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August 2000 Cover

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Loot or Go Hungry?
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Close Encounters at a Khmer Temple

by Douglas Preston

(Excerpted from “The Temples of Angkor: Still Under Attack” in the August 2000 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

Banteay Chhmar is one of the most intriguing, and least known, of Cambodia’s abandoned temples. Accompanied by a driver and an interpreter, Yeang Sokhon, I traveled along Route 6, the main highway across Cambodia and the primary route for smuggling antiquities out of the country. Many of the bridges along the way had been blown up, and we had to drive on wobbly planks laid across the wreckage. Long stretches of road were underwater, and the rest of the highway was cratered with potholes twice the length of our four-by-four. By the time we reached Banteay Chhmar eight hours later, I had blisters from grasping the handgrips on the ceiling.

We parked on the outskirts in the shade of a gum tree and stretched our aching bodies. The ruin of Banteay Chhmar lay a quarter mile distant, concealed in the forest. We hiked across fields and forced our way into the undergrowth. Soon a massive wall of greenish sandstone, covered with spectacular bas-reliefs, loomed up ahead. The enormous temple—it covers more than 500,000 square feet [46, 500 square meters]—was submerged under giant silk-cotton trees, thick bushes, banyans dropping curtains of vines, and rank, steaming vegetation.

As we turned a corner, we came to a broad path freshly macheted through the jungle, littered with cigarette butts and candy wrappers. Puzzled, we followed the path and arrived at a scene of destruction. Looters had pulled down a section of the south wall that was covered with bas-reliefs of a battle. Fresh broken stone lay everywhere. Woody vines dangled in empty air in crazy geometric shapes, still following the pattern of blocks they had once threaded.

Sokhon picked up a cut tendril. “Look at this,” he said, his voice shaking. “The leaves aren’t even wilted. This is still going on right now. We’ve got to leave immediately.” The looting of Banteay Chhmar is a symptom of the worldwide fascination with the ancient Khmer and their mysterious works. The past three decades have witnessed an astonishing increase in the value of Khmer art.


Looting has caused even more destruction than war. At Angkor Wat scarcely a freestanding statue retains its head, while many statues have disappeared entirely. In the 1980s the Cambodian government removed most freestanding sculptures and stored them in a guarded warehouse in Siem Reap. Even so, armed bandits attacked the warehouse and made off with priceless works. Today the worst pillaging has shifted to hundreds of outlying temples, such as Banteay Chhmar.

It takes no special insight to see why looting would be endemic to Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, still swept by periodic famine. A poor farmer who finds a sculpture in his fields or a soldier who plucks one from a temple at night knows that if he sells it to a smuggler, he will be able to feed his family for several years.

Banteay Chhmar, being isolated and close to the Thai border, makes an especially attractive target. Scholars have long puzzled about this beautiful temple, which Jayavarman VII built in a singularly inhospitable location, even then a malarial backwater. One theory says that Jayavarman erected it to honor his son and several others killed in a battle. All I knew was that after risking life and limb on Route 6, I was not about to flee before I had seen the temple myself, despite the danger of running into looters.

After examining the wrecked gap in the temple’s south wall, Sokhon and I pushed our way around to the west wall—and stumbled on an even more horrifying scene of destruction. The entire wall was in the process of being dismantled. Already a section 8 feet high [2 meters] and 36 feet [11 meters] long was gone. Some of the remaining blocks had been marked with purple numbers, ready to go. Hundreds of broken reliefs and shattered sculptures lay among piles of stone chips where looters had evidently chiseled off the backs of the blocks to lighten them for transport.

This was despoliation of a different order than what had occurred at places like Angkor Wat. It seemed the entire temple was being disassembled for sale on the black market. According to Claude Jacques, an authority on ancient Cambodia and one of the few Westerners to have visited the site, this wall once bore six-foot images of Lokeshvara, beautifully carved in relief, showing the Buddhist divinity with multiple heads and arms. Sokhon appeared with a look of sick fear on his face. “There are fresh tire tracks back there, made by a military vehicle.”

I put him off again. Through a screen of vines I could see a ten-foot-high stone head with a gentle smile on its face. Along the eastern wall I finally found a path leading into the inner precincts of the temple. I scrambled along the path, ducking through fallen doorways, climbing over piles of mossy blocks, and feeling my way along dark corridors. Everywhere the roots of silk-cotton trees snaked through the buildings like pythons, squeezing and heaving apart the stones. Delicate ferns drooped from a pair of lions. A ferocious garuda—half bird, half human—peered from under a mantle of rotting leaves. Heavenly dancing maidens smiled out of the vegetative brawl, their bare stone breasts glistening with the damp. And yet everywhere were the marks of chisels and power tools, leaving fresh scars on the stone. Deep in the temple I came across the butt end of a stela chiseled off at the base. The stone monument would have contained an inscription relating to the temple—priceless information for archaeologists.

I climbed up onto the roof of a sanctuary. There I sat, trying to take notes, my glasses fogging up in the steamy heat, the sweat running over my notebook. Sokhon came up beside me. “Please,” he hissed. “We must go.”

I gave up on the notes and looked around.

In the treetops hundreds of yellow and orange butterflies bobbed about. Stone towers, dappled with sunlight, ranged about me, each with four smiling faces. Banteay Chhmar is one of the few temples in Southeast Asia outside Angkor Thom with towers of carved heads. I heard a faint sound like the patter of water: A gum tree was dropping tiny flowers all around me.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”

At the edge of the forest we encountered a bent old man with long hair, standing in the doorway of a hut—a Buddhist hermit.

“Ask who’s been looting the temple,” I said.

Sokhon turned to the man and spoke. The hermit responded, his expressive face popping and wrinkling with emotion, his brown hands gesturing. Whatever he was saying, I could see that it was frightening Sokhon even more.


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