Copyright 2003

[ January 12th 2003 ]

Cambodia's oldest temples, some dating to the fifth century, are being destroyed by looters and the encroaching jungle because the impoverished country cannot afford to look after them, officials said on Monday. The vast temple complex at Angkor Wat may be the jewel in the Southeast Asian nation's archaeological crown, bringing it international fame and fortune as the backdrop to Hollywood movies such as "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."

But at only 800 years old, Angkor is far from the oldest legacy of Cambodia's ancient Khmer civilisation. For the other 1,000-odd monuments dotted around the jungle-clad, war-ravaged nation, Angkor's pre-eminent reputation means it is the only site getting the expertise and money needed to keep it from falling into dangerous disrepair. "We need financial and technical help from outside because the ruined temples are getting worse," culture secretary Prince Sisowath Panara told Reuters. "Every day I am afraid that a temple stone will drop on somebody's head.

As Cambodia's only World Heritage Site, Angkor swallows up nearly all the annual $5-10 million in aid assigned to prop up temples, leaving others such as the huge Preah Vihear complex near the Thai border at the mercy of looters and the elements. "It is a great pity that the older, smaller temples receive so little aid," said Etienne Clement, country director of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural organisation. "Personally, I would like to see a much more balanced distribution of the funds."

Preah Vihear and another temple in the former Khmer Rouge heartland of Banteay Chmar in the northwest have been put forward as candidates for World Heritage status in a bid to attract more funds but it is unclear whether they will make it onto the list.

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