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Preserving Angkor: Interview with Ang Choulean
Director of the Department of Culture and Monuments of the Apsara Authority.

Interview October 13, 2000 at Apsara Authority office, Council of Ministers Building, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Q:  What are the present temple projects in the Angkor Archaeological Park?

AC: The restoration work sites are mainly managed by international institutions. I can cite two or three main temples. The Baphuon, restored by a French team, from the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO) is I think one of the largest work sites - it represents many years of restoration work. This is financed by the government of France. In theory, the work will end at the end of 2003, or beginning of 2004. The government of Japan is taking care of two work sites, and the Bayon they finish the work site of the northern library and now they are very busy with the northern library of Angkor Wat. But Japan also has other research work sites and this concerns mainly a private NGO team from Sophia University based in Tokyo. They are doing research and some maintenance work in Banteay Kdei temple. One work site taken care of by a team from the government of the Peopleís Republic of China is Chau Say Tevoda. The World Monuments Fund continues to provide maintenance work at Preah Khan. There are some work sites which are in interruption now. The first one is Preah Ko in the Roluos area, Preah Ko was financed by the government of Germany and I think that from next year around February or March 2001 we and the government of Germany jointly will again restore this temple. So in the past it was a German work site but in this case it will be a joint work site - Apsara Authority and the government of Germany. And a work site interrupted for economic reasons was a work site taken care of by the government of Indonesia - the former Royal Palace in Angkor Thom. The third phase was finished and as you know the situation in Asia does not allow this country to conceive a fourth phase. But we hope it can be done one day. For next year, we will have a joint work site with the World Monument Fund for the small monuments of Ta Som. I forget to tell you, in Angkor Wat we are working as a partner with Sophia University also for the western causeway to Angkor Wat. We have very few experts for this to begin with, but we significantly offer financial participation. There is a very interesting work site because its a combined research and restoration project with the German team called GACP - German Apsara Conservation Project and this concerns the sculpture of Apsaras in Angor Wat. Why Apsaras? Because this team is trying to save the stone, the part of stone which is in danger because of the degradation of stones, etc. But they cannot take care of every part of the stone of Angkor Wat so they in theory choose the spot with the Apsara sculpture. This work site is one of the most interesting because they are testing chemical products to treat the different problems of stone.

Q: Who is doing the central tower of Angkor Wat?

AC: Apsara will, we will very soon dismantle this part and reconstruct it. So now letís come to Apsara in terms of technical skill. As you know we have no great expert, not yet. This is one of the reasons, beside the financial reason, we have to call for external assistance, but in the same time we are trying to train our staff little by little in different ways possible by sending them to the work sites in Angkor and by organizing specific trainings like the one we are doing now - a five-month session. And also from time to time our young people, young experts, receive a granted scholarship to different countries like Japan for technical training, especially Japan, but also there are some to France, to United States. In terms of finance the situation of Apsara is changing compared to the one we had up to one year and a half ago. So now we have some money, we have some funding for projects - this is not enough for Angkor, you know that Angkor is a very large area, but for a small country and a poor country like Cambodia we think that we are very hopeful to have this amount of budget - one of our top priorities is training. Training our staff - training Cambodians.

Q: Has the new deal with Sokimex... are you happy with that - are you getting some more money now from the ticket concession?

AC: Yes we are getting more money and so we are conceiving more projects. For us, the people who are working directly in Apsara, the priority is reinvestment of our budget for monuments - but this is the ideal situation because we also are obliged to Ė how to say Ė to conform ourselves to the government policy also.

Q: Has the Cambodian government or Apsara been able to maintain what is required of you as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

AC: I think the situation has changed since last December 1999. Because Angkor is managed by international committee with UNESCO acting as the secretariat and so we have at least two meetings a year. The meeting which took place in December 1999 corresponded to a significant change for the situation of Apsara and on that occasion I think that the international committee with UNESCO expressed openly their satisfaction that the Cambodian government was trying to take care of its own cultural heritage - through Apsara. And after that we had another meeting last June, June 2000. And this expression of satisfaction was renewed officially and now we are trying to do more for our monuments, for our site, and when I say monuments I mean Angkor site as a living site. Not only monuments but now we are planning for next year as soon as possible for example to repair or to construct some new small roads for villages - this will be something very new but we are very seriously studying this.

Q: What about the villages here Ė what exactly is the meaning of the clause in the royal decree signed by King Sihanouk that states residential uses should be prohibited in zone 1 of Siem Reap province? (Note: zone 1 is the area encompassing the Angkor Park,  Banteay Srei, and Roluos - and affects the villages located within the boundaries of the park. The decree in question, which can be accessed via the Apsara Authority website is entitled "Royal Decree establishing Protected Cultural Zones in the Siem Reap/Angkor Region and Guidelines for their Management". The clause I refer to is Part 2, Article 17, Section b.)

AC: The decree says that there is no ownership. This is to prevent new construction. This is to preserve traditional habitat. This is to preserve traditional villages from the invasion of new construction. But this law, this decree, royal decree signed by the king in 1994 is very important for us for villages, etc., because this is at least a significant protection. Letís imagine that such a regulation does not exist. I can imagine that construction of hotel, or I donít know, of resort, modern resort, etc. would already be in zone 1. Of course any regulation in our country in the present state cannot be respected 100% percent, but this is very important, very good framework. We are encouraging Angkor to be a living site as it is. But we have to be careful to maintain or to reach a balance between the demographic - the number of population and the area of the monuments, etc. Because if we do not pay attention the risk is that one day we cannot have any control of the growth so you cannot maintain the balance between population and environment and there already are some problems.

Q: Do you know how many residents there are in zone 1?

AC: I donít know the figure. But you know that the number of population is increasing.

Q: Is that a problem?

AC: In itself it is not a real problem. But when it is combined with the fact that say fifteen years ago, even twenty years ago there were a series of large deforestations in the Angkor area - this is one of the main causes of the balance we risk to lose with the increase of population. One of the main problems is because in the situation before the war the population lived with the environment - they got resin from the trees, cut small wood for every day cooking. There was harmony because all the ecosystems is in the situation of balance. But now I think we are no more in this situation. And if we want to preserve Angkor as a living area, living site, we have to be careful to have some control in the development of the area. This is for the villages. And the increase of the number of tourists - besides the fact it brings much money, brings also problems for us.

Q: Ministry of Tourism gave me a very optimistic figure of possibly one million tourists coming to Angkor Wat by 2003. Thatís a very optimistic number. But even if the number is half that, how is that going to affect the Angkor villages? And especially their economic situation?

AC: Of course we have to do everything so that they can benefit from tourism. But even before tourism these villages did exist and they lived without tourists. But now that there are many tourists, we, the manager of Angkor, have to - because up to now we completely fail in this area. I donít hesitate to confess it to you because we are in the very beginning of the process and we are looking for different ways to reach this because we would like that our villages can benefit from tourist income. But you know how to say Ė with dignity. Children have to go to school also. Children have to be - when they have health problems they have to have access to hospital, etc. As I told you, we have up to now done nothing in this field. And before May 1999 we had no budget and now that we begin to have budget our first reflex is to rush for our monuments - but we know in the same time we have to (do something for the villages).

Q: Before tourists, the residents, they lived for centuries without a problem, but they could clear fields, they could cut down trees, they canít do that now. Theyíre not allowed to cut down trees. All many can do now is sell souvenirs.

AC: This is one of the problems. For example, we are forbidden - I think we are right to do that - to cut trees. Because for the environment.  But in the same time we have nothing to propose to them (the villagers) - in exchange for this. This is why I told you that we still fail in this. As I told you we have at least two meetings with the international committee each year. And I think from next year we should, besides discussions on the monuments, we should add to the ordinary discussion how to manage Angkor as a living site. And we have no truth for that. I observe that in some country it can work - for example I was in Luang Prabang recently. And I saw that the in fact it is possible to preserve. When I say we, Cambodia and the international community, I mean the more than 20, the 30 countries and organizations which compose the ICC, the International Committee for Coordination for Angkor we call it ICC. And we all have to try to enrich our discussion and not limit it to the safeguarding of monuments, but to the management of the site as a whole.

Q: The villages that are within the park, would they become tourist attractions or would you discourage that?

AC: The problem that we see now is that they try to have some income from tourists which is very good but not in a sustainable way for themselves because when you prefer to send your children selling things instead of going to school this is not sustainable. This is one small example and so once more I donít know the remedy, I donít know the solution, but we have to work on it not only with in the framework of ICC with the famous experts, but before all, with the villages themselves, with the small NGOs working in Siem Reap area, etc. And we are in the very beginning of the process in my department. Now we have only two people specifically appointed to study, to have the maximum data from villages, but we hope that from next year this unit, small unit, will be enlarged, will be composed of at least five sociologists.

Q: So would it be fair to say that today you recognize that there is a problem with zone 1 residents but that right now you donít know what to do - that the idea for the plan is there but you havenít formulated the plan?

AC: Yes, we have no truth for this. For the time being we, government, in this regard are thinking about a new airport, are thinking about regulations for the hotels, about improving the infrastructure, and as far as possible trying to correct some anarchy in construction and our direct concern coming back to the population is the infrastructure for religious, hospital, small hospital, school, you know health center, things like this. And yes, this is our direct concern. But we have to do this in concertation. We cannot do this alone. We have to persuade our government at the ministry to (help), if not we cannot succeed in this global policy.

Q: You are more advanced with the monuments then you are with the villages but you fully recognize the need that somethingÖ

AC: Yes. Because we have strong support from international community for monuments. Support in terms, in technical terms, in expertise but also in financial terms, but we cannot have support from them (for villages). Of course probably we can have some support, but this is the affair of Cambodia. I do not mean only us (Apsara), but all Cambodian people can try to find different solutions because this concerns our culture. I donít expect any study financed by the World Bank for this.

