Posts Tagged ‘Angkor Wat’

Trip to Banteay Chhmar, Cambodia

November 18, 2012


I am on the Global Heritage Fund UK trip to Cambodia this week to see our project at Banteay Chhmar. Led by our Senior Director John Sanday, OBE. We began the trip with a visit to Angkor, including the famous Angkor Wat. An image of Angkor Wat is the center of the Cambodian flag, and as our compatriot John Pike noted, Cambodia is the only country in the world with an image of a heritage site on its flag. You could argue that the very existence of the country is based on heritage – the Khmer empires of the 9th through 14th centuries were centered at Angkor, and the sheer quantity of intricately planned and carved stone monuments here made it impossible to overlook despite its weakened state.

Group of schoolchildren at Angkor Wat. The site resonates with national identity
Likely it would have been divided up by Thailand and Vietnam, but it became a valuable buffer between French Indochina and the Thai kingdom, itself surviving without colonization due to its position between the French and English. The Khmer enemy state of Champa disappeared from the map, and while the Khmer themselves became much less relevant with the rise of sea trade in the 14th and 15th centuries, their former empire left monuments impressive enough that France made the onetime kingdom a protectorate.

A Cham ship from the battle scene at Banteay Chhmar.

In addition to Angkor Wat itself, one of the great attractions at Angkor is of course the Bayon, built by the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII in the 14th century and featuring two famous elements: First, massive face towers with the distinctly Khmer faces of Buddhas (probably) known for their artistic sense of peace and repose, sometimes called portraits of the great king Jayavarman VII himself; and a rich series of bas-reliefs depicting both battles with the Cham and scenes of daily life.


Both represent a high point in Khmer art and architecture, distinguished both by their Buddhist iconography (the earlier Angkor monuments are Hindu) and their rich layered realism. But both also exist at a site over a hundred kilometers to the northwest hard on the Thai border, where Jayavarman built a similarly massive temple called Banteay Chhmar, with over three dozen face towers and a marvelous series of bas-reliefs.

Bas-relief wall at Banteay Chhmar

The site is largely a ruin, although sections survived, and six years ago it became a flagship project for the Global Heritage Fund. We have two major projects there finishing up this year, both led by John Sanday. First is a section of bas-relief wall that has been carefully put back together. Like the bas-reliefs at the Bayon, it depicts Jayavarman VII’s battles, and it also depicts the king himself.

The relief is vertically bisected at a couple points by rivers with fish, and I felt as if I were reading an account of the battles where the Khmer met the Cham at various rivers. The reconstruction is proceeding nicely due to a new crane we received thanks to Chris Brewer. The value of the project goes beyond the reconstruction which makes this part of the ruined temple sensible. Much of the value lies in the GHF model which emphasizes community development and poverty alleviation. Almost 50 local workers have been trained as stonemasons and continue to work in teams at the site. They have new skills as well as a new appreciation for THEIR heritage.

The second project slated to be completed this year is the reconstruction of Face Tower N 18. Like the Bayon, Banteay Chhmar had face towers – shikara spires that abandoned the traditional Hindu format of the repeated and redented aedicule for four massive faces with beatific Mona Lisa smiles. While some argue whether they are Brahma (who had four heads, so, yeah) or the Buddha (since Jayavarman VII was Buddhist and heavily promoted his piety) or even the King himself (you don’t get to be a king by being modest) the point is Banteay Chhmar is one of the most significant sites for these face towers, which came late in the art and iconography of the Khmer. It even has several separate satellite temples that are face towers.

Here it is – let’s please get a close-up of the stones being put back into place

Ready to slide the stone via winch onto tower.

Moving stone onto tower. Note safety hardhats

Winching onto tower. Note safety footwear…umm, er, nevermind.

Almost in place – you can see the face at lower left

It was very exciting to see the work actually taking place, and to know that our support of heritage was supporting economic development for a rural town that previously had few options outside of agriculture. And looting. This is a key tipping point in any community with world heritage in its midst. We might appreciate it from outside, but the key – and the central mission of the Global Heritage Fund – is to conserve that heritage by empowering and enriching the local community. Then they have an investment in saving that heritage – and they are the ones who will save it in the long run.

Some of the local Khmer conservation team with John Sanday (right)

Being literally a stone’s throw from the Thai border, Banteay Chhmar was one of those sites that was looted. Another section of the bas-relief gallery that surrounds the temple is known for its unique images of the multi-armed Boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Eight of these life-size figures survived into the 1960s, but two collapsed and then four were chiseled off in the 1990s and stolen. Two were recovered and can be seen in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Two have been restored on site, and two more remain at large.

