CAMBODIA TALES 2000
One place that fascinated me since I first heard about it was the Angkor Conservation Office (ACO) on the west bank of the Siem Reap river as you head out towards Angkor Wat. Responsible for the maintenance and conservation of Angkor's monuments, it first came to my notice in 1992 when the Khmer Rouge attacked the ACO compound and forcibly removed numerous pieces of valuable Khmer sculpture. This was one of three raids in a two-year period when the town of Siem Reap was all too often a sitting target of the renegade Khmer Rouge faction. The ACO depot had been, and still is, used as a storage facility for much of the free-standing statuary and sculpture removed for safe-keeping, not only from the Angkor site but other ancient temples around the country.
The French first established the Conservation d'Angkor in 1908 in order to conduct formal archaeological study of the Angkor civilization and to restore the temples to their former glory. Jean Commaille was the first 'conservator' and was later followed by famous names such as Henri Marchal, Maurice Glaize and Bernard-Philippe Groslier before responsibility passed to the Culture Ministry in 1991. Faced with rampant looting, the ACO removed many objects from the temples and transferred them to the depot but were still unable to prevent further theft despite armed guards and improved security. In a direct response to the Khmer Rouge raids, the government ordered the removal of over 100 of the most valuable items to the National Museum in Phnom Penh, and a further 100 stolen objects were exposed in an international publication entitled, 'One Hundred Missing Objects: Looting at Angkor'.
Despite the problems of the early 90s, the ACO compound is still full to overflowing with some of the most outstanding sculptures of the prolific Angkor period but for security reasons, is off-limits to the general public. This was where my real fascination lay. What exactly was behind the high walls and barbed wire of the ACO compound? Everyone I spoke to told me it was impossible to get in, security was watertight and unless I had permission from the Ministry of something or other, there was no entry. However, before his untimely death, my good friend Sok Thea had gained the confidence of the ACO staff when they accompanied him on a trip to the remote temple site of Koh Ker. He was also a welcome visitor to the ACO compound and had gained permission for me to visit. Following his death, Thea's right-hand man in his tour firm, Phalla, had confirmed that a visit was still on the cards after he'd taken an ACO official on a trek to some of the remote temples on Phnom Kulen.
So it was that Phalla and I, accompanied by our friend and moto-driver Kim Rieng, arrived at the gates of the ACO depot at 8am on my second morning in Siem Reap, following my arrival from Kompong Thom. The gates were wide open but the only sign of life was two women sweeping leaves from the path. Minutes later, the ACO supervisor arrived, shook hands and nodded his approval to Phalla, whilst Rieng remained with his moto in the shade. In exchange for a $5 donation, we were permitted to wander around the compound and I was introduced to an ageing storekeeper, Kleng Reach, who would act as our guide and key-holder. It was made clear that taking photos of the exhibits standing in the open-air was okay, but any sculptures under lock and key in the large storage buildings were not to be photographed under any circumstances.
In the courtyard immediately behind the administration block, numerous large stone exhibits are displayed, open to the elements and a few were definitely the worse for wear. Nevetheless, there were some gems amongst the collection, in particular a trio of stone lions rescued from the temple of Preah Khan in Kompong Svay and a delicately carved garuda and naga from the Bayon. A row of headless statues from Angkor's Preah Khan and other locations were lined up against the wall of a workshop and a small elephant from Angkor Thom and a large pediment from the Chikreng district stood out as the most striking objects in this part of the compound. Reach, our guide, then unlocked a heavy metal door into a smaller, more compact area that was choc-a-block with various stone sculptures in neat rows. On the right-hand side, a line of at least forty stone lions, either seated or standing on four legs and in varying degrees of repair, recovered from temples across the country, was an impressive sight. Lying immediately in front of the lions were two very large items, a headless torso found in the river near Spean Thma in the Angkor Park and a cracked, unfinished stele from Banteay Chhmar.
Opposite the row of lions, was a mixed bag of sculptures and lintels which Reach explained were amongst sixty-one items recovered from the home of the infamous Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok. Government troops took control of his Anlong Veng headquarters in northern Cambodia and these pieces were trucked down to Siem Reap under heavy guard. Just around the corner lay a lot more stone objects. A line of eight stone heads removed from the entrances to the temple of Preah Khan and a double-tiered four-faced head from the East Gate of Angkor Thom led onto a row of eight carved apsaras, which had been recovered by police, who foiled an attempted theft at Angkor. Next to them was a series of lintels in which one from the Bakong temple at Roluos is a spectacular example of 9th century carving. In another part of the inner compound, stand seven massive stone statues, all recovered and brought to the depot from Phnom Dei, a small hill near Banteay Srei. The statues include three Avalokitesvaras, Siva and Vishnu sculptures and are outstanding for their sheer strength and presence.
