A Long Haul

Four years ago this month, a remote millennium-old Khmer monument became front-page news in the region as Thai soldiers opened fire on Cambodian troops at the Preah Vihear temple.

By the end of February 2011, lives would be lost on both sides of the border and a section of the monument would collapse. Two years later, the battle over Preah Vihear was brought before the International Court of Justice, which in November 2013 upheld a 1962 ruling that declared the whole promontory of Preah Vihear was in Cambodian territory.

A section of the Preah Vihear monument at sunset (John Vink)
A section of the Preah Vihear monument at sunset (John Vink)

Since then, tensions around the world-heritage-listed temple have eased to the extent that Thailand became one of the eight countries to join the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) of Preah Vihear created last December.

“This is great for Preah Vihear,” said Chau Sun Kerya, who serves as the Cambodian government liaison with the ICC. “We are in the process of depoliticizing this, and the monument is truly becoming a heritage site.”

The Preah Vihear committee is modeled on the ICC of Angkor that was created in 1993, shortly after the Angkor Archaeological Park was inscribed on the World Heritage List. At the time, Cambodia was barely emerging from decades of war and conflicts and did not have the resources to restore—or even maintain—Angkor monuments. So the ICC was formed with Japan and France as co-presidents to coordinate the work of Cambodian and international teams in Angkor park with the technical assistance of Unesco.

Today, the country’s economy is in much better shape, but it still lacks the resources to restore Preah Vihear and turn it into a true World Heritage site ready for streams of visitors.

ICC scientific adviser Sachchidananh Sahai explains a sculpted scene at Preah Vihear to dignitaries on December 2, 2014, as president of the National Authority for Preah Vihear Chuch Phoeurn, left, looks on. (Office of the Council of Ministers)
ICC scientific adviser Sachchidananh Sahai explains a sculpted scene at Preah Vihear to dignitaries on December 2, 2014, as president of the National Authority for Preah Vihear Chuch Phoeurn, left, looks on. (Office of the Council of Ministers)

Which is why Cambodia asked Unesco to set up another ICC.

Although the scope of the site is far from that of Angkor park—one monument on a site about 28 square km at Preah Vihear versus hundreds of monuments in a park spanning 401 square km—restoring the temple presents its own challenges, if only because it spreads over 800 meters on top of a 625-meter-high cliff in the Dangrek Mountains. There are also the bullet dints in some structures from skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian soldiers over the years, or from when the Khmer Rouge were occupying the site, which they left in 1998.

Eight countries have agreed to contribute to Preah Vihear’s restoration: Belgium, France, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the U.S., with India and China serving as ICC co-chairs.

Teams of international experts are monitoring the site and reporting their findings to the ICC, while restoration plans are set for the next 10 years at an estimated cost of $13 to $14 million.

“The conservation and restoration of some sections of the Gopura V are considered priority,” said archaeologist Azedine Beschaouch, the ICC scientific secretary. The Gopura V structure is the farthest from the central section of the monument and the first one that visitors see at the site. An Indian restoration team will soon begin work on the structure, which is in a dire state.

But as Mr. Beschaouch pointed out, there is more to developing a World Heritage site than restoring a monument. “The biggest challenge at Preah Vihear is to manage to meet several demands at the same time—nearly a case of a square peg in a round hole,” he said.

Not only must the ICC draft material to curate the monument for visitors and develop tour circuits on the site, but this must be done while preserving the authenticity of the monument and assuring its long-term integrity, he said.

Plus there is the fact that Preah Vihear is not just any monument, Mr. Beschaouch noted. “It is a sacred site for Cambodians. But above all, it is a religious temple dedicated to a divinity [Shiva], who is still revered today by Hindus, that is, hundreds of thousands of people.”

Monks at Preah Vihear (John Vink)
Monks at Preah Vihear (John Vink)

If properly restored, the site has the potential of becoming a major pilgrimage site, Indian Ambassador Dinesh Patnaik said. There are today about 350 million Shiva devotees, and two of the most prominent pilgrimage sites in the region are both inaccessible during parts of the year because of weather conditions in the Himalayas, he said. Properly restored and managed, Preah Vihear could easily attract pilgrims during those months, Mr. Patnaik said.

After all, Preah Vihear was a center of worship for centuries, he added.

While most monuments at Angkor were associated with a single king, Preah Vihear was visited by virtually all Angkorian kings, Mr. Patnaik said. “It was a place where you went to ask for blessings,” he said. “You could not become…god-king unless you received blessings from Lord Shiva at Preah Vihear. So every king had to go there.”

Angkorian kings would also expand the temple, which is why Preah Vihear began as a modest wooden hermitage in the 800s and had become a stone complex by the 12th century.

For Cambodians, restoration work at Preah Vihear will also be an opportunity to look into how some parts of the Angkorian empire were linked to others, said Anne Lemaistre, Unesco’s representative in Cambodia.

“Preah Vihear takes us on the road to Wat Phu,” a prominent pre-Angkorian site located in modern-day southern Laos, she said. “A fragment of a Wat Phu linga representing Shiva is believed to have been placed on top of Preah Vihear,” making Preah Vihear a link site between Wat Phu and Angkor along the empire’s vast road network.

The location may also have been used for security reasons to watch over the empire, she added. Traces of this use might be found during restoration work.

In the meantime, the National Authority for Preah Vihear—the Cambodian government’s body that manages the temple—is making sure that no structure gets damaged before restoration can fully start, said Chuch Phoeurn, an archaeologist and president of the authority.

One issue that may delay restoration is the fact that about a third of the road leading to the site has yet to be rehabilitated. But once done, Mr. Phoeurn said, the authority plans to set up a parking area in the monument’s buffer zone to accommodate both equipment and visitors’ vehicles.

Still, Ms. Lemaistre said, the remoteness of Preah Vihear—140 km from Siem Reap City and 320 km from Phnom Penh—which contributes so much to its beauty and unique character, “will remain a challenge in itself for restoration teams.”

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