Now that we have drawn to a close our more than six years of involvement in the conservation of Banteay Chhmar, we’d like to explore the challenges, achievements, and future vision for the stewardship of this marvelous temple complex.

The ruined stones of Banteay Chhmar blend seamlessly into the forested landscape of northwestern Cambodia. A tower rises indiscernibly through the lush canopies of the skyline, taking its place among the sub-tropical trees as if stone could be turned into living flesh. A nearby moat is less accustomed to the tranquility of holy silence and more attuned to the raucous play of children, who swim about its waters in blissful ignorance of their sacrilege. Bas-reliefs of princes wrestling with snarling demons offer a faint echo of once-cataclysmic struggles, if they can be spotted from beyond their lichen sheaths and lush overgrowth. Even the enigmatic smile of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara may be mistaken for jumbled stones when unveiled from the shadows.

Banteay Chhmar is one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of Southeast Asia, a dazzling tale of imperial splendor and an embodiment of the wealth and power of the Angkor kingdom. Yet, over 800 years of neglect and the grim toll of warfare have left the temple complex in a state of ruination. Visiting the site, the cruel scars of power tools may be seen on decapitated statues and mangled or missing bas-reliefs. Where inscriptions once proudly proclaimed a victorious battle, only bare stones and the chipped-away detritus of the looter’s craft remain. Happenstance and a minefield that remained dangerous until 2007 protected all that remained.

Site Conservation and Community Development Goals

When we came to Banteay Chhmar, we were faced with immense challenges. Centuries of neglect as well as recent looting left the site in disarray. What had not yet been looted or destroyed was structurally unstable or close to it due to forest overgrowth and village development. There was little tourism to the site, little prospect of it increasing, and little government intervention. Facing up to these challenges while following the tenets of Preservation by Design®, GHF’s system of conservation and management, our team arrived to achieve five key milestones:

  1. Prepare and implement a site Master Conservation Plan, including expanded site protection;
  2. Preserve the bas-relief galleries and stabilize the central temple complex;
  3. Aid the community in developing tourism to the site and preparing for the increased impact on infrastructure;
  4. Assist the Cambodian government in the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination and inscription process;
  5. Train a team of professionals and craftsmen, and create a conservation unit for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

After six years between 2008 and 2014, we accomplished all of these milestones and more. Continue reading to learn the story of GHF’s efforts at Banteay Chhmar.

Assessing the State of Banteay Chhmar

Although much of Cambodia’s precious heritage was looted between 1970 and 1998, the sorry state of affairs at Banteay Chhmar is largely the result of the simultaneous end of the Pol Pot regime and Cambodia’s brutal civil war in 1999. With lasting peace regnant in the countryside, temples that were once inaccessible due to the on-going war became unprotected targets for looters. In what UNESCO’s Cambodia-based representative Sebastian Cavalier once described as “not basic, usual looting, [but] huge-scale looting,” the sanctity of the Banteay Chhmar complex has been shattered by brazen heists. The collateral damage from these thefts lies scattered upon the ground, rests at the bottom of the moat, or has been overgrown by the dense flora of this remote region.

What human hands have not ruined is slowly disappearing into the faceless maw of the jungle. Stretching over 12 square kilometers, the Banteay Chhmar site was largely preserved only at its center, which has long been shielded from the surrounding jungle by a deep moat. The outer sectors of the complex have not fared so well, falling victim to floral overgrowth or village development. Structural instability brought about by plant growth and human intervention threatened to topple what remained of the standing architecture, endangering both the heritage of the site, and the few tourists who dared to visit it.

John Sanday at the main Banteay Chhmar complex. ©Craig Stennett - Global Heritage Fund

John Sanday at the main Banteay Chhmar complex. ©Craig Stennett – Global Heritage Fund

The precarious state of the temple complex would have become untenable without immediate intervention. Recognizing the threat, Global Heritage Fund set out in 2008 to protect what remained of the site, beginning with a multi-year agreement with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts for the master planning, conservation and protection of Banteay Chhmar. Following GHF’s Preservation by Design® methodology, we took the site through a structured process of planning and design, threat mitigation, scientific site conservation, training and community development and stewardship, all under the leadership of our Cambodia Project Director John Sanday, OBE. Significant aid was provided by the Prince Claus Fund.

