Angkor Borei – about 70km south of Phnom Penh – is thought to be the location of one of Southeast Asia’s earliest cities. But rather than being protected and studied, looting of the remaining artefacts has become a subsistence-level cottage industry for the current residents
Showing off a vial containing specks of gold dust he had found on his own property, farmer Seak Savorn said he was proud to live in Takeo’s Angkor Borei district. “I live in a golden land where our ancestors used to live,” he said.
The specks – trace remains of those ancestors’ long lost glory – weren’t worth much, he said, but he hoped to collect more to sell for a few thousand riel.
Savorn’s land has also yielded another kind of treasure: Littered around his house at the site are remnants of ancient ceramics, and Savorn has occasionally unearthed intact clay jars and bracelets.
While most people think artefact looting typically involves chisel-bearing thieves chipping off priceless statues from remote temple ruins, the crime is a subsistence-level cottage industry at Angkor Borei.
Located at the political epicenter of the pre-Angkorian Funan Kingdom of the early centuries AD, Angkor Borei’s 2,500 years of continuous settlement makes it Cambodia’s oldest known population centre. The unearthed Brahmanic statutory and Khmer inscriptions – the oldest dated samples of a predecessor to Cambodia’s modern language – suggest it may even be the cradle of Khmer civilisation.
The bounty for relic hunters is usually low – Savorn said he only makes a few thousand riel for an Angkorian jar that could be resold for more than $100 on eBay – but the tantalising hope of unearthing a mother lode of gold keeps the residents digging and archaelogists frustrated.
“It has been inhabitated since 500 BC during the Iron Age period, at the time of the earliest human inhabitants of the lower Mekong,” said Phon Kaseka, director of archeology at the Royal Academy of Cambodia. “But the looting and destruction is still going on out there.”
While Angkor Borei had been the subject of speculation for the most of the 20th Century, it wasn’t excavated until the mid 1990s. Among the finds were evidence of large residential and ritual areas within the formerly walled 300-hectare site, including 70-metre-long brick temples.
A canal system also likely linked Angkor Borei with the port city Oc-Eo in modern Vietnam, which connected Funan to global maritime trade networks.
The only obvious sign of the area’s former greatness, however, is a small but well-maintained museum located in a derelict monastic complex.
Looked after by a caretaker, Chea Sambath, it contains inscribed steles, seventh-century stone tables on which medicine was ground, and even what Sambath said was a medallion from Rome.
Despite the valuable collection, the museum only sees about 40 visitors (mostly Europeans) in a good month. Tourism infrastructure is virtually nonexistent in the area, and few locals are aware of the site’s importance.
“It’s not developed like [Angkor], so people aren’t proud to live here like in Siem Reap,” Sambath said.
Angkor Borei did become locally known for its bonanza of valuable loot, if not its heritage, after extensive road work in 2012 unearthed ancient gold, ceramics and jewellery.
Although authorities eventually stemmed the most blatant looting after hundreds flocked to the site, the idea was planted in local property owners like Savorn to excavate their private land for antiquities.
“My neighbours found valuable stuff in 2012, and I started to discover it behind my house, too,” he said.
Cambodian antiquity and land laws deem all ancient artefacts state property, though Savorn said police turn a blind eye provided he keeps the digging on his own land.
While Sambath said most artefacts found their way to the global antiquities market via Thailand, Savorn said he had no idea who ultimately bought his wares. All he knew, he added, was that he sold the items to Khmer middlemen.
“The things that I find are not really valuable, only tiny bits of gold, and jars and pots I sell cheaply for around 3,000 to 4,000 riel,” he said, adding that the most he ever made was 50,000 riel ($12.50) from a gold piece.
While he said artefact digging was common among his neighbours, the finds were rarely enough to leave much of an economic impact.
“Even though people in this village can all get old stuff to sell, their families’ conditions don’t really change because they need the money to buy food,” he said.
Back at the museum, Sambath said a few diggers had made small fortunes from gold artefacts pulled from the ground. One family reportedly fled to Siem Reap after unearthing a golden belt, and at least three others in the area netted tens of thousands of dollars in gold only to go bust after mishandling their newfound wealth.
“Now they are poor again and have nothing to live on as a result,” he said, adding that he thought their misfortune was due to bad karma associated with artefact looting.
“Most people here believe from their ancestors that if the stuff doesn’t belong to you, it might be bad karma to take it.”
Sambath said he tried to combat the loss of heritage by offering money in exchange for artefacts (funding comes from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who was born nearby). While the scheme has proved successful for ceramics and statues, which are often bulky and difficult to sell without contacts, nobody has come forward with gold.
“We never get gold from people to keep in the museum, because they know how to sell it or can run away with it to somewhere else,” he said.
The lack of respect for the artefacts, said Sambath, was partially due to Angkor Borei’s low public profile. Public awareness campaigns and tourism development could encourage preservation, he added.
“If there is more development and more tourists, people will be proud to live here,” he said.
Savorn, who expressed pride in Angkor Borei’s cultural heritage, said he was somewhat conflicted about his alternative source of income. While he said he ceased digging on public property after learning of the area’s significance, he admitted that he found his own property’s loot too tempting to resist.
But he hasn’t sold all of his antiques – his wife, Doek Pheng, keeps a necklace comprising of ancient beads her husband dug up. While she said it could be sold for as much as $250, she refuses to part with it. “When I wear it, it brings me good luck,” she said.
As for the future of Angkor Borei, Pheng said she thought tourism development could bring the town closer to its former glory.
“I would be happy if more people came to this place and developed it to become a city as it was a long time ago,” she said.