Surviving (and revered) Avalokiteshvara at Banteay Chhmar, 2012

Here is our group at Banteay Chhmar:

Everyone agreed that visiting this rambling, massive site gave a sense of wonder and discovery that was absent from crowded Angkor. The next step is to implement the Heritage Vision which GHF Founder Jeff Morgan has supported through GHF. This vision imagines how the site can be restored and activated for the benefit of the community. Skywalks will allow visitors to safely walk above and around the toppled sections of some 48 shikara towers. The surviving sections of bas-relief can be visited, along with the restored section. The moat might be restored so you can pass the asuras and devas churning the Sea of Milk with the naga. Satellite face towers can be toured, and then a community area with restaurants and shops engendered. You can spend the night in traditional homestays, as we did.

In the ruins

balustrade at moat

the restored bas-relief wall during evening music and cocktails at the site. Also crickets.

Our homestasy hosts preparing a wedding cake

virtual reconstruction of the temple complex

We had a great discussion about how much you restore: the virtue of the two projects Global Heritage Fund has completed is that they allow you to see what key elements of the temple looked like originally. Then you can imagine the rest as you clamber above and along the ruins: this is how the best interpretation works, buy giving a role to the audience. By trusting people’s imaginations and cognitive abilities, rather than spelling it all out for them. It is a point I made 6 years ago at Tustan in the Ukraine and one I made again here: give people the tools and let them do the reconstruction in their minds – it engages them in a site in a deeper and more meaningful way.

A partially collapsed gallery

entrance to the hall of dancers

The site has it all: traditional Hindu temple layout and tower design; intricate bas-reliefs describing the history of an empire that controlled over a million people when Paris was a city of 30,000; the strangler figs you see in Ta Prohm and the
majestic and evocative face towers you see in the Bayon; the entrancing images of apsaras and the Buddhist iconography of Preah Khan, all in a remote jungle site far from the pressures of mass tourism at Angkor.

The king defeats the demon
It will only be two and a half hours by road from Siem Reap near Angkor, but for now Banteay Chhmar lies over 3 hours by sometimes poor roads from the rest of the tourists in Cambodia. We met with the Community Based Tourism group that GHF set up, and they provide homestays and guide services for about 500 tourists a year. They could easily handle 10,000, still a miniscule fraction of those descending on Angkor.

Meeting with Tath Sophal and the Community Based Tourism project

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Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat

March 13, 2012


I realize of course that I am quite blessed to be able to visit Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat with the first two months of the year, two stunning experiences in the realm of historic buildings and the remnants of ancient civilizations.

These World Heritage sites of course record remarkable civilizations and deserve conservation due to their multiplicity of values, including the familiar historic and artistic values, but in many ways it is useful to consider their engineering prowess, because they are the remnants of significant civilizations.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire for some 600 years, and it was a city of a million when Paris was a city of 30,000; Angkor Wat itself, the Vaishnavite temple of Suryavarman II, is the world’s largest religious structure, covering some 500 acres, the centerpiece for a city of 1,000,000.

model of Angkor Wat at Royal Palace in Phnom Penh
While we have the monuments, we no longer have the city, sacked by the Thais in 1431 and abandoned to the jungle and local worship. What made the city possible were the massive Barays or reservoirs, the largest 6 miles by 1 mile, completely manmade and allowing the Khmers to produce three rice crops per year, a feat occasionally achieved further down the Mekong today.

baray from airplane at Angkor, 2001
Similarly, what made Machu Piccu possible was another engineering marvel, a terraced irrigation system that still operates at certain Sacred Valley sites today. Like the roads of the Romans, the canals of the Chinese and the railroads of 19th century America, it is this less glamorous infrastructure that made the monuments possible.

But what also strikes me about these sites a half world apart is their visual beauty. Machu Picchu is a ruin of course, abandoned after less than a century and destroyed before the advancing Spanish. The variously restored and ruined houses and temples are not stunning individually, but the natural setting that hosted them is impossibly beautiful.

It is a visual beauty, framed by the backdrop of Huayna Picchu, and it remains a stunning vision from quite a distance throughout its approach: there is not a single good angle to see it from but a wealth of choice spots to enjoy its vista.

Similarly, Angkor Wat was designed with incredible visual sense, the heights of the central quincunx of prasats (towers) raised to an elevation that was both a sacred Vaishnavite number (54) but also allowed them to remain visible and dominant throughout the long approach across a 600-foot moat and another thousand feet of procession through gates and past heavily decorated galleries.

