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US to Pay for Preservation of Famed Cambodian Temples

The United States is donating $550,000 to the private World Monuments Fund to conserve the Phnom Bakheng temple complex in Angkor, Cambodia. The grant will be used to create a master plan to counter years of neglect, misuse and overuse.

The temple complexes in the historic Cambodian city of Angkor are among the world's most revered cultural sites. But decades of political turmoil devastated many of the sites and now deforestation, flooding and heavy tourism pose new threats to the future of the sites.

The Phnom Bakheng temple complex is not as well known as some of the other sites in the city of Angkor, but Henry Ng of the World Monuments Fund, says its size and history make it a cultural treasure.

"It was constructed in a relatively early period, about AD 900, and it became the first of five capital cities to be built over a course of five centuries of the Khmer empire," he said. "It was also the center of a very large city on a very prominent site on a hill. It is almost like a pyramid since they built up the earth on which it would sit. There is religious significance since it was based on religious imagery at the time it was built. It is fairly large. It is 650 meters long by 400 meters wide and 65 meters high. It has steep terraces that go up so it is very prominent on the landscape with five towers that represent the peaks of Mount Mehru, which is religious iconography."

Many of the 108 shrines at the base of the hill and on the carved terraces leading to the peak have been destroyed or are in deteriorated condition. But Mr. Ng says the remaining sculptures are important to preserve as is the site's position in the landscape. "The site itself, first of all, is so prominent that, physically, it is very imposing. There are very fine sculptures left on the site, figures that are deeply carved that created a style of their own known as the Bakheng style. From this height also, it was set up that way to have stunning views of the plains of Angkor Wat," he said.

The project will take three to five years, assessing environmental and structural problems and ways to manage soaring tourism. Mr. Ng says about 400 thousand tourists a year currently visit the site, but large numbers of hotels are being constructed in anticipation of an increase to more than one million visitors a year.

"Right now there are elephant rides to the site. Naturally, that kind of heavy pounding and overusage also damage a site. There have to be ways to accommodate that in a sensible way," he said.

The World Monuments Fund is a private group that raises money to conserve important sites across the globe and call attention to sites that are endangered. Phnom Bakheng is the fifth conservation project the group has undertaken in Cambodia since 1989.