Stolen apsara head returned to Cambodia

A stolen Apsara (celestial nymph) head is recovered in the US and returned to Cambodia. Because of their weight, the heads of Cambodian sculptures are often taken in lieu of the entire sculpture. As in the case of many of these artefacts, the heads have often gone into the hands of private collectors and this head is unlikely to be matched to its original location.

30 July 2007 (The Associate Press, by way of the Gainsville Sun and featured on many other American newspapers) – A stolen Apsara (celestial nymph) head is recovered in the US and returned to Cambodia. Because of their weight, the heads of Cambodian sculptures are often taken in lieu of the entire sculpture. As in the case of many of these artefacts, the heads have often gone into the hands of private collectors and this head is unlikely to be matched to its original location. Check out the podcast featuring the interview with Dr. Dougald O’Reilly of Heritage Watch to find out more about the illicit trade in Cambodian artefacts.

U.S. Returns Stolen Artifact to Cambodia

The U.S. government returned to Cambodia the head of an Angkor-era sculpture that had been stolen and smuggled out of the Southeast Asian country.

The artifact, weighing about 4.4 pounds, is a sandstone head of a celestial dancer, or apsara, from the 12th century, the U.S. Embassy said Monday in a statement.

It said the object was smuggled out of Cambodia into the United States in violation of a 2003 agreement between the two countries that aims to protect Cambodia’s cultural heritage. The statement did not say when the item was stolen, and was not immediately known who held the sculpture in the United States.

Read more about the recovery of the stolen Apsara head.

Interested in reading up on Angkoran sculpture? Read up:
Images of the Gods: Khmer Mythology in Cambodia, Laos & Thailand by V. Roveda
Temple Art Icons and Culture of India and South East Asia by K. V. Raman
Arts of Southeast Asia (World of Art) by F. Kerlogue
Art & Architecture of Cambodia (World of Art) by H. I. Jessup
Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art by E. C. Bunker and D. Latchford
Narrative Sculpture and Literary Traditions in South and Southeast Asia (Studies in Asian Art and Archaeology) by J. Fontein and M. J. Klokke (Eds)
Khmer Mythology: Secrets Of Angkor Wat by V. Roveda
Apsarases at Angkor Wat, in Indian context by K. M. Srivastava

Interview with an underwater archaeologist

It looks like it’s another artifact sale in Malaysia, from remnants of shipwrecks in Malaysian waters. These artefacts are left over from archaeological salvage and come from a variety of shipwrecks. I’ll be headed up to KL this weekend, and so I hope to write about the sale there.

30 July 2007 (New Straits Times) – It looks like it’s another artifact sale in Malaysia, from remnants of shipwrecks in Malaysian waters. These artefacts are left over from archaeological salvage and come from a variety of shipwrecks. I’ll be headed up to KL this weekend, and so I hope to write about the sale there.

New Straits Times, 30 Jul 2007

Klang Valley Streets: Treasures from the deep

TREASURES from the deep go on display and sale in Kuala Lumpur this week at an art fair that showcases an array of Asia’s treasures from the 11th to 19th centuries.

And the man who spent 17 years plumbing the depths of Southeast Asian waters, discovering 10 major shipwrecks, is marine archaeologist Sten Sjostrand.

Sjostrand is proud of his underwater feats and retrieval of precious artifacts: he will have these remarkable pieces showcased at the Asia Art Fair 2007, also an exhibition comprising Asian collectibles and treasures, which opens at the Bangsar Shopping Centre, Kuala Lumpur, tomorrow.

The pieces retrieved from the shipwrecks may not be the most aesthetically pleasing in a conventional way or most colourful, but they are definitely timeless treasures that are intriguing and mysterious. Historical artwork has been carved and fired on to these items ranging from ceramics, pottery, ornaments, accoutrements to utensils.
They were found on the shipwrecks from the Tanjung Simpang (the years of 960-1127), Turiang (1370), Nanyang (1380), Longquan (1400), Royal Nanhai (1460), Xuande (1540), Singtai (1550), Wanli (1625), Anantes (1795)and Desaru (1830).

Most of these pieces were the objects of trade between China, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. However, it’s the Wanli shipwreck that will be the main feature because of the familiar designs of 17th century Chinese porcelain artwork. It signified the time when European merchants were involved with Asia’s maritime trade and were supplying their domestic markets with Asian products.

Read more about the Malaysian shipwrecks artefact sale.

For books relating to Southeast Asian Shipwrecks and trade ceramics, look up:
Shipwrecks and Sunken Treasure in Southeast Asia by T. Wells
The Ceramics of Southeast Asia : Their Dating and Identification by R. M. Brown

Cambodia's temple tranquility

A travel piece about the Angkor temples in Cambodia, skimming over Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Banteay Srei. Has some practical advice in avoiding the crowds too, although be careful about several spelling errors in the text (eg, Banteay Srei, Suryavarman II).

28 July 2007 (The Courier Mail) – A travel piece about the Angkor temples in Cambodia, skimming over Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan and Banteay Srei. Has some practical advice in avoiding the crowds too, although be careful about several spelling errors in the text (eg, Banteay Srei, Suryavarman II).

Cambodia’s temple tranquility

I always thought that visiting Cambodia’s Angkor temples would be like exploring a lost city.

For many years I had heard tales of crumbling ruins hidden from time by steamy triple-canopy jungle that echoed with birdsong and the call of mysterious animals.

I imagined walking along jungle tracks, coming upon a faded ruin only after the last strike of a guide’s machete cleared an overgrown patch of scrub. But the reality of Siem Reap’s Angkor is this: hordes of tourists and well-worn paths leading to crowded temples.

Pick the wrong time of the day to visit Angkor Wat, the most famous of the region’s temple complexes and the symbol on the Cambodian flag, and you’ll be sharing the site with thousands.

The tour buses start arriving mid-morning and drop their passengers on the other side of the moat, with tourists flooding across the Naga Causeway to the dusty temple compound.

While Angkor is now firmly on the tourist track there are still ways to guarantee that you get to see the temples without being surrounded by hundreds of other people, and one is to pick the time of the day you visit.

Start early, and head into the temples while they are still quiet.

Read the full travel piece on Angkor here.

If you’re planning a holiday in Angkor, some books you’d find useful include:
Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
The Treasures of Angkor: Cultural Travel Guide (Rizzoli Art Guide) by M. Albanese
Angkor: Cambodia’s Wondrous Khmer Temples, Fifth Edition by D. Rooney and P. Danford

Elephant statues unearthed in ancient Cham complex

27 July 2007 (Thanh Nien News) – Excavations at an ancient Cham complex in Quang Nam province have unearthed sandstone statuary, including two pieces depicting elephants.

Thanh Nien News, 27 Jul 2007

Ancient relics found at Cham monuments in central Vietnam

Several relics dating back to the ninth century have been unearthed this week at an ancient Cham monument complex in Vietnam’s central Quang Nam province.

Archaeologists from the Quang Nam Center for Heritage and Relics Preservation found two elephant statues and one of a man on a horse, all made of sandstone and over a meter tall.

Some relief figures, consisting of shapes carved on a surface, and decorative objects were also found during the excavation that began two weeks ago at the Khuong My monument complex in Nui Thanh district.

Tran Anh, director of the center, said the search for antiques would continue on the site spread over 4,300 square meters for the next three months.

The excavations are being done as part of work to restore the sanctuary by year-end at a cost of VND8 billion (US$500,000).

The Cham, an Indic civilization, flourished between the 2nd and 17th centuries.


For books about the Cham, you might want to refer to:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert
Hindu-Buddhist Art Of Vietnam: Treasures From Champa by E. Guillon

Vietnamese archaeologists restore Dong Son drum

Archaeologists have managed to patch the remains and identify a Dong Son drum (previously mentioned in this site here). The drum belongs to an associated set of artefacts dating some 3,000 years old. The story mentions that the drum has a steel handle and I think this is highly unlikely to be an accurate description of the drum.

