Every detail of the National Geographic Society's exhibit here on Cambodia's Angkor Temple complex is handsome: The magazine's near-perfect photographs are mounted on panels sprayed with sand to evoke the temples' porous stones and the explanatory legends are written with a sure understanding of the history. But that is almost beside the point.

What kept last week's opening-day audience lingering over photographs of the Preah Kahn entryway, studying the curves of the seductive apsaras and endlessly pressing the button that switches on the audio-visual presentation, is the warning writ large that these magnificent funerary temples are endangered.

One immediate problem is nature: the wearing wind, sun and rains and jungle of the tropics; the bats that have homesteaded the empty temples, leaving their corrosive, acidic droppings everywhere. It would take 50 years for the elements and vegetation to inflict severe damage on the monuments, according to an expert.

Human conflict, too, threatens the site. The Khmer Rouge and a separate noncommunist Cambodian resistance army are fighting against the Vietnamese occupation. Already, the facades of the temples have been scarred by bullets. And in the middle of the conflict and misery, thieves have stolen antiquities from Angkor.

The National Geographic, a magazine that rarely deals with contemporary controversy, has jumped into the complicated and dispiriting politics of Kampuchea, as the country is now called. After an apocalyptic series of wars and revolution, Kampuchea has barely enough resources to feed its people or provide them medicine: The question of caring for Angkor has to be incidental to caring for the people. The aim of the exhibit, sponsored by UNESCO, is to enlist public, governmental and international support for a proposal to make the Angkor region a neutral zone where restoration work can be carried out safely. Every day until April 30 the can view the exhibit at the U.N. General Assembly lobby in New York. In Washington, the Asia Society will show slides from the exhibit on April 22.

The Angkor complex is far more than the funerary temple of Angkor Wat, which alone is the world's largest religious building and one of its most beautiful. There are 72 stone monuments in Angkor, fitting reminders of the splendors of the ancient Khmer kingdom. Angkor was the capital of that kingdom.

"The city is enclosed in immense walls like the mountains that girdle the great world. There, contemplating the mounting gold and silver terraces, the inhabitants have no need to wish they could see the peaks of Meru . . . " begins a Sanskrit poem praising Angkor, one of many attempts to put into words the awesome sight of that city. The temples were built to enshrine the symbol of divinity, the linga, and to hold the remains of the king, himself semi-divine--a deva-raj. The nearly pyramid-shaped temples rise like the stone mountains they are meant to represent. In the religious cosmology the Khmer inherited from India and adapted to their own mythology, the center of the universe and the home of the gods were mountains; the highest was Mount Meru of the Sanskrit poem.

For more than 500 years Angkor and Khmer society represented the zenith of culture in peninsular Southeast Asia. From the 9th through the 12th centuries, the Khmer built these temples with a genius and esthetic intelligence that rivals the accomplishments of ancient Greece and Rome.

The temples were made so vast that they faithfully recreated the sense of a mountain without losing the human dimension. The first sight of these stone mountains in the middle of Cambodia's jungle hits the viewer with the shock of entering a fantasy. But before one recovers from the scale of the monuments, the eye is captured by the profusion of statuary, the bas-reliefs, the detail of three-headed elephants, the long rows of gods and giants, the carvings of entwined dragons. "At whatever hour one walks around it, and particularly by moonlight on a clear evening, one feels as if one were visiting a temple in another world, built by an alien people, whose conceptions are entirely unfamiliar. One can imagine one has returned to the fabulous era of legends . . . " said a French historian who lived for 20 years near one of the major monuments, the Bayon temple.

Within and beyond the temple grounds are the remains of the great tanks of the sophisticated irrigation system that supported the Khmer kingdom. From them stretch canals that flow into more canals--waterways once plied by gondolas and barges that carrried the great stones for the monuments and, more important, irrigated the rice fields that enriched the kingdom.

The major monuments at Angkor and at the other important sites in Cambodia were restored by the French. Work began during the colonial period and continued after independence in 1953, supported by the Cambodian and French governments. But "restore" does not begin to describe what the French archeologists and historians have done in Cambodia--deciphering what the temples once looked like and then painstakingly rebuilding them from heaps of stones. Many of the temples had been abandoned for over 700 years, victims of Cambodia's conversion to another faith--Buddhism--that rejected the religion of the temples.

The restoration was begun not merely to preserve the physical beauty of Angkor but to recover the medieval history of Cambodia. By the time the major restoration work on Angkor was complete, French historians had pieced together a record of Cambodia that revealed the brilliance, creativity and power of the former Khmer kingdom. The temples assumed a significance beyond their beauty, or even their history.

Angkor became Cambodia; restoring Khmer pride by placing the Khmer in the ranks with Romans and Greeks as early artists and innovators. After suffering centuries of defeats at the hands of their neighbors, the rediscovery of the Angkor era was a tonic to Cambodia.

Modern Cambodians grew up on Angkor: It was pictured on government crests, flags and insignias. "Angkor" and "Bayon" became brands of beer and dry goods, names of the corner tailor shops and essential locales for popular love novels. And Angkor brought tourists to Cambodia: By the 1960s, tourism ranked as one of the top industries of the country.

PRESS THE black button and the voice of National Geographic magazine editor Wilbur E. Garrett describes the slide show appearing on a darkened column. Many of the photographs are his own, scenes shot first in 1968 and again in 1981. Possibly the most stunning is a photograph of a bas-relief depicting the "churning of the sea," the creation myth of much of the sanscrit world. The sharp 1968 photograph disappears and is replaced with the exact scene taken 13 years later, the carved figures now muted and discolored with ugly lines of decay.

Garrett and National Geographic staff writer Peter White lobbied for two years for their visas to return to Kampuchea. "Between the two of us I guess we've made about 20 trips out there," Garrett said. "That makes us a little more knowledgeable and more sympathetic." Once visas were in hand they chose 30 photographs from their earlier trip and then, with photographer David Alan Harvey, set out to make a photographic record of the condition of the monuments. They hacked through the jungle to reach Preah Khan to discover that half the heads of the figures lining the gateway had been cut off. At Angkor Wat the breasts of an apsara--something like an angel in that religious cosmology--had been ripped by gunfire.

There were other casualties of looting and war. At the gallery of Buddhas, more than half the figures were missing. But the important works are still in place, said White. In some instances, neglect has had a serious effect on the monuments. The "churning of the sea" bas-relief is prey to the elements because a stone canopy once protecting it had been removed for repair when war intervened in 1970 and made such a major restoration project impossible.

In its promotion of UNESCO's proposal to make the Angkor area a demilitarized or neutral zone so foreign caretakers might mount a restoration project, the National Geographic has run head-first into the political morass that most likely will defeat its goals, at least until the larger question of who governs Kampuchea has been resolved. Predictably, the last thing the warring sides want to give over to foreigners is Angkor, the symbol of Cambodia.

Within months after war broke out in 1970, the Vietnamese communists, who were then allied with their current enemies, the Khmer Rouge, captured the temples.

Appeals went out immediately, from people like Thomas P.F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum, to spare the temples of Angkor. UNESCO immediately accepted a request from the Phnom Penh government to place them and other Khmer monuments under the Hague Convention protecting cultural property in the event of armed conflict. Emblems were attached to the treasures; those that could be moved were stored in special containers, some buried, others housed in "safe" buildings.

While they controlled Angkor, the Vietnamese allowed the French archeologist and curator Bernard-Philippe Groslier to bicycle from his conservatory to the temples where, with his staff, he provided minimum upkeep. Once the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were signed and the Vietnamese withdrew from all but the border areas of Cambodia, Groslier was no longer wanted; the highly nationalistic Khmer Rouge said they would care for the monuments themselves. Soon after, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then titular leader of the Khmer Rouge, made his only trip into the Khmer Rouge zones: to visit Angkor, the propaganda coup of the war.

In 1975 the Khmer Rouge emptied all the cities and towns of the country. The remaining staff of the Angkor conservatory was also pushed out to the deadly life of "cooperative" farms. Largely ignorant Khmer Rouge cadres were put in charge of the monuments, cutting the lawns of the most famous sites, leaving the interiors to decay. While the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million of the estimated 7 million Cambodians during their four-year rule, they zealously protected the monuments from theft and vandalism and even printed an official tourist pamphlet for the occasional foreigners allowed into Kampuchea.

The bullet scars and theft came after the 1978 Vietnamese invasion. There was clearly a battle for the Angkor monuments. After they occupied the country, the Vietnamese did not provide the same protection for the statuary as the Khmer Rouge. Antiquities began showing up at an alarming rate in the Asian art market and in shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Those days seem to be over. But providing proper care for the temples is still impossible, due to the convoluted political situation. And Kampuchea is such a wasteland today that a serious restoration project is technically out of the question.

The United Nations recognizes Democratic Kampuchea as the legitimate ruler of Cambodia, a move aimed at preventing the Vietnamese from consolidating their control over Kampuchea. But the regime of Heng Samrin actually controls the Angkor complex and most of the country through the Vietnamese army. That is the crux of the problem facing UNESCO.

The Heng Samrin regime has informed UNESCO it would welcome a restoration team. It was the Heng Samrin regime that invited the National Geographic team into Kampuchea, knowing that renewed efforts to protect the Angkor monuments could work in its favor and bring the regime closer to winning international recognition. But, as UNESCO New York director Doudou Diene explained, "Heng Samrin cannot invite us because his government is not officially recognized by the United Nations."

The demilitarized zone plan would solve that problem neatly. It would take the temples outside the war zone where the Khmer Rouge and noncommunist Cambodian forces opposed to the Vietnamese occupation continue to fight the Vietnamese army. And such an agreement could provide a way out of the recognition problem. If all concerned parties consent to the zone proposal, Diene said, the U.N. could adopt a resolution allowing an exception and a UNESCO-sponsored team could begin restoration.

Diene pointed to a similar arrangement made during the 1979 food crisis in Kampuchea when all sides agreed to allow UNICEF to give food aid to all Khmer children inside Kampuchea and in the refugee camps along the border.

Nguyen Ngoc Dung, the charge d'affaires at the Vietnamese U.N. Mission, attended the exhibit and explained, from her "personal view," why the Heng Samrin regime might refuse to accept the neutral zone proposal. "Why pose the question of a demilitarized zone?" she said. "The Heng Samrin government has complete sovereignty over the temples now. Heng Samrin would receive such a delegation and help in the restoration without a demilitarized zone. He sent a nongovernment delegation to Paris last year and they met with UNESCO and they said Heng Samrin would like to work with UNESCO." UNESCO, the international agency charged with saving the world's antiquities, is caught in the restrictions of its own charter.

But it is not deterred. UNESCO's Diene said at the exhibit opening, "Everyone understands that safeguarding the temples is above politics. It would be fantastic if we could get an agreement."

Diene added, "How can we be accused of political bias? UNESCO has been supporting the restoration of Angkor since 1967, and last year we launched a project to restore Hue," the former imperial seat of Vietnam.

The National Geographic exhibit may raise public awareness of the Angkor dilemma and encourage a serious round of negotiations. But as long as Kampuchea is caught in this vicious conflict, the question of how to protect Angkor--much less how to care for the country's long-suffering population--will be decided on political grounds.