2001 again
Aside from their brilliant irrigation and agricultural systems, when it came to buldings the Khmer were in horrible engineers, laying their stone without interlocking it, ignorant of the true arch and simply replicating in stone structures that originated in the completely different engineering world of wood. Their laterite interiors and heavy sandstone exteriors are thus often in collapse.

But despite this poor engineering, a far cry from the precise masonry joints of the Inka, Angkor is visually impeccable, arranged to be apprehended as impressively in the flat jungle as Machu Picchu is in the high mountain. In a tropical climate, it is an exterior architecture of towers and narrow corbelled galleries connecting them.

And the decoration is of course exquisite, especially the famous bas reliefs of the third gallery, almost 13,000 linear feet of dense battle and processional scenes at least 8 feet in height.

Put your money on the Pandavas. Kauravas don’t stand a chance
Jayavaman VII tried to top Angkor Wat a century later with the 54 towers of the Bayon, his Buddhist temple at the center of his city, but the engineering was equally suspect and the visual sense requires the original gilding to be appreciated from afar: only with the complex as you reel from the giant Buddha heads with their Mona Lisa smiles at every turn do you finally apprehend its majesty.

In heritage conservation, Angkor itself – a vast archaeological park incorporated dozens of temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries – is a great challenge. When I first saw it in 2001, there were over a million visitors a year.

Now there are likely 3 million this year and 5 million within the next five, a challenge even for stones spread across a landscape as large as several cities. Machu Picchu has similar challenges with its numbers.

This will require a renewed focus on the heart of the discipline of heritage conservation – which is the management and planning of not only physical restoration but of management and use policies. In some ways it is simpler (although not simple and not without debate) to determine how to physically conserve a monument.

The greater challenge is how to manage the new city of tourists which has emerged to provide the site with an economic use, a use that can in fact threaten the resource itself. This was the challenge that cities like Charleston, New Orleans and Santa Barbara tackled in the 1930s, providing the basis for the modern policies which allow us to preserve the past as a vital part of our present life.

2012 and the End of Linear Time

January 18, 2011

The world is quite rapidly becoming a single place with a single, albeit multifaceted and sometimes contradictory culture. Yet the culture shock is alive and well and modes of apprehending the world often remain bound in the tunnelvisions of particular cultures.

When we plan our School of the Art Institute of Chicago student study trips to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, we account for culture shock in the pacing and length of the trip, because sometimes you just gotta have a Starbucks or a Snickers bar no matter how much you desire to broaden yourself.

But what got me thinking about this is all the hoo-haa about 2012 and the end of the world in the Mayan calendar. This is a pop culture meme here in the West, but of course it is based on a thousand-year old (and largely vanished) society. And this meme is MASSIVELY misinterpreting the meaning of 2012 to the Mayans by looking at it from an entirely modern Western point of view.

Precolumbian Mesoamerican societies, like the Hinduized societies of India and Southeast Asia, had a circular view of time. You have all seen the Aztec calendar: it is a circle. If you analyze the measurements of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, you realize the building is a deliberate – and literal – attempt by Suryavarman II to communicate the fact that he was ushering in a new golden era – a kirta yuga. This golden era exists within a circular conception of time – Vishnu is the pivot between which the devas and asuras churn the sea of milk to create the world, a theme repeated through the generations of temples at Angkor. In the Shaivite tradition, Lord Shiva has a dance of death and destruction – the world ends and it begins again. Time is circular.


Now, in the West, despite a dominant mystery religion that promised destruction and rebirth (Christianity), the West went with a singular story of destruction and rebirth rather than an ongoing cycle. The stewards of that tradition in the middle ages got obsessed with measuring time and invented clocks for prayers and by the time we hit the Renaissance we had decided that time is unidirectional, linear, and (this is the big leap) progressive. By the late 18th century this areligious concept had become gospel and monks like Malthus could measure and project the future with astonishing dexterity. About 122 years ago we further decided that this carefully measured time should be consistent from place to place so we would know whether or not the trains were running on time.

Our Western conception of history and our Western conception of a progressive future are two sides of a singular worldview. Without placing judgement on the value of that linear concept of time versus circular conceptions of time, you can already see the BIG DUMB in those who think the world is ending in 2012 because they are basically looking at a round peg from a square hole: the idea that the world ends in 2012 is not the Mayan idea at all but the Western concept of linear time misapprehending the Mayan.

