Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


Angkor Wat is not simply a collection of temples. In a sense it is the heart of Cambodia, an immense source of national pride. Successive modern rulers of Cambodia, from Norodom Sihanouk to Pol Pot and Heng Samrin have taken the towers of Angkor as their national emblem.

The immense temple complex, built largely in the 12th century, when the Khmer (Cambodian) Empire extended over most of Thailand, central Vietnam, and parts of Laos and Burma, has been largely closed off to the outside world since the communist Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia in 1975. Now it is accessible again -- but only with difficulty.

About these ads

Outside art experts and historians have wondered for years just how well Angkor Wat has survived the ravages of war.

A recent visit by this writer gives some clues.

It takes nearly two days in a jeep to negotiate the nearly nonexistent roads from Phnom Phenh. But as soon as one sets eye on the sprawling collection of temples, which spread over several square miles of jungle, the rough bumping of the journey is forgotten.

The importance even communist Cambodians still attach to Angkor Wat immediately becomes clear: a young Cambodian militiaman who accompanied us here hurries ahead, leans his Soviet-made rifle against a wall, drops to his knees, and prostrates himself in front of a Buddha statue.

A firsthand inspection revealed numerous examples of just how seriously the complex has suffered over the last decade. War, nature, politics, and thievery have all taken their toll.

The buildings have been eroded by weather, hit by shellfire, smashed by antireligious vandals, and looted by those seeking valuable antiques to sell. The damage appears enormous, and the resources so far mobilized to protect the temples appear extremely small.

Rain has eaten into the stone, bats have taken over the cloisters, and some of the galleries look in danger of collapse. Graffiti and blue paint scar the walls in places. Some of the graffiti and all of the paint seem to date from the Pol Pot years, but other scribblings are Vietnamese and date from 1979.

About these ads

Fighting in the early 1970s left at least one portal of the temple half collapsed. Elsewhere, large and small holes have been gouged in the walls of various buildings, including the reliefs.

However, some of the bullet holes are fresh. They could have been inflicted in recent encounters between government forces and the Khmer Rouge. Or, as a number of Cambodians at Angkor Wat discreetly suggested, they could have been caused by bored soldiers guarding the complex.

The temples provide a living social history of Cambodia of 800 years ago. The glorious reliefs that encircle the main temples here and at nearby Angkor Thom depict Khmer life from the palace to the battlefield to the rice field. In them kings hold court, peasants plant, mothers give birth, Chinese merchants sell their wares -- and small children steal them.

The war came early to Angkor. On March 17, 1970, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown in a right-wing coup. A few months later there was a bloody uprising in Siem Reap, the town nearest to Angkor, and the temples became a battle zone.

"Up to, oh, early 1972 we could still get into the temple from time to time," recalled Pich Keo, the French-trained specialist who became chief curator of Angkor in the early '70s. "After that it was impossible. It was a base for the Khmer Rouge."

Pich Keo and his staff kept working at the Conservation Service until April 1975, when the victorious Khmer Rouge forced them out to join the march back to the countryside.For the next four years Pich Keo and the rest of his staff were farmers.

Pich Keo, now reinstated in his post, grinned ironically when asked if the Pol Pot regime had assigned anyone to look after the temples. "Does it look like it?" he said.

"The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas has about 15 figures left," said Pich Keo, "but that's only the most obvious piece of damage." Statues have been pulverized , others crudely and mindlessly defaced. Potshots have been taken at some of the decorations too high to reach with a sledgehammer.One small temple was reportedly completely destroyed.

As with other Khmer Rouge atrocities, the reasons for the destruction of the statues can only be guessed at. Our guides suggested quite plausibly that one motive was hatred of religion. It may also be that Angkor was an ambiguous symbol for the Khmer Rouge, recalling not only Cambodia's former glory but also its feudal past. "Think how many people must have died building Angkor," Ieng Sary is supposed to have told his pupils in Phnom Penh, many years before he became the deputy premier of a regime accused of mass murder.

Some of the damaged statues have not been smashed. Instead, heads have been chipped carefully off, and beautifully carved hands cleanly removed, leaving only the wooden pegs which attached them to the arms. Other statues seem to have been cut clean out of their niches.

Looting is not new to Angkor. Enemies sacked it, treasure seekers plundered it in the hope of finding buried gold and jewels. When the French colonized Cambodia and the Western would discovered Angkor in the middle of the 19th century, two rather paradoxical things happened. The French colonizers restored , documented, and attempted to preserve the temples, while other Westerners began to loot them. Angkor art became big business.

One of the most famous looters of the temples was the French writer -- and anti-colonialist -- Andre Malraux.

Cooly calculating that a few heads from Angkor would keep him solvent for several years, he set sail from France in 1923 with his wife and companion. He traveled to Angkor and sawed the heads off two figures.

In Saigon he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, a fate from which he was saved only by an urgent appeal to the authorities from the French literary world. Unrepentant, Malraux later sued unsuccessfully for the return of the Angkor heads.

Since Malraux's time the pillage of Angkor has become more systematic.

"The last 10-11 years have been the worst ever," said one of the conservation staff. "First Lon Nol's South Vietnamese 'allies' stole as many statues as they could lay their hands on. Then the Khmer Rouge -- we think, nobody knows about those days -- carted more to the Thai border to raise foreign currency. Then, in the months after the destruction of Pol Pot, refugees fleeing to Thailand took some with them. And they're still disappearing, even today. . . ."

For anyone heading to Thailand a statue head from Angkor is like a cumbersome but valuable traveler's check. At the border they can be sold to an antique dealer's middleman -- one Bangkok dealer said he was receiving a "regular supply." Some refugees are forced to sell them, at considerably lower prices, to one of the independent military leaders who reign in frontier zones.

Part hunch and part nationalistic reflex lead some Cambodians in both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to suspect that Angkor art is also heading back to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

After leaving Cambodia, this writer spent some days browsing in the antique shops of Ho Chi Minh City. Angkor heads are indeed available there. But they are wrapped in old newspaper, according to the dealers, and were taken from Angkor Wat in the early '70s. Dealers claim none have come from Angkor since 1979.

When fighting broke out in 1970, some of Angkor's treasures were moved to the Conservation Service's offices. This did not necessarily guarantee their security.

"We've lost about 30 percent of the pieces stored here," said Pich Keo, shaking his head.

All around him lay pieces of statues: heads in one corner, hands in another, feet in a third. Some of the larger statues still stood in the concrete casings built to protect them from shell blast in the last decade. Others are draped in yellow cloth, with offerings placed before them.

Parts of the conservation buildings are still occupied by Vietnamese troops. "They've asked to stay there until their new barracks are built," a staff member explained.

"We have nothing to work with but our hands," said Pich Keo, the concern creeping back into his voice.

"We have about 30 laborers -- before we had hundreds -- but we don't have the equipment to put some of the big statues in the conservation yard under cover. We don't even have a piece of rope. Our restoration tools, even our archives have gone."

Some aid has come from India, which recognized the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government last year. A group of Indian specialists made a preliminary examination of Angkor at the beginning of this year, and three Cambodian technicians are now receiving training in India.

"We can only be a catalyst, though," said an Indian diplomat in Phnom Penh. "The work of restoring Angkor will be enormous."

"Of course, the natural organization to coordinate restoration would be UNESCO," said Pich Keo.

Help from that quarter, however, is not likely soon: The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, like the rest of the UN, recognizes the Chinese-backed Pol Pot resistance movement.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.