Photo: Wall detail, Banteay Chhmar.

Watching out for the future of Cambodia's past

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Dougald O’Reilly is an archaeologist and the founder and director of Heritage Watch, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of Southeast Asia’s cultural heritage. We chatted with Dougald by e-mail in a conversation that traversed looting, antiquities trafficking, Cambodia’s struggle to preserve its history and, well, he did mention Tomb Raider once.

What is Heritage Watch’s raison d’etre?
Heritage Watch was founded in 2003 due to the alarming rate of heritage destruction in Cambodia. This seems to have been initiated by the illegal excavation of a site called Phum Snay. The finds at Snay led others around Cambodia to look for ancient burials and a massive trade in carnelian and agate and other artefacts grew. The organisation is dedicated to slowing the trade in antiquities and the looting of archaeological sites in Cambodia, both temple sites and archaeological sites older than the Angkor Civilization.

Priceless. Photo taken in or around Watching out for the future of Cambodia's past, Angkor, Cambodia by Matt French.

Priceless. Photo: Matt French

How does looting take place today in Cambodia? It’s not just above-the-ground, is it?
Looting is still prevalent in Cambodia, even though the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA) has made good efforts to stop it. There are so many sites and not enough resources to stop impoverished locals digging ancient sites. In fact, most of the looting is sub-surface although temple sites are still targeted.

What is the most brazen looting occurrence you’re aware of?
Perhaps the most brazen incidence of looting occurred at Banteay Chhmar temple in Banteay Meanchey Province when in the mid-1990s a huge section of wall was stolen. Several metres of the wall, part of the outer enclosure of the Jayavarman VII temple, depicted a multi-armed Avalokisvara. Fortunately the truck carrying the wall was stopped at the Thai border before it left Cambodia and now rests in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Presumably laws are in place to stop looting, but what is enforcement like?
Cambodia has many laws pertaining to looting and many other laws that could be deployed to discourage looting and export (these have been collated by Heritage Watch’s Deputy Director, Terressa Davis and many international volunteers). Enforcement of the laws is another matter but recently the MoCFA and police officials arrested nine looters in Banteay Chhmar and their cases shall go before the courts soon. A sentence of several years is expected.

Don’t mess with these demons. Photo taken in or around Watching out for the future of Cambodia's past, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Don’t mess with these demons. Photo: Caroline Major

How do you manage to reach Cambodians to educate them about the value of their archaeological history?
Over the years, Heritage Watch has used many tools to get the preservation message across from local training sessions, the publication of posters, pamphlets and even a comic book (Wrath of the Phantom Army). We have also run TV and radio ads imploring locals to report looting to the MoCFA and Ministry of the Interior/Heritage Police.

How can people make a positive difference in terms of preserving the past while they are holidaying in Cambodia?
One thing many tourists do is take a souvenir from Angkor, small stones and pieces of pottery. This is quite detrimental and dangerous as if caught they will face prosecution. It is a good idea to “Take only pictures, leave only footprints”. Using local businesses too is a good idea and businesses that support the arts and culture.

If people want to buy antiques, can they do so responsibly? Or should they just seek reproductions?
It is always best to buy reproductions as even the big auction houses have, in the past, sold illegally acquired pieces. Most antiquities, even fairly recent Buddha statues, are sometimes stolen from actively used wats. Most of the stores filled with antiquities in Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore are filled with looted goods but buyers are always told it is no problem to export them. Many Western countries have stepped up their vigilance and are seizing and charging importers with antiquities trafficking.

Count your lingas. Photo taken in or around Watching out for the future of Cambodia's past, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Count your lingas. Photo: Caroline Major

What are your favourite ruins in the country?
There are many beautiful temples in Cambodia but some of the best are the least visited. I really appreciate Sambor Prei Kuk, a series of brick temples dating to the 7th century (some of Cambodia’s oldest) are nestled in the cooling forest. Other highlights are of course Banteay Chhmar and Banteay Srei in the Angkor region. Also worth a visit for the natural beauty of the area (there is a ruin there but not spectacular) is atop the Kulen mountains, where the river bottom is carved with lingas and a lovely picnic area is found beside a waterfall (part of Tomb Raider was filmed there).

Can you suggest some out-of-the-way places that travellers might want to seek out for an alternative experience to Angkor?
Although becoming more and more popular the floating villages are really worth a visit and should people go they shouldn’t miss a trip atop Phnom Krom with a wind-worn ruin on its peak overlooking the Tonle Sap lake.

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