What does this have to do with heritage conservation? Oh, it has EVERYTHING to do with heritage conservation. Tonight I will be guest lecturing for a preservation class at UIC and I will trace the history of our concepts of conserving buildings, from the idea of bringing buildings back to a state of perfection that never existed (Prosper Merimee and James Wyatt, 18-19 century England and France),

the idea of letting buildings age in time (William Morris and John Ruskin, 19th century England),

the concept of conserving buildings as artifacts set aside from the commercial and social everyday (20th century America)

and up to the ideas we have absorbed into our field in the last 15 years – namely that each culture must define the aspects of its physical and performative culture that it values and it must further (this was the genius of the 1999 Burra Charter) define the process of how that conservation takes place within that cultural context.

What conservation is cannot be defined in one way across cultures because it is OF culture.

Heritage conservation is a brilliant field because it abjures the one-size-fits-all solution for the particularized, individualized solution. There is no alienation of the commodity because every resource is different in history and social/cultural context. You avoid the absurdity of the 2012 confusion because the context is not fixed by preconceptions but must slide with the resource. There are no categories and no categorical solutions, but rather a process that allows each problem to be self-defined and solved in a manner without strict precedent.


Life and Death Heritage

January 14, 2011


On July 23, 1986 I attended the funeral procession/cremation of Tjokorda Gde Oka Sukawati, a prince and stepbrother to the last king of Ubud in Bali. I was traveling there (long story) and stumbled across the ceremony, which featured an amazing Pelebon procession in the Balinese Hindu tradition, including a bade, an 11-tiered pagoda tower used to carry the deceased to the cemetery,

A naga banda – basically a dragon vehicle, a lembu, the coffin in the shape of a bull (nandi), a swarm of people.

Now, the funeral tradition there and elsewhere is of course solemn, but it was also touristic. My camera lens caught the tourists lining up, even joining the procession, and local vendors using the occasion to sell t-shirts and the like.

When I lectured on Bali at the Field Museum in 1987 following the trip, I included my perceptions of the tourist side of the place, bolstered by an interview I had done there with Silvio Santosa, a native who had formed the Bina Wisata Foundation to help educate tourists about proper behavior, since they had a tendency to treat the place like Cancun during Spring Break.

Candi Dasa, Bali
What strikes me today is not the intangible heritage represented by the performance of the cremation ceremony or the challenges of keeping tourists from fornicating in ancient temples but the complex interweaving of tourism and heritage sites in general.



Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2008
I have the good fortune of serving on the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, which recently released a report “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” which details not only GHF’s efforts to preserve World Heritage Sites in the developing world, but also the complex layering of tourism, economics and heritage conservation that can save – or destroy – such sites.

Angkor Wat, 3rd gallery, 2001
When I began in this field in the 1980s, heritage tourism was the latest and greatest idea: get people to come see history – built, living, or otherwise – and they will pay for the experience, generating the income sites need to survive. I saw Arthur Frommer speak about how heritage tourists avoid places that don’t preserve their history and how heritage tourists spend more than other tourists. We used lots of oversimplified multipliers in those days to calculate the economic benefits of preserving historic sites for tourism.

Tien An Men, 2009
But in the last decade we have seen the effects of too much tourism. I spoke at an ICOMOS conference on tourism in the Pacific Rim in San Francisco in 2007, and that conference was inspired in part by the overabundance of tourism and the attendant wear-and-tear on historic sites, like the great temples of Angkor in Cambodia, which survived in the jungles for centuries and even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but are now beset by tourist numbers which exceed 2 million per year and looting of the more remote sites for the international art market. When I last saw Angkor 10 years ago the number was less than half that.

Angkor Wat 2001
Many of the challenges that Global Heritage Fund addresses as it seeks to build capacity for conservation are external to the heritage tourism economy: war, looting, and even the depredations of nature and climate.

Ta Prohm, Angkor, 2001
But many of the largest challenges are the tourists themselves. Macchu Picchu in Peru has gone from 420,000 visitors in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2009. Petra in Jordan has almost tripled to 900,000 in the last decade. Yet, at the same time, heritage tourism still represents a major economic engine for the developing world. The GHF report notes the dilemma: if the sites are simply exploited, they will be destroyed and cease to draw tourists. Macchu Picchu accounts for 90 percent of Peru’s tourism revenue. Part of the problem is sustainability planning: Peru has many other valuable heritage sites, but these have not been marketed, managed or developed. Planning at Angkor in the 1990s directed development to the outskirts of the site, but lack of controls has placed much private development in more sensitive areas. Moreover, despite the incredible value in heritage sites – GHF estimates $20-30 billion for the top 500 heritage sites – only a fraction of that revenue, $400-500 million, or 2-3 percent, is spent on the sites.

