Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Ruins rebuild Cambodia's past


SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- After a quarter century delay, the Terrace of the Leper King has finally been restored. Land mines no longer hinder a close-up look at the beatific faces of the Bayon Temple. Looters have been chased away from the temples and palaces that, a thousand years after being built, still define Cambodia's soul.

For more than 20 years after the war in Indochina and the rampage of the Khmer Rouge that followed in Cambodia, Angkor Wat was practically unseen. Now Americans and other foreigners are returning to the splendid temples of gods and monuments to human kings.

But tourists and even foreign archaeologists are less important than the attitude of villagers in determining whether Angkor Wat survives.

There is, for example, the 48-year-old rice farmer named Heng Tuy. Like many Cambodians, he is more than a little skeptical of the foreign-led effort to save Cambodia's cultural heart.

"The foreigners are coming here and digging around. No one knows why, except that they may be after buried treasures or gold," says Mr. Tuy. "What benefit do we get from all this?"

The answer may decide whether Angkor Wat will indeed be saved for posterity or if nature and war will consume it.

Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, Angkor Wat was for a time Cambodia's capital. It was destroyed by invaders, abandoned to the jungle, then in the 19th century "rediscovered" by French explorers.

French archaeologists conducted restoration work until the 1970s, when Cambodia's civil war and the Vietnamese invasion made the work too dangerous.

And then the deterioration of the site accelerated: While Angkor LTC Wat was never a direct target of the fighting, the ensuing chaos gave the jungle time to reclaim some of the crumbling stone.

The latest restoration work is one of the country's few success stories.

The government has welcomed foreign expertise and pledges of $17.5 million. While some of the money has been spent to improve security, most is being spent on archaeological teams. They have cleared jungle, cataloged remains and begun a five-year program to reinforce the weakest structures.

But the successes at Angkor Wat are threatened by the problem that has haunted Cambodia for decades: the enormous gap between the ruling elite and the peasantry.

It is the same problem threatening economic reconstruction and the country's young, highly imperfect democracy.

People like Mr. Tuy say revamping Angkor Wat is a nice idea but a luxury. The government devotes money to preserving a cultural monument; villagers still must worry about bare survival.

Visitors might conclude that Mr. Tuy is a pessimist. Couldn't he prosper by selling souvenirs to the steady stream of tourists?

A few peasants do sell trinkets -- the tourist trade can increase the income of a village by at best 10 percent, according to a study by a Japanese research team. But well-heeled tourists arriving at Angkor Wat on package tours favor the higher-quality souvenirs produced in Thailand or China.

Peasants excluded

The peasants' exclusion from prosperity makes them receptive to the xenophobic ravings of the Khmer Rouge, the radical sect that ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and whose genocidal policies killed at least 1 million of their countrymen. In every official sense, the Khmer Rouge have been out of power since 1979. But they still have authority in the countryside.

They move freely through the forests and hills surrounding Angkor Wat and the provincial capital, Siem Reap. Government forces have managed to clear the main temple area, but venturing outside the core grouping of temples can be fatal. Earlier this year, the Khmer Rouge killed an American scholar and wounded her husband as they drove to see a temple located just three miles outside the designated safe zone.

So the Khmer Rouge make their presence known, and they preach that Cambodia's democratic government is made up of an urban elite uninterested in the countryside's woes. And they urge that foreigners be expelled.

To give peasants a stake in Angkor Wat's rebuilding, a Japanese archaeological team from Tokyo's University of Sophia gives jobs to villagers who live near the temple of Banteay Srei, which the team is restoring. Villagers are also encouraged to observe the archaeologists' work so they can see for themselves that nothing is being stolen.

"We have to develop their lives, to show that, 'This is your identity, this is your pride and these are your roots,' " said Yashiaki Ishizawa, dean of the foreign studies faculty at Sophia University and chief of the Japanese mission to Angkor.

Temples are a textbook

Angkor Wat is in effect a textbook about the country, both ancient and modern. Freizes depict plows similar to the ones used today, clothes and head scarves like today's, even a similar concept of beauty.

Indeed, in announcing recently that it would conduct a "Miss Cambodia" pageant, the Ministry of Culture declared that the winner "must have classical Angkorian features;" it was advised that the contestants' heads be "one-seventh the size of their bodies" -- as depicted in the temple sculptures.

Documents and stone carvings have yielded somewhat more important information about early agriculture, Dr. Ishizawa said. The carvings show that during from the 9th to 13th centuries, farmers planted two or three rice crops a year.

Huge irrigation projects, including the construction of two vast lakes near the temple sites, guaranteed a supply of water year-round, water that was channeled by a series of dikes and irrigation ditches. This allowed more Cambodians to live in the 100-square-mile area than lived in all of Cambodia in 1930.

Now, with much of this irrigation system unusable, farmers plant just once a year.

The main culprit is the jungle, which quickly blocks up the irrigation ditches.

Water is also being blocked by the roads built by French archaeologists in the 1930s -- an unforeseen consequence which feeds skepticism about the foreigners' archaeological work. Water needs to be piped under the roads, the Japanese say, but money only exists for a few pilot projects.

Yoshiharu Tsuboi, a political scientist from Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, says villagers' understanding and appreciation of the monuments has also been dimmed by the loss of oral traditions, forbidden by the Khmer Rouge, that explained the meaning of the temples and gods.

With Siem Reap too dangerous to reach by road and flights too expensive, Mr. Tsuboi estimates that just one in 10 Cambodians have seen the buildings, even though the mausoleum's towers grace the national flag.

He recounts the experience he had when a Cambodian student stood for the first time at Angkor Wat in front of a massive stone face, its blissful smile a reminder of Cambodia's past glories.

"He just stood there stupefied, his hand on the parapet, unable to move away," says Mr. Tsuboi.

"That's when you realize what a powerful symbol Angkor can be for Cambodians. After all, their ancestors built this -- we didn't."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad