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
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."