Despite progressing towards negotiated peace, the Cambodian temples of Angkor are in great danger

Warfare, politics, the art trade and unwise conservation are damaging the abandoned capital


The painfully slow manoeuvrings towards a negotiated peace in Cambodia risk claiming a cultural victim in addition to the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed or maimed in a war that has now lasted two decades. For the lack of any Real-politik has not only excluded material aid from bodies such as the UN, but has also hindered advice or assistance from cultural organisations. Although the Vietnamese armed forces who invaded Cambodia twelve years ago in order to end the “Killing Fields” and drive out Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge have withdrawn for over a year, Western and Chinese assistance to the rebels, including the Khmer Rouge, has still not been halted.

The complex of temples and ruins of the royal palace covering seventy-five square miles and dating from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, commonly known as Angkor Wat, but also comprising Angkor Thom, Baphuon, Preah Khan, Te Keo, Prasat Ta Trohm, Bakong, Kravann, Sras Srang and mony others, is now menaced not only by warfare and pillage and neglect, but also by the well-meaning intervention of an Indian archaeological team under a five year contract to the incumbent Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government.

During a recent five-day visit to the temple complex in late September, when I revelled in having the site entirely to myself, I managed to reach those areas deemed “safe” or “semisafe” accompanied by my guide, Mr Huy-My, who knows the area like the back of his hand. We were escorted by an armed escort of two militiamen, who went with us everywhere the moment we went beyond the “petit circuit”, which in effect means Angkor Wat and the Bayon temples. For a former student of art history but above all for a former restorer of sculpture there was much to fascinate the mind and entrance the eye, particularly with Mr Huy’s detailed explanation in heavily accented French. But there was also much to cause concern.

The Khmer complex of Angkor was sacked by the Thais in 1432 and abandoned almost immediately thereafter. Khmer culture went into decline, only to be “rediscovered” under French colonial rule in 1860 by Henri Mohout. Despite 450 years of neglect, the mortar-free craftsmanship of the Khmer builders, in which hundreds of thousands of tons of Lactorite stone (which is pervious) were used for the foundations and Grès for the buildings, all dragged 100 kms from the quarries, guaranteed the substantial survival of most buildings. The forest took over, massive trees over a hundred feet high and twelve in diameter grew in and on top of the buildings, opening cracks, toppling walls and crumbling vaults, but the bulk of the edifices survived. The French, under the guidance of the Ecole Orientale, painstakingly surveyed the site, and on a limited budget restored much of Angkor Wat and Bayon to its present glory over a period of eighty years. The hand of the French restorers is evident everywhere, but they practised restraint, preferring to strengthen and support structures where necessary but leaving as much as possible of the original masonry undisturbed. This in contrast to the present team of Indian operatives who have wrought wholesale destruction where they have intervened, replacing spalling lintels or jambs with concrete (which will self-destruct in fifty years in this climate) and casting aside the original stone where the French would have merely strengthened with steel straps or replaced with original stone. But worse, the Indian team has cleaned extensive parts of Angkor Wat with an acid solution and, it is rumoured, carried out consolidation of some surfaces with PVA (Polyvinylacetate).

Now, this is the first time that I have found myself defending the status quo and urging that the discoloration of the stone which comes with age and exposure to the atmosphere, usually termed “patina”, be left untouched. Twenty-three years ago in Florence and Venice, together with Ken Hempel of the Victoria and Albert Museum, I preached the exact opposite. However, the circumstances are radically different. European stone sculpture is assailed by a corrosive cocktail of industrial and motor vehicle waste and other chemical fall-out, depositing sulphur dioxide, which reacts with the calcium carbonate present in stone. The addition of acid rain may be another element in the equation leading to “stone cancer” or a sugaring of the surface, which progressively eats into the stone. In Italy cleaning was synonymous with removal of the dirt and chemical strata to ensure long-term preservation, but there is no industry in Cambodia (Pol Pot saw to that) and few vehicles; in short, the air is pure. Bat droppings and lichen are being blamed for some damage to the stone, but a moment’s thought leads to the awareness that the bats have probably been around since shortly after the temples were built, between 700 and 800 years ago, and the Ph constitution of these droppings is probably acidic; so the problem is being compounded, not remedied. Lichen has almost certainly grown on the masonry since it was originally laid and although it is retentive of moisture, I could not see serious evidence that it caused stone degradation. Where the Indian team has laboured the stone is bleached white and shows signs of recent surface erosion, which is bad enough on the main structure, but there are signs that this method will be adopted to “clean” the pristine reliefs sheltered by the vaults and colonnades of Angkor Wat, some still retaining traces of original pigment. Where one relief had been attacked in this way 2mm of surface had been burned away. All definition was lost, rendering the panel almost impossible to photograph as documentation. More damage had been caused by this misguided cleaning than had occurred naturally in seven centuries. Indeed, this unique cycle of bas-relief sculpture, depicting Hindu scenes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata has survived intact to this day thanks to the quality of the Khmer vaulting and structures, which have held the elements at bay. In Bayon a similar but later thirteenth-century bas-relief depicting the armies and navies of King Jayarvaman VII, whose quality would put most if not all late Romanesque scultpure in Europe to shame, is showing signs of weathering because it does not have the benefit of the protection of the original vaults. If consolidation with a PVA solution is added to this equation the probable result is catastrophe. PVA is a good plastified binding agent, with excellent penetrating powers and good resistance to yellowing under UV light, and as such has been used for decades in glues and for consolidation. Although “old hat”, PVA can be an excellent solution for museum conservation in a controlled environment, but in the open and exposed to the elements, or on a structure which cannot be isolated from damp, it can cause major problems. Around 1960 the famous pulpit at Prato in Italy, which was suffering from “stone cancer”, was treated in just this way. Within a remarkably short period moisture built up behind what had become, in effect, a vapour barrier; the PVA swelled on contact with the humidity, with the result that the combination of interior pressure and swelling compounded the serious erosion to the surface of the marble sculpture and led to a tendency to spall. Ken Hempel informs me that certain types of PVA have a similar constitution to protein and on exposure to a hot, damp atmosphere, such as that prevalent in Cambodia, tend to break down in a similar way, thus becoming food for mould, lichens and other micro-organisms. Stories have circulated stating that the temples have been irreparably damaged by the war. This is just not true; there has been limited shell damage. The Khmer Rouge used the Bayon as a base, and there is always the fear of mines and the risk that the Khmer Rouge might once again make an attempt to recapture the site, holding it to ransom as a bargaining counter. Despite attempts to portray the Khmer Rouge as a resistance movement against the Vietnamese, their notorious leader Pol Pot is still very much in charge, and the lengths he is prepared to go to, the atrocities he may yet commit, in order to regain and consolidate power and implement an unchanged policy still place Angkor very much at risk. He has scant regard for monuments and indeed, it was during his “collectivisation” of the country that most of the damage to the site occurred, with the loss of 600 sculptures in Angkor Wat alone (stolen, sold or mutilated).