27 July 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge) – Archaeologists have managed to patch the remains and identify a Dong Son drum (previously mentioned in this site here). The drum belongs to an associated set of artefacts dating some 3,000 years old. The story mentions that the drum has a steel handle and I think this is highly unlikely to be an accurate description of the drum.

Vietnam Net Bridge, 27 Jul 2007

Archeologists restore ancient bronze drum

Archeologists have patched up and identified ancient bronze drum pieces recently discovered in Krong Pach district in Dak Lak province as part of a Heger Classification’s Type 1 drum.

The drum is about 50.5 cm high and 63 cm across with designs engraved all over the body part. The flat-shaped handle is made of steel of 6 cm in width and 8.5 cm in length.

In the area where the drum was unearthed, archeologists also found several iron and bronze tools as well as ancient ceramic pieces. According to experts, the area might have been an ancient burial ground where dead bodies were buried in bronze drums.

Similar tombs have been discovered in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak. Besides the bronze drum, many artifacts dating back to 3,000 years ago have also been found in Krong Pack district. Archeologists suggest that there is a link between the province and the ancient Dong Son culture.


More information about Dong Son drums can be found in:
The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia (Cambridge World Archaeology) by C. Higham
Dong Son Drums in Viet Nam
– Bronze Dong Son Drums by Ha Thuc Can

Prehistoric stone tools found in mountain province

26 July 2007 (Vietnam Net Bridge)

Vestiges of primitive residents discovered in Cao Bang

Archeologists have recently discovered some vestiges of primitive people living around ten thousand years ago in the northern mountainous province of Cao Bang.

Since July 2007, the Archeological Institute and Cao Bang Museum have worked together to investigate the limestone area in Hoa An district and found signs of primitive residents in Nguom Boc Cave in Hong Viet commune.

The investigation team unearthed tens of stone working tools and food left by primitive people about 4.2 m underground. All of these tools were made from river pebbles by rudimentary techniques.

The Nguom Boc Cave collection suggests that Nguom Boc was inhabited by primitive people living in the transition period between the Old and New Stone ages, or early Hoa Binh Culture, about 10,000 years ago.


For further reading about the Hoa Binh culture:
Southeast Asia: From Prehistory to History by P. S. Bellwood and I. Glover (Eds)
The Archaeology of Mainland Southeast Asia: From 10,000 B.C. to the Fall of Angkor by C. Higham

Angkor authority shuts down golf course construction

Cambodia’s Apsara Authority, which oversees the management of the Angkor Archaeological Park, shuts down a golf course being built by South Korean company. The course is near the Western Baray (reservoir). South Korea is the largest source of tourism visits to Siem Reap.

26 July 2007 (People’s Daily) – Cambodia’s Apsara Authority, which oversees the management of the Angkor Archaeological Park, shuts down a golf course being built by South Korean company. The course is near the Western Baray (reservoir). South Korea is the largest source of tourism visits to Siem Reap.

Cambodian Apsara Authority orders S. Korean golf course halted

The Apsara Authority in Siem Reap province of Cambodia has ordered a South Korean company to stop constructing a golf course, alleging that it was being built illegally inside the Angkor Archaeological Park, local media reported Thursday.

An unidentified South Korean company recently began building a golf course on land near the Western Baray, a large reservoir located west of the Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom temples that is considered an integral part of the temple complex, the Cambodia Daily newspaper quoted Apsara Deputy Director Dom Hak as saying.

“I found there are some buildings and a site for a golf course being built inside the land of the Apsara Authority near the Baray Region. They built with no permission from Apsara at all,” Dom Hak said.

It is illegal to build such a site in this area, he said, adding that he ordered the project to be scrapped earlier this month.

Read the full story here.

Heritage tourism potential in north Malaysia?

An editorial feature discussing the tourism potential of northern Malaysia in the light of Visit Malaysia Year 2007. It mentions specifically two locations of archaeological interest: the Bujang Valley at Kedah, which was an Indian outpost under the Chola empire in the 11th century, and the Lenggong Archaeological Museum, home of the Perak Man.

