The Rising East


Construction cranes tower above the Baphuon, which is being restored by French archaeologists.

7-nation restoration
effort reveals wonders
of Angkor Wat -- again

Siem Reap, Cambodia >> Once again, the wondrous Hindu and Buddhist temples, walled cities and imposing moats of ancient Angkor are emerging from a dark age.

Angkor reappeared from oblivion for the first time 150 years ago after the city had been abandoned and the jungle allowed to conceal it. More recently, Angkor has gradually become visible again after having been shoved out of sight by the war and civil strife that ravaged its hapless homeland.

Built by the kings of the Khmer empire from the ninth to the 14th centuries, Angkor comprises more than 100 sites spread across 60 square miles of jungled plain north of the Tonle Sap, or Great Lake, in western Cambodia.

The most fabled is the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor was sacked by the Thais in 1351 and in 1431, causing the Khmers to move their capital to Phnom Penh.

An ornamented portico high on the main tower of Angkor Wat is being reconstructed.

The jungle took over and it was not until the 1860s that explorers from France, then becoming the colonial master of Indochina, stumbled across Angkor's ruins. Reclaiming them from the lush tropical overgrowth began early in the 20th century.

Angkor began to disappear again in the 1960s. The war in Vietnam spilled over into Cambodia, then the murderous regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, an invasion by Vietnam, and civil war took Angkor off the map until the mid-1990s.

Today, Cambodians are experiencing a precarious peace after decades of intense suffering from the turmoil that took the lives of perhaps a quarter of the population and left tens of thousands maimed. Peace also has permitted the restoration of Angkor to resume.

This second emergence of Angkor is marked by scattered rows of stone blocks, bas-reliefs, and statuary, numbered like pieces of a gigantic puzzle, awaiting their turn to be put back where they belong. Cranes on the Baphuon lift pieces for workers to ease into place. Throughout the complex are scaffolds upon which workers clamber to nudge ornate stone carvings into position. A couple of towers have makeshift cloth bands wrapped around them to prevent further damage.

Scaffolding surrounds the library, center right, within the grounds of Angkor Wat, as work proceeds on the reconstruction.

Altogether, seven nations have restoration projects under way. The French are working on Baphuon while Japanese teams are renewing the library within Angkor Wat and several other sites. An Italian group is working on the moat at Angkor Wat and Australians are shoring up moats elsewhere. A German group is restoring sculptures and a Chinese team is working on another temple. The World Monuments Fund of New York is doing extensive work at two temples, Preah Khan and Ta Som. To help defray costs, each foreign visitor is charged $20 a day or $40 for three days of exploring.

Hinduism came from India to Indochina via traders in the eighth century, with the Khmer king Jayavarman II starting to build temples in 802. Suryavarman II ordered the construction of Angkor Wat about 1112.

Unlike Christian churches or Jewish temples, the Wat was not intended to be a gathering place for worshipers. Instead, only the king, high priests and perhaps a few ministers approached the tiny chapel housing the statue of Vishnu high in the main tower to pray.

A later king, Jayavarman VII, converted to Buddhism, which also originated in India; the reasons for his shift are lost in history. In 1181, he built the walled city of Angkor Thom with each of the 54 towers of the Bayon temple in the center of the city carrying Buddhist faces on four sides to watch in all directions.

In Angkor Wat, the king replaced the Hindu gods with Buddhas but left intact the other Hindu icons, notably the bas-reliefs carved in stone. Today, aging Buddhist nuns tend the shrines.

The moats of Angkor, some once populated with crocodiles to fend off enemies, evoke admiration for their hydraulic engineering as do the pools throughout the complex, often grouped in fours to symbolize wind, fire, water and earth.

These are long, wide expanses that provide splendid vistas today, the moat surrounding Angkor Wat being two football fields wide and a mile long on each side.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, a couple dozen little boys scampered in and out of the moat, skinny-dipping to escape the brutal heat. Nine centuries ago, that would have been sacrilegious. Today, Vishnu, the Preserver or Protector, might be pleased.

Richard Halloran is a former correspondent
for The New York Times in Asia and a former editorial
director of the Star-Bulletin. His column appears Sundays.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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