Despite War, Cambodians Protect their National Treasures


SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- The tides of war that have swept Cambodia during the past two decades have left its best-known temples and monuments virtually untouched.

Nearly 200 temples are scattered across Siem Reap province, at the northern end of the great Tonle Sap Lake, site of the capital of the Khmer empire whose rule once extended to large areas in modern day Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

Though many of the region's temples are centuries older and several are more beautifully decorated, the most famous by far is Angkor Wat.

A stone walkway leads to the main temple of Angkor Wat.

This monumental structure, built in the first part of the 12th century for the worship of Hindu deities and the glory of King Suryavarman II, has become the universally accepted symbol of the Cambodian nation. The five towers of its central building -- only three are visible if you look at it head-on -- provide the motif for the flags of all four political groups now contending for control of the country.

This status as national symbol has undoubtedly helped protect Angkor Wat, though Vietnamese soldiers are blamed for bullet holes that have shattered the breasts of a few of the graceful celestial dancers known as Apsarases carved on its walls.

Some of Angkor Wat's carvings have been used for target practice, others show signs of water damage.

But the monument's prestige offers no protection from the elements.

"Water is the greatest enemy," says K.P. Gupta, deputy director of the Archeological Survey of India, who is directing a six-year project to protect and restore Angkor Wat.

Because its sandstone walls were built without mortar, water can easily make its way deep into the structure, Gupta points out. And the softness of the stone makes it vulnerable to erosion.

In some areas where clogged drainage channels have allowed water to collect during Cambodia's six-month rainy season, the carvings have been worn away completely at the bases of huge stone pillars.

"There must be no water stagnation," Gupta says. High on his list of priorities are finding and clearing the temple's drains -- or making new ones where necessary.

Under the direction of 12 Indian specialists, nearly 1,000 Cambodians are laboring to remedy Angkor Wat's ills.

One basket at a time, workers at Angkor Wat remove earth from a foundation in need of repair.

They are replacing the earthen foundations of some of the temple's grand stairways with stone, shifting fallen stones back into place and carving simple sandstone patches to fill gaps in the long walkways leading to the temple.

The most striking part of the restoration process, however, is the cleaning of the stone roof and walls. Workers are applying ammonia and other chemicals gently with soft brushes made of coconut leaf fibers.

After careful cleaning, carvings show the color of the original sandstone.

Slowly, the black surface of grime and fungus, mottled with lichens, is giving way to the tawny color of the original sandstone. The surface is then treated with a fungicide and preservative to minimize future water damage and inhibit the growth of more mold and lichens.

The Indian government is supplying a team of 12 specialists directing the work, plus the chemicals and other supplies needed from outside Cambodia. The Cambodian government pays the workers. The restoration project has been under way for nearly three years, now, with no interruptions from fighting.

But even at Angkor there are signs that Cambodia is not at peace. Guides warn visitors to Angkor Wat and the Bayon, the two temples now open for tours, not to stray from the paths. The stretches of forest and underbrush may still conceal mines laid by one army or another during the upheavals since the Vietnam war spilled into Cambodia in 1970.

Phnom Penh has assigned a battalion of regular army soldiers to augment the local militia guarding the Angkor area. And the night is occasionally punctuated by short bursts of fire from AK-47 automatic rifles -- though this may be simply shooting at ghosts; during my four-day visit, there never seemed to be any return fire.

The restoration at Angkor Wat is the Phnom Penh government's most massive cultural preservation project, but it is not the only one.

In the capital, English- and French-speaking tour guides are available to show visitors the treasures of the royal palace. Exhibits at the National Museum are largely intact, though the building housing them is in need of repairs.

And at the Fine Arts Institute, a new generation is studying traditional Cambodian woodcarving, painting in the generations-old style that graces the walls of the country's Buddhist pagodas, construction and painting of papier mache masks, and Khmer classical dance.

Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 10, 1989

Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.

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