Q: The contents of the Angkor Conservatory Ė will tourists be able to see it?

AC: The storehouses?

Q: Yes, the storehouses.

AC: Nobody can see without special authorization. But we know that the people who are there are so poor they try to get some money by discretely opening the storehouses to some visitors. But we are not involved in this. It belongs to the Ministry of Culture.

Q: Thereís no plan to make the contents accessible to the general public?

AC: The costs would be too high, because there was a project, a vague project to a site museum for Angkor but there is no funding for that. There are more priorities.

Q: With the increase in tourism, are there going to be future plans to restrict where the tourists can go?

AC: I know that as far as there is no risk - of course I am not saying that the present day situation is the ideal situation, but I mean in our policy  we are trying to do everything to preserve physically the monuments but in the same time as far as there is any risk, no, we are not for the restrictions.

Q: Risk to the monuments or risk to the people?

AC: To the monuments.

Q: Right now you have, what, over 100,000 people a year walking on Angkor Wat. Whatís going to happen when it is 700,000 a year? Will the temple be able to handle it?

AC: Even now Angkor Wat is not yet managed as it should be. Any temple in Angkor area or in Cambodia is managed as it should be. We are very aware of this so we begin - if you go to Angkor Wat now you can see a kind of barrier, rope on the galleries so we have done it and we will do it in the near future for the Bayon, etc. But we are very well aware that if Angkor Wat belonged to a rich country it would not be managed like this. We are doing things according to our means.

Q: I was horrified when earlier this year for the first time I noticed graffiti on the walls of Angkor Wat.

AC: We know this problem. Just to know that in 1999 up to the mid-1999 there was in theory five guards for Angkor Wat and particularly two guards in Angkor Wat and now we have more than thirty, so between mid-1999 and now we have for Angkor Wat we have put more than thirty guards Ė so this is the physical protection. We will do more and more and more. This is for Angkor Wat we also work for Angkor Thom and other monuments. But as you know Angkor is a very large area.

Q: Do you have any control over Sokimex (the company that manages and profits from the Angkor ticket concession) or do you have any opinion that you can put on record about Sokimexís management of the ticket concession?

AC: We are controlling them strictly because this is very clearly specified in the contract. We have two persons from our department of tourist development who are controlling every day the number of tickets sold because each ticket sold has to have the Apsara stamp. I think up to now we have the complete control, but from the very beginning we were not at the origin of the contract.

Q: Right. I know they renegotiated it two months ago in August, I think it was.

AC: Yes. The contract began from May 1999 and we were not at the direct negotiation for this first contract. But we are controlling them, we control Sokimex according to the terms of the contract already signed but now recently we were directly involved with the renegotiation and we continue to have strong control of this.

Q: Are you pleased with the present situation then?

AC: Happier than before. (laughter) But we are ambitious to have more.

Q: Is it that you want more money, more control, or both?

AC: The control. This is a necessity -  we have to have control.

Q: In some respects the control is better Ė you donít have the guesthouses with the fake tickets anymore.

AC: There were an incredible number of fake tickets before Sokimex. But I think that after the first contract if there still were fake tickets there were much less than before. And I hope that now, Iím not sure, but I hope that now there is no more fake tickets. But I donít know.

Q: I guess that with the controls, tourists donít like having to show their tickets at every temple.

AC: It is very difficult as far as you decide that people have to pay when they enter Angkor Park. It is quite difficult to have the best way possible to avoid any problem any inconvenience.

Q: They should pay, of course.

AC: Ideally - though we cannot have this - but ideally Angkor should be free.

Q: How can it be? (laughter from AC) I think most tourists, though, if they felt as if their money was going directly to restoration of the temples theyíd be pleased.

AC: I think that the we can say very significantly, I mean compared to the previous situation very significantly money is reused for monuments.

Q: What percent, for example, if I go as a tourist, I buy a three-day ticket for $40. How much will you get?

AC: For example in the budget of next yearÖ I cannot give you an exact figure. But very directly to the temples Ė 28%. But also directly to the site in general, construction of new areas for new organization of traffic is a plan - there will be, I donít know the exact figure, but a little more than this, probably 31% or something. And significant part, I donít know the figure, I donít know the percentage, will be invested for construction of infrastructure of a new area for hotels. What we call the hotel zone. So a significant part will be invested for this. So you know I am not in government and I am rather free for this but honestly I think we are trying to have money for reinvestment.



The website of the Apsara Authority

The website of the GACP - German Apsara Conservation Project



Angkor: Past, Present, and Future - A publication of the Apsara Authority written by Ang Choulean, Eric Prenowitz, and Ashley Thompson under the supervision of Vann Molyvann. March, 1996, rev. March, 1998.





All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.