Part of Banteay Chmar, now languishing in a Bangkok antique shop
The pillage of Cambodian temples is accelerating at an alarming rate. Tom Fawthrop
follows the trail of antiquity thefts from the jungles of north western Cambodia
to the smart antiques shops of Bangkok.
A carved stone god stands headless in the hushed jungle. Nearby, friezes depicting
the triumphs of former kings of Angkor have been crudely defaced.
Robbers have drilled away entire sections of bas-reliefs, ripping away some of the
finest carvings with their depictions of historical epics.
The plunder of the remote but important Banteay Chmar temple, where the son of King
Jayavarman V11 died, nestled in forests near the Thai border, has been extensive.
Just under half of the temple's walls have gone to antique dealers.
The thefts have been denounced by UNESCO consultant and Angkorian scholar Claude
Jacques as "one of the worst in the history of looting Cambodian temples".
Theft from Cambodia's temples is not a new phenomenon.
One of the first and most famous of the temple robbers was French writer André
Malraux who carted back to Paris nearly one ton of precious stone carvings in 1924.
But the plunder of Cambodian heritage reached a new peak late last year with the
boldest and best-organized temple robbery of all time at Banteay Chmar north of Sisophon.
The director of Angkor Conservation in Siem Reap, Ung Vorn, who recently inspected
the temple, was upset by the massive yet crude work methods.
"You can see from the damage that they just took pneumatic drills to these temples.
They stole the pieces to order, they take them across the Thai border where the dealers
are waiting and then send them on to London, Paris or New York."
UNESCO consultant Sebastian Cavalier was equally dismayed by what he found at Banteay
"You can see 12-meter long walls totally dismantled, a length of nearly 40 feet
with stones cut into two pieces," he said.
The French archaeologist estimated that in dismantled walls alone, "more than
500 square feet of bas-relief was chopped into pieces and trucked away".
Banteay Chmar's isolation has been its undoing. Whereas the Angkor Wat temple complex
has its own special police protection force, remote temples like Banteay Chmar, only
17 kms from the Thai border, have no such guardians.
And with the collapse of the KR, temples in isolated areas are being treated like
a cultural smorgasbord.
It has become much safer for art smugglers to mount major operations carting huge
pieces of stone along a little-used jungle road to the Thai frontier.
Under-Secretary for the Ministry of Culture Chuch Pouern pointed out that this international
trafficking was almost impossible to stop because "the very people who are supposed
to provide the protection - the Cambodian military - are the ones who looted
Cambodia's Bangkok embassy compiled a secret report on the looting of Banteay Chmar
temple and forwarded it to the Ministries of Defence, Interior, Culture and Foreign
The embassy's military attache Lt Vibol said two Division 7 generals So Chan Heng
and Khao were behind the looting operation.
A Ministry of Culture senior official said that they can pinpoint six occasions last
year in which the military were involved in illegal activities relating to Cambodian
A vandalized section of Banteay Chmar temple, looted by thieves
The official said in addition to looting the military had also attempted to extort
money from Angkor Conservation with the threat more temples would be pillaged unless
protection money was paid.
The provincial representative of the Culture Ministry, Haing Tin, said that both
the KR and the Cambodian army had looted the temple, but that the worst damage had
been inflicted last year when 40% of the temple walls were removed with heavy equipment
by the army.
A convoy of six trucks belonging to RCAF Division 7 removed more than 30 tons of
dismantled walls and other parts of the temple and brought their cargo to the Thai
border at San Ro Changan, north of Aranyaprathet, where it was handed over to Thai
The trail of the stolen Khmer art treasures has always led to Bangkok, long renowned
as a regional hub for smuggled goods including Burmese jade and Pailin rubies as
well as the Cambodian antiques and priceless sculptures.
But the authorities have only occasionally had successes against the smugglers.
On January 5, 1999, Thai police in Sa Kaew province, intercepted a 10-wheel lorry
laden with 85 sacks containing antique sandstone carvings, a total of 117 heavy fragments
of temple, destined for dealers in the Thai capital.
The Thai police impounded the lorry on suspicion that they were stolen antiques,
but had no idea where they came from. Thai fine arts experts had no difficulty in
identifying the pieces as Khmer carvings from the Bayon period.
It has since been established that the 117 pieces of Khmer temple, were from Banteay
Negotiations have begun for the repatriation of these Khmer artifacts now being held
in the Prachin Buri museum.
While the 117 fragments from Banteay Chmar have been recovered and removed from the
international market place, many other bas-reliefs, statue heads, and Apsara figures
have been sold in Bangkok's many antique shops to collectors from France, Germany,
Singapore and other countries. Some possibly end up in the catalogues of up-market
international auction houses.
