approach and it is to be hoped that they, together with the Ecole d’Extrème Orient in Paris, will be able to re-attach the old cultural ties to France and, because they have the support of Prince Sihanouk, to whom Cambodian tradition is especially dear, reason will prevail.

In any case, since travel to Angkor is now reasonably simple with the introduction this summer of a daily charter flight Bangkok-Phnom Penh and back (round trip $500) connecting to a flight to Siem Reap ($46 one way), any serious person wishing to see the old Angkor should hurry to visit before it loses its magic.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Update on Angkor Wat'