Angkor Wat: Temple of Boom

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The capital of a flourishing empire between the 9th and 15th centuries, Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South- East Asia. Deriving from the Sanskrit word nagara, (‘holy city’), Angkor is the modern name given to a sprawling complex of cities, reservoirs, and hundreds of temples, not far from the city of Siem Reap. At the centre is the vast temple of Angkor Wat – the world’s largest religious structure, and the main tourist draw for an area clustered with an embarrassment of architectural riches.

This year Cambodia invited visitors from around the world to enter the ‘Kingdom of Wonder’ and millions of tourists have responded in record numbers. The ancient temples of Angkorhave witnessed nearly a millennia of conflict and warfare but, asks Tom St Gray, will this new invasion be their most deadly threat for survival?

Ancient Angkor

Between AD 802 and 1431, Angkor was at the centre of the highly prosperous Khmer Empire, which controlled most of the rich lowlands of Cambodia and adjacent parts of Laos and Thailand. The beginning of the Angkorian period was marked by the crowning of Jayavarman II in AD 802 as the first universal monarch of a unified independent Khmer Empire. He founded a new kingdom in the area now covered byAngkorwith his dynasty lasting for the next two centuries. During this time, many temple sites were built, marking an era of sculptural brilliance in stone architecture.

The construction of Angkor War started during the reign of Suryavarman II, in the early to mid-12th century. Built as a funerary temple for the king, the sandstone structure is adorned with some of the finest bas-relief galleries in the world and inscriptions boast that the temple was once clad in gold. Surrounded by a massive 200m wide moat and measuring 1500m from east to west, Angkor Wat took 37 years to complete by an army of 50,000 workers. Unlike the other temples in the complex, Angkor Wat is orientated to the west, implying it was intended to be visited from left to right – a practice reserved in Hindu religion for tombs. Although Suryavarman II dedicated his temple to Vishnu, the Hindu deity with whom the king identified, Buddhism was in ascendancy during this reign.

Jayavarman VII, one of Suryavarman II’s successors, was a Buddhist, and his reign marked the complex’s most prolific period of monument building. Much of the layout that exists on the site today is attributed to him, including the walled city of Angkor Thomand the Bayon, featuring the famous gigantic stone heads believed to represent the king as a Bodhisattva. Jayavarman VII’s reign is seen as both a high watermark and the turning of the tide of Angkorian history. By the 14th and 15th centuries, the state was exhausted and Angkor, was finally abandoned in 1431, following a Thai invasion. Europeans first encountered the site in the 16th century, with Portuguese missionaries describing a gigantic, abandoned stone city overtaken by the forest: “Half a league from this city is a temple called Angar. It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”.

Angkor is one of the most studied sites in the world and ongoing research continues to provide vital new information. The Greater Angkor Project (GAP) undertook a decade long study to create a comprehensive map of the landscape, combining ground surveys, aerial photographs, and radar remote sensing provided by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Completed in 2007, the survey showed that Angkor was far larger than previously thought – the most extensive urban complex in the pre-industrialised world with a population of one million people living in a constellation of suburbs. The map revealed 74 temple sites, and over 1,000 newly discovered man-made ponds. It also showed a massive hydraulic system that linked up an entire network, providingAngkor’s citizens with a steady water supply throughout the year and feeding swathes of wealth-producing crops like rice, which served the Khmer as a form of currency. The research also strongly suggested that over exploitation of the environment, compounded by excessive deforestation, topsoil degradation, and over population, pushedAngkorto the brink of collapse.

Tourist troubles

Angkorhas seen the number of tourists to the site increase tenfold over the last decade to over 2 million this year. This is in stark contrast to a report by UNESCO in 1995, which estimated that a maximum capacity of annual visitors should not exceed 700,000. The same report forewarned that the mismanagement of tourists “could lead to uncontrolled development which would quickly degrade the archaeological monuments, the natural resources and the cultural fabric of the Cambodian Angkor heritage”.

Today, about 5,000 visitors pass through the site each day, swarming over the sacred ancient monuments where they can touch and climb. According to leading Angkorian expert Professor Charles Higham, ‘The human tidal wave that sweeps daily over Angkor has a serious impact on visitor experience. One is pestered constantly to buy postcards and elbowed by boorish tourists’. The majority of people stay for two to three days, taking in the most famous monument: Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and Phnom Bakheng. Concerns have been raised that the unrestricted access of visitors, along with pollution from the increased traffic of tourist buses, is hastening the rapid deterioration of monuments and their intricate bas-reliefs. Jeff Morgan, Executive Director at the Global Heritage Fund, believes that ‘with lax regulations on controlling the climbing, vandalism, and graffiti on monuments, the situation is getting serious. Overcrowding and lack of enforcement is the issue’.

