Perserving the Ancient City

When the international community met in Tokyo to discuss the Angkor temples in October 1993, they were responding to an emergency that Cambodia could not face alone.

The war years had put monuments at the mercy of the jungle, and what had not been looted was losing the battle against windstorms, water seepage and tree roots. Some temples, such as Banteay Srei, had even been turned into a military compound during the decades of fighting.

“Angkor had to be demined, restored, and developed,” said French Ambassador Andre-Jean Libourel. And this needed to be done in a country plagued by Khmer Rouge raids, he said.

The intergovernmental conference of Tokyo led to the creation of a special committee to assist Cambodia in its task. Japan and France became co-chairs of the International Coordinating Committee for Safeguarding and Development of the Historical Site of Angkor, while the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization served as its secretariat.

The Cambodian government, supported by Unesco and international experts, envisioned Angkor Archeological Park on a scale as colossal as the monuments themselves—40,000 hectares, meaning 401 square-km of protected zones forming the park proper.

“It’s huge,” Azedine Beschaouch, the ICC’s scientific secretary. “It’s the biggest [archeological] site in the world.”

“In this site, we took into consideration archeology, anthropology, cultural scenery, all historical spots,” and villagers whose population is estimated at more than 20,000, he said.

“Efforts of the last 10 years were not always fully successful. Still they produced good results as one can see at the site,” said Bun Narith, chairman of Apsara Authority, the government agency that has managed Angkor since 1995.

So much had to be done that, without the support of the ICC and international experts, all this restoration work would not have been possible, he said. Beyond technical assistance, “they brought their passion to take on the most difficult projects,” he said.

The ICC held its 10th plenary session on June 26 and June 27 in Siem Reap. While the Tokyo meeting of a decade ago had been about monument rescue and demining, this one dealt with access roads and growth management.

Discussions included plans to keep visitors longer in the Siem Reap area, such as a golf course to be built southeast of Angkor park.

“A golf course appeals to us for the prestige of it, but it appeals to the country for its effects and consequences, from the plane that tourists will board, to the price they will pay to play, and especially the large number of people who will find work at the golf course—watering and maintaining it, caddying, serving at the little restaurant or minding the entrance kiosk,” said Beschaouch.

Apsara Authority’s data shows that, last year, more than one visitor out of two came from Asian countries outside Asean, most of them from Japan but in increasing numbers from China and South Korea. A golf course may convince Japanese and Chinese visitors, who are especially fond of golf, to extend their visit at Angkor, said Beschaouch.

This will be part of a future “garden city,” located on about 500 hectares southeast of Angkor park, planned to serve as a hospitality as well as a cultural and leisure center, complete with a museum and Cambodian craft shops. The office of Apsara Authority will be part of that complex.

The ICC created for Angkor in 1993, was the first one of this magnitude, said Etienne Clement, Unesco representative in Cambodia. There had been other international campaigns to save historical sites in various countries—Egypt, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Cuba—but they had been Unesco initiatives in relatively stable countries, he said.

“But Cambodia 10 years ago was a country that had just been reborn,” and this prompted a show of international solidarity, said Clement.

The Angkor ICC has worked so well that an ICC based on the Cambodian model was created for Afghanistan on June 16, he said.

“The situation is somewhat similar, that is to say there is a will to mobilize the international community to save what can still be saved of the Afghan heritage.” This will be the second time that an ICC is created to help a country that has to be rebuilt following a war, Clement said.

Progress and changes at Angkor have led the ICC to request a second intergovernmental conference. Taking place in Paris on Nov 14 and Nov 15, this will amount to a world summit on Angkor, with decision makers planning their support for the next 10 years.

Today’s challenge for Cambodia may no longer be to answer a crisis as in 1993, but it is nonetheless huge and complex, said Japanese Ambas­sador Gotaro Ogawa at the meeting in June.

For example, keeping underground water levels stable, so that the earth does not shift under the monuments, while meeting water needs of the ever-growing number of hotels in Siem Reap, will take a great deal of planning and coordination, he said.

Angkor is made of monuments, forest and natural resources, but also of “villagers who must be able to live peacefully in the park,” said Bun Narith. These elements make growth coordination difficult but the more crucial, he said.

Topics discussed in Paris should include urban planning for Siem Reap, which is not part of Angkor park, environmental protection, villages in the park, and ways to manage the flow of tourists in order to preserve the monuments.

As in Tokyo of 1993, the Paris conference will be held after a national election in Cambodia, but little else is the same at Angkor. People forget that, until Pol Pot’s death in 1998, there still were Khmer Rouge attacks in the Siem Reap area, said Beschaouch.

“I remember one time, in 1994, when we were besieged for two days here. I was living at the Grand Hotel [d’Angkor] that had not yet been renovated. We were a few teams—the Indian [archeological] team, the Unesco secretariat and others—and for two days, we were locked in in Siem Reap, and the Khmer Rouge were surrounding the city,” he said. It’s only in the late 1990s that it became safe to travel throughout the whole site of Angkor.

The temples themselves were not destroyed during the war, said Jean-Pierre Billault, the French consul in Siem Reap and co-director of the Cambodian Mine Action Center’s Siem Reap unit. During the decades of conflicts, soldiers would take refuge and stock supplies at Angkor temples, but they would not fight in them, probably for religious reasons, he said.

