November 29, 1991. 4:30 AM at Bangkok’s huge new Don Muang airport. Very few people about. Nor were there many vehicles on the usually traffic-jammed road as we came out here in the warm and, for me, delightfully steamy darkness—I love all this rank humidity—past high-rise condominiums and exotic shopping plazas with electric lights outlining their Corinthian columns and other post-modern excrescences. At the empty check-in counters a gentle, tall, pale young Cambodian speaking with a West Coast accent asked if I was going to Phnom Penh. I’m not at my most talkative at this unearthly hour but it became so obvious that he was longing for some human contact that I was soon won over—all ears as he poured out his story.
He had flown in from LA four or five hours ago and had been wandering around the deserted terminal buildings in a mounting nervous frenzy. When only a child he had escaped from or had somehow been got out of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and had grown up among other refugees in California (there are said to be nearly 200,000 of them there, which may seem a fairly large community until it is compared with the million or more who perished in the killing fields). Until six weeks ago—after the treaty was signed in Paris—he did not know that his father and mother were still alive; nor did they know he had survived. Now he was going to see them and the siblings born after he escaped. His hands trembled as he brought out a wad of well-thumbed photographs he had received a week ago of the family he couldn’t remember. How old was he? He didn’t know the year, let alone the month or day of his birth.
I was embarrassed—ashamed really—to have to tell him that the reason for my journey was just to visit Angkor and see the remains of ancient Khmer architecture and sculpture. I had missed my chance in the 1960s, I told him, before he was born. And I had first gone to Thailand mainly in order to see the Khmer temples near the Cambodian border there. I didn’t add that I was seizing the opportunity quickly, before Cambodia is flooded with package tours or reverts to civil war—the most likely alternatives for the future so far as I can see.
We took off finally after dawn had come up—like thunder. It really does that, here as in Burma. And it illuminated through the already rising heat haze the alarmingly perilous golf course laid out between the main runways, though there were as yet no plus-foured Thai golfers or their caddies on the greens. As we flew south-east it was easy to spot the frontier between deforested Thailand and still jungle-covered Cambodia—how long will that last? Almost as soon as we touched down at Phnom Penh’s tiny airport a huge, newly painted and brightly colored portrait of Prince Norodom Sihanouk on the terminal building pointed clearly to what it is hoped is now in store for this beautiful, langorous, and seemingly idyllic little country, a sort of tropical Ruritania. For Sihanouk is shown today exactly as he was forty years ago—a saxophone-playing, dance-band leading, film-making, water-skiing king who had charmed and apparently still charms so many Europeans.
There has been much talk recently in the Thai, Singapore, and other local press about Sihanouk’s “restoration”—about what, if anything, he has learned and/or forgotten—and also about the return of all the rich who made a quick, safe getaway and now, it is said, are looking forward like French aristocrats in 1815 to a full and proper revival of the old regime, especially of the abuses which had been here as in France “the best part of it.” What could our new young Cambodian friend make of all this? Did he even know about it? I didn’t dare ask. But while we were waiting for our visas to be issued, the police let his mother through the barrier and into our enclosure—there was a recognition scene like the happy ending of a sentimental film (“three-handkerchief” by Japanese reckoning)—tears starting in my eyes.
A short drive through paddy fields where, the driver remarked with satisfaction, land had already been sold for “development” to Thai, Singapore, or Japanese speculators. Our hearts sank. However, just outside Phnom Penh baguettes were on sale at road-side stalls—a charming legacy of the past. Or was it perhaps just part of the persistent effort now being made to win back Cambodia by the “mission civilisatrice” of the Alliance Française? The French have already, I hear, opened the largest foreign language schools in the country (although their attempt to make French the only language of the UN force has been foiled). Phnom Penh with its boulevards and neat colonial houses in walled gardens retains a distinctly French provincial appearance and, it must be admitted, charm. This and the lush vegetation with whiffs of scent from frangipani trees dropping on the pavements their delicious waxy flowers bring back Marguerite Duras’s wonderful description of such a town (probably Saigon) in Un barrage contre le Pacifique. Here too there are no buildings higher than the palm trees, apart from Buddhist temples and the five-story deluxe Cambodiana Hotel—“a legend reborn” according to their brochure—in fact a Singapore-Cambodian joint venture only recently finished, some three weeks ago we’re told, rushed up to accommodate UN organizations, representatives of multinational companies, and so on.
