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World treasures in peril
Living with the Buddhas of Angkor
The Guardian Post  

Siem Reap, Cambodia -- There is a sound of chanting at the gate of Ta Som temple: workers are carrying out a heavy figure on two crossed poles. It is neither a corpse nor a tourist to Angkor who has slipped on the ruins. It is a 12th century Buddha with folded hands, meditating on the coils of a naga - a cobra whose several heads protect him from the sun and rain. The Buddha is lifted into a pick-up truck: some local people have tied prayer scarves on the rope by which it is hoisted. They study the statue respectfully before it is removed to the conservation headquarters in Siem Reap town.

"It was only discovered yesterday, an excited temple guardian explains. "Now they must take it away quickly before someone steals it. For the robbers, it is worth a new house and several new cars."

"You came at the right time to see the Buddha," says a moto-cab driver. "It will bring you good fortune!"

This Buddha had lain undisturbed for eight centuries a couple of metres below ground level in the sanctuary of Ta Som. It remained undisturbed when the temple was used as a field hospital by the Khmer Rouge soldiers who occupied Angkor in the 1980s. Only excavation has exposed it to danger.

Proper security for Angkor was one of the conditions set by Unesco when it listed the area as a world heritage site in 1992. But after 20 years abandoned to war and the forest, Angkor was in such a desperate state that Unesco reversed its usual procedure and allowed the conditions to be satisfied after, not before, listing.

The Angkor archaeological park's force of nearly 300 French-trained "heritage police" was not fully established until two years ago. "We are trying to teach the villagers to understand the value of heritage," the deputy commissioner, Sin Sinareth, says.


Everyone agrees that Unesco's support came at a critical time and may have saved Angkor from being torn apart. But security, like everything else in this operation, is a relative concept.

"Nowadays we only lose a few things," says an official of Apsara, the Cambodian management authority for Angkor and the Siem Reap region, and Unesco's "partner". "We still lose something every day, but it's better than elsewhere in the country."

In Phnom Penh the Cambodian archaeologist Son Soubert is more pessimistic. He says "The police are very forceful, but they are not enough."

In recent years the Khmer Rouge units in the area have been demobilised; some of their soldiers are now heritage police. But elements of the national Cambodian army which fought against them remain at two important sites in the park.

The Khmer Rouge smashed Buddhist statues and modern wats (monasteries), but mostly left the temples alone. The worst damage happened later, when the landmines were cleared and the looters moved in.

"Everyone wants to get involved in Angkor, particularly the military," Professor Son Soubert says. "The root of the problem is the bigshot, not the small soldier. They will not let Apsara have full authority."

King Sihanouk has condemned those who "dismantle and mutilate our ancient temples and monuments". He denounces everyone from government officials to the "so-called 'honourable' buyers [of] ... the civilised world". He also includes Cambodia's "insincere patriot soldiers".

A visit to the hill of Phnom Bok, one of Angkor's earliest sacred sites, is instructive. The graded earth road leading to it has subsided into water-filled ravines.

The source of the road damage soon becomes clear. The army is still camped at the foot of Phnom Bok, but it is now into a much more profitable business. Excavators scoop the red laterite earth - used since Angkorian times for building works - into a succession of heavy trucks, which then plough down the road. The hill where a four-metre high royal lingam (sacred stone phallus) once stood is being eaten away from the side.

Hardly anyone ventures to Phnom Bok, but every tourist visits the great temple of Angkor Wat. The temple mountain of the Bayon, with its huge smiling faces peering from high above, and its 1,200 metres of action-packed bas-reliefs, is also on everyone's list. And anyone with an extra day heads out to the mini-temple at Banteay Srei - only a few years ago out of bounds because of the Khmer Rouge.

The numbers tell a familiar story. In 1998 Apsara registered just over 40,000 foreign tourists; it doubled in 1999 to 83,000, and again last year to 171,000. Cambodian visitors may add another hundred thousand.

"I'm afraid of our lack of capacity to manage tourist development," says Ang Choulean, the anthropologist who heads Apsara's department of culture. "Our main concern should be to preserve Angkor as a living site with its customs."

It must be said that Angkor is still far more relaxed than most big name sites in global tourism. Choose your time and many sites are almost deserted, and almost everywhere visitors can scramble on the ruins with life-threatening ease. Yet the tourist projections, and the new hotels being built in Siem Reap, make it clear this cannot last, and that the "living" Angkor is already under threat.

Keiko Miura, who is researching the impact of tourism, criticises the heritage police for preventing local people cultivating the park's resin trees or grazing water buffaloes in the moat and on the bank of Angkor Wat.

She also accuses them of extracting money from "vendors of souvenirs or drinks, caretakers of religious statues, beggars or rice cultivators". in Sinareth admits that his park police are underpaid.

There is a danger too that tidy solutions will be devised which will destroy the messy but likeable tourist mix today. Unesco officials praise a plan to run electric shuttles between the sites and complain this is being delayed on the ground.

It is being held up - quite reasonably -because the local moto-cab and motorbike drivers object to losing their jobs. Even in French colonial times, Angkor was a significant source of employment.

Thousands of displaced people have been relocated in Siem Reap since the civil war, and most earn no more than two to three dollars a day. "We need a policy," insists Ang Choulean, "to help the local people benefit from tourist income."

None of these problems can detract from the profound aesthetic and cultural attractions of Angkor: it also has clean air and green forest.

One encouraging sign is the growing number of Cambodian tourists, who travel in lively groups in the back of pick-up trucks. There are complaints that they have turned the sacred site of Phnom Kulen into a picnic spot. But they also burn incense at Angkor's Buddhist wats, which have long connections with local villages. The wonder is that the Cambodian people have survived their fractured past at all, and Angkor with it.

Saving sites: How the heritage system works

1 A country becomes a "state party" by signing the world heritage convention, pledging to protect and preserve its cultural and natural heritage

2 The state party makes a formal nomination to the World Heritage Centre in Paris. The nomination must include a detailed plan for managing and protecting the site

3 The World Heritage Centre sends the application to one of its two main NGO advisers - the International Council on Monuments and Sites (for cultural properties such as cathedrals, castles and town centres); the World Conservation Union (for natural sites, often conservation areas or national parks)

4 The two bodies send experts to evaluate the current protection and management of the site and check that it meets the convention's principal criteria as a property of "outstanding universal value"

5 This and the experts' recommendation is send to the world heritage committee, comprising heritage experts from states parties, which makes the final decision

6 Thereafter responsibility for the site's conservation and preservation lies with the state party. The WHP allocates limited funds for technical, training or emergency assistance. It can also help secure multilateral or bilateral funding.


Updated: 20-8-2001

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