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The Stewards of Angkor: 30 Years of Conservation

When World Monuments Fund embarked on a field mission to Angkor Archaeological Park in 1989, its objective was to evaluate the damage the iconic site had suffered after 20 years of civil strife and international isolation. The team soon 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.

Over thirty years later, WMF has trained and currently employs more than 100 full-time conservation technicians and specialists to address fundamental preservation issues at three primary sites: Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng, and Preah Khan. WMF's work at Angkor Archaeological Park has seen the transformation of the lives of countless locals, who now work as engineers, architects, conservators, archaeologists, guides, and security for the site, stewarding their heritage into the future.

Meet some of Angkor’s Cambodian engineers, project managers, and workers to discuss their personal journeys and what they hope the future holds for the iconic site. 

 


Vann Var

Project Manager, Phnom Bakheng

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What do you remember about Angkor as a child?

When I was young, I herded cows around the temples and I had no particular feelings for them. But now when I see one, I think about a lot of things—the structural issues, why parts collapsed this way, how the problems should be addressed, how the workforce should be organized.

Tell us about your early years working with WMF at Angkor.

I began working with World Monuments Fund at Angkor in 1992 when I was 17. At the time, I did it just for the money, to help my family. A few years later I left to move to Thailand, but returned in 1999 to work at Preah Khan. It was during this assignment that I experienced a certain change. I started seeing the value of each stone, the temples’ age, the quality of their materials, the beauty of their decorations. I understood then that I wanted to take care of them.

What does Angkor mean to the surrounding community?

People who live near Angkor see the economic value for sure, but they also understand the historic significance. They feel that they need to take care of these temples because they are what their ancestors left them. They see Angkor as a powerful religious place—regardless of whether a temple is Buddhist or Hindu.

 


Chiv Phirum

Project Engineer, Angkor Archaeological Park

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What was your knowledge of heritage preservation prior to joining the team at Angkor?

I didn’t know anything about heritage preservation before joining WMF. As a civil engineer, I only knew about modern construction, and at that time, university classes didn’t talk about heritage at all. But by working with my colleagues, I was able to learn, and today I’m proud to be in charge of engineering at all WMF projects at Angkor.

What are some of the core differences between the approaches to historic vs. modern structures?

When you work on historic buildings, you must work slowly because you need to document everything. Every little bit you do needs to be accurately studied and designed before you eventually implement it.

Why is preservation so important?

I love heritage preservation because it’s our about culture. I am always telling my children and my friends, most of whom are civil engineers, about my job. This is how I realized I wanted to become a teacher, and this is why I enjoy being a mentor at other WMF projects in Myanmar and Thailand. Today we preserve Angkor so that the next generations will also work to keep it standing. We want to keep it alive.

 


Huot Sarouth

Visitor Center Manager, Preah Khan

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What was your relationship with Angkor before starting your work here?

Around 1998 I started working at Angkor, selling clothes, souvenirs, books, t-shirts. I was working near Bayon temple. When I started with WMF, I was only a seller. Now I walk tourists through the Visitor Center of Preah Khan and my role is also about educating them on the temples and their values.

What is a favorite memory from your time at Angkor?

WMF’s Gala dinner at Angkor Wat in 2016! I felt honored to join. I was introduced to WMF’s donors, and that really made feel like I was part of WMF’s team.

What does this site mean to the community that surrounds it?

The community has an improved standard of living since the restoration of Angkor. But more important, we recognize the religious value of Angkor, and we see our history here. It is the legacy of our ancestors for which we have to care. It is also the source of our identity. If there was no Angkor, what would Cambodians be?

 


Som Sokea

Documentation Manager, Phnom Bakheng

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Tells us about your journey working at Angkor.

I was initially employed as draftsman, but because of my advanced abilities, I was soon upgraded to coordinator of all the draftsmen for the Preah Khan Conservation project. I had the opportunity to be trained in AutoCAD and I think I became very good at it because I was given the opportunity to become manager of the documentation of the whole Phnom Bakheng Conservation Project.

What does Angkor mean to you?

To me, Angkor is the soul of Cambodia, the place that represents its culture and religion, language and color. Angkor is helping the community to live, it’s helping Cambodia become a modern country. For villagers, Angkor is telling stories that can still be understood today.

What do you hope visitors will take away from their experience at the site?

The warmth of people. I hope visitors can dream in the past and see how Cambodia was strong. I hope they can enjoy the beauty of our natural environment.

 

This article first appeared in 2020 Watch Magazine. To read more stories from the magazine, click here.