After Bangkok the fresh clean air of Phnom Penh is like a tonic. There is no pollution at all. Nearly all the traffic in the streets is pedaled—bicycles or bicycle-rickshaws, “cyclos” as they are called—but the small number of cars is said to have doubled at least in the past week, new and second-hand (all stolen, I was assured) from Singapore. Signs of recent hostilities are inconspicuous although soldiers in duckweed-green khaki are everywhere. The nightmarish genocide museum is approached without much in the way of indication, along a back street, and there are plans to abolish it—for religious reasons, by Buddhists, who demand that the bones and skulls be given proper funeral rites; for political reasons, by the Khmer Rouge, who want to distance themselves from Polpotists (a distinction which seems to be made only here). Some shop houses still have scarred façades and a number of damaged buildings are under restoration or at least are being given a coat of fresh paint.
Although thousands upon thousands of people have been maimed by antipersonnel mines (PMNs) I have seen very few—in fact only two, who were begging on the steps to the stupa from which Phnom Penh takes its name. Can they have been banned from the city so that prospective investors should not be deterred by reminders of a very recent past? (According to the human rights group Asia Watch this tiny country has the world’s highest percentage of physically disabled—30,000 or more in Cambodia itself and another five or six thousand in refugee camps in Thailand. Last year alone more than six thousand lost limbs from stepping on antipersonnel mines. Of course those who step on more powerful mines are never seen again—and their number is unknown.)
The Royal Palace, which used to be one of the sights of the city, has been closed to the public since Sihanouk went back to live there ten days ago. From the river esplanade—still called Karl Marx Quai—I caught a glimpse of its nineteenth-century Thai-style curling roofs beyond another giant portrait of Sihanouk. Nearby the National Museum was fortunately open. It displays in a pleasantly oldfashioned way several of the greatest masterpieces of sculpture to be seen anywhere in the world. Neither photographs nor the Khmer sculpture in the Musée Guimet in Paris quite prepared me for their impact. It is greatly to the credit of the French that they left the finest sculptures here—mostly images of the Buddha and the Hindu gods with whom the Khmer rulers identified themselves as devarajas—deified kings. The head and arms from a colossal eleventh-century Vishnu is exceptional, a major feat of bronze casting but so unphotogenic that I had never realized how overwhelmingly imposing it is. No trace of Indian ancestry survives in the strikingly Khmer-featured Harihara (a god combining Shiva and Vishnu), the subject of an amazingly elegant seventh-century statue with the lithe body and serious youthful face of an athlete concentrating mind and muscle before some unknown challenge. And there is the thirteenth-century sculpture of the Buddhist Jayavarman VII—the last powerful Khmer ruler—cross-legged, head bowed, eyes closed in profound meditation. This combination of extreme refinement and restraint, a natural nobility, can be felt in works from different periods—with no central classical moment such as art historians like to isolate—also the persistence of a distinctive physical type. Walking back to the hotel I kept seeing people with identical facial features—Hariharas in uniform and here and there a Jayavarman in saffron robes.
November 30. Early this morning we flew to Siem Reap, the small town near Angkor. Cambodian Airways, with Russian planes and Russian pilots. There are still a few old tattered notices in Cyrillic in the Phnom Penh airport. We got to the Grand Hotel d’Angkor in time for early lunch—a typewritten menu announced “Les hors d’oeuvres variés, poulet chasseur, fruits de saison (bananas).” Noticing we ate little apart from the freshly picked bananas which are delicious, the waiter asked if we would prefer Cambodian cooking for dinner—yes indeed we would. The hotel has seen better days, but not so very much better I suspect, and also much worse. Remains of kitchens, scorched walls, etc., suggest that until quite recently entire families lived in most of the bedrooms.
