serei saophoan district, Banteay Meanchey province – Hing Tim, the director of Banteay Meanchey’s culture department, lives above his office. From the street, there is little to identify his home from any of the weathered shophouses on either side of his. But piled in the corners of the rooms above the street, collecting dust, are some of Cambodia’s oldest treasures.
He keeps them here because there is no other place to put them after they are confiscated from the would-be smugglers who are caught at the border of the province with truckloads of relics.
“This is the transit point,” says Hing Tim, who has a rumbled voice and wears shaded bifocals. “Some of the artifacts come through here and are confiscated.”
Stolen from ancient temples, pagodas and old burial grounds, many artifacts make their way to Banteay Meanchey to be smuggled into Thailand. There are no estimates as to how many shipments make it through. But for the ones that don’t, most of the seized goods find their way to Hing Tim.
So instead of being on display, they sit in his house, in crowded corners and in flimsy cabinets protected by rusting Chinese padlocks. There is a 2,000-year-old set of prayer beads carved from elephant tusk in the top drawer of his desk. There are statuettes of Buddha kept in the same cabinet as plastic cups and piles of folders.
“We have no place to store them, so we keep them everywhere here,” he says.
Asked whether he worries about theft, Hing Tim chuckles for a few seconds, then shakes his head. “I’m not worried about safety, or a break-in. We are all friends. I don’t think anyone would come and steal.”
Those that are too expensive to keep, the government entrusts to the military police. But a tour through Hing Tim’s rooms offers a glimpse of the treasures produced in Cambodia through history.
Hing Tim moves across the room, and wheels a red 7-speed bicycle away from a plywood cabinet. He slips off the padlock and points to a 100-year-old wooden carving of a panther, its removable metal tongue is crafted for shaving coconuts. Behind the panther are two statues of Chinese Buddhas.
There are two old reed bowls from Vietnam that were recovered here on the way to Thailand.
On the first floor of the building next door are a few tons’ worth of temple reliefs, stolen from temples in Siem Reap and Kompong Thom provinces. They are heaped in a pile along an entire wall, jutting at different angles as though they’d been dropped there by a dump truck.
“Now people have more understanding of the value of artifacts,” he says, climbing a spiral staircase and unlocking another door.
“These come from prehistoric sites,” he says, pointing to a heap of dusty bowls, some of them broken, some of them still intact. Next to the prehistoric bowls are several urns, some vases, a headless Apsara, a decapitated, one-armed Buddha in lotus position, and the heads of stone lion guardians.
He moves to another room, lighting a cigarette and waving toward a stack of wooden Buddhas on one wall, and motioning toward a pile of bones and disintegrating tools on the floor against the opposite wall.
The theft of artifacts come from those people who don’t respect Buddha, Hing Tim says. “For Buddhists, they respect the statues. But there are some bad people who try to steal it and make money.”
It is up to the military police to catch the thieves.
“They use all kinds of means to transport artifacts,” says Voung Thy, deputy commander of the Banteay Meanchey military police. “In past confiscations, we have checked trucks loaded with scrap [metal] and the artifacts are hidden under the scraps…. Sometimes the artifacts are hidden in push carts carrying old paper.”
It’s hard to stay ahead of the thieves, he says.
“For the smuggler, they use all kinds of tricks to carry out the activities,” he says. “The thief is more clever than what the police do…. And the smuggler, if we look at them, it doesn’t look like they are the smuggler. Actually they have hidden strategies.”
The majority of the smugglers, he says, are hard to catch too, because they hire unwitting people to transport the artifacts.
“For transport, we confiscate only the artifact or the item, and we seldom catch the smuggler, because the smuggler is using the work to bring that item from one place to another place,” he says. “They do not do it by themselves.”
Police rely on informants and undercover activity to identify possible loads of contraband. If smugglers identify an inspection team, they will find another route, though, he says. “However, we have the covert military policemen who can check around at vehicle stations.”
Such methods paid off earlier this year, when the provincial military police seized three truckloads of goods bound for the black market. The trucks contained 81 different kinds of artifacts: Old jugs and bowls, statues and short swords, beads and bracelets, “a lot.”
Those items are now boxed up and sealed and kept from visitors at the police headquarters.
Between the locked-up artifacts with the police, and the hidden treasures at Hing Tim’s house, many people will never see those things that thieves spend so much time digging up.
It is, of course, a matter of money. Without funding, Hing Tim says, his house will be a warehouse, full of treasures that no one will ever see.
In a cramped room stuffed with standing Buddhas, piles of bowls and sacks of skulls, he says he wishes they could renovate the place and house the objects properly.
“We have no money to renovate, so we keep it like this,” he says, as scattered ashes from his cigarette drift across a pile of old bones. “Very, very invaluable, this stuff.”