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Spirit Reset in Stone

Experts from around the world are restoring Cambodia's ancient city of Angkor. But a surge in population puts the area's temples at risk.

April 26, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

ANGKOR, Cambodia — At the magical temple of Ta Prohm, 200-year-old trees grow from the ruins, their roots embracing the ancient stone walls like giant snakes. Archeologists from India are trying to preserve the trees -- and the temple's romantic spirit -- for as long as possible.

Down the road, at the magnificent, sprawling temple of Angkor Wat, a Japanese-led crew grafts newly quarried sandstone onto broken 12th century blocks in a state-of-the-art effort to save the building known as the northern library.

Nearby, 300,000 stone blocks of the dismantled Bapuon temple are spread across 25 acres of grassy fields. The building plans were destroyed by war, but a French-led archeological team is reconstructing the ancient pyramid, stone by stone.

As the horrors of Cambodia's "killing fields" fade into history, a renaissance is taking place in ancient Angkor. Led by the United Nations, an international coalition of preservationists is working to restore and protect one of the great cities of the past.

"This is a model of cooperation -- more than 10 countries and international organizations coming together in a spirit of solidarity for the work of preserving cultural heritage," Cambodian Senior Minister Sok An said.

The restoration of Angkor serves as a powerful symbol of unity in a country still struggling to come to terms with the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed more than 1 million people and the decades of civil war that followed.

Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument and Angkor's best-known temple, appears on the Cambodian flag, the national currency and bottles of the country's top-selling Angkor beer. When a Phnom Penh newspaper falsely reported last year that a popular Thai actress claimed that Angkor Wat belonged to Thailand, Cambodians rioted in the capital, destroying the Thai Embassy and dozens of Thai-owned businesses.

"It is now the first time in 400 years that the Cambodian people are united under one constitution, one king and the leadership of one government," Sok said. "No rebels, no dissidents, no secession. We have a very unified Cambodia, so we can be proud."

With the removal of 25,000 land mines, the resurrection of the city and its 1994 designation as Angkor Archeological Park comes a new threat: a population explosion that could overrun the preservation zone.

More than 100 temples, large and small, make up the sprawling ancient city. Almost hidden among the monuments are dozens of dusty villages where some families have lived for generations and others have just arrived. Outside the temples, hawkers try to outshout one another as they offer souvenirs to tourists. The roads are crowded with tour buses, motorbikes and the occasional elephant. Monkeys rest by the roadside.

Tourists who visit Angkor stay in the bustling town of Siem Reap, four miles from the temple city. Hotels are not permitted in Angkor, but 71 hotels and guesthouses have recently opened or are under construction in Siem Reap, according to the local planning department. Provincial Gov. Chap Nhalyvoud said he expects 1 million tourists to visit this year -- more than double last year's total. Hollywood has contributed to the popularity of Angkor with the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," which was shot at Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat in 2000.

Within the park's boundaries, the population has surpassed 100,000 as poor farming families leave the countryside, build squatter villages near the temples and search for work in Siem Reap.

"They arrive every day and they want to build, build, build," said Chau Sun Kerya, director of tourism at Angkor. "It is a very big concern for the government. It's not too late, but we need to take action quickly."

It is easy to see why so many people are drawn to Angkor. The historic city, covering three times the area of San Francisco, contains an awe-inspiring collection of temples, monuments and lagoons built over hundreds of years. Some experts believe that as many as 1 million people lived here at the height of the Khmer empire.

Angkor was the center of a great kingdom that spanned much of Southeast Asia between the 9th and 13th centuries. Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism introduced by Indian traders, the Khmers built more than 100 temples and the walled city of Angkor Thom, which was larger than imperial Rome in its day.

Historians are uncertain why the empire collapsed. Some blame invaders from Thailand. Others say it fell into economic decline. But by the 15th century, the Khmer court had moved south to Phnom Penh.

The French, who colonized Cambodia in the late 19th century, were astounded by the collection of temples and began restoring them more than a century ago.

The work continued until 1975, when the Khmer Rouge began its genocidal campaign to create a simple agrarian society. At Angkor, villagers were forced to move to the countryside and many were slain, but damage to the temples was minimal.

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