However, they would mine areas surrounding the monuments they used, said Billault. The Cambodian government asked France for help because French teams would neutralize mines rather than causing them to explode on site as other deminers often did, he said.

A team of 10 deminers, who had retired from the French military, started on the major temples in 1993, training a first group of 50 Cambodians in the process, said Billault.

Over the years, the Siem Reap unit of CMAC, now consisting of Billault and 220 Cambodians, removed in the region about 25,000 mines and 80,000 unexploded ordnance—abandoned ammunitions, shells or explosives. The NGO Halo Trust, which is based in Scotland, also worked in the area, often demining in the most difficult terrain such as Phnom Kulen, he said.

Between Khmer Rouge attacks and highway bandits, CMAC deminers had to stop work two times before finally demining Banteay Srei. They found nearly 200 mines next to the temple where the parking lot is located today, said Billault.

By the time monuments open to the public had been cleared, nearly 3,000 mines and about 9,000 UXOs had been taken out of Angkor, he said. CMAC has since demined Boeng Mealea and Koh Ker temples and, working with Halo Trust, is now hurrying up to cover the region of Preah Vihear temple because of the growing number of tourists there, he said.

Working in a dangerous zone was not the only risk that the international community had been willing to take on behalf of Cambodia, said Beschaouch. Putting Angkor on the World Heritage List in 1992 had also been a gamble, he said.

In order to get on the list, a site not only has to be considered of exceptional value to humanity, but also must be in a country equipped to preserve it with appropriate laws, the means to enforce them, plus the technical expertise to manage the site and restore monuments.

Of course, Cambodia of the early 1990s had none of this, and Angkor’s application provoked an outright battle among members of the World Heritage Committee, said Beschaouch, who chaired the committee at the time and lobbied for Angkor.

“Objections were valid since these were the rules. But there has to be exceptions, in exceptional circumstances.”

This was an emergency and, as a hospital should not refuse a severely wounded person for lack of bed, World Heritage could not leave Angkor in that state, he said. “It’s for that reason that we listed an endangered site, in an emergency, to save it. And for once, this listing was not only for prestige, but to safeguard it.

“And our trust [in Cambodia] was well justified,” said Beschaouch.

Laws were adopted; Apsara Authority was created to manage the site; and Cambodians trained with the support of international agencies now are working in every aspect of site management—from planning and tourism development, to environmental protection and monument restoration.

Restoration projects now involve a handful of foreign experts and large teams of Cambodian architects, engineers and specialized workers.

Among other projects and countries involved, the Japanese teams of Yoshiaki Ishizawa and Takeshi Nakagawa  are respectively working on the western causeway of Angkor Wat and the Prasat Suor Prat towers across the Terrace of the Elephants in the Royal Square.

Pascal Royere of the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient is finishing work on the huge Baphuon temple, a restoration site that the French had to abandon in 1975.

Hans Leisen, chief of the German Apsara Conservation Project, has developed ways to stop further deterioration of the bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat’s galleries, and Italian Valter Santoro is restoring Pre Rup temple.

The Swiss are working at Banteay Srei, the Chinese at Chau Sey Tevoda temple, and the US-NGO World Monuments Fund are at Prah Khan temple.

India, which had worked on Angkor Wat between 1986 and 1993, intends to hold a Ta Prohm symposium next year to discuss restoration plans for this very popular temple.

International efforts go beyond monument preservation. A series of studies funded by the French Development Agency led to a land-use and zoning code sub-decree that was denounced by Prime Minister Hun Sen in December 2001, and later tabled.

The issue seemed to have been land regulation along Route 6 between Siem Reap town and the International Airport of Siem Reap-Angkor, where numerous large hotels have since sprung.

Another study funded by the French agency and conducted by Unesco revisited urban planning, and a new strategy may be submitted at the Paris conference, said Beschaouch.

Delegates at the ICC meeting last month said that, in private conversations, Minister of Cabinet Sok An, who headed the Cambodian delegation, expressed the government’s determination to regulate urban growth in the Siem Reap area.

While in Siem Reap, Sok An met with local and provincial authorities, the military, the Angkor Heritage police and Apsara Authority to discuss the enforcement of regulations for the road that starts in front of Angkor Wat and ends at the airport, said Beschaouch. Local people who live along that road will be allowed to remain, but new major construction and, especially, speculation will not allowed, he said.

During the ICC meeting, So An asked for a comprehensive report on water control and supply. Japan, which has been funding studies on the matter, will contribute to the preparation of the report for the Paris meeting.

Japan also is funding a three-year environmental study that, among other issues, will look at pollution and waste millions of visitors may cause.

Finally at the meeting, Robert Hagemann, representative of the International Monetary Fund, congratulated the Cambodian government for having increased the share Apsara Authority now receives when Sokimex collects tickets at Angkor park’s entrance.

Out of every $20 ticket, Apsara now gets about $17.40 compared to $15 in 2001. Hagemann invited the government to increase this share even further when the contract is renegotiated in 2005.

Apsara reported that more than 320,000 paying visitors—Cambodians get in for free—went to Angkor last year, bringing in $9.4 million in tickets.


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