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Cambodia – A Conservator’s Dream Come True

Upon landing in Hong Kong on our way to Cambodia, I checked my email. Waiting for me was a message from the Cambodian Visa Department. My heart sunk; what could be wrong? I was sure my papers were in order and we were all set for our visit to Siem Reap. I opened the message with trepidation. It said “ Happy Birthday, David Wessel. Best Wishes to you for a very Prosperous, Successful, Healthy and Happiness in your life.” Thus began our introduction to a gentle, kind and wonderful people who shared with us their culture and an architectural wonder that is unparalleled, known to the rest of world as Angkor Wat.

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Angkor Wat is actually only one complex of several that comprise a vast archeological site constructed by the Khmer people between the 9th and 12th centuries. The site stretches for miles and although we have had five days to explore, ten would have been better.

Our guide Mr. Sokky and driver Mr. Polin picked us up every morning for our excursions that included visits to some of the most impressive masonry and stone carvings I have ever seen. The French were among the first westerners to appreciate these ruins when they colonized Cambodia and other surrounding countries. Their archeologists carefully reassembled many structures that had succumbed to the forces of natures. It appeared that much of the masonry remained where it had fallen facilitating re-building. Some of the more delicate carving was protected by vast termite mounds that formed around the fallen masonry units that were discovered hundreds of years later. There were essentially packaged for the future.

Although the activities of termites served to protect these historic and artistic resources, other natural activities namely the abundant foliage, has torn some structures apart. These masonry assemblies are now supported by the the trees growing through them. There is a minor controversy as to the appropriateness of removing the trees or letting them stay. Clearly, the intrusion of flora is compelling from a tourist perspective as it is a dramatic sight. This may be the most influential factor in the decision making; however, I should add that I was impressed with the overall management of the Angkor Archeological Park from a conservation perspective.

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The temple complexes are arranged generally on a rectangular plan The Khmer people did not discover the arch, or perhaps elected not to use it. Instead, roofs for the galleries and the shrines they enclose are constructed by corbelling the masonry units. Bas-relief carvings as well as three-dimensional sculpture is everywhere. It would take years to study and appreciate every aspect of the artwork that was integrated into the structures. I marveled at the degree of embellishment and the signatures of the multitude of unknown artists.

It has been six months since our visit. The images of these sights remain fresh in my memory as do the warmth of the Cambodian people. I could write another blog on their hospitality and culture. I plan to go back soon and see the rest of this fascinating country.

If you go, I cannot recommend more emphatically retaining the services of a guide with driver. Our guide, Mr. Sokky, is college educated and has a wealth of knowledge of the Hindu and Buddhist civilizations that constructed these temples. His knowledge will add great depth to your experience. His can be reached through his website: www.experienceangkor.com. Be sure to ask for Mr. Polin to be your driver!! He was always ready with a warm smile, cold towels and water when we returned from our hikes through the ruins.