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Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth


It has survived centuries of monsoon rains, a US bombing campaign and rampant looting. Now the ancient temple city of Sambor Prei Kuk in Cambodia is finally ready for a renaissance—and is teasing tourists to its forest-cocooned ruins.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Sambor Prei Kuk, which means 'the temple in the richness of the forest', boasts nearly 300 brick temples 
and heaps of ruins across a 25 square kilometre compound [Credit: AFP]
Cloistered by trees and linked by winding dirt trails, the site has played second fiddle to its much bigger cousin to the west—Angkor Wat—Cambodia's top tourist destination.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
The temples of Sambor Prei Kuk were rediscovered by French scholars in the 1880s and it took decades to pare 
back tree roots and lumps of earth that had consumed the monuments over the centuries [Credit: AFP]
But in July it gained a listing by the UNESCO World Heritage, promising a tourist bonanza that could breathe new life into a once-thriving 6th and 7th century metropolis.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Tourists visit Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
"We have already seen more and more local and foreign tourists flocking to visit our site," said Hang Than, an official who manages the compound, as he strolled towards one of several temples spectacularly wrapped in tree roots. For now the tourist infrastructure is basic.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
A sculpture at Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
The ancient city in central Kampong Thom province lies down a pot-holed road where a few food hawkers cluster beneath umbrellas in the dusty parking lot.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Tourists visit Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
Several tour guides lounge around a small booth servicing a growing fleet of tour buses that arrive, for now, mainly on weekends.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
A religious figure is seen inside Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura,
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
"We are very happy and we were so surprised that this site has been listed," said 45-year-old Mao Sambath, who has been making the hour-long motorcycle ride to sell a spread of tropical fruits to backpackers and Chinese tour groups. "Today we have even more vendors than yesterday."

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
A religious figure is seen inside Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
Sambor Prei Kuk, which means "the temple in the richness of the forest", boasts nearly 300 brick temples and heaps of ruins across a 25 square kilometre (nine square mile) compound.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
A tourist visits Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura,
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
The city, some 200 kilometres (120 miles) north of Phnom Penh, was once the seat of the Chenla kingdom that flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries before the height of the Khmer Empire that raised the mega-city of Angkor.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
The temples were rediscovered by French scholars in the 1880s when Cambodia was part of France's Indochina empire. It took decades to pare back tree roots and lumps of earth that had consumed the monuments over the centuries.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Roots shroud a relief at Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura,
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
"At first they only found 16 temples, but then they started to clean the sites," explained Hang Than, an archaeologist by training.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
A relief is seen at Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
But the excavation halted as Cambodia fell into war, with a hailstorm of US bombs hitting the area during the Vietnam War in the 1970s, leaving behind hundreds of craters.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura, 
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
Destruction continued under Cambodia's ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, whose soldiers still held the area into the 1980s as looters ransacked heirlooms from the site. After the violence subsided in the late 1990s, restoration efforts were rebooted.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
Tourists visit Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura,
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
With help of Japanese partners, conservationists spent decades hacking back trees and stabilising the structures. The painstaking work was rewarded with the UNESCO listing, which carries fresh funds to preserve the temples and manage the impact of tourism.

Bombed and looted ancient Cambodian city poised for rebirth
A relief is pictured at Sambor Prei Kuk, an archaeological site of ancient Ishanapura,
in Kampong Thom province, Cambodia [Credit: Reuters]
"It was very different when I first started to work in this area," said Lay Alex, a baby-faced 24-year-old who began leading tours a decade ago. "I don't think seven guides is going to be enough anymore," he said with a smile.

Authors: Sally Mairs, Suy Se | Source: AFP [August 11, 2017]
TANN

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