Quest for Authenticity: Story of Conservators of APSARA National Authority

Source: EFEO

This article is part of the series of article “CULTURE” in collaboration with “Nyonyum Magazine”.

This year, the number of tourists visiting Angkor Wat dropped sharply due to the worldwide spread of COVID-19. The number of ticket sales, which used to be up to 14,000 a day, dropped by less than several dozens a day. Amidst such circumstances, there are people taking care of Angkor Wat quietly, as if they are preparing for the day tourists visit again. The west causeway of Angkor Wat, which is one of the 15 restoration works of Angkor monuments, is being restored by a joint team of Cambodia and Japan. The Japan Foundation Asia Center (JFAC) has been providing supports through the “Sofia University, Sophia Asia Center, for Research and Human Development (hereinafter referred to the Center). We interviewed the Deputy Director General and conservators of the APSARA National Authority (ANA), who are working with the Japanese to restore the west causeway of Angkor Wat. We learnt how the JFAC’s mission aiming at cultural exchange between the two countries and creation of new values are realised through this interview.

Restoration is a task that requires a lot of expertise. What kind of education and what kind of training you received?

H.E. Mr. Kim Sothin, Deputy Director General

(H.E. Mr. Kim Sothin, Deputy Director General) Conservation and restoration require experience in the field in addition to the academic knowledge. For me, I studied archeology at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh for 4 years. Also, I took the intensive course at the Sophia University, which started in 1991, to learn more advanced knowledge. Later, I gained experience in restoration, excavation, and research in the field at temples such as Banteay Chhmar in Banteay Meanchey, Baphuon in Angkor complex and Han Chey ruins in Kampong Cham. Sometimes, I learnt techniques of restoration at the Angkor Wat registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, under strict conditions by international standards. Sometimes, I gained the experiences through application of new research techniques such as exploration without excavation of buried archaeology remains. Then, in 2019, I joined the ANA, a state institution in charge of conservation and management of monuments, where I am engaged in the management of the entire restoration program using the knowledge acquired from the experiences in the field.

Mr. Mao Sokny, Conservator

(Mr. Mao Sokny, Conservator) There is a lot of knowledge that can be learnt only in the field. It is important to accumulate experiences of working with local and foreign experts acquiring the techniques and applying it by ourselves in the field. I have been playing a main role in the restoration project of the Banteay Chhmar causeway. For this project, I apply the knowledge gained from the restoration work the foundation and retaining wall of the west causeway of Angkor Wat.

It takes a lot of time to train human resources related to restoration project. There are many ancient monuments in Cambodia. Do you provide enough human resources to respond to the needs?

(H.E. Mr. Kim Sothin) In fact, securing human resources is in a difficult situation. As I mentioned above, human resource development takes a lot of time. Today, Cambodia is seeing an unprecedented construction boom, which is good for the whole country. On the other hand, fewer and fewer young engineers are interested in archeological projects. There are many other restoration projects of Angkor Wat complex besides the west causeway while there are very few architecture structural engineers in the ANA.

In case of urgent need, we temporarily hire various specialized engineers to meet the requirements. In such a situation of lack of human resources, sending experts from abroad and training existing human resources is one of the most important projects. Once a year, there is the opportunity for Cambodian experts to receive the training in Japan, which encourages us to a great extent.

What technology do you want to learn, especially from Japan?

Mr. An Sopheap, Conservator

(Mr. An Sopheap, Conservator) I want to learn the advanced knowledge of conservation methods from Japan. For example, knowledge of how to manage safety in each work process of construction at the site is especially important.  In fact, the number of tourists had increased over the past years before the spread of COVID-19. More and more works are undergoing during opening time for tourists. And the tourist’s area and construction site become closer. This may raise the risk of accidents (in theory). Since ensuring the safety of tourists is priority, we need to find ways to restore the monuments safely. After many rounds of consultation, we decided to install a makeshift detour (floating bridge) so that we can close the west causeway of Angkor Wat after May 2017. I want to learn these practices from Japan.

(H.E.Mr. Kim Sothin) I feel that the ANA must learn about project management. In the project of restoration of monuments, we must conduct both research and construction. Especially the preliminary research is complex and takes longer than planned. We are held accountable for usage of the budget because we use the national budget. I want to learn about financial management and better presentation skills.

The project of restoration of the west causeway of Angkor Wat takes such a long time. Which element of the project requires the time?

(Mr. An Sopheap) The length of the west causeway of Angkor is 200 meters. The half of the causeway on the right side from the front gate was restored by France in the 1960s. We are now restoring another side. We have finished the restoration of 100 meters from the center to the end point, which took around 10 years until 2007. We are now restoring the 100 meters from the center to the entrance. It takes a long time to restore because we value “Authenticity”.  We idealize the concept that we use the same techniques and materials of ancient times. Preliminary research to clarify what ancient techniques and materials are, how we prepare and how we implement the construction takes a lot of time. Through the restoration work, we found the evidence showing that there was one restoration work before. For this time, we decided to use partly the modern technology to reinforce the construction. However, we will try not to lose the entire history of the past as much as possible.

How was the modern technology applied?

To maintain the “Authenticity”, we preserve the retaining wall as it was. However, we need to think out to prevent it from collapsing. Then, we installed L-shaped concrete walls inside of retaining wall to strengthen it. The L-shaped concrete wall technique used in this project was created through the exchanges between Japanese experts and ANA experts under various conditions. It was also consulted with UNESCO experts many times and eventually, was approved at the international conference. During the restoration work, experienced Japanese experts visited the site several times to assist the ANA experts. There was a case in which, the Japanese experts proposed a solution for a difficult problem, while the person in charge of ANA also proposed the alternatives from the Cambodian point of view, the latter of which was adopted and brought a success.

This is the example of two-way exchange! By the way, I think that working with Japanese people means for you to face different culture. What are the difficulties in it? And what can you learn from it?

(Mr. An Sopheap) Most of professors from Sofia University for this project have been working in Cambodia for a long time. So, they have a lot of knowledge about Cambodian culture and people. Therefore, it is comfortable for us to work with them. Honestly, I have not experienced difficulties caused by cultural differences. For the things that I learned from them is that Japanese people always hold meetings among them before the implementation. We make a clear decision on what to do in the meeting, then implement the work based on the decisions. I think that this way of working enables us to work effectively in the short term. This is useful knowledge for us.

Since there is a lack of human resources for the conservation and restoration work, I imagine that each staff has to deal with many things and even challenges. But what do you want to achieve through those projects?

(H.E.Mr. Kim Sothin) I cannot stand watch losing our treasure including Angkor Wat that our ancestors built. In addition, various ancient architectural techniques, such as the technique of assembling stones used in Angkor Wat, have been attracting researchers from all over the world including France. Khmer people have been communicating with Indonesia since the Angkor period. In fact, in early middle of the 20th century, French people studied the technique of restoring the Prambanan Temple Compounds and applied them to some temples in the Angkor monuments. Many archaeologists from Southeast Asia, such as Thailand and Vietnam, have visited Angkor monuments which creates opportunities to learn from each other. This is a source of pride for us. So, we want to continue to take good care of these treasures.

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