When Archaeological Restoration Works and Fails: Cambodia Versus Vietnam

During the last two months I have returned to two large archaeological sites: Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Hue Citadel in Vietnam. Both are important tourist destinations for their respective countries and both have had some restoration that has taken place in the intermediate years but the differences could not have been more stark. In Vietnam, it felt that while some restoration had taken place this was lost as overall there had been a general deterioration of the citadel and many of the aspects that I found so charming and unique were no longer present. Cambodia was different and you could definitely see some real improvements, particularly with the re-establishment of wetland habitats. But why the differences and what makes a good restoration.

Getting archaeological restoration right can be extremely difficult and the quotation ‘you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ springs to mind. Some may want to see everything completely restored back to exactly how it was in the past. While others may prefer a more ruined look to give the impression that you are the explorer finding the historic site for the first time. In my opinion the trick is to try and appeal to both with some areas restored and other areas left in a more dilapidated condition.


This is where I feel that the restoration in Cambodia is working well. There are definitely some areas that are being heavily restored with new stone carvings replacing the original stones or some temples being fully reconstructed. But there are plenty of other temples that are still left as ruins with piles of stone blocks obscuring doorways and large trees growing out of the blockwork. Many ask whether the trees are causing damage to these ancient sites and certainly they were part of the mechanisms that caused the temples to collapse as their roots slowly prized apart the heavy stone blocks. But today as they already exist they could now be proving some support to the existing structures and the blanket removal of the trees could result in further damage of the temples. Not only this but the trees become part of the fascination for the many visitors and feature dominantly within the many thousands of photos that are taken daily. I for one love to see the shapes the roots make over the brickwork and the strange angles the blocks now hang at.  I personally don’t want these iconic trees to be removed.

Where Cambodia does well with the restoration is that each temple seems to have a general theme. Angkor Wat is the main site and has most of its structures still standing. This may in part be due to the fact that it was the least damaged as the large moat slowed the encroachment of the forest. But equally it could be as Angkor Wat is the ‘main temple’ that is the definite ‘must do’ on the tourist bucket list.


Other temples such as Banteay Kdei, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm (where Tomb Raider was famously filmed) are still being left in a condition where you can see how the forest overtook and engulfed the temples. That is not to say that clearance and restoration of the temples is not ongoing. Since my visit in 2011 one of the large trees in Ta Prohm had been removed (for safety reasons) and the reconstruction of the front part of the temple had been completed – restoring what had been a pile of stone blocks back to a recognisable temple.

Angkor Thom provides a great example of how restoration is working in small isolated areas. Angkor Thom is an absolutely huge temple complex with four gated entrances with bridges that cross the outer moat. Each of the bridges are lined by statues with representatives of the gods on the left hand side and demons on the right. The south entrance is the one that the vast majority of tourists will enter by and it is the one that is heavily restored with many newly carved faces lining each of the sides of the bridge. Some of the faces look so new that they appear out of place, but looking back at the photos I took five years ago I can see that the ones that appeared stark and new had now mellowed into their surroundings and others that had presumably only recently been completed were looking extremely out of character. People’s opinions appear to be varied as to whether they like the newly restored statues but it is still possible to see the original state of the bridges if you are lucky enough to stop at one of the other four entrances where very little restoration has taken place.

At the centre of Angkor Thom stands The Bayon, which includes many large stone faces. When I originally visited The Bayon there was one large face that had only just been restored and you could clearly see the subtle features in the face. But at the same time the face stood out from the rest of the temple and didn’t really feel part of the original. On returning this year I was keen to find the face again. I knew roughly where it was but for all my looking could not identify which one it was. I think this goes to show how five years of weathering discolours the stone surface and mellows it to blend in with the existing stone.

My biggest surprise though was when we exited Preah Khan Temple to the east and came across a large wetland expanse that was stunningly beautiful. I couldn’t remember this wetland and came to the conclusion that somehow we must have exited the temple via a different route. But on visiting Jayatataka, a temple I remember well, I could see instantly that this was a new habitat that had been restored. Five years ago I remember walking along a boardwalk through a boggy forest to reach Jayatataka. You could not see far through the trees but I remember our guide telling us that this should have been a large lake that surrounding the temple. Well today the lake is back and you could clearly see that the wetland habitat was re-establishing itself. Now the boardwalk crosses a shallow lake with numerous plant and animal life. It was astounding to see the difference that could be made in five years and the work that must have been put in to recreate this unique area.


So overall my impressions are that Cambodia is getting the restoration right. Wandering around temples that are still in a state of collapse with large piles of stones definitely captures the imagination: what must it have been like to make the temple discovery when it was completely overgrown? There may be questions that need to be answered with respect to where all the entrance fees collected from the millions of visitors gets spent but at least it is possible to observe progress that is still sympathetic to the overall area.

So why then, in my opinion, has Vietnam got things so wrong? When I returned to Hue in central Vietnam after a gap of 12 years I was expecting to have a similar experience visiting the citadel and mausoleums that line the banks of the Perfume River as I did during my original visit. Of course I was expecting some changes and would not have been surprised to find some aspects that had been completely restored. However, what I found shocked and saddened me at the same time.

I remember a place that was partially restored but with many parts still in ruins where you could still see the bullet holes from fighting that occurred during the Vietnam War. I was expecting this area to have been restored but instead it was just not there. Instead of the remains of courtyards and rooms connected by arches and steps that made up the Purple Forbidden City there was nothing except for a green flat open space. This total removal of what had previously been there seemed to leave a void at the centre of the citadel. It’s difficult to see how reconstruction of the buildings is going to be possible given that what had previously existed appears to have been totally removed.

But this was not the only differences I noticed, some were much more subtle and really didn’t make any sense. I managed to find a staircase which I had previously photographed. The staircase was in an area that hadn’t been restored and was still generally left in the condition that it had been in. But comparing the then and now revealed that part of the stone balustrade had been restored, it’s just that looking at it today it now looks as if it is in just the same run down state as the remainder of the area.

Twelve years’ ago there were several temples and/or gatehouses at the front of the citadel that appeared to be in good condition and it was possible to go into the temples and climb the gatehouse. Moving forward to 2016 and this was no longer the case, the structures looked slightly run down and for health and safety reasons it was not possible to enter many of them. It seems odd to me that the parts that had previously been restored well were being ignored and not maintained. The focus appears to always be on restoring a new building. Maintenance must be cheaper in the long term than full restoration so I’m a bit confused as to why a World Heritage Site is allowed to be managed in this way.

My biggest disappointment of the day was, however, when I visited some of mausoleums along the banks of the Perfume River. My original visit to Lang Minh Mang discovered a peaceful temple complex set amongst gardens and lakes. A tranquil walk around the area resulted in the discovery of hidden temples and the ambience suited the final resting place for one of Vietnam’s emperors. But today the complex was run down and tied and the magic that had once been there had slipped away. A large part of the grounds were now out of bounds meaning that it was no longer possible to chance upon the hidden temples.

All in all I was surprised with what was happening in Hue. There definitely needs to be a re-think before these iconic historical sites deteriorate further and the tourists decide to bypass Hue completely.



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