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BBC Asia Correspondent Matt Frei in Cambodia
"If you want to find out where many of the missing heads have ended up, you need go no further than neighbouring Thailand."
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Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 13:18 GMT
Plundering the treasures of a lost civilisation
Statue in rock, Angkor
Dwindling remains of an ancient civilisation
By BBC Asia Correspondent Matt Frei in Angkor, Cambodia

Hidden deep in the Cambodian jungle lie the ruins of Angkor, one of the world's great monuments to one of the world's great forgotten civilisations.

In the 12th Century as many as a million people lived in this city of palaces and temples. At the time, London was but a town of 80,000.

Ancient carving has had its face stolen
Thieves are ruthless about damage to treasures
At the height of their powers, the Kings of Angkor dominated much of South-East Asia, building hundreds of temples and palaces in a magnificent network of cities in what is now Cambodia.

Conservationists like John Sanday of the World Monuments Fund have always treasured Angkor because of the way it is consumed and protected by the jungle. But some temples are in near ruin as monuments are broken up and smuggled out for sale in Thailand to buyers from the West.

He showed me an attempt to steal a head from a statue.

"You can see they've made several attempts cutting and chiselling around the neck and then chiselling around each side," he said. "Then there's the final blow which will lift the head off.

"I reckon, nine times out of ten, the head would just shatter. Complete waste."

'Modern greed'

The religious effigies of Angkor were not decapitated by ancient wars, nor even by the Khmer Rouge regime, but by modern greed.

Statue is packed into box
Smugglers sell ancient statues to the West
"The brutal facts are that every single piece that has been removed from these sites has been stolen," said Mr Sanday. "Someone is making large sums of money as a result of it and that's what upsets everybody here."

The looting at Angkor has been systematic and devastating. In some temples more than 90% of the heads have been removed. It is one of the great cultural outrages of the world.

If you want to find out where many of the missing heads have ended up, you need go no further than neighbouring Thailand. We went shopping at River City in Bangkok and used a secret camera. The place is full of stolen Cambodian antiquities. Many stolen by Cambodia's own army and sold to dealers here.

Map of Cambodia and Thailand
The ancient treasures are smuggled into Thailand
The woman in the shop showed us some pieces she said were from the Khmer Army collection.

One 13th Century statue was for sale for 5,000. The shop keeper said I could have it sent to me in a box, from the shop's own packing company.

With so much demand from the West and so much money to be made, some dealers have become ingenius at hiding their loot. Recently Thai police discovered one stash in a lake.

And even when the police do intercept an illegal shipment it is often too late. I saw one priceless frieze that had been carved up for export.

In their battle against the smugglers, the custodians of Angkor have resorted to desperate measures. There is a warehouse that contains heads that have not been stolen. They have had to dismantle the temples in order to save them.

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See also:

19 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Thais hand back Cambodian antiques
03 Dec 99 |  Asia-Pacific
US blocks stolen Cambodia treasures
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