The rising numbers of people at Angkor show no sign of abating – entrance ticket sales are up by 25% from last year, amounting to nearly $50 million, and the Cambodian Minister of Tourism Thong Khon projects a staggering 6 million annual visitors by 2020.

Despite potential damage to the ancient monuments from excessive overcrowding at Angkor, the government has given the tourism industry a priority status for fast track development. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world, where one third of the population lives below the poverty line on less than $1 per day, and the majority of the workforce is employed in basic subsistence farming. The revenue generated from tourism and heritage is the bedrock of the developing economy, accounting for $1.75bn a year and 15% of the country’s GDP. Angkor provides the ideal platform to create local and national investment, a network of jobs and the promotion of local arts and crafts. Despite this opportunity, there have been persistent allegations of high-level corruption, with critics claiming that money raised from tourism has been flowing into private pockets and rather than being reinvested appropriately in the maintenance and protection of the site or local communities. UNESCO has warned about this problem in the past: What is crucial is that the monuments of Angkor should not be reduced to the status of an expendable commercial resource and thus be deprived of the funds need to secure their proper conservation and to facilitate their presentation to visitors in an appealing and educational way. This would not only damage the cultural heritage of the country, but also destroy the most important resource on which the Cambodian tourism industry is built.

To prevent Angkor becoming a hit-and-run holiday destination for tourists, the Cambodian government is attempting to lure visitors to other regions of the country with a range of impressive temple sites, eco-adventure holidays, and newly developed beach resorts. Heritage experts agree that a more balanced distribution of tourists to other regions in Cambodia would help stimulate the economy of deprived communities whilst protecting vulnerable and isolated archaeological sites. Dougald O’Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, suggests: “as more people come to Angkor, others will be looking for that unique experience of exploring a temple without the throngs of people around them and Cambodia has many temples to offer such an experience. There is much to gain but also much to lose so a delicate balance need be struck”.

Culture crisis

The millions of foreign tourists who now visitAngkor would have been unimaginable four decades ago. In 1949,Cambodiaachieved self-government as a member of the French Union, and in 1953 gained full independence. From the early 1970s,Cambodiaendured a civil war: theVietnamconflict and the subsequent Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Killing nearly two million Cambodians from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge systematically dismantled the country in the name of a Communist agrarian ideal. Urban dwellers were forcibly evacuated to the countryside to become agricultural workers, basic freedoms were suppressed, and money became worthless. Hundreds of thousands of educated, middle-class Cambodians were tortured and executed whilst many others died in a wave of disease, starvation, and misery. The fall of the Khmer Rouge in January 1979 led to a bloody civil conflict, which gripped the country for over a decade until opposing factions agreed to sign a peace treaty in 1991, enabling a ceasefire and new era of political and economic stability.

The suffering of the Cambodian people during this time has been mirrored in the irrevocable destruction to the country’s heritage and archaeological sites. Under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, religion was banned, resulting in the decapitation and mutilation of hundreds of Buddha statues in the vicinity of Angkor Wat. The storage warehouses atAngkoronce contained the largest collection of Khmer art in the world; but over the years they have been ransacked, and widespread looting led to UNESCO estimating that major sculptures and reliefs were removed from the site at the rate of one per day.

Looting is an endemic problem around the world and it is no more evident than in Cambodia. Growing international fascination with Khmer art and culture is a double-edged sword – tourism has been vital to the economy but it has also triggered a sharp rise in the number of collectors. Away from the confines of Angkor, the situation across Cambodia is critical, with a wide range of archaeological sites being plundered and destroyed on a daily basis. Dougald O’Reilly notes: “The trend now in rural areas is to loot prehistoric sites for beads and metals buried with the dead. Cambodia faces a real tragedy of losing its ancient heritage and all knowledge of how Angkor came to be. Literally thousands of graves have been robbed across Cambodia and all scientific evidence lost”.

As a developing nation,Cambodia faces many challenges, and dealing with this scale of destruction has proved to be problematic – there are simply not enough resources to adequately protect the hundreds of recognised temple complexes across the country. Clandestine excavations show no signs of abating, driven by an insatiable market, and leaving behind a trail of destruction and irreplaceable damage. The systematic use of chainsaws to detach portions of immoveable stone objects has become part of a loot-to-order service for international antique dealers. At several major Cambodian temples, up to 90% of the figureheads and artwork are missing.

