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Temple restorer carries on family trade

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Restorations in the Angkor Archaeological Park have been a life’s work for three generations of Ek Eam’s family. ANA

Temple restorer carries on family trade

Born into a family that restores ancient Khmer temples, Ek Eam uses the same artisan skills of his grandfather and father, making him the third generation of family craftsmen. Despite a meagre salary, he pours his pride and his passion into the work.

Now 62 years old, Eam was born in Kork Beng village of Kokchak commune in Siem Reap town. He was expatriated from his hometown as a teenager, during the time of the Khmer Rouge.

He recalled the terrible times: “During the time of the Pol Pot regime, I left Siem Reap. I was in Chi Kraeng district until the end of the Khmer Rouge reign, and then returned home. When I made it back to my home, I learned that I was an orphan. I had no education and worked as a farmer.”

Eam married in 1986 and had two daughters and four sons. Besides farming, he also found work as a construction worker at the Siem Reap Airport. In 1999, he found himself involved in temple restoration work.

“The first temple I was involved in restoring was the Baphuon temple, which took more than 15 years to restore,” Eam told The Post.

As he transitioned from a construction worker to a temple restorer, he felt proud to be working to preserve the architectural heritage of his Khmer ancestors, as well as to continue in the path of his grandfather Iv and his father Iv Ek.

“I am following in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. My grandfather did this job during the French colonial period, and my father was in restoration from 1960 to 1971, when war stopped him from working,” he added.

The stories of his grandfather’s temple restoration work during the French colonial period were told to him by his father. As a child, he was passionate about his father’s work, and fondly recalls watching his father preparing his tools to work on ancient temples like the Elephant Terrace, built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII.

“I followed him and watched him carving. I have memories of my father restoring a sculpture of a five-headed horse on the Elephant Terrace,” he recalled.

At that time, he was too young to learn the craft from his biological father. He gained his first knowledge of restoring temples from French specialists and has continued to sharpen his skills through many years of practical experience.

“I learned many technical skills from the French. They taught me my first chiselling techniques, and later I worked alongside foreign students who were also specialising in restoration skills.

Currently Eam is restoring Ta Nei temple, which is surrounded by forest. Each day, he loads his tools – large and small hammers, carving tools and saws – onto his motorbike and rides to the site.

“There has been no rain for more than a month. When there is rain, we stop work, although on some jobs, we erect a tent over the restoration area so that work can continue regardless of the weather,” he said.

The temple restoration expert says that while the techniques of each generation are different from the ones of the last, some things remain the same.

“We have become more advanced, and of course more experienced. This means we are often able to complete the work faster,” said Eam.

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Ek Eam uses a chisel to restore the carvings on a temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park on June 23. ANA

“When we worked at Angkor Wat, we restored from the front of the central pillars to the west, and then to the south. We began in mid-November and were finished by mid-May. We even had to move some sculptures that weighed up to five tonnes,” he added.

Despite modern technology, temple restoration work still requires manpower, especially in the compounds where heavy machinery is not allowed.

“When we restored Angkor Wat, we could use only our physical strength. The top of Angkor Wat could not be lifted with a crane, which is what we would have done if we were outside of the compound. Of course, things that are as true today as they were in my grandfather and father’s time are the importance of diligence, patience, endurance in temple restoration work,” he said.

“This is very difficult. As we work, we must carefully study the patterns of the temples. We must look at the carvings, the sculptures, everything. In short, it’s like putting a broken plate back together. One or two colonnettes at Ta Nei temple took a month and a half to chisel,” he added.

Eam had spent a lot of time restoring ancient temples. He worked on Baphuon temple for 15 years, and spent five at Ta Prohm. He also worked a full year on Banteay Chhmar, Srah Srang, Angkor Wat, and Ta Nei temples.

“While I was restoring Banteay Chhmar temple I was training younger craftsmen. They are now carrying on with the work there,” he said, proudly.

The daily income from the work is not much, but he continues doing it out of a desire to keep the temples in good order for the next generations.

“At present, there is little income. The price of goods is increasing, but our salaries remain low,” he said.

Eam has heart disease, and once in a while suffers from its symptoms. He admits that his health may be failing, but he refuses to give up on his important work.

He said that there were not many people interested in learning his skills; not even his six children, who are either students or working in tourism or construction.

“There are very few people left who know how to wield a chisel like me. Some are not interested at all, some show interest but will not accept the low salary. Me, I do it out of love and determination, so I will continue,” he said.

That being said, Eam is training some of the people working alongside him, and instructs them in the ornate patterns they are working on.

“Over the years, I have trained a lot of craftsmen. At Banteay Chhmar temple I trained 73. I provide measurements and drawings for them before they begin chiselling. By giving them detailed instructions, the work is done faster, too,” he added.

He wants the next generation to get involved with temple conservation and restoration work, so that this wonderful architecture will last for a long time, and continue to be famous around the world.

“This work might not pay much in terms of money, but we are earning abundant merit. Once restored, each temple will easily survive for another generation or two. These temples must be preserved for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond,” said Eam.

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