Georgina Lloyd, pictured with an Apsara dancer at Angkor Wat, says planners often overlook the “intangible cultural heritage” of Angkor Wat.
A SERIES of meetings of academics, ambassadors, and government members in Siem Reap this week focused on how to best preserve the ancient site of Angkor in the face of rising tourism and development.
On Sunday, Georgina Lloyd, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and fellow for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Siem Reap, coordinated talks on safeguarding Cambodia's intangible cultural heritage.
Lloyd gave a lecture on how intangible cultural heritage - or the knowledge, beliefs, rituals and traditional practices of a culture - are often ignored when a site is planned, restored, excavated and presented to tourists.
"There is a complex belief structure tied to Angkor and many local inhabitants believe that guardian spirits still reside in the temples today," she said. "Yet there is a complete lack of awareness of the contemporary meaning of Angkor."
Lloyd gave examples of tourists who, completely oblivious to the contemporary spiritual significance of Angkor, fail to remove their shoes and hats, and who step over Cambodians making offerings. "We know Angkor is not a dead site, so why should it be presented as the Angkor archaeological site," she asked.
The intangible cultural heritage surrounding the temples is not only often ignored by tourists but, Lloyd believes, has also been dismissed by the Cambodian government.
"There is a perceived conflict between tourism and the activities of the local community," she said.
As a result, certain cultural practices have been banned.
We don't want to lose a vital part of our culture, but others think the future of cambodia lies elsewhere.
Lloyd told the Post that she and her colleagues found that "monks have been specifically told not to disturb tourists by entering the temple to learn the dharma".
In addition, she said no one inside Angkor Wat is allowed "to build stupas for families, conduct ordination processions or build new structures".
Lloyd said several Cambodians told her they had been informed that they were "in the way of the tourists" when they burn incense at the temples.
Community practices ignored
The links between the ancient Angkorian landscape and contemporary agricultural practices are also being lost, Lloyd said, noting there were bans on growing rice and fishing in areas surrounding the temples.
"Often laws and decrees are passed that affect Angkor without paying attention to the local community," she said.
Im Sokrithy, a researcher for the Apsara authority, spoke about how the agricultural practices depicted on the walls of the Angkor temples, another aspect of intangible cultural heritage, are still carried out by Cambodians.
Activities engraved onto the temples like oxcart production, wood-carving and alcohol-brewing are still relevant today.
"There's a tension because we want to preserve these practices, through legislation, but this also freezes and isolates them," said Dr Damian Evans, director of the University of Sydney's Robert Christie Research Centre.
"We don't want to lose a vital part of our culture, but others think the future of Cambodia lies elsewhere," he said.
Meanwhile, the best ways to protect the tangible site of Angkor was discussed on Monday, at the 15th plenary session of the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding of the Historic Site of Angkor.
Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who chairs the National Apsara Authority, stressed the importance of protecting the forests and restoring the Western Baray, an historic reservoir with economic significance.
Although the revenues from tourism are extremely important, the goal of sustainable development is paramount in the minds of legislators and academics, he said.
Policy recommendations approved at the ICC plenary session included proposals to restore the Angkor Wat causeway dike, study the overfilling of the Western Baray and manage the forestry cover of Koh Ker mountain.