Thursday, July 5, 2012

Saving a Lost World in Cambodia

Saving a Lost World in Cambodia

Rising out of the trees, it fairly takes your breath away. If you add to that local myth and legend you'll find it hard to forget the experience.

It is not difficult to understand why, in the late 12th or early 13th century, Jayavarman VII - the Khmer king responsible for Angkor Wat and other temples close to Siem Reap - should want to build one of his greatest achievements in a remote area of northwest Cambodia close to the Thai border. Some suggest it was the beginnings of a grand design to enslave the then known world. If the theory's true and his plans had been carried out, it's unlikely Cambodia would be arguing over its border with Thailand, because it wouldn't exist.

Whatever, that's not the only fascinating factor in the story of Banteay Chhmar (narrow fortress), the treasure that over the centuries has fought and mostly lost its battle with the surrounding jungle. Like all lost civilizations and the myths and legends that suffuse their history, this far-flung corner of the Khmer empire is intertwined with superstitions designed to strike fear into its believers.

So let's get the spooky bit over with straight away. It's known locally as the "citadel of the cats" and legend has it that unspecified "jungle" cats scream in the night and hunt down those people foolish enough to walk on ground that had been long inhabited by feline predators. Scary stuff given that these include the likes of jungle cats, clouded leopards, Indochinese tigers which are native to Cambodia. Take away the superstition, though, and it still strikes me as a timely warning about wandering about in the jungle at night, even though it has been suggested that the wailing comes from the now feral domestic cats that have been dumped in the area.

Besieged by looters over the years, there are moves to preserve what's left of the jungle-bound jewel that is Banteay Chhmar. During the Pol Pot days the temple's site was subject to destruction and looting. Then, in 1999, closer co-operation between Thailand and Cambodia to deter looters followed the interception by Thai police of a truck carrying 117 decorated stone pieces removed from the bas-relief wall of Banteay Chhmar. The pieces were returned to Cambodia and are now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

The site comprises the main sandstone temple, other religious structures and a baray to the east of the main building, which is surrounded by a wall with four entrance ways in the middle of it, the outer faces of which contain three-tiered bas-reliefs depicting alternating military and religious scenes.

Lacking any conservation since it was built, much of Banteay Chhmar has collapsed and disintegrated, its towers and temples consumed by the jungle. There are, however, moves, particularly the Global Heritage Fund, to save and protect the temple, particularly as its door jambs carry irreplaceable inscriptions that tell of the consecration and use of the temples and often include names, historical detail and stories about the king and the state of the kingdom.

Legend has it that the face on these temples is a representation of Jayavarman, and the expression the face bears is often referred to as "the Khmer smile". Ironically, the king's architectural endeavors wiped that smile off his face when it became obvious that the vast expense of building the temples eventually drove his kingdom close to bankruptcy. In 1431 the Thai army defeated the Khmers and effectively crushed the empire.

The recent touristic invasion, though, has been less destructive with arts and crafts centers, "discovery activities" and home stays helping the local economy and giving its people a reason to care for their architectural heritage.

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