Many people remain unaware of the fact that Cambodia has not just one UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site, Angkor Archaeological Park, but actually has three properties on the list, with the other two being Sambor Prei Kuk and – our topic of discussion herein – Preah Vihear temple.
Preah Vihear temple is situated in the northern part of Cambodia in Choam Ksan district, Preah Vihear province. It is built on top of Preah Vihear Mountain in the Dangrek Mountain range at a height of 625m above sea level. The ancient temple was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List at the 32nd session of the UN agency’s World Heritage Committee on July 7, 2008.
After the inscription, the temple began undergoing a series of repairs by a team of experts who have been fixing the body of the gopura, or entrance pavilion, along with the staircase and some of the other more damaged sections, to stabilise the foundation and improve its condition.
The Post’s Lay Samean sat down with Kong Puthika, director-general of the National Authority for Preah Vihear (PVNA) for an inverview regarding the development and conservation of the Preah Vihear temple site over the past 14 years.
Now that the Temple of Preah Vihear has officially been on the World Heritage List for 14 years, how is the conservation and development work at the site going?
For development and conservation, we have done a lot at both the national and institutional levels of the Preah Vihear National Authority.
At the national level, there is the construction of the connection to National Road 62 from Kampong Thom to Preah Vihear in order to provide an easier way for visitors to access the temple as prior to 2011 there were no paved roads that went there and it was as very rough journey.
There is also another national road from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear that provides another infrastructure connection from Siem Reap through that passes through the Koh Ker temple area.
Beyond the construction of that road infrastructure, we can see the construction of a concrete road up to the top of Preah Vihear temple, which didn’t previously have any roads at all. Before that was built, in order to reach Preah Vihear you had to go on foot and cling to vines to get there, like climbing a mountain.
What has the government done in terms of preserving the temple?
The government has first and foremost protected the Kingdom’s territorial integrity, as we all know that after the Temple of Preah Vihear was inscribed on the World Heritage List, Cambodia was engaged in some limited or low-intensity armed conflict with Thailand around the site from 2008 to 2011, but under the leadership of the government this issue was resolved and we now have a peaceful border with Thailand.
The World Heritage listing requires a core conservation area, so we have created more than 20,000 hectares of protected area for the Temple of Preah Vihear and this was a key factor in the government’s success in terms of safeguarding this national heritage site.
What has the National Authority for Preah Vihear done in terms of conservation work and repairs to the structure?
In terms of conservation work, we first did a lot of work studying the layout of the temple and getting expert analysis to identify the risks to the temple structure from the first gopura to the fifth gopura.
We’re also prepared to repair any high-risk areas that may present themselves to make sure that there is no further damage or to prevent damage by sudden collapses or other kinds of catastrophic damage.
In addition, excavations have been carried out to search for the ancient waterway system that the temple had, including plans for the restoration of the system to help maintain the structure in the future.
Could you give me some more details about the ancient waterway system?
Back around the 11-12th centuries AD when the temple was built, there was at that time an ancient water system that provided for the water needs of the temple and the area inhabitants, but after many years without any use or maintenance the ancient waterways were destroyed, meaning that the water was no longer flowing through the canals and the overflow from it actually damaged the foundations of the temple over time.
So, what we have done is to study and locate all of the parts of the ancient waterway system in order to repair it and put it back into operation.
Apart from that, there is also a list of all of the many artefacts that have been found within the temple and also at the gopuras, such as lion sculptures or bas relief inscriptions and so on. We have registered all of them as they were discovered so that we can prevent them from ever being lost in the future.
What parts of the Temple of Preah Vihear are still critically damaged and what is currently being repaired?
We have repaired the Naga Balustrade and the poles at the second and third gopuras and we have repaired the poles at the fourth and fifth gopuras, and we are continuing with this work.
At the same time, the ancient western and eastern barays or reservoirs at the foot of the mountain were also restored during the initial construction period and the locations of ancient villages situated around the reservoirs were determined during that restoration.
In addition, we have repaired the north staircase of the temple starting from the fifth gopura there, with financial support of more than $400,000 from the US embassy for the preservation of cultural heritage, which was completed over the course of four years from 2018 to 2022, and seven levels of the staircase were already completed.
The National Authority for Preah Vihear’s current estimates are that it will take another six to seven years to complete all of the repair work on this staircase.
To fund the restoration work, the US has provided an additional $320,000 for repairs to be carried out from 2022 to 2024. Thus, the total budget provided by the US for this work from 2018 to 2024 is $720,000.
In addition to our American friends, conservation and restoration work on the fifth gopura is being done with help from India, who began participating in the project in 2022. According to the evaluation of the Indian experts, it will take eight years to complete this work at a cost of up to $5.5 million.
Preah Vihear temple is a source of national pride for Cambodia due to the international support that is helping us to preserve our heritage because these locations’ great historical import means that they are also the heritage of the world and of humanity.
On top of all of the conservation work, we are working on building a museum near the temple site to house all of the artefacts that have been found at the temple over the years spent repairing it and restoring it and that continue to turn up today.
You mentioned international support – have other countries besides the US and India assisted with the restoration work?
The US has been funding these projects, while countries like India – and, notably, China – have been providing the experts to do the actual work at the site.
The temple grounds are divided into five gopuras, so of those five areas the India team helped to renovate the fifth gopura. A team from China has helped to repair the first, second and third gopuras and we are now waiting for that repair work to resume because, due to Covid-19 and China’s strict Covid policies, the work has been paused for now.
As for the fourth gopura, we are looking for a partner to help with the repairs there. Because the temple is situated on the top of the mountain, that involves a lot of transportation and logistics and it is difficult because it takes a lot of time and it costs a lot.
Apart from the preservation of the Preah Vihear temple, what else does the National Authority for Preah Vihear do?
We have also contributed to the reforestation of the area around Preah Vihear temple for the past 10 years, planting 16,000 trees and distributing more than 10,000 saplings to the community to plant near schools, hospitals and in public areas to establish local green forest cover.
In addition, the Preah Vihear National Authority also participates in community building by focusing on teaching skills in agriculture, animal husbandry and vegetable growing as well as in the education sector.
Our archaeologists have also found two more temples in the Preah Vihear area and some ancient mounds and temple foundations in the area, any of which could yield important finds if fully excavated.
One of the temples is at the foot of the mountain near the baray and it is called Prasat Toch. Researchers have determined that it is actually a Jayavarman VII-era hospital built to serve the communities living in the foothills.
Thus, that means that this area was not remote or lightly inhabited. It had to be a significant population centre if there was a good hospital built there in that era.
And the team continues to prepare for an increased number of tourists visiting in the future.
Overall, how many more years will the planned repairs take?
The Chinese side needs 10 years to complete the conservation of the first, second and third gopuras while the Indian side needs another eight years to complete the fifth. That means that the work could end by 2032, aside from the fourth gopura.
But if there is another delay like the current one with Covid, then we have no idea when it will be finished – we only know that this work must continue for however long it takes to complete it.
What kind of financial resources has the government provided to that end?
Within the national framework, we have a budget provided by the government, which includes an annual budget that the government provides to the National Authority for Preah Vihear for regular maintenance of the temple and another part of the budget is for research and emergencies at the temple.
In addition to that money, the government has set up another fund, which is a share of the ticket sales revenue at Angkor, which is distributed by the Apsara authority to the Preah Vihear authority and to the culture ministry and a small part of the fund is also provided to the tourism police for their operations.