While attending high school in Cambodia in 2000, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to live and study in Canada. I spent the next year studying English and another year and a half in high school before I was accepted into university to study architectural science. During the first two years of university we were taught the history of architecture and the value of historical buildings and ancient sites. I became very interested in this line of thought, partly because I realized that my home country, Cambodia, has so many precious monuments. At the same time I also began to appreciate my own culture and heritage. As a result I chose a topic for my final thesis that examined the integration of passive and active systems to help protect ancient sites from being looted.
When I was collecting data for my project, I came across a website that contained information on heritage destruction, including the looting of temples and gravesites. The web site contained information about a Sustainable Tourism Project at Koh Ker, Preah Vihear Province of Cambodia. The project was due to begin about the time when I was to finish university. The timing couldn’t have been better and the project objectives were not far off from my thesis topic. So I decided I would give it a try and wrote to the NGO Heritage Watch, to see if the organization was recruiting volunteers. I was delighted to find out that they did accept volunteers and so I arrived in Cambodia in June 2007.
After having been away from Cambodia for seven years it was very exciting for me to return. The capital, Phnom Penh, was much different than when I left and so were the people. I realized I had much to catch up on if I wanted to be involved in heritage work. Fortunately, the staff at Heritage Watch welcomed me warmly and made me comfortable right away.
One of my earliest tasks was translating and interpreting articles in Khmer newspapers. For the first time I began to realize how serious the problem of heritage theft was in Cambodia. I also helped to organize Heritage Watch’s new project at Koh Ker.
Starting a project is not easy, especially one that’s as substantial as the Koh Ker project. The area is remote; the people are out of the reach of modern civilization and the temples are in great danger. When everything was packed and ready, we were all excited to begin the new project. I was a bit more excited than my Cambodian colleagues because it was all brand new to me; I couldn’t wait to explore and learn.
The villagers were very kind and welcoming. I was not sure whether it was because they knew the good intentions that we have or because they do this to everyone. I later learned that they are friendly to everyone. Soon after I settled in, we went out to be in touch with the good and generous people that I was about to be working with. Along the way, I got to explore some of the most amazing temples which have been hidden in the jungle for centuries. I felt honored and very fortunate to be able to walk through the gates and climb those temple’s stairs.