Like most millennium-old structures discovered in the forests of Cambodia, the locals had known all along about this one.
Jarai minority villagers in this remote spot in Ratanakkiri province’s O’Yadaw district not only knew about it, but they revered the red-brick temple, using it as a shrine where they bring offerings.
But as far as government officials are concerned, this historic site, which the Jarai have named Prasat Ta Nang, is a rather new discovery in a part of the country where there are very few monuments.
Ta Nang temple, which could pre-date Angkor, stands about five meters high in an isolated corner of the forest near the Vietnamese border.
For the Jarai, this monument is now part of their culture.
It is “a precious temple of the Jarai minority’s heritage as it was built by the indigenous Jarai many, many centuries ago,” claimed Sev Hen, the Jarai community leader in Yatung commune.
“It’s the only temple ever built by the Jarai minority. This temple is our own heritage and a very powerful place,” he said.
“Our minority members always hold prayer ceremonies when we go in the forest near the temple.”
At this point, only two other heritage sites are listed for Ratanakkiri province on the Ministry of Culture’s website. According to Hab Touch, director-general of Heritage at the Ministry of Culture, Prasat Ta Nang is a known and registered historic temple, though he claimed it was not listed as a recognized site on the ministry’s website due to technical difficulties at the ministry.
Another difficulty facing Prasat Ta Nang is that it is now located inside an economic land concession, likely owned by the Men Sarun Company.
A Men Sarun company representative said this week that Ratanakkiri provincial authorities only became aware of the temple’s existence a few months ago.
“I have been informed by the authorities of the province that they recently found a heritage monument located inside our company’s grounds,” said Meas Sokun Mony, the representative. “But it is unclear whether or not it’s really situated on the grounds of Men Sarun Company’s concession or that of an adjacent concession company, Heng Heap Co., Ltd,” he said.
Heng Heap Co., Ltd. operates under the umbrella of Men Sarun company, a group which is involved in rubber plantations and other agro-industry projects.
While community leader Mr. Hen said that Jarai villagers can still visit the site, a local tour guide said land concession employees barred him from visiting it two months ago.
Familiar with the location, Rin Samnith wanted to scout the area for ecotourism, as the monument is in a beautiful forest setting.
“I went…about two months ago to see the monument and the forest as well as the natural stream of the area in order to prepare a tour itinerary but I was blocked by company workers,” he said.
“Those company employees said that they would let us go in as long as we did not carry cameras for photographing: We had to drop them off with our identification cards.”
With the Ratanakkiri’s natural forest shrinking at an alarming rate due to concessions granted by the government, few areas remain where tourists can still experience nature, said Pierre-Yves Clais, a writer and owner of the Lodge des Terres Rouges in Banlung City, who has visited Ta Nang.
More study is required to determine if the monument is pre-Angkorian as the ministry believes. At this point, the temple is the only sizeable heritage structure in Ratanakkiri province, as the known sites have few features visible above ground, Mr. Clais said.
Since Angkorian sites have already been identified in the region, there might be other temples like Ta Nang, he said. And since there are Cham historical sites nearby on the Vietnam side of the border with Ratanakkiri, it would be interesting to research where Khmer territory stopped and Cham territory began a millennium ago, he added.
“What needs to be done is to freeze the [Ta Nang monument’s] zone until archaeologists have done their work,” Mr. Clais said.
In 1996, Cambodia adopted the Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage (LPCH) with the goal, as stated in Article 1, “to protect national cultural heritage and cultural property in general against illegal destruction, modification, alteration, excavation, alienation, exportation or importation.”
The law mentions in Article 37 that any activity or construction work must stop where a heritage site is located until measures are taken for its protection.
“Unfortunately, many of the protections provided for by the LPCH are left up to sub decree, and many of these sub decrees have not yet been drafted,” said Terressa Davis, an attorney with the international NGO, Lawyers Committee for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
“The Ministry [of Culture] is well aware of this and is working very hard to fill the gaps in the law. And they have identified ‘preventative archaeology’—for situations like that at Prasat Ta Nang—as a top priority.”
In the case of Prasat Ta Nang, another law also comes into play, since it is located on a private land concession.
According to Matthew Rendall, managing partner with the law firm Sciaroni and Associates in Phnom Penh, “Nowadays, antiquities and patrimonies are governed by the 2001 Land Law. In that law, it states unequivocally that any antiquities belong to the state. Registration is not an issue.”
The law stipulates that this includes “archeological, cultural and historical patrimonies,” he said.
Regarding private economic land concessions and heritage sites, Mr. Rendall said: “Existing archeological sites simply should never form part of a Title Deed. For concessions, such sites should be caught on the survey done of concession land prior to the granting of the concession and then cut out of the concession area. At the very least, the concession contract/agreement should contain provisions covering the archeological sites. Being the land owner (of the concession land), the government should always have right of access to protect any antiquities thereon.”
The Men Sarun company’s Mr. Sokun Mony said he would cooperate.
“I will be happy to cooperate with the authorities if they need me to help protect and preserve the forest around the temple because I want to see this site to become a new tourist destination,” he said, adding that he would investigate the report that visitors had recently been denied access.
According to O’Yadaw district governor Dak Sar, who is a member of the Jarai minority, Ratanakkiri provincial authorities are now making plans for Prasat Ta Nang.
“The authorities in the province, from low up to the provincial level and especially officials from the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, recently visited the site and announced they would put in place a strong mechanism to protect the site from being demolished and to keep the trees surrounding the site,” he said.
“The authorities want to use this site as a new tourism destination in the province.”
In spite of the company’s and provincial officials’ reassurance that Ta Nang will be preserved, Mr. Clais said he was skeptical after having witnessed huge amounts deforestation in the province already.
“There never are good news for ecotourism,” he said.