Talks on Safeguarding Angkor

Posted on by Dermot Sheehan
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Colonial Angkor Wat

There have been a series of meetings this week, which were reported in the Phnom Penh Post . PhD candidate Georgina Lloyd recently gave a lecture in Siem Reap about safeguarding Cambodia’s intangible cultural heritage.She says “There is a complex belief structure tied to Angkor and many local inhabitants believe that guardian spirits reside in the temple today.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, however I wonder if she is aware of identical beliefs attached to almost any structure in the region, along with trees and natural features too?

The intangible cultural heritage she says, is often ignored when a site is planned, restored, excavated and presented to tourists. She must be aware of the fact that the temples were abandoned and lost to the jungle for hundreds of years. An early Portuguese account reckoned that the city was re-discovered by Cambodians who were hunting for rhinos in 1570, and by that stage they found its origin had already become cloaked in mystery and legend.

Whether we can believe this outsider’s account is up to debate, but I do feel that if the temples had not been re-discovered and excavated, there would be little to see now other than trees, undergrowth and vines. Parts of the temples may have seen continuous use as small shrines, but for the most part it was abandoned. Not many people lived around there, at least no more than in any other rural, semi-forested area. During the period when it was abandoned to the jungle, much of the complex became covered in impenetrable growth, whilst other parts were gradually buried in soil. I don’t see any intangible cultural heritage in something that is essentially nothing more than a strange looking obstacle lost in a jungle.

Perhaps it should have been preserved as a hunting ground for rhinos?

She states that “There is a perceived conflict between tourism and the activities of the local community” and that as a result, certain cultural practices have been banned. Apparently “monks have been told not to disturb the tourists by entering the temple to learn about the dharma.” What relevance a temple which is basically a tomb honoring Vishnu has to learning about the dharma I’m not clear on, but I would have thought the throngs of tourists would be sufficient to disturb the monks enough to go elsewhere.

Amazingly, she complains that no one inside Angkor Wat is allowed “to build stupas for families, conduct ordination processions or build new structures. I have seen smaller prasats in the provinces where this rule wasn’t in place, and with all due respect, I don’t want to see anything similar at Angkor.

I understand some of her concerns, I have visited functional religious sites such as Notre Dame Cathedral, and I am aware of the problems and disturbances local worshippers face from sight-seers. I have also seen Angkor Wat change from being almost deserted, other than a few guards, less than a decade ago to the incredibly busy scenes we have today. There were more cattle than people there on my first visit, should Georgina Lloyd think the place have been preserved as a ranch for local farmers? In Europe, farmers have completely obliterated hundreds of ancient ring-forts and other ancient structures over the past couple of decades alone, and one might see the same type of thing occurring here eventually.

I could deplore this huge increase in visitors as many do, but I don’t as it I see it as inevitable. The site is just too grand and marvelous to be ignored, and the country has become much more attractive in many ways, so we can only expect more visitors, both local and foreign. We can also expect a continuing influx of people from other provinces and districts to the area, and the mostly unavoidable consequences any large population rise can have on an area.

Later we heard about how the agricultural practices depicted on the temples are still in use today, something that wouldn’t surprise many residents. What did surprise me was the following comment from Dr Damien Evans. “There’s a tension because we want to preserve these practices, through legislation, but this also freezes and isolates them,” he said. I have to admit being completely lost on that last quote. Could he mean, for example, laws to enforce the use of traditional ox-carts, no modern materials allowed? Expect check points in your neighborhood anytime soon!

Dermot Sheehan

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