After lunch, a short drive past damaged buildings, a glimpse across paddy fields to the encroaching jungle, a sharp left turn and then a right turn, and there quite suddenly I had my first longed-for sight of Angkor Wat. (Angkor means simply “capital city” and Wat “a temple.”) With its five beehive-shaped towers, it was built in the first half of the twelfth century (i.e., contemporary with Santiago de Compostela and other great Romanesque cathedrals in Europe) by the Devaraja Suryavarman II as a representation of Mount Meru, the center of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, and also as a temple for Vishnu and a mausoleum for himself. Standing on a platform some nine hundred feet across on the narrower side with the center tower rising to more than two hundred feet above the ground, it is the largest temple in the world, larger than Saint Peter’s in Rome, though not so high, big enough to satisfy a megalomania outdoing that of the pharaohs. However, it looked smaller than expected from the road, I confess. But this initial twinge of disappointment soon gave way to awe and a mounting sense of exhilaration as we crossed the causeway over the great moat, now a green swamp with barely a glint of water and none of the crocodiles that originally kept an ever wakeful guard there. And not only the immensity but the complexity of its recessed forms became increasingly apparent as we walked along the stone-flagged avenue from the outer portico. Photographs flatten the whole structure and diagrams splay out its intricate network of crossings of three levels into planar rectangles. It is, significantly, too complex for a satisfactory axonometric projection.
Admiration for the way in which mass has been manipulated on the grandest scale changed, on going into the covered gallery that surrounds the lowest level, to an entirely different kind of aesthetic enjoyment. Here one is brought close up to relief carvings that cover more than half a mile of inner walling so that one has to focus on the detail illustrating incidents from the Mahabarata and the Ramayana in which Vishnu appears in different avatars. You really need to know those lengthy Indian epics by heart to follow the narrative reliefs. They are mainly battle scenes with rearing horses and plodding wary-eyed elephants but the human figures are generally more graceful than bellicose, like dancers in an unending ritual ballet.
The second level of the temple contains a long succession of reliefs of nearly life-size women—bare-breasted according to the custom of the country but very richly bejeweled with sarongs reaching down to their strangely large feet—a vast harem of devatas, the consorts of the gods, populating this evocation of a palace in paradise (another symbolic dimension of Angkor Wat). The contrast between the bulk of the structure and the delicacy of its sculpture is very striking here. But as I walked around the galleries and climbed up the precipitous staircase to the top platform I became aware that this is not simply an architecture of mass providing surfaces for sculpture, like Borobodur, the eighth-ninth century Buddhist “holy mountain” in central Java similarly constructed around a solid core. Although Angkor Wat has no “interior” in the generally accepted sense of the word, it is the creation of an acutely sensitive genius for spatial composition. The relationship between each straight gallery and the intervening space between it and the support for the next level, with jutting staircases is beautifully judged. Walking around and around and up and up one is carried along on a slow spatial flow. And despite the obsessive symmetry of the plan there is always an intriguingly varied play of light and shade in the open and partly covered areas on each level, themselves of ever-changing size and height. Undoubtedly this is one of the greatest buildings ever conceived, not just because of its prodigious size.
There have been horror stories in the press about damage done in the last few years by restorers from the Archaeological Survey of India but they seem to me to have been exaggerated. Some but not very many war scars are visible, bullet holes filled in according to generally accepted archaeological practice—i.e., with differently colored material to distinguish new work from old. The same principles have been followed in repairing weather damage, especially in the roofing of the galleries. And the great towers have been scrubbed free from damaging lichens and fungus, with the result that much of the surface now looks raw or even rather “dead.” In ancient times they would probably have been covered with a whitewash, which had a preservative effect, to simulate the snowy peaks of Mount Meru. Remembering old photographs, however, I did notice the absence of free-standing statues apart from a gigantic Vishnu decked with gaily colored red paper flags. It is still venerated. We stayed until the whole west side of the building took on a rich red glow from the setting sun.
