A golden sun rises over the ancient splendour of Angkor. Before the trickle of tourists through the gates grows to a torrent, a small team of workers assembles in the warm morning air. Silicone gloves snap on, plastic clips on a plastic tacklebox are unclipped. Out of the box one by one, an eclectic collection of items are taken and meticulously arranged on the sandstone sill of a temple window. A scalpel. Toothpicks. A jar of grey mortar. These are the tools of the APSARA stone conservation team, an integral part of Cambodia’s effort to conserve and protect Angkor for future generations to enjoy.
For Cambodians, nothing stirs up a greater sense of nationalistic pride than Angkor. Built over the period from the ninth to fifteenth centuries, the massive complex of temples, palaces, canals and causeways covering over 400 square kilometres was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1992. Today, Angkor draws an estimated 4 million local and international visitors each year. As the number of tourists pouring through the site increases, preservation of the historic site is becoming a major concern, and many structures are already succumbing to natural processes of erosion.
In order to coordinate efforts to protect and manage the site, the Cambodian government set up a new organisation called the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap, or APSARA, in 1995. APSARA represents the commitment of Cambodians to take charge of protecting their own cultural heritage.
Say Sophearin is part of the new generation of Cambodians taking the reigns from the hoardes of foreign experts that flocked to Angkor to be a part of the conservation of one of the world’s most significant historic sites. A rowdy mob of tourists take selfies and wait to ascend the stairs leading up to Angkor Wat as Say carefully spreads a thick mixture of clay and papier mache over absorbent Japanese paper that has been pressed against the sandstone that forms part of the north gallery’s outer wall. The concoction is designed to draw the moisture and salts out of the porous stone. This is just one of five stages in the process of conserving the soft sandstone that Say learnt as part of a post-graduate degree in conservation. The training was delivered by conservation experts from Palermo University in cooperation with APSARA, UNESCO and the Cambodian ministry of fine art.
Speaking to Say’s small team of conservators who have all completed Palermo University’s special program which ran from 2011 to 2013, two things become apparent. The first is that their hearts burn with a passion for preserving their country’s cultural heritage. Seng Chantha can’t help smiling when he talks about his work. “Our heart is with Cambodia’s cultural heritage” he says, his sentiment matching his colleague Kory Vicheka, 30, who says he had always dreamt of working at Angkor. Working with Seng, Kory and Say is Chheang Sovanna, also a graduate of the Palermo program who disregarded his parents’ desire for him to become a doctor. “They wanted me to be a doctor, but now I diagnose and heal stones” Chheang jokes. His parents are proud of him.
The other shared sentiment among the team is the desire to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of Cambodians who they hope can be passed the responsibility for Angkor’s continued conservation.
Working with the team is assistant conservator Francesca Taormina, who has travelled from Palermo to work at Angkor with the APSARA team for three months. Beads of sweat form on her forehead as she painstakingly applies a special mortar to tiny cracks in one of the north gallery’s window columns with a toothpick. She is also excited to have the opportunity to refine her skills by applying what she learnt at Palermo University alongside the APSARA Stone Conservation Unit. But stone conservation is not the only form of conservation taught as part of the Palermo-APSARA program.
In a corner of the Angkor Conservation facility on the outskirts of Siem Reap, three Cambodians hunch over ancient artefacts from in and around Angkor. All three studied stone, wood and metal conservation as part of the cooperation between APSARA, UNESCO and Palermo University. 28 year-old Keo Chansophany carefully removes oxidation from a bronze ring discovered at Wat Bo temple. The jewelry piece was likely an offering for one of the Buddhist statues in the temple. Phany, as she prefers to be called, studied archaeology before undertaking the post-graduate study in conservation. She exudes enthusiasm for what she does, and while the thin blue medical mask she wears hides her smile, the spark in her eyes betrays her passion for the job.
Phany’s colleague Meas Sopheap was not always as passionate about dusty old relics, and only chose to abandon her plan to study law in favour of archaeology because she would be eligible for a government scholarship for the major. It was on a field trip to an excavation site that Meas’ love for archaeology was sparked, and it has only continued to grow since then. Her whole face lights up when she talks of how lucky she feels to be working on artefacts found at Angkor.
Historical artifacts accumulate in the storage facility at Angkor Conservation’s facility. Conservator Meas Sopheap is saddened by the fact that they currently do not have a humidity and temperature controlled storage space for these precious items.
Cambodian ceramics specialist Tep Sokha explains to conservators Meas Sopheap (L) and Keo Chansophany (R) the best way to preserve a cracked vase filled with lead pieces in the Angkor Conservation laboratory in the north of Siem Reap, 22 January 2016. Meas and Keo are both graduates of the postgraduate degree designed by Palermo University in cooperation with UNESCO, APSARA and Cambodia’s Ministry of Fine Arts.
Not all Cambodian conservationists have undertaken post-graduate study. In fact, some are merely high school graduates. 48 year-old Long Nary learnt on the job, starting as an assistant to an Indian conservation team in 1988. Over the years his strong work ethic and understanding of complex technical approaches brought opportunities that included internships and scholarships to study conservation for up to three months in Thailand, Germany and Italy. After joining APSARA in 2007, Long worked in cooperation with the German NGO GIZ further developing his skills in stone and brick conservation. Despite his lack of a university degree, Long was given the privilege of training a team of twenty conservationists.
Working with Long at Pre Rup temple are two of his proteges Thy Ein, 25, and Saroth Tean, 23. Both high school graduates love their work and feel privileged to have the opportunity to work to preserve Cambodia’s cultural and historic heritage.
A few kilometres away in Banteay Samre temple, more of Long’s students are working to restore stone balustrades after French attempts at restoration in the 1940s failed. Early repairs relied on concrete and metal reinforcing, but the concrete wouldn’t bond with the original sandstone, and eventually broke off. The history of Angkor’s preservation is littered with failure and damage caused by overzealous foreign conservators, but there has also been much progress by the same.
One of Long Nary’s students puts finishing touches on a block of sandstone used to restore part of one of Banteay Samre’s balustrades in Angkor. Conservators and restorers attempt to find original pieces of crumbling buildings and monuments, but add pieces to fill the gaps where the originals cannot be located. A conscious decision has been made by APSARA to not replicate the original stone perfectly to make it easy for visitors to differentiate between original artifacts and the sections that have been replaced.
Cambodia owes a great debt of gratitude to conservators who have come from countries including India, France, Japan, China, Indonesia, Germany, Italy and Australia to share their experience and to develop new techniques that can be applied to Angkor’s unique characteristics. The responsibility for Angkor’s preservation and ongoing conservation, however, rests on the shoulders of Cambodians, and it seems the time has come that they are beginning to step up and take hold of the challenge.
A tourist takes a photo at Banteay Srei, part of the Angkor site located some 30km from Angkor Wat, just after sunrise. The temple is built of red sandstone and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva when it was built in the 10th century.
All images ©2016 Adam Robert Young