International experts are descending on the Angkor Archaeological Park to breathe a new lease of life into the historic temple complex. Marissa Carruthers meets those working among the serene faces at Bayon.

Restoring the temples of BayonLike a scene straight out of Tomb Raider, a web of twisting roots and trees hides a crumbling mountain of stone. Vines creep through cracks in the once-powerful monument and a shabby stone smile peeks through overgrown jungle. This is the Bayon temple that French adventurer Henri Mahout stumbled across in the 1860s — a stark contrast to the structure standing today.

Famous for its 37 towers displaying 216 smiling faces, hoards of modern day visitors flock daily to the temple that once sat at the centre of the Khmer Empire. They can be seen circling the manicured grounds surrounding the structure, admiring its libraries and outbuildings before standing in awe at the base of one of Bayon’s famous faces.

Caught up in the excitement, many will fail to notice the work being carried out in small pockets of the temple. In places, a few wheelbarrows used to transport soil are the only sign of the effort underway. In other areas, scaffolding and cranes dominate the landscape as teams of men, hunched over chipped stones, patiently reconstruct ruined walls, towers, stairs and floors. Other workers, clutching detailed illustrations, duck below ground in one of two large excavation sites near the outer wall.

“This is a World Heritage site and therefore [it] is of universal value, so it’s important that it’s maintained,” says Australian archaeologist Robert McCarthy, standing next to a statue of a guardian lion, whose historic scars are waiting to be fixed. “Not only do we want to improve the visitor experience, [but] this is sacred ground and should be maintained and respected as sacred ground.”

It’s thanks to such behind-the-scenes work that Bayon and the other temples at Angkor Archaeological Park have been transformed from a forgotten city into the breath-taking monuments of today. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries, they were neglected after attacks by Siamese invaders in 1431. Yet over the last century Angkor’s importance — historically, politically and religiously — has been revived.

Restoration was launched in 1907 by French organisation Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient, which set about clearing the overgrown jungle, repairing foundations and installing drainage systems to protect buildings from further water damage. Work halted in 1970 as Cambodia descended into war, but restarted again in 1993 with Japan, Germany, India and UNESCO involved in restoration.

At Bayon alone, more than 700 Japanese and international experts have been flown in as part of the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA) scheme.

“We follow the ancient people’s ways and we get a more consistent product. It’s surprising but machines don’t work as well as the ancient way and that’s amazing,” says McCarthy, who has been working on the JSA project for four years. “It’s truly mind-boggling how they managed to move so many stones and build something like this that lasted so long.”

To date, JSA has carried out a series of pain-staking schemes, set out in five-year plans, to restore and conserve Bayon’s northern library, prasat sour prat tower, the southern library and central tower. In each project, the surrounding area is thoroughly excavated and mapped to locate scattered or missing stones from the dilapidated buildings. Each stone is then numbered, with any missing stones also logged and given a number. Before restoration work starts, a technical illustration of how the structure should look is drawn on a computer, showing how the building should be constructed.

Experts also research the ancient techniques used on the magnificent structures. One of their most effective tools is the compact clay that was created to build the foundations. By blending sand, clay and lime, ancient builders made a mixture that was strong enough to support the heavy stone above. A traditional wooden tool called an elephant’s foot was utilised to compress the soil, and is still used by temple workers today.

Other practises being replicated include using a hammer and chisel to carve new stones to replace lost originals. Repairing broken blocks is another critical part of the work. The old stones must be treated by injecting a form of resin called polymerto into decaying parts, then leaving it to strengthen.

“Originally, most of the restoration work was carried out using concrete. At the time it was a very effective material to restore, but we found in the humid climate it will only keep for 40 to 50 years before it starts to deteriorate,” explains McCarthy. “With the ancient techniques, it will keep for about 300 years.”

Teams, which include more than 70 trained local workers, are currently piecing together tower 57 and restoring the naga balustrades and lions around Bayon — the last state temple to be built at Angkor. It is hoped that restoration work will be finished in the next 10 to 15 years, while conservation will be ongoing. The aim is for Cambodian experts to take over the project.

“It’s a very complicated structure and there’s nowhere else in the world quite like it on a religious, political and structural level,” adds McCarthy. “This is why it’s imperative that this work carries on into the future.”