Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’

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

The emotional logic of Authenticity

April 21, 2012

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.

The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”


No such luck. On your bike, sunshine.

Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?


It’s foreign, so how do you know if it is real?

I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.


That roof tile general is only 5.

The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.

The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.


So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.


The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.


Tiruchirapali, 1986. They explained that he was wearing sunglasses because he was a movie star running for office. Like Reagan.

And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.



Humboldt Park boathouse, 1989

Humboldt Park boathouse, 2006

My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.


Phyllis’ Musical Inn mural, painted 1987-88.

So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.


These are the traditional Bai costumes of Dali. These are not Bai children.

This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.


Took us an hour to find it – TOTALLY worth it.

It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.

Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.

When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.

The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?


Kampang Chnang, Cambodia, 2012

Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.


Sa Dec, Vietnam, 2012

Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.


What is the commodity? What is the exchange?

But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.

Genocide Tourism

March 17, 2012


There is a very traditional view of conserving historic sites that considers such sites to be honorific and edifying; noble and good. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union saved Mount Vernon to honor George Washington as the founder of the United States. Of course, they were also trying to protect his home from the depredations of “manufactories” and prevent the Civil War, but their primary stated goal was honorific.

Similarly, much of 19th century American preservation was about battlefields and founding fathers. But historic sites are also saved as warnings to posterity; as legacies or reminders of very horrible events that are the opposite of honorific: we save them because there are lessons to be learned. The Germans have a word for this kind of landmark: Mahnmal, as opposed to the more generic Denkmal or the honorific Ehrenmal. And it was in Germany 30 years ago that I first encountered genocide tourism.

The site was Dachau, a concentration camp outside Munich where Jews and other perceieved enemies of the state were incarcerated and killed. I remember the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the ovens in the crematoria and the quote from Santayana about those who do not learn the lessons of history and are thus bound to repeat it.

The infrastructure of Holocaust memorials and museums has grown considerably since 1982, and one of the intriguing sites is of course Prague, where the Nazis saved buildings as a kind of landmark to what they planned as a vanished race. The Jewish quarter and synagogue and cemetery is still a significant tourist attraction.

I recalled this because I have just done a lot of genocide tourism the last two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. In Phnom Penh a popular tourist attraction is S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a onetime school converted into prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge during their murderous 1975-79 regime.

These sites can be brutal: S-21 features skulls in cabinets, huge displays of photos of those killed, and actual shackles, torture devices and preserved cells that were crafted out of the larger classrooms Barbed wire still lines one of the buildings.





The endless rows of photos of those who were tortured and died here is of course sobering, and the remaining physical remnants evocative, although a horror of that scale and brutality is easily beyond the experience of most of the tourists. There are crude paintings depicting some of the tortures, and there are corpse photos that give some sense of it, but like all historic interpretive challenges, the most effective and lasting memory was the descriptions given by our guide.

Our guide was not shy about describing some tortures fairly explicitly eliciting a collective physical reaction from our group as he described the way they killed babies. He also demonstrated how the shackles worked and showed us the bloodstains in one room.

I teach classes and have been involved for years with the interpretation of historic sites, so this question of how to interpret and present and re-present genocide and torture and murder is an interesting one. The barbed wired and various surviving elements do an effective job at conveying a particularly horrific episode in human history, but there was something about the stream of tourists going through the site that created an unfair equivalence of use with more honorific or aesthetic tourists sites.

The Khmer Rouge ruled less than four years, but during that time murdered – often brutally – at least a quarter of the population, over 2 million persons. They began by killing intellectuals and anyone else who did not fit their radical agrarian ideal, continued by killing ordinary citizens, and finally began killing their own cadres as Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid. You see all three groups pictured here in S-21, and sometimes you see their clothes and their bones.


How do you convey genocide? Apparently, some conventions have evolved, such as the piles of clothes and the rows of photos, because there are parallels to Holocaust museums. Just as we have standard ways of interpreting battlefields or house museums or old factories, we have developed a vocabulary for describing the brutality of murdering millions.

