ARTICLES / Cambodia / thailand

Bangkok Post: “Keeping history alive”


When Cambodia and Thailand exchanged gunfire over the Angkorian temple of Preah Vihear two years ago, the ancient monument was among the wounded as it was hit by dozens of shells.

But, ironically, the conflict also helped archaeologists learn more about the disputed Unesco World Heritage site. While digging trenches and building barricades, Cambodian soldiers came across pieces of pottery.

Now these ceramics – some of which are of “extremely important” value, according to Philippe Delanghe, the culture specialist at Unesco’s office in Phnom Penh – will go on display at the new Preah Vihear Eco-Global Museum, which is scheduled to open early next year. The museum will be located about 23km from the disputed temple.

“In the future, all visitors going to Preah Vihear will see the museum before or after coming to the site,” said Pheng Sanoeun, director of the Department of Monuments and Archaeology at Cambodian government’s Preah Vihear Authority.

Among the items that will go on display will be a jar that was used as an oil lamp, a bottle in the shape of a human face, an elephant figure and ancient roof tiles. These items were most likely left behind by the people who built the temple, Sanoeun said.

“In the past, this site was managed by Khmers,” he said. “This is very important for us because we know that Preah Vihear was a very important site during the Angkorian period, but we don’t know too much because we don’t have many researchers working on that.”

The evacuation of villagers away from the fighting near the temple also benefited archaeological research. It turned out that one village at the foot of the Preah Vihear Mountain, known as Ko Muoy, was actually situated on top of an ancient village and an Angkorian reservoir. After villagers were resettled, the reservoir was refilled with water and plans are under way to undertake archaeological digs to determine the extent of the ancient village and how many people lived there during Angkorian times.

All in all, approximately 1,200 Cambodian families from three communities have been permanently resettled into an eco-village, allowing archaeologists to expand the protection zone around the temple.

The inhabitants of the new eco-village, meanwhile, are being trained in handicraft- and sculpture-making, as well as other activities related to tourism, Sanoeun said.

Some of the pieces of pottery that were discovered near the Preah Vihear temple are helping archaeologists form a better idea of what life was like there in the past.

The jar that was used as an oil lamp is an unusual item because such Angkorian jars have previously been found only near royal palaces, Sanoeun said. This was the first time that one had been discovered in Preah Vihear province, he said.

A bottle in the shape of a human face may have been used for worship, and 13th-century Chinese ceramics, which were also found near the temple, indicate that the people who lived at Preah Vihear had trade ties with China, said Cambodian archaeologist Tep Sokha.

In addition to the ceramics, the Preah Vihear Eco-Global Museum, which was built with donations from Unesco and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, will display Angkorian statues from Preah Vihear province that had until now been kept at the National Museum in Phnom Penh and at the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap.

The museum will become the permanent home of the two 10th century statues that were returned to Cambodia from the Metropolitan Museum in New York City this summer, according to Delanghe. The sandstone statues, known as the “Kneeling Attendants” were illegally removed from the Koh Ker temple, that is also located in Preah Vihear province, during Cambodia’s civil war in the 1970s. A third statue from the same temple complex, whose destiny is now being debated in an American court, will be housed here as well, if it is returned to Cambodia, according to Delanghe. There will also be a room at the museum dedicated to Unesco conventions and a display illustrating how the temple of Preah Vihear is connected to other World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia. For instance, a linga was taken from the Wat Phu temple in Laos to build the temple of Preah Vihear, Delanghe said.

“We didn’t want this museum to be a museum of Preah Vihear,” Delanghe said. “The temple is there, but there are lots of smaller sites that are directly or indirectly related to Preah Vihear.”

The museum will also have an exhibition on the Kouy minority group, who have lived in Preah Vihear province since Angkorian times, when they were known for iron-making and elephant training.

According to Delanghe, the Kouy were directly connected to the Angkorian court because they supplied the Khmer kings with war elephants and weapons.

The museum will display Kouy clay and bamboo toys, costumes, musical instruments and iron tools, which some elderly villagers in Preah Vihear province still know how to make.

Finally, there will be a photo exhibition of flora and fauna from Preah Vihear. According to Delangle, the province is home to some unique animals _ a small mountain deer, a gaur _ an animal that he described as a long-headed cow, and rare frogs. The museum will also showcase the bones of a giant ibis bird and a few local medicinal plants.

One important local issue that the new Preah Vihear Eco-Global Museum will not discuss, however, is Cambodia’s conflict with Thailand over the ancient temple.

“Up to now, even the idea [of discussing the conflict with Thailand in a museum exhibit is something] we never talked about,” Sanoeun said. “The idea [behind the museum] is to educate people about the culture of the province.”