SAMBOR PREY KUK, KOM-PONG THOM - The crumbling brick temples and laterite walls of
this once great Cambodian city are re-emerging from their forest chains with the
help of a United Nations Food for Work Program.
The World Food Program (WFP) has been hiring poor villagers for its land clearing
project around the 7th Century ruins since 1994. Bandits and Khmer Rouge guerrillas
made the site too dangerous before then.
The villagers, who receive four kilograms of rice daily, clear shrubs and saplings
but are told to leave the ruins alone. Lush vegetation and even trees grow on the
"When we came two years ago, it was all bush... you couldn't see these things...
It's much easier to access now and you can get an overall impression of the old city,"
WFP officer Henning Scharpff said.
There are more than 100 structures clustered in and around three main complexes over
several hectares of forest. These are the remains of Isanapura, capital of the Chenla
kingdom during the early 7th Century reign in King Isanavarman.
Kompong Thom provincial and cultural ministry officials talk excitedly about conducting
new research on the site, which was last cleared and studied by French experts in
the 1940s and 1960s, and of improving road access to lure back foreign tourists.
Bruno Bruguier, an archaeologist with the prestigious Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient
(French School of the Far East - EFEO), described the ruins as "a very important
group... they are the most important for the pre-Angkor period."
David Chandler, in his A History of Cambodia, wrote: "By the seventh century
the city of Isanapura (Sambor) was already the most extensive complex of stone buildings
in Southeast Asia, built a century ahead of similar constructions in Java."
"I think there is a need to have a preservation of Sambor and to have some research,"
said Bruguier, adding that EFEO has a rich archive in Paris of its previous work
here and might return "if the security conditions are all right." Five
armed guards were considered necessary to travel in late April to view the ruins.
Chhin Sothea, First Deputy Governor of Kompong Thom, claimed that "in the past
two years it's safe. Before that there were Khmer Rouge and other bad people."
Scharpff recalled that Japanese electoral volunteer Atsuhito Nakato was shot dead
in this area about six weeks before the May 1993 elections and he reckoned the area
was still "not that safe".
Culture Ministry Under-secretary of State Michel Tranet said the government must
"give more security here because tourism cannot be made without security."
But he and provincial cultural department chief Um Sok said attempts to promote tourism
would also rely on improving access to the temples, which take one hour to reach
from Kompong Thom town.
They said security was also necessary to protect the ruins from temple thieves.
"I have informed the governor and the police force, to protect the temple from
thieves. Now we still have guards around the temple," Um Sok said amid treasures
in his Kompong Thom office, including a stone big cat from the spectacular Prasat
Tao (Lion Temple).
The single-tower temple, which is marked by its height, lions and an enormous fig
tree growing out of its flank, has been the focal point of preservation work carried
out by the Culture Ministry with the help of the Angkor Conservation office.
Tranet said they had restored parts of the two lions left at the temple's main entrance,
which was strengthened with concrete columns to support a carved lintel, while the
villagers on the WFP project last year dug away earth that was hiding the base.
Tranet said tourism, conservation and preservation plans were hampered by a chronic
lack of funds.
"We are alone without support from UNESCO and other organizations," he
said in reference to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and
foreign institutions that have been pouring funds into the Angkor temples.
Meantime, the WFP will continue to prepare the site for future tourists and help
feed the local populace with its policy of hiring 100 villagers and four supervisors
every two months.