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Thursday, 22 November, 2001, 10:49 GMT
Cambodia's temples of hope
The temples of Angkor, deep in the jungle of Cambodia, are the spiritual symbol of Khmer culture and one of the world's greatest archaeological heritage sites. Clare Arthurs visits Angkor where conservationists are reclaiming the sites and tourism has become a much needed source of income for Cambodia.
Lek Sareth was a small boy when he first visited the temples of Angkor in the north of the country.
As he looked up at the ancient ruins towering over the jungle, he was inspired to help preserve the ancient heritage of a once-great people, the Khmers of the Angkor Empire who had dominated the region for 500 years.
Growing up in the capital Phnom Penh, the teenager Sareth was further motivated by the destruction he saw when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge mounted a peasant revolution in the 1970s.
The Khmer Rouge
The Khmer Rouge emptied the cities, destroyed banks and schools, and an estimated two million people died during the genocide.
The regime destroyed anything they regarded as decadent or culturally impure, including many buildings and temples.
The temples of Angkor bear the scars of those years - bullet holes riddle the pillars, and the jungle has swamped many of the ancient ruins.
But the temples are being reclaimed, by individuals like Sareth, determined to rebuild Cambodia and reclaim a proud heritage.
Rebuilding the temples
Today Sareth is one of Cambodia's leading architects, a conservationist and a teacher, helping to train young men and women to take their place in rebuilding Cambodia's future.
"I hope that they come to have an understanding of pre-Angkor times so that they learn about their identity," he says.
Sareth is a modest, quietly spoken man - part of the generation that survived the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing years of civil war.
He now works for the World Monument Fund - one of the many international organisations that are renovating and restoring the Angkor temples.
With gangs of local workers he is involved in piecing together a vast three dimensional jigsaw - literally rebuilding the ancient temples stone by stone.
Reopening the temples
There are more than 100 temples at Angkor, dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries.
In 1992, shortly after the Paris Peace Accords, the internationally brokered peace settlement that restored a degree of stability to the country, UNESCO declared the temples of Angkor a World Heritage Site.
Cambodia was too poor to renovate the temples alone - as in other areas of the economy it relies heavily on foreign assistance.
Over the last decade the vines have been pulled back from many of the temples, the area has been cleared of landmines and the sites reopened for Cambodians and foreign tourists.
With the tourists comes money - desperately needed in a country where the average wage is only $260. But, so do the pressures of mass tourism.
Last year 400,000 tourists visited Cambodia - many to see the temples of Angkor which were so long "out of bounds".
The local village of Siem Reap, until recently a sleepy backwater, is now booming - with the sound of hotel construction in the day and the sound of karaoke bars at night. At the annual festival of the full moon, Kataen, villagers pray for prosperity.
But not all are seeing the benefits from tourism.
"I haven't seen any tourist dollars. I rely on my family to look after me because I am poor," says one woman sitting on the floor of the pagoda.
Outside the temple, raw sewage flows in the street next to the newly built five star tourist hotels, and many of the roads are unmade and full of potholes.
Cambodia has a unique resource in the ancient temples of Angkor, and a unique opportunity to develop responsible tourism - but not all the signs are good.
Chau-Sun Kerya is the woman responsible for tourism at APSARA, the local Cambodian authority responsible for developing Siem Reap and Angkor. She admits there are problems:
"We have had 50 per cent growth in tourism over the last year, and a lot of people are talking about one million tourists in 2003. Even though we don't know what the impact of the attacks on America will be on tourist numbers, we expect them to continue to rise. And we are not ready."
Corruption is one Cambodia's biggest problems, and Chau-Sun Kerya admits that it affects the distribution of wealth from tourism: "People have to respect the rules - if they don't, if they pay black money in order to profit or to break building regulations, what can we do?"
Van Moulivann is cultural advisor to the King, Cambodia's leading architect, and was the former head the APSARA authority.
He is extremely concerned about the "Disneyfication" of Angkor, and the extent to which speculators are damaging the sites: "What we've tried to build in ten years can be destroyed in six months."
Van Moulivann sees Angkor as a symbol of the nation - the image of Angkor Wat, the most famous of the temples adorns the national flag - and pleads that the international community must monitor what happens to the temples.
He warns that a generation of Cambodians have been lost, that much of the country's culture has been destroyed and that Angkor is their only hope - for reclaiming an identity; as a source of income and employment; and for maintaining links with the outside world.
"Angkor is our identity. It is our only hope for remaining in the concert of democracy."
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