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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Conservators scoop Kbal Spean from predators

Conservators scoop Kbal Spean from predators


ANGKOR conservation authorities have successfully wrested control of the Angkorean

antiquities of Kbal Spean from district officials who were attempting to transform

the historic "River of a Thousand Lingas" site into a commercial sightseeing

attraction.

Two small parts of the 200 meters of 1000-year-old carvings at Kbal Spean. Figures have been smashed out of the granite river banks by thieves, on the left of the photo, and below, in the center.

On July 19 the Apsara Authority, entrusted with the protection and conservation of

the Angkor Wat complex, officially deputized 10 of the former soldiers who had taken

de facto control of Kbal Spean in April as Apsara conservation officers.

In exchange for new Apsara uniforms and a monthly wage of $20, the former soldiers

agreed to cease forcing visitors to pay $3 each for armed escorts around the site.

"We stepped in to avoid Kbal Spean from becoming another Phnom Kulen,"

explained Apsara Special Advisor Ashley Thompson, in reference to the nearby Phnom

Kulen sight-seeing area, which since 1998 has been run by a private company headed

by Siem Reap Deputy Governor Seang Nam.

Charging foreign visitors a hefty $20 and Cambodians 5,000 riel to visit Phnom Kulen,

Nam's company does not funnel any of the proceeds to archeological or conservation

work on the site, Thompson said.

"Apsara wanted to make sure that Kbal Spean was officially considered part of

the Angkor Wat complex," Thompson said of the lessons Apsara learned from the

Phnom Kulen debacle. "Therefore entry should be free for Cambodians; foreigners

should be able to visit using their Angkor Wat passes and a portion of entry fees

should go to conserve and protect the area."

Kbal Spean is an extension of the renowned Phnom Kulen, venerated as the spot where

in AD802 King Jayavarman II crowned himself the reincarnation of the god Vishnu and

began the Angkorean dynasty.

As on Phnom Kulen, Kbal Spean has a 200 meter stretch of river bed adorned with lingas

and representations of Hindu deities such as Rama and Shiva, painstakingly crafted

from the 11th to 13th centuries. Unlike Phnom Kulen, the sides of the river bank

are similarly adorned with extraordinarily well-preserved Hindu sculptures.

Discovered in 1968 and subject to only two years of research till Khmer Rouge activity

forced the withdrawal of French archeologists from the area in 1970, Apsara suspects

that additional, yet unknown Angkor-ean sites linked to Kbal Spean remain to be discovered

Two small parts of the 200 meters of 1000-year-old carvings at Kbal Spean. Figures have been smashed out of the granite river banks by thieves, in the center.

"According to villagers and logic, there is much more [of archeological interest]

in the mountains behind Kbal Spean," Thompson said. "We currently have

two archeologists on site to see if the site is more extensive."

Kbal Spean has not been a secret to antiquity thieves, however, and numerous crudely

gouged holes in the carved river bank offer mute testimony to the damage wrought

by the international stolen antiquities trade.

While welcoming the supervision that Apsara can now extend to the Kbal Spean site,

Thompson expresses reservations about the impact that mass tourism might have on

the remaining antiquities.

"Walking up the riverbed where the carvings are is one of the great pleasures

of visiting Kbal Spean, but it also poses a danger to the carvings," she said.

"While previously Kbal Spean used to get ten visitors a month, now it's getting

100 people every Saturday ... if controls aren't introduced [the river carvings]

will be gone in eighty years."

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