Anne Lemaistre, the UNESCO Representative in Cambodia, might have the best office in the city – if not the country. Set in a beautiful restored French mansion with yawning windows looking out onto the Royal Palace, the room is a grotto of bookshelves and souvenirs from her 20 years working for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). She joined them just after Angkor was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1993.
As Cambodia prepares to host the 37th session of the World Heritage Committee in Phnom Penh next week, where topics tabled for discussion include the disastrous effect the civil wars in Mali and Syria have had on ancient sites, Lemaistre is a busy woman. Poppy McPherson talked with her about the upcoming talks and the future of heritage in Cambodia – specifically that of Angkor Wat, which faces an “emergency”.
What are the most pressing items on this year’s World Heritage Committee agenda?
The most pressing issues on the agenda will be the cases of Mali and Syria. We all know about the problems in Syria, and the state of conservation of its six sites will be reviewed, knowing that Aleppo, for example, has been heavily damaged by the conflict. In Mali, we will review two sites. What is really sad is that we sent an evaluation mission last week in Mali and thought that only 11 mausoleums were destroyed but, in fact, it’s 14 out of 16 which were destroyed – destroyed beyond repair, and apparently one [the emblematic El Farouk monument in Timbuktu] has been totally erased.
Will the state of conservation of Angkor be discussed by UNESCO?
No, but probably next year. The Angkor site is due to give a report for 2014, and may be discussed then. Sites are discussed under the topic of conservation only if we see major threats or major issues.
What does that report entail, and when will it be published?
My colleagues at the World Heritage Centre in Paris request reports from all World Heritage sites which we [UNESCO] consider need to be monitored. There is a request for a report [on Angkor] for the first of February. Then these reports are read, analysed and classified and we select among these sites, the ones presenting issues which will be discussed.
This work [the analysis] will be under way from first February to June 2014 – during these four months it is intensive work for my colleagues – in fact, that was my work before – it’s night and day, with a lot of consultation.
Are there any other sites in Cambodia which you intend to inscribe with World Heritage status?
Yes, we work on it, very intensely. We work with the Ministry of Culture on the site of Sambo Prey Kuk [in Kampong Thom], which is a pre-Angkorian site, with archaeological remains in bricks of the eightth and ninth century which are absolutely, extraordinary well-conserved.
Believe me, all over the planet we do not have such a conservation of well-preserved brick-made constructions. In Europe, for example, ninth- century brick buildings have totally disappeared. One expert told me that only one or two per cent are remaining.
Angkor did not appear suddenly: it was built on the experience of the Funan, which was a very active period, and then the Chenla.
Sambo Prey Kuk is part of this pre-Angkorian period, which is extremely important, so we consider it an exceptional site.
What role could Sambo Prey Kuk play in reducing tourist concentration in Angkor?
Our plan in the future with the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and the government in general is really to get people on the road to Siem Reap to have a stop in Kampong Thom. Many tourists now come to Phnom Penh so it would be quite convenient to have now this new touristic attraction – controlled tourism spot we could say – knowing that there is an emergency to de-concentrate in Cambodia the tourist flux from Angkor and distribute them more widely over the territory.
This year marks Cambodia’s last as a member of the World Heritage Committee. What is the significance of the end of its mandate?
These four years have been very important for Cambodia because Cambodia as committee members have been quite active in studying all the other cases.
It was also for Cambodia the opportunity to promote what they have done these last 20 years here.
Angkor is a very complex site, having 110,000 inhabitants, having forests, having rivers, having temples, having paddy fields and having three million tourists per year. All this needs to work together – it’s a kind of ecosystem.
It’s not easy. You have problems every day on the site – trees falling, floods in September and October, tourists to be rescued at the last minute with a helicopter in Banteay Srei.
Are you optimistic about the future of Angkor?
Yes, no doubt. For me it’s a matter of organisation, of reorganising the tourism – that’s why we have a tourism management plan. It’s becoming an emergency, because the number of tourists is growing tremendously.
We see many lost opportunities. We do not take enough advantage of the low season. Maybe you can find tourists interested in this rainy season – it’s beautiful also.