Cambodia's Forgotten Temples Fall Prey to Looters

The Guardian, July 28, 2008

Guards now patrol Angkor Wat but other cultural sites are being plundered daily

Angkor Wat, Cambodia -- The three freshly dug holes under the two arching palm trees measured a metre by about half a meter, and about half a meter deep.

A few fragments of what appeared to be centuries-old clay pots were scattered around the excavation site, seemingly discarded as worthless in the hunt for more valuable treasure.

"We find new holes every week," said Ndson Hun, a farmer living in the nearby village of Phoum Snay. "The demand [for artefacts] is as great as ever, so people keep digging."

No one knows the extent of the riches at Phoum Snay, an unremarkable Cambodian village about 40 miles north-west of Angkor Wat, the complex of 100 9th to 15th-century Buddhist temples seen as among the world's architectural wonders. But, unlike at Angkor Wat, there are no heritage police here, no Unesco staff, and no local authorities to guard the site.

As the latest holes testify, anyone wishing to pillage the remaining hidden riches will encounter few obstacles. Experts fear the decades-long looting for artefacts across Cambodia is now so rampant there will soon be little left outside the splendours of the Unesco world heritage site at Angkor.

"Almost all sites of antiquity and temples far from towns are being destroyed," said Michel Trenet, the undersecretary of state at Cambodia's culture and fine arts ministry. "Naturally, the priority for us is to protect the Angkor sites and then think about the others. But we don't have enough guards and people are not motivated to protect their heritage. Cambodia is becoming a cultural desert."

Phoum Snay is a classic example. On its discovery, almost three years ago, the site was thought to have been a mass grave for victims of the Khmer Rouge, the communists who ruled from 1975-79 and under whose regime some 1.7 million people were executed or died from disease and starvation.

Then, when iron-age artifacts, including weapons, jewelery, pots and trinkets, started appearing, the site was reassessed as the burial ground of an ancient army. The researchers moved in, and digging started. Thousands of items were found.

Yet little was done to secure the area and antiques traders - people mainly from neighboring Thailand, say villagers, and seeking to sell Khmer treasures abroad - now have virtual free rein.

Their success is shown by the regularity with which Khmer artifacts appear at auction around the world. At any one time, dozens of Khmer "treasures" are on offer on the eBay auction website.

Poverty and greed are considered the two main motivations behind the looting. Monks living in a temple half a mile from Phoum Snay believe the villagers are involved in the illicit digging, despite protestations by Ndson Hun and his friends.

"The villagers are doing it because they are so poor," said Moy Sau, clad in his traditional saffron-coloured robes. "They don't respect their heritage because they can't afford to turn down an offer of a few dollars for a night's work."

Chea Vannath, president of the Centre for Social Development, says that the average annual income in Cambodia is about 155 a year - much lower in rural areas. "Protecting our cultural heritage is a luxury," she said. "People are fighting to survive so they don't know better."

Moy Sau does not dare warn the authorities about the looting: "As a monk I cannot do anything because I rely on the villagers for my food."


Even if he raised the alarm, that might not ensure the artifacts' preservation since government officials and members of the security forces are also involved in the trade, widespread reports suggest.

A stone carver based a few miles away, in Phumi Rohal, who was too afraid to give his name, said some provincial government officials last month asked him to build a base for a "half Buddha" that one of their bosses had acquired.

"I was suspicious even though they had lots of letters and said it would be kept in a temple," he said. "But I did it because I'm afraid of the authorities. Us little people can do nothing against them."

With the country's legal system being so corrupt, the "dark forces", Mr Trenet says, are too powerful, even for him.

A tour of Toul Ta Puon, known as the Russian market, in the capital, Phnom Penh, proves his point, with shops packed with tall cabinets full of artifacts. Bronze-age axe heads and rings sell for less than 15. One intricately carved 11th-century, long-necked water jar was 30.

The shopkeepers appear motivated only by money and refuse to lower their prices, even for Mr Trenet, though most recognise him. "I would like to buy all [the artifacts] for the museum. But my salary is only [155] a month so what can I do?" he says.