Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Lost Khmer City of Banteay Chmar


A figure guards the entrance to the temple at Banteay Chmar.

Modern politics intrudes on the timeless scene at the temples

The site was first mapped by the French and is extensive.

The Cambodian flag flies over the front entrance to the temple.

A collapsed section of the wall is being pieced together.

The stones are massive and it's all done by hand.

The work of reassembling the low reliefs on the wall is under way.

Khmer soldiers present severed heads to their masters.

As always the stonework is lavishly decorated with carvings.

In the extensive workshops, a smith uses a forge.

Peter and Kent explore the ruins.

Indiana Tucker almost bashes his head on the temple of doom.

Every turn finds a new chaos of ruins.


Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the greatest ancient temple sites in the world receives hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors a year. There are traffic jams around the sites and it’s hard not to feel oppressed by the sheer volume of tourists that now overwhelm the temples. After decades of political instability it is good for Cambodia that tourism has taken off so fast but there are risks. I was first there at Angkor nine years ago and it was very different indeed.

The whole experience of visiting the Khmer ruins has to some extent been spoiled as, visiting now in 2009, you’ve come at least ten years too late. However, there’s more to the Khmer kingdom than Angkor and Cambodia still offers some hidden surprises.

I’ve just come back from seeing the ancient temple at Banteay Chmar and it was a remarkable experience.

We crossed the border at Chong Jom in Thailand’s Surin province and drove in a hired 4x4 on dusty roads for an hour or two before coming to a poor little town. It was only different from the others we’d passed through because it had a tree lined moat on the other side of which you could see some extensive stone ruins. This was our objective, the ‘lost city’ of Banteay Chmar built by Jayavarman VII, Cambodia’s hyperactive builder of vast stone temples.

While this huge complex was first recorded by the French, its physical isolation, the civil wars in Cambodia and the cultural heritage existing at the centre of the Angkorian empire means that work on clearing the site was only started about eighteen months ago. For us arriving here at this early stage must thus be how it was when visitors came to Angkor many decades ago. Things may now move quite fast though and a well-attended conference in August 2009 discussing the management of the temple and the possibility of application for listing as a World Heritage Site has stimulated considerable interest.

Our first task was now to find somewhere to stay. There are no hotels as such in the town so our driver found us a ‘homestay’ down a dusty side street. There seemed to be a choice of two and ours offered three clean rooms in a well built local house.

As for lunch, there were no restaurants apparent either, though we found an eating place just opposite the entrance to the ruins, run by a pleasant couple who even spoke a little English.

Food sorted, it was time to enter the temple.

Passing a pair of stone figures and a sign recording the recent de-mining programme, we crossed the causeway over the moat and reached the walls of the city where the Cambodian flag was flying. To our left was a closed off site where workers were sorting out the scatter of fallen stones and rebuilding a section of the wall and gallery. On the walls all around the temple precinct are carved low reliefs similar to those on the Bayon temple at Angkor, showing an exotic array of characters and battles, both human and mythological. Warfare is ever present and one particularly grizzly relief shows the victors displaying the severed heads of the enemy.

Inside the walls was a world that time has forgotten, a chaotic tumble of massive blocks of stone, of standing ruins and shattered towers, all encroached upon by huge white trees and bathed in dappled light. The glory days of the temple were almost a millennium ago but there was now only a few hours before another day drew to its close. It’s size was astounding and we had it all to ourselves, a magical other world for us to discover and explore.

On arriving I’d seen on one of the site notices the name of John Sanday who I’d met on two earlier occasions when visiting Preah Khan at Angkor where he was directing restoration work on behalf of the World Monuments Fund. On producing his card from my wallet, we were immediately taken to his office on the edge of the town where he very graciously dropped the more important things he was doing and took us on a tour of the site.

It was fascinating to be taken round by someone of his knowledge and experience and to hear the story of how he had initiated this project, now working with the Global Heritage Fund. Within a very sort time he has cleared the site of all vegetation, has stabilized some of the more precarious structures and started building wooden walk ways over the fallen rocks as access is difficult and dangerous.

Having set up site buildings and workshops, including a forge, he has also focussed on the important task of training local staff. Two stone naga heads have been found in good condition at the front of the temple and he hopes to restore the platform to allow for dancing and other events. Most importantly the fallen stones from the low reliefs to the left of the entrance have been moved, numbered and laid out on the ground and progress is being made on rebuilding the wall.

Most exciting of all, he told us of the project to develop a computer software that could assist in solving the most difficult jig saw puzzle in the world. It’s supposed to work like this. Each stone would be suspended and a digital image taken of all its surfaces. When the stones for a section of wall have all been scanned, all you have to do is press control/alt/delete or whatever and hey presto the computer tells you exactly how the stones fit together. At least that’s how it’ll happen in an ideal world and it would be a significant breakthrough if so.

Even with the help of a thousand computers though, many a life time is needed to achieve much progress with this site. The scale of the ruins makes the prospect of restoration totally daunting, a truly herculean task, and all the king’s men could never possibly put it all back together again. Perhaps therefore they should not even try to do so.

There may be considerable political pressures to recreate the structures as they were for the benefit of tourists but this is always a questionable aim. Reconstructed Khmer monuments often look a bit of a mess. Far better in my view, to prevent further dilapidation but otherwise to leave a rare virgin site such as this in the historical condition in which it is now found. A few sections of low relief should perhaps be reconstructed to show visitors how they once were, but otherwise the ruins should be left much as they now are.

What matters more than reconstruction is archeology, that the site be studied in order to learn more about the Khmers and how they used their buildings. Far more important than cobbling ruins back together again is to discover historical information. It is of course important to ascertain what was on the collapsed reliefs, but generally rebuilding the site would be intrusive and mistaken.

A far better alternative is to produce computer simulations and on-site panels with pictures and text interpreting the ruins for the visitor. At the many Angkor sites themselves, huge effort has gone into piling stones back on top of each other but there is precious little museum-style interpretation for the visitor. I get the impression too that the huge burden of managing monuments of this magnitude has also drawn resources away from the important task of pure archeology in and surrounding the temples.

How to conserve sites such as these is of course fiercely debated and my two penny worth adds nothing. I can only say though that it was a privilege to have seen Banteay Chmar as it begins to awaken from its long slumber.

John Sanday told us that one of the things that will inhibit the development of hotels and other facilities for tourists is a severe shortage of water. Perhaps, I wonder, seeing the frenetic pace of construction at Siem Reap, that might in the long run be no bad thing.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl’ Blog December 2009

2 comments:

Muz said...

Fascinating little tour of a temple I didn't know existed. If I ever get back to Cambodia...

Still reading your blog regularly.

Lloyd said...

I agree with your thoughts on preserving the ruins as they are and not rebuilding the site(s) which as you say often looks worse off.

I first visited Angkor Wat in 1994 and returned this year, its good to see the Cambodians making a living however its a shock to see the extent of the changes brought on by the flood of tourists.

I know its a big ask but do you think you could include a Google map link, or even a Google map route to the site?