25 July 2007 (The Edge Daily) – An editorial feature discussing the tourism potential of northern Malaysia in the light of Visit Malaysia Year 2007. It mentions specifically two locations of archaeological interest: the Bujang Valley at Kedah, which was an Indian outpost under the Chola empire in the 11th century, and the Lenggong Archaeological Museum, home of the Perak Man. You can read more about the Perak Man on this site here (exhibition at the Muzium Negara) and here (podcast).

Reinventing and boosting tourism in the northern region

Malaysia will be turning 50 soon with Merdeka Day just around the corner. In celebration of our nation’s five decades of independence, 2007 has been declared as Visit Malaysia Year in a bid to promote Malaysia as a holiday destination of choice.

While the country has a myriad of historical sites and recreational spots that could potentially become major tourist attractions, access to funds for maintenance and conservation has not been sufficient in previous years leading to neglect and poor visitor volume.

Many of the lesser-known sites are difficult to access without proper signboards and they have not been promoted properly, hence most of the visitors to these sites are domestic tourists with lower spending power.

This is disappointing as there are a number of heritage sites in the NCER that meet the listing criteria like the 5th century Lembah Bujang kingdom in Kedah, Suffolk House and Dr Sun Yat Sen’s base in Penang which has not been nominated for consideration.

Sabah and Sarawak have always been the ecotourism hotspots in the country but the NCER has its own off-the-beaten-path treasures. Caving enthusiasts will be able to enjoy walking through the 370-metre Gua Kelam limestone caves in Perlis, while white-water rafting and treetop walking are available at Sungai Sedim in Kedah.

On the other hand, it is little known that Perak has in fact been in existence since the prehistoric age. The discovery of the 11,000-year-old Perak Man in Lenggong Valley in 1991 is still one of the country’s most significant prehistoric find and yet the archaeology museum in the area has fallen into disrepair.

Because of the lack of funds from the poor visitor volume, these potential tourist sites are badly maintained and difficult to find. This has been pointed out by a good number of international visitors who have posted comments of their visit to Malaysia on the Internet.

Read more about tourism potential in Malaysia’ northern corridor.

For more information about the Bujang Valley and the Perak Man, you might want to read:
Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula by P. M. Munoz
Monuments of India and the Indianized States: The Plans of Major and Notable Temples, Tombs, Palaces and Pavilions, South-East Asia by F. W. Bunce
Early History (The Encyclopedia of Malaysia) by Nik Hassan Shuhaimi Nik Abdul Rahman (Ed)
Cultural Sites of Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia by J. Dumarcay and M. Smithies

Two Vietnamese world heritage sites in danger list

The World Heritage Sites of Ha Long Bay and the ancient city of Hue have been placed in UNESCO’s list of sites with critical preservation issues, due to the effect of unresolved development issues.

25 July 2007 (Viet Nam News) – The World Heritage Sites of Ha Long Bay and the ancient city of Hue have been placed in UNESCO’s list of sites with critical preservation issues, due to the effect of unresolved development issues.

Development imperils Viet Nam’s World Heritage sites: UNESCO

Viet Nam’s Hue and Ha Long Bay have been included on a list of 130 World Heritage sites encountering critical preservation issues, the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee has said.

The committee noted that transport infrastructure and new construction sites newly built inside and around the Royal Citadel of Hue and urban development in the former royal city and its surrounding areas could have an impact on the preservation of the city of Hue, which is also a World Heritage site.

According to the Hue Centre for Monument Conservation, the committee praised the city authority’s effort to preserve the site, especially the plan to resettle households now living on the top of the Imperial Walls.

But it also instructed the city authority to pay attention to the living standards of the residents affected by the resettlement plan.

Read the full store of Ha Long Bay and Hue in the critical list.

Adventures in Angkor – Ta Prohm

My first visit to Angkor was unfortunately short – with a stay of three days and two nights, there wasn’t very much time to go exploring and I had one and a half days planned ahead to cover at least parts of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The plan was to arrive in the morning, dump the bags in the hotel and meet up with the guide and driver after lunch to spend the afternoon exploring the temples. Alas, this was not to be – the Air Asia flight was delayed and instead of arriving in Siem Reap at just before noon, I touched down at 4 pm! (I was to later learn from the hotel reception that Air Asia’s flights to Siem Reap flights are frequently delayed – so plan ahead if you are going to use that carrier!)