Back at the hotel I found the staff watching on TV a film of the mobbing of Khieu Samphan—Khmer Rouge member of the present Supreme National Council—in Phnom Penh a few days ago. It was so well and professionally shot both outside and inside the house where it all took place that the incident seemed to have been “orchestrated,” as is being suggested in the Thai press. Nevertheless, it was difficult, in fact impossible, to tell what the reactions of the hotel staff were as they watched the Khmer Rouge leader “losing face,” being publicly humiliated and finally even more humiliatingly rescued by his former companion-in-arms and present antagonist, Hun Sen—installed by the Vietnamese and recently recognized by Sihanouk as “my son”! This very ambiguous performance, which might well backfire, was followed by one of the films Sihanouk made in the 1960s, a folk tale about a young prince, a costume piece with Cambodian dancing and much local color. The hotel staff showed little interest and dispersed to serve dinner.
December 1. I had heard conflicting reports about the accessibility of Banteay Srei some twenty miles from Angkor Wat where the temple dates from two centuries earlier, built not by a king but an otherwise unknown member of the highly civilized court of Jayavarman V (968–1001) and encrusted with relief sculpture of great beauty. We set off fairly early in an ex-Soviet jeep driven by a young soldier in uniform with a multipurpose red-and-white-check scarf wound around his head which he unwound to blow his nose or wipe his hands. Our military escort, an army truck filled with soldiers, led the way. We were followed by a second jeep and another army truck in which some elderly and distinguished-looking members of the association of Les amis de l’Orient de Montpellier were perilously perched. The road had huge potholes in it, probably made by missiles or exploded mines, and muddy from last night’s rain. We passed through two straggling villages of rickety huts, many small children, boys naked and girls scantily clad in rags, a few old people, many more young men carrying arms and wearing traditional peasant dress which is also the uniform of the Khmer Rouge rank and file. It took us over two hours to bump, jolt, and slither twenty miles or more—but I have spent as long covering a tenth of the distance during Bangkok’s rush hours.
Banteay Srei would be worth a longer and harder journey. It is one of the most beautiful temples I have ever seen, remarkably small—tiny in comparison with Angkor Wat—three shrines for Hindu gods in a walled enclosure, all built of an attractive pink sandstone, and very richly ornamented. Reliefs are crisply carved, with the exquisite precision of work in ivory, and clothed without masking the structure—male guardian figures in tight clinging sarongs materialize in either side of doorways, pediments illustrating episodes from the Ramayana (the monkey king being very engaging) and a great deal of jungly foliage curling up and around as if scorched by the sun, perfectly related to the natural surroundings.
Strange to think that until inscriptions were deciphered Banteay Srei was misdated by four hundred years. It is earlier than Angkor Wat and not, as was thought, an oversophisticated and decadent derivative. It was the last major Khmer monument to be discovered by the French—in 1917—and was still no more than a heap of masonry when André Malraux tried to steal a relief. (His early novel La voie royale has a vivid description of it all.) French archaeologists completely reconstructed the temple by anastylosis—a word I have only recently come across—the technical term for the process of rebuilding a monument according to its original tectonic system with its original materials, using new blocks of stone clearly indicated as such only where necessary for support. But buildings put together in the Khmer way without mortar can also be taken apart and robbers have recently grabbed several architectural elements from one of the towers. Old photographs show, I think, more free-standing monkey-headed figures squatting around the main shrine than are there today. And of those that remain one has clearly had its head sawn off quite recently.
