By the late nineteenth century, travellers and researchers from many countries, notably France, were arriving in Cambodia in search of its “lost” temples. The first major step towards a proper study of Angkor’s legacy was the foundation in Vietnam in 1898 of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (w; their scholars mapped the temples for the first time, and created the body now known as Angkor Conservation, based 2km north of Siem Reap, which works on the restoration of temples.

Work at Angkor was carried out throughout the first half of the twentieth century, with only a brief pause during World War II. Particularly noteworthy among the researchers of the time were Henri Marchal and Maurice Glaize, the former remembered for his restoration in the early 1930s of Banteay Srei, the latter for restoring Banteay Samre, Bakong, Neak Pean and part of Preah Khan. It was during work on Banteay Srei that the restoration technique of anastylosis began to be employed in Cambodia, involving the temporary dismantling and analysis of intact parts of structures so that ruined sections could be reassembled faithfully. In 1960, Bernard-Philippe Groslier assumed control of Angkor Conservation, taking after his father George, who had previously held the post. He was able to commence work on the Baphuon before the monuments were again abandoned during the civil war and the Khmer Rouge years.

Contrary to common belief, the temples suffered little war damage, but looting undoubtedly occurred and the fabric of the temples continued to be at risk from encroaching vegetation. Things improved little during Vietnamese occupation in the 1980s, when only Indian conservators were allowed to work here; their work at Angkor Wat, where they used chemicals to clean the stone and cement to fill gaps, has been much criticized. By 1992, however, UNESCO had declared Angkor a World Heritage Site, and conservation projects to the tune of millions of dollars were put in place, sponsored primarily by Japan.

Since the 1990s conservation of the temples has been coordinated by APSARA, an NGO that also oversees the preservation of the cultural heritage of Siem Reap province. Their task is formidable: not only is looting a problem, particularly at remote temples with jungle cover and lack of sufficient guards, but the effects of growing visitor numbers, erosion and destabilizing of some temples, is devastating. Measures taken in an attempt to preserve the ruins include: banning over-flying of the temples; limiting access (the central sanctuary of Angkor Wat); creating set visitor routes (through the terraces at Angkor Thom); and cordoning off the bas-reliefs (at Angkor Wat).

Read More

Explore Cambodia