"It's just like war today," said Pich Keo, the new curator of the ruined city and temples of Angkor, the great national treasure of Cambodia.
He stopped before a sandstone bas-reflief showing a military campaign of the 12th century. Soldiers plod forward to battle, with wives and children trailing along, pushing carts and carrying jars of provisions.Then, as today, war in Cambodia was total, a gamble with the lives and fortunes of everyone.
Angkor overflows with parallels in stone between past and present. Working eight centuries ago, Khmer artisans depicted on temple walls a society steeped in mysticism and ruled by a despotic elite. In the shade of a profusion of royal umbrellas, kings are caught holding court. Elsewhere common people flock to cockfights and bake little cakes to tote off to marketplaces. It is their descendents who are found in the villages today.
The ruins vanished from sight for the outside world in 1970 when communist troops captured it in the first stages of the Cambodian war. Fighting continued intermittenly in the area for the next five years. Stories emerged that shells had damaged the temples and that vegetation and accumulating bat dung -- a very caustic agent in contact with sandstone -- were undoing decades of restoration.
The victorious Khmer Rouge Communists opened Angkor up to a few planeloads of tourists in late 1978. But early the next year, fighting again erupted as Vietnamese troops moved in and secured the ruins for their chosen faction of the Cambodian Communists, led by Heng Samrin.
Like its predecessors, the current rulers hold the Angkor banner high. A five-towered silhouette of Angkors Wat (temple) appears on the national flag. Visiting journalists and aid officials were steered toward a tour of the ruins whenever possible.
Many of the smaller monuments are still off-limits -- security problems are mentioned in explanation -- but visits to Angkor Wat and the walled city of Angkor Thom half a mile away show the destination. Much of the freestanding statuary has been taken by looters. Angkor Wat has bullet holes and blast damage. But to the amateur's eye at least the damage seems insignificant. There is still so much left, Angkor is too large to be wiped away by a few years' warfare.
The violence Cambodia has witnessed in the past 10 years has given special significance to depictions of the great wars of the Khmer kings, who spread their power across Southeast Asia between the 9th and 15th centuries. Soldiers are gored by war elephants, wounded men fall off boats and are devoured by crocodiles, families faithfully trail their men into battle.
Angkor is best known for the largest of its temples, Angkor Wat, but it is much more than that, it is an area of northwestern Cambodia where the Khmer empire made its capital for 600 years. It is a walled city of seven square miles, hugh reservoirs and canals, stone avenues, palace grounds and 19 other major places of worship.
Most of the temples were built to honor Hindu gods, as Buddhism was not yet established. They represent Mount Meru, the center of the world in Hindu mythology and the abode of the gods. Like the Gothic cathedrals of medieval Europe and Mayan ruins, the Khmer edifices apparently were designed with measurements that heed astronomy and a complex numberology to keep them in line with the cosmic order. Also as in Europe, the art was seen as craftsmanship, a means of glorifying divine power.
Archeologists today not only debate how the builders developed such prowess but why Angkor was abandoned to the jungles in the 15th century. Until 100 years ago, only a few local villagers and recluses knew of it.
Getting to Angkor today is a feat in itself. Phnom Penh issues visas only to people whose presence it believes will serve some purposes, and only after time-consuming paperwork. Arriving in the capital, the visitor finds no commercial flights to Angkor. Access is by tedious 12-hour drive across the potholes of National Route 6.
At Siem Reap, the provincial capital two miles from the ruins, the visitor stays at the now reopened Grand Hotel d'Angkorh, which offers airconditioning from 6 p.m. to sometime after 10, when the town's electricity goes dead.
Sadly, one cannot visit the temples alone, the way in which they are best appreciated. (In a 1969 visit I got up early and walked through Angkor Wat's corridors without meeting a soul.)
The new government has a complex system of guides, passes, signatures and countersignatures that guarantees that any visitor takes with him an entourage of half of dozen people.
But today visitors have the privilege of a tour with the curator, Pich Keo, who studied archeology in the 1960s in Phnom Penh. He worked on artifacts in Siem Reap after the troops closed off the ruins in 1970. In 1975, he was herded out to life as a farmer on a commune when the Khmer Rouge took full control of Cambodia.
When Vietnamese troops cleared the area 16 months ago, Keo headed straight for the ruins, reaching them with some soldiers only three days after the Khmer Rouge pulled out.
"I had to see Angkor," he recalled in a recent interview. "I had been kept away from it for 10 years."
He began living in a village nearby. When the new government heard of his skills in archeology, he was appointed curator.
Keo shows the visitor how the Bayon temple was thrown together, by the standards of its day, so that the stone blocks fit together imperfectly. On the Bayon's relief murals, he finds a Chinese delegation of the 12th century, the ambassador with hair tied up in a Chinese-style knot, and jokes that even then the Chinese were interfering in Cambodia. The new government blames Peking for the excesses of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge.
A staff of 50 clears vegetation. Keo has no machinery or trained assistants, and, until visiting foreigners began bringing books on Angkor as gifts, he did not even have diagrams of the monuments.
The Western world's attempts to isolate the Heng Samrin government aggravate Keo's problems. Keo cannot call for help from the French, who began the conservation efforts in the late 19th century, because France does not recognize the government. He cannot seek aid from the United Nations because it continues to seat the Khmer Rouge as the rightful government of Cambodia.
So, restoration muddles along.
"Just one month ago we cleared this terrace of vegetation," Keo said of the Elephant Terrace, where Khmer kings are believed to have watched processions in their honor. "But now you can see it is already returning." He stepped over weeds and grass springing up between the stones.
Keo said he cannot fully document the damage Angkor has suffered during the past 10 years. He has no lists of what sculpture was where, and even he is not allowed to visit outlying temples of the complex.
But some damage is unmistakable. At the Terrace of the Leper King, whose walls are covered with stone carvings of celestial beings, five statues have lost their heads recently, as the virgin stone showing between their shoulders attests.
The gateway through the outer wall of Angkor Wat is pocked with hundreds of bullet holes. Inside the main entrance, the head of Tevoda, a heavenly maiden, has been blown away.
In the temple's southern corridor, a grenage apparently exploded, knocking hugh chunks out of the relief work. "I have no idea who did it," Keo said. "That's war." The so-called Hall of a Thousand Buddhas has only about 25 images remaining. The rest are gone, or lie outside Angkor Wat in a heap, hacked to pieces. At Angkor's upper level, Vietnamese soldiers have carved their names in stone pillars.
Evidence suggests most of the damage came during or after the Vietnamese capture of Angkor. Journalists who inspected it late in 1978, during the Khmer Rouge's short-lived tours, recall no bullet holes around the doors or shrapnel scars.
Recently four stone statues were found in the ashes of a border refugee camp at the Thai border run by an anti-Vietnamese Khmer Serei group. They were apparently on their way to art dealers in Thailand. Travelers have reported Angkor art objects in antique stores in Vietnam.
Police continue to arrest looters, Keo said, but there are not enough guards. "The soldiers are all busy at the border, protecting us from Pol Pot," he remarked.
It seems unlikely Angkor will open up to ordinary tourists in the near future. Diplomatic problems aside, thenew government has no airplanes to fly them and few hotel rooms to lodge them.
But at least Angkor seems to be open to ordinary Cambodians who find their way here. Every day people decorate a statue of the Hindu deity Vishnu with flowers and say prayers before him.
The less spiritually minded pose on the quarter-mile causeway approaching Angkor Wat for photographs against the temple's skyline. The price is 40 Vietnamese dong, enough to buy almost a month's supply of rice, but enough young men and women are turning up to give the men with cameras ample business.