Claude Jacques wandered into a Bangkok antique shop last December, and was shocked
to find a very familiar stone inscription from the 12th century Banteay Chmar temple.
Jacques knew the inscription only too well from his work there in 1965 and his second
visit in 1991.
The four-foot-high stone was on sale for $8000. Furious, Jacques called the Thai
police and eventually the statue was impounded.
However, this is an exceptional case of stolen antiquity law-enforcement, and definitely
not the rule in Thailand. There is no memorandum of cultural understanding between
Cambodia and Thailand, to stop Thai dealers from trafficking in stolen works of art
and sculptures from Cambodia.
The antique shops of River City, next door to the 5-star Orchid Sheraton Hotel in
Bangkok, openly offer a range of genuine Khmer artifacts purchased from Thai dealers
and smugglers in addition to a number of fakes.
Inquiries in 'Panya Antiques' established that one Khmer statue from the Baphuon
period had just been sold for 350,000 Baht (US$9,283 ) to a German collector.
Clearly Thai authorities are aware of this flourishing trade in one of Bangkok's
best-known venues for antiques.
The manager of Capital Antique Galerie, Ms Paula Sukaviriya, when questioned on the
legitimacy of dealings, readily launched into a scathing attack on "Cambodians
not loving their country."
"You foreigners do all your checking here, (in Bangkok) but you should check
in Cambodia," she said. "We Thais look after our temples and our art, but
the Cambodians don't - they sell it. Their soldiers take it out, and I buy from collectors.
But what we do is legal."
Ms Sukaviriya added that it was actually the Thai traders who were the victims in
"Cambodians are always cheating us, they sell it, then they claim their artifacts
back, then sell it again," she said. "God has punished them for all their
According to one River City dealer, the biggest alarm they ever had was not from
a Thai police crackdown, but the time when Prime Minister Hun Sen was booked into
the adjoining Orchid Sheraton Hotel.
Fearing the Cambodian leader would spot some of their Khmer pieces of dubious origin,
all the Cambodian artifacts disappeared from public view for a few days.
Meanwhile officials in Cambodia said they were concerned little progress had been
made at a high governmental level.
Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Chuch Pouern, lamented that whereas Vietnam
and Laos have signed a memorandum of understanding on cultural cooperation and protection
nothing has been signed between Cambodia and Thailand.
The issue of Thai cooperation against Bangkok dealers, temple thieves, and the repatriation
of fragments from Khmer temples was first raised in 1989. The Thai police chief responded
at that time by linking cooperation to a Cambodian crackdown on stolen cars that
cross the border and end up in Phnom Penh.
Ten years later, each time Cambodia has proposed increased cultural cooperation with
the Thai, the Thais have raised the stolen car trade.
The deputy director of the national museum, Pich Keo, is not impressed by the Thai
"It has always been very difficult to get our artifacts back," he said.
"They should not rank stolen cars on the same level as stealing a nation's heritage."
According to Thai law, both the Ministry of Commerce and a separate Customs law make
it a crime to covertly bring any merchandise into the country without proper documentation.
The vast majority of ancient Khmer works on sale in Bangkok have been smuggled in
and are therefore subject to this law. In addition, there is another law which bans
the "possession of antique materials taken from an ancient building, of which
they formed a part".
Thai tolerance of the River City trafficking in stolen Khmer antiques reflects a
serious lack of law enforcement, and the absence of watertight agreements between
Chuch Pouern argued that "we have these kind of agreements for international
narcotics suppression within the ARF (Asian Regional Forum), and we have proposed
that trafficking should not just be confined to narcotics but include. . . antiques
and other cultural artifacts," he said.
The new ambassador to Thailand, Ung Sean, will apparently carry with him a strong
mandate to establish a full memorandum of understanding with Thailand on all cultural
affairs, and in particular to push for the speedy return of the 117 pieces of Banteay
In that specific case the Thai Foreign Ministry has requested that the Cambodian
side should provide documentary proof that the stone-carvings are of Khmer origin
and secondly to furnish documentation to prove which temple they were taken from.
Given that the Thai police arrested the driver who admitted that the pieces had been
driven from the Cambodian border, Phnom Penh feels the Thai authorities are dragging
their feet over the repatriation issue.
Western governments and law-enforcement bodies have been zealous at pushing drug-suppression
agreements; yet conservationists view them as doing nothing to promote international
police cooperation and law-enforcement to protect the national patrimony and heritage
of the developing world.