Following an official visit to South Korea during which he represented the Britain’s Royal Family, the Duke of Gloucester flew into Siem Reap City on Saturday night for the sole purpose of touring Banteay Chhmar temple in Banteay Meanchey province and a few monuments at Angkor.
The duke, born Prince Richard of Gloucester, spent yesterday morning at Banteay Chhmar, where British conservation architect John Sanday showed him restoration being done on the 12th-century temple.
The 65-year-old duke, who is a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth, is patron of the International Council on Monuments and Sites in the UK and highly interested in heritage conservation, said Mr Sanday who is in charge of Banteay Chhmar’s restoration.
“The duke is actually an architect,” he said. “He was very keen to come…here and at Angkor, one of the reasons being that as a tourist—VIP tourist no doubt—he was in Cambodia in 1969.”
Although the duke’s visit is a private one, provincial governor Oung Oeurn and local dignitaries were on hand to welcome him, and British Ambassador Andrew Mace was accompanying him.
The restoration of Banteay Chhmar was launched in 2008 by the international organization Global Heritage Fund in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture with plans to submit the site for inclusion on the UN World Heritage List on which the Angkor Archaeological Park and Preah Vihear temple already appear.
“Banteay Chhmar is a site of global significance that has been under-studied, under-conserved and under-resourced,” said James Hooper, Global Heritage Fund manager for the UK who was at the monument on Sunday. “GHF is taking the opportunity to act as a catalyst to reverse these three trends.”
Unlike monuments at Angkor, which French archeologists started rescuing from the jungle more than a century ago, Banteay Chhmar had never been restored. Built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, it is one of only three monuments along with Angkor’s Bayon temple and Angkor Wat to feature elaborate wall carvings.
One of the problems Mr Sanday’s team has faced was that one section of the wall with carvings had weakened to the point of collapse due to tree roots that had expanded next to it. “The pressure of these roots is enormous,” said Mr Sanday who has been restoring monuments in Cambodia since 1992. “We had no method other than to take the wall down and then to repair it.”
This has proven easier said than done. “We discovered there were really no good foundations under the bas relief wall,” Mr Sanday said. “When we’re taking it down, we’re putting in a stone foundation which is suitable to the load that it’s going to be carrying, and where the wall is still standing we are developing a system of underpinning,” he said. His team includes about 50 experts and field workers-most of them Cambodian.
The Duke of Gloucester returned to Siem Reap City on Sunday afternoon where he toured an exhibition at Hotel de la Paix of the first contemporary stone sculptures ever done by Cambodian artists as part of a project by British sculptor Sasha Constable.
The duke arrived in South Korea on June 22 for ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. He is scheduled to visit several temples at Angkor today and leave tonight.