A conserved detail of Phnom Bakheng.
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Major Milestones Reached at Angkor

A conserved detail of Phnom Bakheng.

The eastern half of Phnom Bakheng temple within Angkor Archaeological Park has been conserved following a decade of meticulous restoration. This week, World Monuments Fund (WMF) and partners including the APSARA National Authority, the US Embassy in Cambodia, and Her Excellency Dr. Phoeurng Sackona, Cambodia’s Minister of Culture and Arts, gathered at the site to mark the completion, officially commence work on the western half of the pyramid, and celebrate 30 years since WMF’s first engagement at Angkor.

WMF’s work at Angkor began with a 1989 field mission to evaluate the damage it had suffered following 20 years of civil strife and international isolation. The team discovered that Angkor’s caretakers and many educated Cambodians had fled or died under the Khmer Rouge, leaving a capacity void for the site’s conservation. Encouraged by the Ministry of Culture, WMF developed recommendations to address fundamental preservation issues at four sites: Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, Preah Khan, and Ta Som. Thirty years later, WMF has trained and currently employs more than 100 full-time conservation technicians and specialists, most of whom live in the park’s villages and mentor younger workers.

Project leadership, supporters, and conservation staff in front of the completed eastern half of Phnom Bakheng.

“World Monuments Fund is privileged to have been able to contribute to the future of Angkor for the past three decades, thanks in particular to the generosity and support of the U.S. Department of State,” said Lisa Ackerman, Interim CEO, World Monuments Fund. “Our most meaningful accomplishment by far has been creating a conservation community of dedicated, skilled Cambodians who will steward these temples for years to come. None of our work, especially the painstaking conservation of Phnom Bakheng, would be possible without them.”

WMF visits Angkor Archaeological Park in 1991.
WMF visits Angkor Archaeological Park in 1991.

Phnom Bakheng, the state temple of the first Khmer capital constructed between the ninth and tenth centuries, survives as one of the world’s greatest architectural treasures. In 2004, World Monuments Fund began its initial engagement at the site, helping to develop a master conservation plan, carrying out emergency repairs and interventions, and improving tourism management alongside APSARA National Authority. With major support from the U.S. Department of State, WMF launched the second phase of the project in 2008: stabilizing and restoring the eastern half of Phnom Bakheng and improving water management at the site to ensure its preservation well into the future. The meticulous process involved documentation of current conditions, removing terrace stones, pinning bedrock, waterproofing the foundation with PVC membrane, cleaning the stones, and ultimately placing them back. New stones—either retrieved from the side of the hill of Phnom Bakheng or acquired from the site’s original quarry—were also inserted in areas of loss when necessary. Completion of the eastern half was achieved after ten years of work; conservation of the western half if expected to take approximately eight years.

The conserved eastern half of Phnom Bakheng.

“I am very proud that the Phnom Bakheng restoration project is the largest Ambassador’s fund project anywhere in the world,” said Michael Newbill, Charge d’Affaires, U.S. Embassy in Cambodia. “Through the 2003 MoU on cultural property between the U.S. and Cambodia (renewed in 2008, 2013 and 2018), you can see the strong record of cooperation between our governments and our commitment to bilateral cooperation on cultural heritage preservation.”

The western half of Phnom Bakheng, to be restored. A view of the conserved eastern half of Phnom Bakheng. Photo by Amine Birdouz.
The western half of Phnom Bakheng, to be restored. A view of the conserved eastern half of Phnom Bakheng. Photo by Amine Birdouz.

Angkor was once the seat of the Khmer Empire, which ruled a large portion of Southeast Asia between the ninth and fifteenth centuries A.D. Following its peak in the twelfth century, Angkor began a long decline until only Angkor Wat was still in use by the sixteenth century. The dozens of Hindu-Buddhist temple complexes and hundreds of smaller structures were swallowed by the jungle. Angkor was documented beginning in the 1850s by French archaeologists, art historians, and architects; the resulting evocative descriptions and drawings of the buildings they found in the overgrown vegetation brought these temples to international attention and were the inspiration for many over the course of the next century. Since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Angkor has been a great focal point of the rebuilding efforts in Cambodia. Today, Angkor is the main driver of tourism in Cambodia.