As governments and soldiers have been lobbing actual and rhetorical missiles at one another during the last few months, a small team of Thai and Khmer restorers has been quietly cooperating to bring back to life the 70-year-old paintings of the Bakong Temple pagoda.
The one-year project was finally completed early this month and was celebrated at a special ceremony held on the morning of Saturday May 28, attended by the team members and about 100 locals who habitually use the pagoda.
The project was run by Bangkok-based Restaurateurs sans Frontières (RSF), and was the group’s first in Cambodia.
Five Thai restorers were part of the team. Not only did they carefully re-animate the traditional depictions of the Buddha’s life represented in several tableaux on the walls inside and outside the pagoda, but they also trained Khmer artists in the techniques applied, and the results are truly breathtaking.
“When we first arrived here last year, the place was a mess; dark, dirty, and it was impossible to tell what the paintings really were,” said Christophe Ourdouillie, an artist and decorator from Marseilles, France, who assisted on the project.
“It’s interesting because there is very little notion of conservation like this in Asian culture. With Buddhism, when something dies it should be born again, so objects tend to be completely renewed rather than restored to their previous form. For this, we needed to compromise. We have restored the paintings, but also made them and the pagoda look like new again.”
There is another special aspect to this project too. According to Ourdouillie, this is one of only 30 pagodas in Cambodia that has been restored to the traditional Khmer style. Most of the restoration works that were undertaken after the Khmer Rouge period used the Indian style, with bright, flashy colours.
The colours in the paintings, and the detail imagined, are exquisite.
For the team from Thailand, the last year has been fun, and challenging.
“We missed our families and friends, and TV,” laughed team member Monthira Triapum. Other members said they’d like to come back to Cambodia again and work on restoring the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, which RSF is hoping they can start on next.
Ammart Phromrak, another addition to the Thai team, said he doesn’t fear any fallout as a result of the politicking over Cambodia’s northwestern border.
“The problem is with governments, not with people. Here, everyone worked together. We’re all the same, and we wanted the same thing.”