A major threat is theft. In a country where a senior civil servant may receive a salary the equivalent of $120 per annum and where the militiamen who accompanied me received $2 per month from the central government and a daily bowl of sticky rice flavoured only with salt, the temptation becomes self-evident. Who can really blame them for chiselling off the head of an erotic apsara, one of the voluptuous heavenly goddesses, and selling it for a few dollars. The tragedy is that the fragmented head brutally wrenched from such a bas relief is not worth that much in the West, but the decapitated bas relief, an integral part of the stone walls and a survivor of anything up to eleven centuries, is for ever defaced, a victim of economics rather than vandalism. I spent five hours in Prannt Ta Prohm Temple dimly perceived in the remorseless embrace of the jungle, which has never been cleared here, and until very recently isolated by the malicious (but apparently ill-founded) rumour that it was heavily mined, which was spread in order to keep people away and facilitate spoliation. There, clambering with Mr Huy over fallen masonry and through what appeared to be the bowels of the Earth, we found frequent evidence of the depradations the apsaras have suffered. Isolation has made the predators bolder and all will disappear or be defaced if steps are not taken to halt the illicit trade. Even some of the best-known sites are not safe. Early this year five gigantic heads of the demons forming the balustrading to the Victory Gate leading into Angkor Thom were stolen. The saw marks are fresh today and the heads, weighing hundreds of pounds, could only have been removed with a truck to be subsequently smuggled out via Thailand. Ten days ago I found one of these heads proudly displayed on the stand of a dealer in oriental antiquities at the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris. When I enquired whether the dealer knew the origin of the piece, he proudly confirmed to me that he did and that it had taken five months to ship the piece to Europe. The head was on the market in Paris for $150,000; in Angkor it was probably sold for a couple of hundred dollars. Today it is difficult to transit the frontier with Thailand, which is officially closed. What would become of Angkor if it were reopened tomorrow? And what of the recovery of stolen artifacts? Most countries are signatories to the UNESCO convention which bans the trade in antiquities without a legal provenance and assists in their recovery, but UNESCO is part of the UN whose writ does not extend to Cambodia, which is virtually the only country in the world to have been denied aid or assistance. Thus, if the Cambodian Government sought to obtain the return of their stolen heritage through Interpol, they would risk being ignored and diplomatically isolated; their request treated as invalid.

So what should be done. First of all power, politics and culture should be separated in order to safeguard the vast amount that still survives at Angkor. Second, grandiose plans requiring millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars for reconstruction should be critically re-examined. Throwing money at problems rarely proves the best line of action. The French example (with a brief lapsus when it is rumoured Malraux purloined a quantity of sculpture for shipment to France) has proved exemplary. Their surveys could be updated at modest cost, a photographic survey undertaken, and consolidation carried out in a systematic way. What is not needed is “jobs for the boys” with hundreds of high-cost Western technicians flown onto the site overburdened with state-of-the-art heavy lifting gear and earth-moving equipment (all of which risk doing infinitely more damage). What is needed, instead, is a limited number of dedicated archaeologists, architects and stone conservation experts such as Kenneth Hempel, Larssen of the Victoria and Albert Museum or Bruno Zanardi in Italy, funded by an international organization. They would then be able to train Cambodians to cope with future problems themselves. The temples were built without mechanical aid; they can largely be restored in a similar way using the ingenuity and manpower which is available in plenty. One building labourer in London earns the equivalent salary to at least 150 similar workers in Cambodia. My friend Mr Huy told me that from his own pocket he paid a group of workers little more than a dollar. For that amount they cleared the whole of one of the smaller temples from undergrowth and saplings, which had overrun the place in only a couple of years of neglect. The conclusion is obvious. At the moment it is sad to report that there is little sign that the $100, which is levied by the central government from each visitor intending to visit the temples, actually reaches the organisation known as Conservation d’Angkor. For Angkor is not just another world-class monument in need of cash and saving; it is unique. It is also of unique importance to the Cambodian people. If peace is restored it will through tourism become once again the largest earner of foreign currency, and so help in the reconstruction of this beautiful, shattered country.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The temples of Angkor in great danger'