On the way back to Siem Reap we went to Preah Khan, a large temple cleared of undergrowth and overgrowth by the French before the 1970s but now being reclaimed by the jungle—fissures in the masonry are being widened by the terrible roots of the ficus which the first visitors to the Angkor region mistook in the green light for giant snakes. How can all this wonderful pullulating jumble of natural and man-made beauty be saved? What is to be done? To preserve the buildings the myriad ramifying, rampaging plants simply must be eradicated—a hurricane can blow down a ficus, tumbling down with it the masonry in which its roots are so picturesquely imbedded. But I dread the thought of too much tidying up and pray that Angkor may be saved from the bedding out of hybrid Cannas and Tagetes, the American flowers so much favored by guardians of historic monuments throughout southern Asia—innocuous of course but simply hideous and quite inappropriate.
In odd moments I have been reading Voyage dans les royaumes de Siam, de Camboge et de Laos (1860) by the French explorer Henri Mouhot. I didn’t know that Angkor was in Siam when he found it or that he was sent out not by the French but by the Royal Geographical Society in London! His response to Khmer art was surprising at that date: he thought Angkor Wat equal to the greatest Christian cathedrals and as grandiose as any ancient Greek or Roman building. Contemporary comments on Indian temples are very different—totally uncomprehending for the most part. Why did Khmer art appeal so strongly to Westerners, from the moment, apparently, that Mouhot’s descriptions and drawings were first published? Partly perhaps for negative reasons. Few multi-armed deities were found, though there must have been many originally, presumably destroyed later when Cambodia was converted from Hindu cults to Theravada Buddhism, the main religion of the country from the fourteenth century to the present day. Above all, there is no overt eroticism, none of the embarrassing copulating couples on Indian temples. The devatas stand demurely and the dancing apsarases (angels of the Hindu and Buddhist paradises) have an appropriately intangible air.
But of course much of the fascination came and still comes simply from the idea of such vast ruins lost in the jungle. This is a good deal more of an exaggeration than I realized. Most of the surrounding landscape is and must always have been cultivated for rice. Angkor Wat itself can never have been overgrown—it is far too high—and jungly growth is thickest around the temples of Hindu gods which had perhaps been shunned by peasants for superstitious reasons. The jungle, alas, has now lost much of its former exotic character, for wildlife has almost vanished today. Not a monkey to be seen. They are said to have all been killed for food during the last few years. There are occasionally clouds of fluttering, shimmering butterflies of fantastic colors and markings, rich and wonderful, and I have heard the hoop-hoop-hoop of distant woodpeckers and seen a flight of parakeets, but otherwise no birds. Have they all been shot too? The noise of cicadas is deafening under the great trees as if every New York ambulance was parked there with sirens stuck. But I have yet to encounter, oddly enough, a single one of the mosquitoes that so troubled Henri Mouhot as they zoomed around his beard—“ces petites vampires,” he called them. Nevertheless, I let down the mosquito net before going to bed.
December 2. Spent the morning at Angkor Thom—“Great Angkor”—the last of the cities built in the region and the only one whose plan and extent can still be discerned, despite the dense jungle both inside and out: a square two miles across surrounded by a wall and wide moat. It was founded by Jayavarman VII, self-appointed leader of a Buddhist cult, who had defeated Cham invaders from South Vietnam, put down internal rebellions, and, after his coronation in 1181, set about a totalitarian transformation of his realm, including one of the most extensive building programs ever undertaken—cities, temples, hospitals, bridges, and roads with rest houses spaced along them, mobilizing the entire population for some three decades but exhausting the work force, draining the treasury, and leaving the country prey to invading Thais who eventually sacked Angkor Thom.
The bridge crossing the moat is lined with stumpy giant statues of gods and demons tugging on a huge serpent as they churn the primal ocean of milk to extract the elixir of immortality (an Indian creation myth). Inside the gateway, more than high enough for the largest elephant to pass, I was reminded of other ruined cities in southern Asia where secular buildings were of impermanent materials so that only brick and stone temples survive. It is difficult to picture how these now isolated structures would have looked when surrounded by houses and shops in a bustling city. But Jayavarman’s main temple, the Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom, must always have stood out like a Gothic cathedral in a medieval town. It has three levels like Angkor Wat, but is much smaller, on a tighter and more intricate plan, with deep shady courtyards and dark galleries, and has an entirely different sculptural program focused on the builder himself. Reliefs in the gallery that runs around the base record his campaigns against the Cham and also include vivid scenes of daily life under his rule. On the top level his half-smiling face, carved on a gigantic scale and identified with the Buddhist Lokesvara, “Lord of the World,” looks out to the four cardinal points from each of the forty-nine turrets and towers. But despite all this temporal power symbolism there is a sense of the numinous in the Bayon. It has much more of a living religious atmosphere than any of the other temples and not only because incense sticks smolder before an image of the Buddha in the central shrine, tended by saffron-robed monks from a modern monastery nearby.
