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Experts say World Heritage listing for Banteay Chmar will take years


But officials remain hopeful of winning the coveted designation from UNESCO

Banteay Meanchey Province

THE listing of Banteay Chmar temple as a UN World Heritage Site will take at least two to three years, say government officials and scholars who met at a conference on the issue in Sisophon over the weekend.

Banteay Chmar is one of Cambodia's most neglected but most spectacular temple sites. There is a concerted effort to help the site win a coveted World Heritage listing, but the process will not be easy, and there are many hurdles to overcome, officials said.

Currently, not even the preliminary submission of an application for a listing to the National Commission for UNESCO in Phnom Penh has been completed.

"We are not ready to submit the application yet," said Chuch Phoeurn, secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, who visited Banteay Chmar on Saturday with provincial governor Oung Oeun and other dignitaries and international experts.

More data still needs to be collected to establish that Banteay Chmar possesses "outstanding universal values" that make it a site of great historical and architectural distinction.

Chuch Phoeurn said Banteay Chmar will be able to meet the requirements because it is unique and its architecture differs from the famous Bayon temple in the Angkor complex.

Banteay Chmar is well known for its intricate carvings and long walls of bas-relief. Vast and ruinous, it is one of the few temples to feature the enigmatic Bayon-style giant faces with their mysterious smiles.

It was built by King Jayavarman II on the site of an old Hindu temple in the late 12th or early 13th century. In its original state, a 9-kilometre-long wall enclosed the temple, which was one of the largest Buddhist monasteries of the Angkor era.

Most of the more than 100 scholars attending the three-day Sisophon conference agreed that Banteay Chmar has the credentials to be listed, but they concurred that it is likely to be a long, slow process.

Governor Oung Oeun said: "I will be very happy if this temple can be listed as a World Heritage Site, but before we can achieve that goal a lot of work needs to be done."

Once the initial submission is made and approved, it must then go to the president of UNESCO to confirm, and then it must receive the nod from Prime Minister Hun Sen. Only then will it be submitted to UNESCO in Paris.

If Paris judges it to be a worthwhile bid, a team will be sent to Banteay Chmar to verify the submission - and if they tick it off and UNESCO approves, it will be listed. "It is a long two- to three-year process," said Chuch Phoeurn.

As well as these bureaucratic and cultural hurdles, there are major infrastructure and access problems to sort out, officials warned. The road leading to the site is in poor condition and is often washed out in the rainy season.

John Sandey, Asia Pacific field director of the Global Heritage Fund, which is helping Cambodia restore the temple, said at the conference:
"There are major deficiencies like a lack of water and electricity at the site that must receive attention. No water, no tourists." And no World Heritage listing - for the moment.

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