My First Visit to Phnom Bakheng
My experience of Phnom Bakheng, prior to visiting the site in January, was strictly from a laboratory perspective. I had looked at samples through the microscope, gathered and reviewed data from other analysts on the samples, and directed a testing program of an injection grout for use at the brick shrines. My view, in other words, was microscopic. So upon my arrival at the site with the Glenn Boornazian, WMF’s project director for Angkor, along with the WMF Cambodian architect, hydrologist, and structural engineers, I didn't know what to expect. Phnom Bakheng does not present itself to you as you drive up to it, unlike Angkor Wat or the Bayon. It sits high on a hill obscured by forest growth. We started walking up the hill towards the site and stopped on our ascent to investigate the condition of a small bridge that allows construction vehicles—including a 20-ton crane—to access the site. When I looked down the slope from the bridge I saw two very large stone lions keeping sentinel. It was the first real sense I had that I was approaching something monumental.
The work being done on Phnom Bakheng is of a grand scale due to the many issues that threaten the monument. There are stones everywhere throughout the grounds of the monument that all require a place within it. Some were dismantled from portions of the monument during various restoration campaigns in the past and some are from recent quarrying for use. When going back into the monument the stones are cut and tooled in a pattern that mimics closely what was done centuries ago and the crane reaching 60 feet above the site helps put those stones in place. There is also waterproofing being laid on the platforms beneath the surface stones. The platform for Phnom Bakheng was built into live rock so the stone placement and waterproofing has to be worked around it.
The brick shrines surrounding the main platform are also a focus of the conservation program. One shrine in particular was a pilot project for the approach of the restoration. It was jacked into place and flexible steel pins were used to keep it there, the foundation was grouted for support, and bricks were mortared into place.
While the conservation of the monument is important to current and future generations, one of the most poignant aspects to me of the work WMF is doing there is related to the social impact. There are over one hundred Cambodians managing and working the project, using skills they have had no place to use before their work with WMF, being trained to take the work and their skills further, and to apply them to their own cultural heritage.
This work and the site are certainly being appreciated by others, too, as seen by the thousands of people making the ascent and lining up to reach the top for sunset.