Describing the site as “a very complex jigsaw puzzle,” Sanday faced the immense quandary of protecting what was left, but also determining the best way to do so. In charge of project execution and head of quality assessment, project investigations and monitoring and reporting from the site, Sanday began by reconstructing ruined stonework and reassembling scattered temple structures. David Ford, a trustee of GHF, succinctly stated the difficulty of these tasks when he said, “A number of stones have fallen down and mixed up, so how do you start?”

Architect John Sanday (OBE) at Banteay Chhmar Temple in Cambodia. ©Craig Stennett - Global Heritage Fund

Architect John Sanday (OBE) at Banteay Chhmar Temple in Cambodia. ©Craig Stennett – Global Heritage Fund

Enlisting the Locals

Not by thinking about them as “a number of stones.” “We’re not just restoring a pile of old rocks, as people used to think” Mr. Sanday muses. “It’s a community effort.” Indeed, community involvement has always been the cornerstone and perennial foundation of our conservation efforts. By empowering local laborers with new skills, we have been able to both conserve the Banteay Chhmar temple complex, as well as enrich the local people who make that conservation possible.

Neiv Bunteat once labored in the rice fields surrounding his village, shackled to the ebb and flow of the seasons for his livelihood. However, after partnering with GHF he has begun to learn the methods of sound stone conservation. He hopes to “work at Banteay Chhmar for many years, so that when I’m an old man I can retire and watch people coming to visit the temple and admire it.” Mok Ngam, the oldest worker for GHF at Banteay Chhmar, has dedicated much of his life to the conservation of Khmer sites since the fall of the Pol Pot regime, believing his long association with these projects gives him unique insights into the methodology necessary to preserve this site.

These are just two of the 41 people we’ve directly employed in our project as stonemasons and stonecutters, conservators and restorers, draughtsmen and unskilled laborers. Without such a well-trained group of local workers, the lasting significance of our work at Banteay Chhmar would be in doubt. By handing back the conservation of heritage to the Cambodian people, we believe that the last great Angkorian Temple in Cambodia, one that was left unstudied, unconserved, and unprotected, is now in competent hands for many years to come.

The Community-Based Tourism Board (CBT)

In partnership with Heritage Watch and Agir pour le Cambodge, in 2007 GHF established the Community-Based Tourism Board (CBT). Up until that time, the communities surrounding the Banteay Chhmar site were dependent on rice farming for both their food and their livelihoods. This reliance on a one-crop industry created a reality of extreme vulnerability to uncontrollable circumstances, negatively impacting the quality of life and income for the local communities.

With the CBT, however, villagers now have access to an alternative economic model. By supplying facilities to visitors, including homestays and a range of activities, the CBT has functioned as a sustainable model to manage incoming tourism, as well as helped many families become the owners of small businesses. Nil Louern, a mother of four and a local resident of Banteay Chhmar, was initially hesitant about the new program. “When we first learned that GHF would be restoring the temple, we were worried that villagers would be made to leave, like in the past.” However, after successfully joining the CBT her fears have evaporated: “We are very happy that GHF is protecting the temple as well as the people of Banteay Chhmar,” efforts which have enabled her to open her home to tourists and help pay her eldest son’s university fees.

While the profits of private enterprise remain in the hands of the individual business owners, the CBT’s income from visitors to Banteay Chhmar is shared amongst all the villagers. To date, it has been invested in community initiatives such as waste collection services and cleaning of the moat, as well as gone to the opening of a local restaurant and a children’s library. A team of 15 volunteer committee members manages the allocation of these funds, as well as the training of local guides, supplementary education for CBT members (topics include English language, hygiene, and transport) and initiate community projects.

The growing tourism market has allowed for a great diversification in the occupations of the local people. Though rice – and to a lesser extent cassava – farming is still the dominant economic drive in Banteay Chhmar, the CBT now boasts a total of 70 villagers working in the project at different capacities, ranging from transport, cooking meals, serving as guides, operating ox cart rides, and entertaining guests with performances of classical Khmer music. Additionally, there are nine home-stays in the village offering 30 rooms, and current capacity ranges from 25 to 50 visitors per night.

This new strategy has reaped increasing dividends over the years. According to the Phom Penh Post, in 2012, only 671 visitors checked in to the CBT, while in 2013, visitor count increased to 882. In 2014, the CBT welcomed 1,288 visitors, and tourism income climbing from $13,977 in 2013 to $36,013. Considering that the revenue for the program in 2008 – the first year of its operation – stood at $8,800, a formerly unvisited and unknown region has increased its income from tourism by over 300% in five short years. As the CBT grows and can diversify its investments, we are confident that tourism will soon represent an important part of the local economy in Banteay Chhmar.

