Published in the Phnom Penh Post on 25 May 2012.
The Apsara Authority and the Ecole Français d’Extrême Orient (EFEO) will start the diagnostic phase in June for the restoration of the island temple of West Mebon temple in the middle of the West Baray, six kilometres west of Siem Reap. Based on that, is anticipated that the restoration work will then be able to go ahead in September this year.
The vast West Baray is 8,000 metres long by 2,100 metres wide and bigger than 2,000 football pitches combined. The waters here rise and fall with the seasons, creating a unique set of working conditions and constraints for the team.
The euro 3 million (US$3.8 million) project is jointly funded by the Apsara Authority and the EFEO, and work started in mid-April for construction of a four-metre-high dyke 30 metres beyond the temple boundaries. The dyke will enable the restoration work to continue unimpaired by the rise and fall of the lake waters in the baray throughout the four year project.
The team is also conducting a diagnostic survey of the temple’s conditions, its stability and the ground conditions. This will determine how the next phases of the temples restoration will be conducted.
Pascal Royère, the project coordinator, is returning to Siem Reap next week to oversee the work in a fitting move given his recent successful restoration of Baphuon temple.
West Mebon is one of the few temples in Cambodia completed in the Baphuon style, noted for its elegant ornamentation and fluidity. The style is also known for carving on every available area, which helped Royère piece together what had become known as the “world’s largest jigsaw puzzle” at his last work-site.
In the absence of other inscriptions relating to the West Mebon, this ornamentation has also helped to identify a probable construction period for the temple as eleventh century.
At West Mebon, the work will be a little bit different though. Instead of a huge pyramid temple, West Mebon is a square enclosure of about 90 metres on each side, with carvings and three gopura (gates) on each wall.
The walls enclosed a pond, in the middle of which was an island accessed by a causeway which was home to a bronze statue known as The Reclining Vishnu, the largest known bronze work in Khmer art which now sits in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
But that structure is now largely collapsed says Royère, adding, “In the current condition the west wall is only partially remaining, with two pavilions and about one quarter of the wall. The others have all collapsed. It’s in very poor condition, and we will need to dismantle it so that we can consolidate the building’s strength and then rebuild it again.”
This is similar to the process that was employed at Baphuon, known as anastolysis, though Royère notes that there will be significant differences. “We can use a different conso-lidation technique because we’re not under the same pressures as at Baphuon. It is not a rising structure, but the water levels are an issue as they relate directly to the stability of the ground.”
The main restoration work is scheduled to begin in September. Royère is pleased that many of the 130-strong team will come from the project at Baphuon because, “They are all Cambodian and very experienced in the work.” Indeed some team members were even involved in work carried out at Baphuon during the 1960s and 1970s.