There are far more buildings scattered about the Angkor region than I had realized and I have been able to see only the most important—high-rising Hindu temples and single-story Buddhist monasteries covering large areas with long dank corridors connecting mossy courtyards. Of the vast reservoirs begun when Khmer rulers first settled here, water conservancy being a key to political control as in nearly all early civilizations, I have been able to catch only a glimpse. Water in moats and ponds for ablutions, now dried up or overgrown, must have been a very conspicuous element in the scene, reflecting stonework and rippling when disturbed by the kingfishers which used to be so numerous. I could sense the effect only at Neak Pean outside the walls of Angkor Thom and another operation of Jayavarman VII, the simulacrum of a lake in the Himalayas from which the four great rivers of the world flow, according to Buddhist cosmology. A walk under soaring trees to a clearing in the jungle where a small temple stands on a circular island in the center of a large tank of still water, with four other rectangular tanks extending at a lower level at each side.
A mysterious sound of music rose above the din of cicadas, a melancholy elegiac strain as of a flute solo. This exquisite air was being created by a youth seated in the undergrowth blowing on a leaf—one of the teen-aged soldiers deployed over the area to guard visitors from bandits and the monuments from visitors.
December 3. After breakfast we go to the Angkor Conservancy, the deposit of movable sculptures—a large number of them, some very recently retrieved from robbers. There are also concrete casts of heads ready to replace vulnerable originals, though such copies are also likely to be stolen, I was told. The plundering of Khmer art must have begun at least as early as the eleventh century in the wars then vexing the country, and has continued intermittently ever since. Henri Mouhot found the Thai provincial governor preparing to remove a small temple en bloc and I remember hearing of another writing to the king of Siam to say that Angkor Wat itself could be dismantled and transported to Bangkok but that it might be difficult for the Thais to reconstruct it! But robbery was usually on a smaller scale. And in the past decade it has been more extensive than ever. Even so, I suspect that many, perhaps the majority, of Khmer carvings recently on the market and sold to collectors who ask no questions about their origin, are fakes.
Back to Phnom Penh at midday, this time by jet—a half-hour’s flight. Walking near the Cambodiana Hotel in the cool of the evening I met a youth who was teaching English to boys in one of the nearby temples. He has the physique, the large head and emaciated body, which is the tell-tale effect of malnutrition in early life. All his family, all his close relations, had been killed in the 1970s when he was a child. He was sent to work on the land but returned to Phnom Penh after the Vietnamese invasion and has been housed and fed ever since by the monks in the temple where he lives with other orphans. He seemed to have no bitterness, let alone self-pity—a true Buddhist, though he doesn’t want to be a monk. Like so many young Cambodians he makes a clear distinction between Polpotists and the rest of the Khmer Rouge. And “better the Khmer Rouge than Hun Sen,” he said. This from someone whose entire family had been murdered by them! On the subject of Sihanouk his English failed him or he wished to remain silent. He is part of the vast population of orphans, one of millions who can remember nothing of pre-Pol Pot Cambodia. Theirs is the great problem of the moment, and my interest in the preservation of their ancient buildings and monuments naturally seems somewhat—well, if not exactly trivial at any rate not of any urgent concern.