Conserving the Site

Though the locals now jealously maintain the ruins at Banteay Chhmar, that wasn’t always the case. One night in the early 1990s, residents near the temple complex awoke to the sound of a loud explosion, signaling the beginning of the looter’s dread craft. As the sun rose on the scene, villagers watched helplessly as the thieves carried off their irreplaceable cultural heritage. It’s one of “many looting stories,” according to Mr. Sanday. The last, and one of the worst, occurred in 1999. Of eight peerless Avalokiteshvara bas reliefs on the western gallery wall, six were stolen and nearly lost forever. Only a serendipitous encounter with the Thai police saved them. Caught at the border, the looters were forced to turn over the 117 pieces comprising the stolen reliefs, which are now safely on display in the National Museum of Cambodia.

Helplessness has now given way to empowerment. The local people of Banteay Chhmar were integral to the surveying, preservation, and reconstruction of the temple complex that had been so maimed by years of neglect, looting, and widespread inaction. With their help and under the direction of Mr. Sanday, we achieved the following successes in preserving and stabilizing numerous monumental structures:

  • SE Sector Wall conservation of bas-reliefs completed
  • Reassemble of approximately 70% of the vertical sections of Southeast Sector
  • Clearing of fallen stone from the South East Sector, all numbered and recorded in drawings
  • Emergency repairs in March 2014 following the collapse of a wall due to harsh weather
  • Emergency propping for critical sections of the temple complex
  • Removal of trees affecting structural stability
  • Stabilization and restoration of Face Tower 18N completed
  • 3D virtual reconstruction completed
  • Development of proposals for water management in the moat

We implemented each intervention with respect to the original concept of the site, its construction techniques, and its historical value. This means that the act of repairing preceded replacing, using materials that are the least invasive and most compatible with traditional values. This ensured the safety of the site, its durability, and especially its authenticity.

Conclusions and Challenges

Where once the villagers of Banteay Chhmar were dependent on subsistence farming for their livelihoods, they now have the alternatives provided by the CBT. Where once the government of Cambodia did little to protect the site, the Secretary of State for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts now states, “the Government of Cambodia is committed to the scientific conservation and sensitive development of Banteay Chhmar temples and the entire site… We look forward to the successful conservation and long-term protection of Banteay Chhmar.” Our successes at Banteay Chhmar are great. However, we cannot rest on our laurels without first examining some lasting problems and residual issues.

Tourism is not reaping all the benefits it promises. Though the growth rate for visitors to Banteay Chhmar is admirable, with close to a 70 percent increase between 2013 and 2014, those relative figures become small when compared to the absolute number of visitors: 882 in 2013, and 1,288 in 2014. They pale in comparison to Angkor Wat’s figures, which saw over two million attendees in 2011 alone. Because sustainable tourism is central to GHF’s Preservation by Design model, further work is necessary to ensure that these numbers continue to grow, and more importantly, that the local people continue to see sustainable tourism as a viable economic model.

Infrastructure around Banteay Chhmar is a large obstacle to the increased interest, and thus protection, of the site. Located in a remote province and hours from more famous and popular destinations such as Siam Reap or Angkor Wat, Banteay Chhmar is served by very poor roads and little physical infrastructure. Good roads and ease-of-access are thus the main stumbling blocks to further growth in tourism at Banteay Chhmar, and must be the next areas of concern for conservators of the site.

Looting is still a pressing issue. Although the pace of looting has declined considerably since its heyday under the Khmer Rouge, the threat remains omnipresent. According to Deutsche Welle, authors of a paper on looting in Cambodia wrote “Remnants of the trafficking networks remain in place. We were told by a receiver at the Thai border that if we wanted any piece that was currently in situ, we should go and take a picture of it and he would arrange for it to be looted and delivered to us within a month.”

Despite these challenges, we firmly believe that our work at Banteay Chhmar has laid the groundwork for a truly homegrown conservation effort, one which will see the site preserved and thriving for many long years. “People now look at Banteay Chhmar as part of their life,” Mr. Sanday notes. “It’s unreal how all these tough, young guys now turn up and work at the site, and it’s their site. They are the protectors, the monitors.”