Reach was more than happy to open up the door of the smaller of the two storage warehouses but reiterated that taking photos inside wasn't permitted. With light streaming through the large warehouse windows, the building was an Aladdin's cave of Khmer art. And Reach told us this wasn't the main storage building either. That particular one was out of bounds to all but those with the necessary permissions in duplicate and triplicate. Anyway, the collection spread out in front of me was pretty priceless in my opinion. A line of about twenty large, upright stone blocks or steles, all had intricate Sanskrit or Khmer lettering, with some of the slabs inscribed on all four sides explaining the history of the temple they came from. The outstanding ones were identified by Reach as coming from Banteay Chhmar, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Pre Rup and a few of them were worn and shiny where worshippers have rubbed them for good luck throughout the centuries. In another row, there were no less than 200 heads of gods and demons, removed from the gateways leading to Angkor Thom and Preah Khan and a series of lintels, collected from around the country. Four of the best were in the Sambor Prei Kuk style with jeweled garlands and pendants, dating from the 7th century. A collection of smoothly rounded lingas and large stone pedestals occupied a corner of the room, while Reach opened up a series of small boxes to reveal delicately carved pots and jugs, tiny wooden Buddhas and bronze jewellery pieces. All in all, it was an exquisite collection of artifacts and I felt privileged to see it.
Despite the offer of remuneration, Reach couldn't be persuaded to open the main, two-storey warehouse nearby. It contains the most priceless of ancient Khmer art in the depot's possession and the best outside the superb collection held at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Maybe one day I might be fortunate to gain entry, but not this day. Phalla and I thanked Reach for his knowledgeable help and rejoined Rieng at the gate. Our second stop of the day was to be at the temple of Ta Prohm, as we headed off into the Angkor complex, stopping briefly to show my visitors pass at the new reception booth halfway along the main access road to the site. At the souvenir and drinks stalls outside the western entrance to Ta Prohm, I said hello to Shanti, a souvenir seller that I met on my last visit and also sought out Pre-ap, a friend of a friend. She is a bubbly, outgoing young girl, who like the rest of the sellers, are now banned from the temple itself and must rely on tourists, thirsty for a drink after their temple exertions or looking for a bargain souvenir, to wander over to their stalls. After a drink and some friendly banter, Phalla, Rieng and myself entered the site via the face tower at the west gate and wandered around the temple at leisure, somewhat surprised to see so many other tourists, many of them Khmer, throughout the complex. Despite the crowds, it was reassuring to see the friendly leaf-sweeper (his name is Choun Nhiem, he's 78 and was the subject of a Bangkok Post feature article recently), bent with age and his labours, who never fails to appear before we exited the site to make our way to the village of Rahal, close to the lake at Srah Srang, for a pre-arranged mid-day lunch at the home of my Khmer friends, Noung and Sokchata.
Usually to be found at the souvenir stalls on the northern side of the causeway leading to Angkor Wat, both girls had taken the afternoon off from their usual duties. Alongwith their mother and cousin, Heang, they were busy preparing the food as we arrived in the village, causing quite a commotion amongst the neighbours. We were welcomed into their spartan one-roomed thatched home on stilts, the battery-powered fan and radio were switched on and a shoe-box full of family photographs was produced to keep us occupied until the food was ready. A curtain partitioned the room for modesty purposes and the girls had plastered some pop-star posters on the wall to brighten up the place. Next to the posters were half a dozen framed photographs of family members and I was taken aback when I recognised my own picture in a frame, in the middle of the others. I felt very humble as Noung explained that as I was a family friend, they were honoured to have my picture on their wall. The plates and chopsticks soon arrived, quickly followed by a veritable feast of chicken and fish, vegetables and rice with pineapple and banana for dessert. It was delicious and more than enough for the seven of us. After lunch and some photos on the steps leading to the house, six of us, three boys and three girls, set off on two motos to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Western Baray.
A popular spot for Khmer families to swim and picnic, the Western Baray lake is the largest reservoir in the Angkor region, was constructed in the 11th century and is 8 kms wide by 2 kms. Its about twelve kilometres from Siem Reap and on arrival, Sokchata and her cousin, Heang bought a few snacks, drinks and a pack of playing cards from one of the stall owners stationed on top of the shoreline. Down a slippery bank, we paid a few hundred riel for a few mats and our own spot on a long wooden platform on stilts above the water. A few families were nearby but it was Phalla who was the first to strip to his shorts and dive into the lake, followed by Noung and Sokchata, who changed into long sarongs and used large rubber tyres to help stay afloat. Their water antics over, the food was consumed and everyone joined in the card game, with Rieng's infectious laughter masking the fact that he lost the most money. Time had passed quickly as the sun set over the baray and we posed for a few more photos before making our way back to Siem Reap by 7pm and the girls returned to their village at the end of an afternoon full of fun and lots of laughter. [click here to see a selection of pictures of Noung taken since our first meeting in 1998.]
I headed for the Angkor What? pub where I'd arranged to meet Nick Ray, a friend and author of the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia. Nick had just finished a couple of gruelling weeks heavily involved in location filming in Angkor for the Hollywood film, Tomb Raider, and we left to join his parents, Kulikar his girlfriend and her mother, Tan Sotho, the managing director of Hanuman Tourism, at the Banteay Srei restaurant on Route 6. This was a big gathering of sixteen people, many of them were staff at Hanuman, but also present was expat John McGeoghan, a former VSO teacher and more recently, transport manager for the film. The meal was gorgeous and the company excellent, as we finished the night off with a few drinks back at the friendly Angkor What? pub.
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