PRASAT Banteay Chhmar, the biggest temple in northwestern Cambodia, is three years into a long-overdue restoration.
Nhok Lo, chief of the restoration team based at the temple, says the project began in 2008, focusing on repairs to the eastern gallary and the nearly-collapsed 18th tower.
The poor condition of the structure means it needs a lot more more work just to make it safe, Nhok Lo says, adding: “The work here is quite difficult because this temple is very much ruined.”
The damage to the temple, built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries during the reign of King Jayavarman VII and believed to be dedicated to his son, stems from the ravages of nature as well as human activities, he says.
Nhok Lo, who has 15 years’ experience in this field, was hired by the Global Heritage Fund to move from Siem Reap and begin the restoration project.
Under an agreement between the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Global Heritage Fund, the work is due to be completed by next year.
There are two work sites, on the eastern gallery and at the 18th tower, one of most damaged of the temple’s 56 towers. Nhok Lo’s main task is to unearth missing stones or make new stones to replace broken ones.
“Only about 20 per cent of the work has been completed, because we’ve only just started. But I enjoy temple restoration work,” he says.
Nhok Lo says there is much more work to do because it took time to train the labourers recruited from a nearby village to recognise the correct kinds of stones to put in place, and to handle them with care to avoid more being broken.
“It’s very easy to destroy things; we just have to break them, and they’re ruined forever.”
About 40 labourers are working at both restoration sites. They earn between 330,000 and 340,000 riels a month.
The main body of the temple measures 200 metres by 250 met-res, but the entire site is four kilometres around.
“The temple will not continue to deteriorate if they pay attention to conserving it,” Nhok Lo says.
Nhok Lo never obtained a university degree before working on restoration sites but, through practical experience and the advice of experienced teachers at previous construction sites, he quickly learned the techniques required.
Banteay Chhar temple is in the Banteay Chhar commune in the Thma Puok district of Banteay Meanchey province. The temple site lies at the end of a very bumpy 63-kilometre road, so not many tourists have seen it.
Mao Sy, secretary of the Banteay Chhar CBT committee, which covers the temple, estimates that about 50 foreign tourists visit the temple every month.
He says the main obstacle is the poor condition of the road from Sisophon to the temple, because it’s very bumpy in the dry season because of big potholes and very slippery in the rainy season as result of mud.
Nhok Lo says MCFA officials are preparing documents to have the temple placed on the World Heritage list, which will ensure that the temple is properly cared for.
“Once the temple is listed with World Heritage, many construction works will be carried out here,” he says.