The looters arrived late in the afternoon at Koh Ker, a ruined 10th century city in northern Cambodia. They made their way through scrubby jungle to Prasat Krachap, a compact stone temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and his son Skanda. They walked carefully. The countryside was strewn with land mines, and on another expedition some of the looters had watched a wandering cow be blown up.
The leader of the band, a muscular man named Toek Tik, had selected Prasat Krachap carefully. As a boy, he’d been forced by the Khmer Rouge to serve as a child soldier. He escaped in the mid-1970s, disappearing into the forested slopes of a nearby mountain. While on the run he built up an intimate knowledge of ancient sites, sometimes using temples as shelters. This one, he thought, was particularly promising.
It was the autumn of 1997, near the end of 30 years of civil conflict in Cambodia. The men with Toek Tik were all marked by the violence. Some had fought, like him, with the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal communist party that had held the country from 1975 to 1979. Many were enmeshed in the subsequent contests for political control, which pitted what remained of the Khmer Rouge against more moderate socialists and forces allied with the Cambodian royal family.