French Researchers Challenge Preconceptions About Pagodas

When Danielle and Dominique-Pierre Gueret first moved to Cambodia in the 1990s, they were frequently told that all the country’s pagodas had been destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Mr. Gueret, a French general who was deputy director of the U.N.’s Untac civil administration in 1992 and 1993, and his wife, a French archaeology professor, initially took the assertion at face value.

Phnom Penh's Wat Piphoat Rainsey. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Phnom Penh’s Wat Piphoat Rainsey. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

But in the early 2000s, shortly after Mr. Gueret returned with the U.N. Development Program to help set up the Cambodian Mine Action Center, the couple learned that a 1920s vihara (pagoda sanctuary) with a rare 1941 mural would be razed to make room for a new building.

They began to wonder whether many older pagodas had, in fact, survived the Khmer Rouge regime only to fall to the forces of development. So they began to systematically check as many pagodas as they could.

Each year, they spent their Christmas holiday crisscrossing the country looking for pagodas. In 2010, they decided to move here for a short period of time to complete their research.

“We ended up staying 18 months,” Ms. Gueret said.

Among the 3,635 pagodas they looked into, only 563 built prior to 1975 still exist, they said.

Researching 1,755 destroyed pagodas through archives and interviews with local people, the Guerets found out that only 312 of them had been demolished by the Khmer Rouge.

Another 847 were destroyed between 1970 and 1980, but not by the Khmer Rouge; 199 were destroyed during an armed confrontation; and 200 had been razed since 1990 for unspecified reasons.

The couple turned their research into a Ph.D. thesis that was recently accepted by the Paris Sorbonne University and will soon be posted on its website.

Tonight, they will present some of their findings at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh. Their meticulous research has netted a wealth of information—such as the fact that the pagoda in Phnom Penh with the oldest mural is Wat Piphoat Rainsey, which has a painting dating back to the 1870s.

“Our goal is to make those pagodas known to avoid their destruction and attract visitors,” Mr. Gueret said.

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