Dinner at the excellent Chinese restaurant in the Cambodiana with Richard Engelhardt, an American archaeologist who is UNESCO’s chargé de mission in Phnom Penh. Thanks to his personal urging Sihanouk signed three days ago the “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage” which makes it possible for Angkor to be added to the World Heritage list and for the director general of UNESCO to launch an international appeal for its conservation. There are, Engelhardt says, some 750 ancient temples and other ancient monuments in Cambodia, 250 of them in the Angkor region. Only three trained Cambodian archaeologists survived the killing fields, only ten of the thousand members of the work force employed by the French at Angkor are still there. For training which will take time there is urgent need.
He was defensive of the Indian experts who have been directing restoration for the past five years and subjected recently to much ill-informed criticism. They have done their best despite lack of mechanical aids and other difficulties, notably that of communicating with local workmen. Their first job had been to replace stones taken down by the French in the course of restoration and abandoned when civil war broke out; some slabs lifted by makeshift pulleys fell and were shattered. The second task was to remove lichens and fungi, and in the process some surfaces may have been rather too zealously scrubbed.
These pestilential lichens and fungi flourish only in unpolluted air—a strange irony—and spread from trees and other vegetation and therefore do their worst to buildings surrounded by jungly growth—the very ones that appeal most strongly to the imagination, as the French appreciated when they decided to leave one temple (Ta Prohm) as they found it. The buildings that were cleared of trees and “anastylosed” or reconstructed by the French are still in reasonably good shape. Unfortunately they had barely begun work on the Bayon.
By far the most urgent task is, however, to reestablish the watertable beneath the buildings. Khmer structures were raised without deep foundations on platforms of laterite, the almost indestructible ferruginous substance used as a core for building throughout tropical Asia. Although no mortar was used they survived by their sheer weight, so long as the watertable beneath them remained constant, excess rainfall being immediately drained into a system of moats, canals, reservoirs, and irrigation channels. Now the outlets were blocked, or clogged with weeds including the pretty but nefarious water-hyacinth. The stability of all the buildings, especially their corbelled vaults, is threatened. To make matters worse, laterite becomes saturated in the rainy season, and when the summer heat begins this moisture is drawn up by capilliary action to the much hotter sandstone surfaces, evaporates and leaves behind damaging mineral crystals.
Theft of sculpture presents different problems. The removal of mines in the Angkor region has made the ground safe for robbers. Yet the sites most at risk are those more remote even if still surrounded by minefields, especially the vast ruined city of Banteay Chhmar near the Thai border and still completely under the control of the Khmer Rouge. The essential prerequisite for preservation is peace.
December 4. Flying back to Bangkok with delighted senses and a divided mind. It was one of the great experiences of my life to see Angkor in its present state with the jungle still invading many of the buildings, almost as it was when Mouhot first saw it, and with much more pleasing decay than harsh restoration—so the pleasure of ruins could be savored to the full. Needless to remark that there was none of the scaffolding and netting that nowadays seem to shroud part of every ancient monument one visits in Europe. And of course there were no hordes of tourists accompanied by loud-mouthed guides. But the present situation cannot last. Restoration work and the clearing of noxious overgrowth and undergrowth are essential for the survival of the buildings. Tourism gives a very quick, probably the quickest, return on capital outlay and will inevitably be encouraged to help stimulate the economy to recover and thus diminish the possibility of renewed civil war.
The political situation is even more confusing to me here in Southeast Asia than it was when reading about it in faraway Europe. But most of the people I have met fear that the return or reemergence of a prosperous class will result in strengthening the appeal of the Khmer Rouge for the majority—not of the Polpotists, of course, though Pol Pot is still alive. The current Far Eastern Economic Review reports much speculation in real estate, the Bangkok Post warns of entrepreneurs ready to exploit cheap labor in Cambodia and establish factories without any of the necessary but costly pollution control mechanisms. The unacceptable face of capitalism seems already to be smacking its lips. As we lose height I see the peaks of Bangkok’s high-rise buildings. There are streets and streets of houses and factories covering land that was still agricultural when I first came here. And now as we touch down I see golfers on one of the few green spots that remain.
April 9, 1992