Coba, Mexico, 2006
The best projects work to train local officials, planners, developers and others in sustainable management and development practices. GHF’s project in the walled city of Pingyao, Shaanxi, China, is emblematic, and I had the opportunity to visit that site in 2008.



GHF has also worked to help Lijiang in China, which I cited as a bad example in my 2007 presentation, since the city was stripped of local authentic culture after becoming a world heritage site: the city’s buildings were preserved, but it became an ersatz tourist town: local businesses replaced by tourism shops, homes replaced by hotels. I called this catastrophic tourist development, since it replaces a sustainable and diverse local economy with a dangerously unbalanced economic monoculture.


Lijiang, 2008
Our work in Weishan, Yunnan, China over the last seven years with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange is focused on just this complex intersection: Heritage tourists want an authentic experience, not a commercialized stage set, which is what Lijiang is very like. Weishan has done a great job of preserving the real, everyday businesses along the Southern Silk Road that passes through the great 1390 North Gate and the Drum Tower. You can still see locals shopping for clothes, rice noodles drying on streetside racks, birds and jellies and coffins and shoes for sale, along with some antique shops and food stalls. The final chapter on Weishan is not written, but in 2007 and 2010 it is a model of sustainable development.


Weishan, 2009

Weishan noodle shop, 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich

noodles drying, Weishan 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich
Huge challenges remain: The international tourist market that appreciates authenticity is actually dwarfed by a domestic tourist market that is happy to visit the Chinese versions of Branson: artificially constructed sites with artificial histories and happy Happy entertainment. Authenticity is a challenging concept for most tourists, something I recall even when we used to work in Ireland in the Burren, where the great portal dolmen of Poulnabrone was surrounded by little tiny dolmens, built by tourists in acts of pure vandalism, destroying the delicate limestone pavement ecosystem to build little stonehenges that would fool the next tourist into thinking they were seeing a thousands-years-old structure.

Poulnabrone, Burren, Clare, Ireland, 2002
Again, my interest today is not in the misbehaving tourist as much as the economic context: heritage tourism is a boon AND a bust for historic sites and places seeking economic uplift. Heritage conservation is a huge expense AND a huge revenue source for countries at all levels of development. Economic development is a threat AND an opportunity – if done with long-term returns in mind for historic sites worldwide. It is not (I am tempted to say NEVER) an “EITHER OR” proposition but a “BOTH AND” proposition. The advantage the heritage conservationist brings to this challenge is quite simply the long view: we are not about the quick buck or the quick fix. We want to keep BOTH historic sites AND a productive local society for as long as we can.

Cashel, Ireland, 2002

Certainty versus Reality

January 31, 2007



Aw view

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

In the 12th century, as the French began work on Notre Dame, the Khmer king Suryavarman II constructed what is still the largest religious building in the world, Angkor Wat, 500 acres of walls, walks, peaks, passages and bas-reliefs. Like so many great works of architecture, Angkor Wat was full of symbolic meaning. Its measurements, from the initial approach across a bridge over the moat to the aediculated peaks of its five shikara, were determined by Hindu cosmology, and specifically by the need to prove that the current age of Suryavarman II was a return to the golden age. The sculptural program explicitly paralleled the king’s achievements with those of the Hindu pantheon, proving his devaraja (god-king) status.

Suryavarman II came to mind, when I was reading a review of the DVD Jesus Camp, a documentary about the indoctrination of far right Christianists, contemporary devarajas who try to convince people that they are ushering in a golden age, a return to a virtuous and glorious past, a time before abortion, infidelity, terrorism, drug addiction, delinquency, perversion and impiety.

But of course there wasn’t such a time ever. Ideologues idealize heaven but they also appeal to a virtuous, mythical past. The parallel between their use of future and past is hardly accidental, because they are made of the same stuffery. As they were at Angkor, although at least we got some timeless art and architecture out of it.

“Timeless” is an instrumental word here. Ideologies and belief systems – especially extremist/fundamentalist ones – tend to be static and thus profoundly ahistorical and more ominously, antihistorical. Not only do they point toward historic periods that never happened, their static, unchanging nature denies the whole dynamic process of life and human history. “Fundamentalism” of any brand is a longing for certainty, the kind of certainty children need to feel safe: the kind of certainty that makes adults infantile and dangerous. Morality and virtue can serve as goals that motivate individuals and thus can have historical agency, but the wingnuts reassign that agency to magical forces, thus relieving the individual of responsibility, rendering her or him infantile and dangerous.

History, and real life are uncertain, contingent, and full of complexity and contradiction.