Cambodia is home to the one of the world’s 100 most endangered sites. Angkor Wat, a 25 square mile area of temples, has been the target of some of Asia’s most rampant artifact thefts. Built by the Khmer civilization between 892 and 1220 AD, the temples have survived wars, drought, monsoons, and are currently facing a new enemy: looters.
Cambodia has had a troubled history. War and fighting factions have almost always been there. Today there’s an uneasy peace, after decades of fighting. Preservation of historic sites isn’t the top item on a list to get the country back on its feet, so the priceless treasures of its heritage have taken a back seat. Blood has tainted this task of guarding Cambodia’s treasures, and it is proving to be a much larger task than anyone could have imagined.
Angkor holds a prestigious position in the hearts of the Cambodians: it is their national symbol, gracing their flag. But the main structure of the religious complex at Angkor, Angkor Wat (wat means temple) is ripe for the plucking, at least in the eyes of looters. It is three times the size of Manhattan, and the jewel of the complex. The temples were built to honor the god Vishnu, and locals believe that this god will make their belly swell if they plunder his temple. Outsiders, or locals in dire enough straits, don’t have those qualms. It was sacked in the 15th century and forgotten about until 1860, when a French explorer turned the eyes of Europe onto it. The French have since funded restorations of the temple complex, to repair damages caused by war and nature. They have been forced to stop numerous times during periods of fighting when archeologists were forced to flee the area. The U.S. unfortunately contributed to the damage when they bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Looting damage is by far the most severe though: 2,000 bronze statuettes in the gallery of the buddhas are missing (Monroe). According to Heritage, Museums, and Galleries, the number of Buddha statues in Angkor Wat has diminished from 1,000 to 18. There are small victories though. Six of them have been recovered. Two were discovered at Sotheby’s and the other four through private collectors.
Beng Melea Angel example
The angel of Beng Melea was a relief in the Khmer temples at Angkor. For 900 years, she had survived, hidden behind ivy. Archeologists considered her to be the best example of female Khmer art. They also think she was carved after the likeness of a real, individual woman, based on her facial features, pose, and personality. But sometime in 2006, a looter tried to chisel away her face. It was damaged, part of the face taken, the rest left. The current whereabouts of the Beng Melea angel’s face are unknown (www.devata.org)
Like many other regions of Asia, looting is a response to demand from Western countries for Asian artifacts. The sheer number and substantial size of most of the statues are a huge incentive for looters. Small figurines, pots and vases, and fans have been on the market for centuries. Museums and private collectors alike had a new lust for the large reliefs and statues of Angkor Wat. The dismally low income of peasants in the area can’t be discounted either. The locals can earn $10 to remove the head from a sculpture. With a literal treasure trove in their backyard, can they be blamed for looting? Tourists and nature as well are taking their toll on the temples. The geographical location of Angkor demanded a complex system of drains and canals that would allow the monsoons and droughts of the region not to take their toll on the temples. Time and bombing has damaged the canals, and action must be taken to preserve Angkor.
The economic status of Cambodia doesn’t allow for a sufficient number of guards to protect Angkor Wat. Especially since the peace treaty was signed in 1991, looting has increased. “More damage was done by looters to this fascinating, captivating place in the last quarter of the twentieth century than in the previous eight centuries” (Atwood 29). The compound itself is so large that it would be hard for even a sufficient number of guards to prevent any looting. Hidden in the jungle, and overgrown with vines and trees, sneaking in and out of the complex, even with a five foot tall head from a statue is shockingly easy. When sneaking in isn’t possible, force is used. In 1993, two different robbery attempts at the Angkor conservation center resulted in three deaths and the loss of 20 valuable artifacts. The government itself has been responsible for some of the looting. Officials from the area report that even some of the guards have been arrested for stealing from the very temple they are supposed to be guarding. A renegade faction, the Khmer Rouge regime, controlled Cambodia from 1975-79, and vandalized many of the Buddha statues of Angkor. More than 20 tons of archeological material was found hidden in the Khmer Rouge commander’s headquarters. Once the material is looted, it is either smuggled over the border into Thailand, where it is then sent on to Hong Kong to be shipped to Western countries. Another route the loot takes is into Bangkok. The River City complex along the banks of the Chao Phraya River is where most of it ends up.
What can be done?
Foreign nations have stepped in to restore Angkor. But that in itself carries some negativity. “Angkor is in grave danger of becoming Disneyland of different countries’ ideas of what it should look like” (Monroe). A treaty between the U.S. and Cambodia has been signed, limiting artifacts, licit or not, that can enter the U.S. from Cambodia. One huge problem of restoration for the Cambodians is money. With an 188% increase in tourism to Angkor from 2000 to 2009, money isn’t so much of a problem. Now protecting the sacred site from ignorant tourists is. One strategy of the restorers was to replace the real remaining statues with fakes. Seven thousand pieces from the temples reside in an anonymous warehouse near Angkor where only a handful of people see them a year.
Banteay Chmar reliefs example:
The Banteay Chmar temple (also called The Citadel of Cats) was stripped of its reliefs by renegades of the regular army of Cambodia. The reliefs were intercepted on the Thai side of the Cambodia/Thailand border, but were displayed at the National Museum of Thailand prior to being returned to Cambodia.
Kent, Davis. "Death of an Angel: How antiquities theft destroys Cambodia’s past…and future." Angkor Wat Apsara & Devata: Khmer Women in Divine Context. Touchstone Magazine, 2008. Web. 9 Dec 2010.
Monroe, John W. "Angkor Wat: A case study in the legal problems of international cultural resource management." Journal of Arts Management, Law & Society 24.4 (1995): 277. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 7 Dec. 2010.