On the bright side, there was still a chance to visit the temples. After 5 pm each day, you can purchase a One-day pass for the next day and still be admitted into the archaeological park that same day.* So I managed to And so it was with this happy entrance feature that we were introduced to our first temple, Ta Prohm.

Ta Prohm - Terrace


Ta Prohm is an excellent introduction to the temples of Angkor because of its seeming state of disrepair – under French colonial rule, the restoration and conservation of Angkor was left under the direction of the École française d’Extrême-Orient (The French School of the Far East, or EFEO). The EFEO decided to leave Ta Prohm in its state of disrepair in order to show how the many temples looked in their overgrown state. The result is a deliberate facade of neglect.

Ta Prohm - Enforced neglect

Strangler figs and silk-cotton trees have taken root in much of the superstructure, often sprouting from the tops of walls while the roots edge down to the ground, often splitting the building below. In essence, the tree and the building become inseparable – in some instances, it is the tree that holds up the building. Ta Prohm’s overgrown state gives it an air of romantic, even ethereal, stillness. Needless to say, Ta Prohm has a lot of photographic appeal.

The temple itself was built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII (c. 1125-1215) and an associated inscription no longer at the site states that it was founded** in 1186. Ta Prohm was built to bring merit to King Jayavarman VII’s mother. In addition to that, the temple’s main deity Prajnaparamita, or the personification of wisdom, was modelled after the king’s mother. To the northeast, a nearby temple, now known as Preah Khan was built to commemorate Jayavarman VII’s father.

The name Ta Prohm, meaning ancestor Brahma, is the name ascribed to it today. In its time, the temple-monastery was known as Rajavihara. Within its grounds, this temple complex housed a total of 12,640 people within its wall enclosure. Today, as with the rest of Angkor, only the temple monastery remains as the houses of the everyday people were made of wood and do not survive in tropical environments. How could this seemingly cramped temple complex house so many people? A quick overview of the Angkor temples is in order:

Thankfully, Google Earth has some pretty good pictures of the plan of Angkor. Most Angkor temples are housed in a rectangular complex oriented in along an East-West axis. Entry into the complex is usually through a gopura (gateway) on the east side. Ta Prohm is no exception here, and the entrance is marked (1). The temple itself, the crumbling remains that you see here are at (2), while the terrace where the headless naga (snake) was taken is approximately at (3). As you can see, the rectangular boundary of the complex is still visible from the air. It is in this area, inside the wall and now overgrown by jungle, that the population would have lived.

In popular culture, Ta Prohm captured the imagination of moviegoers as some parts of the Angelina Jolie*** film Tomb Raider was filmed here – and indeed, this is another reason why Ta Prohm draws in the crowds. The carefully maintained facade of timelessness may certainly have boosted its popularity, but the trees that take root in the superstructure of this former monastery continue to grow – and continue to be a problem.

My guide pointed out this section of wall where the root had pushed the stone blocks apart by two inches. The year before, the gap was only hairline! It will only be a matter of time before the wall comes crashing down – and with that reveals the concern from my Cambodian guide: he questions this state of enforced neglect and wishes that Ta Prohm be conserved and restored fully, as much as the other temples in the area.

Exploration in Ta Prohm took approximately an hour, and in an case it was time to go because the archaeological park closes at 6 pm every day. Up next: Angkor Wat!

* Passes are US$20 a day, $40 for three days and $60 for seven days
** Unlike modern foundation stones, the date of foundation described in the inscriptions commemorate when the temple was “consecrated” – likely to be to time the sacred statue was installed in the temple rather than when the temple first began construction.
*** I write her name with some irony – the Angkor temples have been remembered for a good thousand years; I’m not sure if the same can be said for Ms. Jolie, such is the fleeting nature of fame.

For further reading, you might want to pick up:
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
Angkor: A Tour of the Monuments by T. Zephir and L. Invernizzi