A small book recently published by the organization Sipar has accomplished what no other guidebook on the Angkor Archaeological Park has managed to do.
In 52 pages filled with photos and illustrations, the book, “Angkor Mysteries,” describes some of the latest archaeological developments and findings in the park, explaining in layman’s terms issues that restoration teams face when they plan preservation strategies.
For example, the book, which is written in Khmer, shows in a series of vignettes the intimate relationship between the monuments and the jungle surrounding them. As the text explains, restoration workers of years past believed that the moss and lichen coating the stones was damaging them and should be removed. But they have since discovered that, in some cases, this vegetation protects the stones from the sun and the elements, and that stones may deteriorate faster if the temples’ mossy coating is removed.
The book was released earlier this year by Sipar, an organization that has published around 100 fiction and non-fiction works in Khmer since the 2000s, in addition to running traveling bookmobiles and opening community libraries.
This is the second book in Sipar’s series on Angkor. The first one, entitled “Exploring Angkor,” was released in 2012 and focused on the two star monuments in the park: Angkor Wat and the Baphuon. As with the first book, this work mainly targets a teenage audience but is written in a style that will appeal to any casual reader intrigued by Angkor and archaeology. A cartoon character serves as a guide, accompanying the reader through the text.
“Angkor Mysteries” is the first guidebook in any language to explain in a few words both the history of Angkor’s restoration—began in the late 19th century by French researchers—as well as the major archaeological finds and projects of the last two decades in Angkor park.
“In 2001, a Japanese archaeologist stumbled upon 274 statues of the Buddha buried in the [Banteay Kdey] temple compound,” the book reads. “All the statues were in good condition in spite of having been buried for about 800 years. They were probably displayed during the reign of Jayavarman VII [who was Buddhist]. After his death, Brahmans probably smashed and left them in the Banteay Kdey compound.”
The book also describes how the Baphuon temple, which was dismantled for restoration in the late 1960s and then abandoned during the civil war of the mid-1970s, took more than 15 years to rebuild in the 1990s and 2000s. This involved reassembling 300,000 stones that had lain on the ground for two decades. A sketch in the book illustrates the process of identifying and moving each stone.
Another sketch shows an archaeological team at work on an excavation site; a few words are written next to each team member describing his or her role in the dig, such as sketching the site or handling bone fragments. The sketch illustrates the 2004 and 2005 digs conducted in Angkor park’s West Baray reservoir by archaeologist Christophe Pottier of the French institution Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient, during which a 3,000-year-old skeleton was found, showing that people have lived on the site of Angkor for three millennia.
The book even mentions the Cambodian and international team that used the latest laser remote-sensing technology, known as lidar, in 2012 to map out underground archaeological structures on Phnom Kulen mountain.
Produced through support from Unesco and Cambodia Airports as well as the Apsara Authority—the government agency managing Angkor park—the book was written by a team of four Cambodian writers who worked with 30 or so archaeologists, scientists, illustrators and photographers.
“It took us a year and a half to complete,” said Khuon Vichheka, one of the writers. “We read a lot of documents and condensed them in simple terms to make it easy for teenagers to understand.
“And then, we had to check and double check every fact,” she added.
The result is an entertaining but serious book, accessible to all. The series’ first book was published in French and English versions in addition to Khmer. There are also plans to publish this one in English and French as well, funding permitting, Ms. Vichheka said.
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