The remote nature of many of Cambodia’s archaeological sites has been a mixed blessing. Banteay Chhmar (see CWA 46) is one of the most important 12th century temple complexes from the mighty reign of Jayavarman VII but it has suffered from extensive ransacking. In 1998 witnesses reported several hundred soldiers working for four weeks with heavy machinery to remove 500ft² of bas-relief from the southern wall, leaving the structure on the brink of collapse.  A year later, a lorry was stopped on the Cambodia-Thai border and found to contain 117 sandstone carvings that had been stolen from the temple. This type of rampant destruction has galvanised the international archaeological community. Supported by the organisations Global Heritage Fund and Heritage Watch, Banteay Chhmar is now three years into a much needed restoration project. Learning from the mistakes made at Angkor, there are plans to welcome more tourists to the site whilst ensuring conservation remains a priority – suspended cable platforms will be placed over the fallen features to allow low-impact, safe visitor access rather than unrestricted access around the monument. Tath Sophal, part of the local team responsible for the ongoing preservation of the site, says: ‘There was a lot of stealing and destruction. Now, people work together and enjoy time together. There is a feeling of cooperation.’

Troubled times

In November 1991, the Director-General of UNESCO launched an appeal for the international community to ‘Save Angkor’. The next year, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee placed the site on the list of World Heritage in Danger to deal with ‘urgent problems of conservation quickly and effectively’. Since then, various organisations have worked tirelessly alongside the Cambodian management authority APSARA to repair and restore Angkor. In the last ten years alone, over 30 teams from 16 different countries have implemented major conservation programmes – an essential ongoing process. This summer, the Baphuon temple in Angkor finally reopened after years of painstaking restoration work, which involved taking apart the monument’s 300,000 sandstone blocks and piecing them back together. Dubbed the world’s largest puzzle, the $14 million project was funded by France, saving the 11th century temple from complete collapse. Despite sporadic thefts, the Cambodian authorities have also sought to improve protection and security measures on site. Azedine Beschaouch, Scientific Secretary of ICC-Angkor, writes that ‘control over illicit trafficking and setting up of the “heritage police unit” has ended vandalism and brought organised looting to a halt. The Angkor site has been made secure’.

Siem Reap – Angkor’s new threat?

Whilst the scale of looting that Angkor suffered in the past has been curtailed, new threats are now emerging. The startling growth in tourism during the last decade can be traced directly back to the opening, in 1999, of Siem Reap airport: situated just three miles fromAngkor, visitors can travel straight to the site. Within two years of opening, the number of tourists to the site quadrupled. The first phase of this new international airport, costing $1bn, will be complete in 2015, opening Angkor to the world like never before.

Compounding this, Hollywood put Cambodia firmly on the international map in the same year with the blockbuster film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider featuring the actress Angelina Jolie. Filmed at Ta Prohm, a 12th century temple site in Angkor, the action film brought the site to a new generation of tourists. The actress, who subsequently adopted a son from the region, is so beloved in Cambodia that Ta Prohm is popularly known as the ‘Angelina Jolie Temple’ and local bars in Siem Reap continue trading off the film’s success, selling Tomb Raider themed cocktails.

The high-volume tourism of Angkor has been intrinsically linked with the extraordinary rise of Siem Reap. The population has nearly doubled in under a decade and it is officially the fastest growing city inCambodia. Siem Reap has evolved into a playground for foreign tourists – during the day, the Nick Faldo-designed Angkor Gold Resort offers an 18-hole course and at night visitors can venture through a pulsating neon world of restaurants, ‘temple’ themed bars, clubs, and massage parlours. Many of the local citizens of Siem Reap are unlikely to reap the direct benefits of this frenzied economic growth – over 95% of hotels are foreign owned and 80% of the food is imported, highlighting the need for greater effort in distributing the wealth brought about by tourism.

Several notable old buildings from the Siem Reap’s past have been demolished to make way for new developments; but the highest profile casualty of this unchecked boom might be Angkoritself. In 1995 there were just eight hotels – today the city boasts over 350 guesthouses and luxury hotels, surrounded by sprawling lawns, manicured gardens, and swimming pools. The widespread and unregulated pumping of groundwater throughout the city has raised concerns about the stability of Angkor’s monuments. The ancient city is situated on a base of sand and kept firm by the constant supply of groundwater, currently used to feed Siem Reap’s endless thirst. UNESCO has warned that the receding water table could critically undermine the fragile foundations of Angkor, causing temples to gradually sink and collapse. This view is not universal and archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly states: ‘Much has been made of the dropping water table and the possible impact on the temples of Angkor. The Tonle Sap lake is a huge reservoir that can be tapped so this should not really be a major issue. Most of these challenges are able to be solved through management and investment in infrastructure.’

Angkor represents the ultimate heritage conundrum for archaeological sites in the 21st century. Tourists might accelerate damage to a site by their presence, but the money generated invigorates local and national economic development, enables site protection and restoration work, and encourages further research – which, in turn, enriches our knowledge of past cultures. Tourism is inescapable, so better management, controlled development, conservation, education, and poverty reduction are key to Cambodia’s future – the shame would be if the integrity ofAngkor is sacrificed for short-term economic benefits.

This article can be found in Current World Archaeology Issue 50. Click here to subscribe

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