A survivor outside sells his book about surviving the prison, and people wander through the site in much the same way they wander about the Royal Palace or the Silver Pagoda. It is a bit more somber, clearly, but it is still a tourist site full of tourists.

So is the Killing fields site, about 20Km outside of Phnom Penh. One of 388 such sites in the country. Depressions in the ground convey the killing fields themselves, while an attractive shrine designed with elements of traditional Khmer architecture provides the backdrop, its interior packed with 17 stories of skulls arranged by age group.



The vocabulary of skulls, perhaps inherited from catacombs sites, reappears, as does the vocabulary of piles of clothing of the murdered. More clothes and more bones tend to surface after rains. The repetition and quantity convey some of the horror.

Signage describes sites where killings happened, where prisoners were held, where chemicals were used to dissolve the bodies. In the fields themselves more signs describe how many bodies in what condition were found in various pits and you swear you can still see fragments of bone and cloth as you walk through the site.



It is somber, but in the sunlight it is not eerie, although even the signs can elicit that involuntary jerk of the neck and shoulders we experienced at S-21. But what struck me again was how big the site was and how many tourists were there to see it. Concessions provided food and drink for the weary.

How must it feel to be famous for genocide and to offer that as one of your city’s – or country’s – greatest “attractions”? Does it promote healing or does it prolong suffering? Certainly it responds to a market – people have heard of the Killing Fields, seen the movie, and want to see them, much as they want to see the (long gone) “murder castle” of H. H. Holmes in Chicago, thanks to the book “The Devil and the White City.” Devil and the White City tours have become a staple the last several years. Is it morbid curiosity? Sure, but what does that mean? Is it morbid curiosity to see Napoleon’s tomb, or Ho Chi Minh’s, or Lincoln’s?

“Morbid curiosity” seems to denote the desire to see a crime scene, or the rubbernecking at a highway accident. It is also something we outlawed 20 years ago, at least in terms of Native Americans. You may not look at their graves or bones, thanks to NAGPRA in 1990. But I can see the skull of St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, as I did this January in Lima, Peru. I can even see unidentified bones in Austrian churches or French catacombs:


There is clearly a difference between an Ehrenmal (place of honor) and a Mahnmal (place of warning), but what attracts tourists to each place? Do these sites promote the idea of “Never Again” as it says on the stone in front of Hitler’s birthplace, or do they simply satisfy morbid curiosity? There is certainly an element of identity at play, the identity perhaps unfortunate that Cambodia gained from this horrific history.

Perhaps it is also a calculation about what the tourist want to see. In Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon), Americans are brought to the War Remnants Museum (originally the War Atrocities Museum) where they get a good dose of our own little genocides, villages wiped out and all civilians killed.

They also bring everyone to the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex that is literally a city underground, where the Viet Cong waged their war of resistance against the Americans and South Vietnam. And our group was brought to So Do, another Viet Cong site which has been rebuilt with concrete walkways that look like wooden bridges, restored thatch headquarters and trap doors and bunkers built throughout the jungle near Sa Dec.


There was a wedding going on there, the noise of which made it hard to understand our guide, shown here with an interpreter dressed as a 1960s Viet Cong:

This is identity tourism, but it is geared toward the visitors – Americans – rather than the locals, although there were domestic tourists there as well. This somewhat relentless series of Vietnam War sites that most tourists visit is indicative of the identity politics of the tourists. The Vietnam War defined the United States in a way it did not define Vietnam. Vietnam defines itself much more by the oppression they feel from the Chinese, who invaded for a thousand years and have fought them regularly since (including a shooting war years after the Americans left). The tourism infrastructure of these Vietnam War sites is clearly driven by the American market, and in fact So Do is almost entirely a reconstruction.

The effect of all of this genocide tourism was neither numbing nor depressing. It was certainly sobering, and certainly in many moments uncomfortable, but comfort will never convey history accurately, even more pedestrian and less brutal histories. Ultimately genocide tourism is a particular brand of heritage tourism, driven in part by identity, in part by a need to warn posterity, and largely by the market for seeing, and perhaps understanding, the shared inhumanity in us all.