Walled-off from camera-toting tourists, they are finally close to completing an astonishing reconstruction of the fabled 11th century Baphuon Temple.
“This is not easy to plan like a construction project is,” says architect Pascal Royere from the French School of Asian Studies, who is leading the rebuilding team.
Restorers dismantled Baphuon in the 1960s when it was falling apart, laying some 300,000 of its stone blocks in the grass and jungle around the site.
But before the French-led team of archaeologists could reassemble the 34-metre (112-foot) tall temple, the hardline communist Khmer Rouge swept to power in 1975.
Up to two million people died from overwork, starvation and torture as the regime tried to re-set Cambodia to “Year Zero” by eliminating reminders of its past — including the records to put Baphuon back together.
“The archive of the numbering system (for scattered stones) was stolen and destroyed by the Khmer Rouge,” Royere says.
“We had to face a kind of jigsaw puzzle without the picture how to rebuild it.”
Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who visited the Khmer kingdom in 1226, described Baphuon as a “an exquisite site” with a bronze tower.
Baphuon was the largest monument in the Khmer empire when it was built under King Udayadityavarman II as a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Shiva.
In the kingdom which at one time spanned parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia, Baphuon’s size was only eclipsed by the famed Angkor Wat temple.
“I believe that when the restoration of the temple is done, a lot of visitors will climb to see it,” says Soeung Kong, deputy director general of the Apsara Authority, which oversees Cambodia’s ancient temples.
“It is high, so they can have nice views of surrounding temples.”
After the 1991 peace agreement to end Cambodia’s civil war, French architect Jacques Dumarcay, who was in charge of Baphuon’s restoration from 1964 to 1970, rushed back to the site and appointed Royere to do his old job.
Despite invaluable input from Dumarcay and others who worked on Baphuon in the 60s and 70s, reconstruction required measuring and weighing each block, as well as numerous drawings to figure out how each part fits.
When Royere began work on the project in 1993, grass and jungle had grown over most of Baphuon’s blocks. He spent much of 1994 trying to figure out how to approach the complicated job.
“Each block has its own place. It can’t be replaced by another one because there’s no mortar between them and you will not find two blocks that have the same volume and the same dimensions.”
It was first estimated Baphuon would be rebuilt by 2003 or 2004. Now Royere says it will take until the end of next year, but adds the hardest task — stabilizing Baphuon so it doesn’t collapse — is now complete.
Recent work has focused on a 22-metre (72 foot) high pile of rubble which collapsed in 1971, covering a quarter of the monument.
“It was a kind of landslide mixed with blocks. In 2008 we started to dismantle it, taking care of each block and building a concrete retaining wall,” Royere says.
“When you take one brick, you have to take care another doesn’t collapse. It took double the time we thought.”
Last year Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni presided over a ceremony marking the restoration of a 70-metre (230-foot) long reclining Buddha statue along one of Baphuon’s walls.
Now, Royere says, his project is entering its final stage, matching parts of intricate ornamentation altered in the 16th century when stones were shifted from the top of Baphuon to build the reclining Buddha.
“Now it’s the most interesting,” Royere says. “We have now the picture because we worked for a long time.”