Nowadays, most of the smuggling takes place over the western border with Thailand. It is fairly easy to cross, and for the most part no-one pays too much attention, unless fired up by special orders from above. The immediate destination for smaller pieces is the slew of antique shops in Bangkok. I wanted to see this low-level process for myself, and travelled with Danny first to Chanthaburi to visit Chai, the brother-in-law of a friend of mine and local businessman. He knew people in antiques in the border town of Aranyaprathet, and had some police connections that would circumvent the usual immigration procedures.
This border crossing is increasingly popular among Western travellers on a budget, but the advantages of cheap overland travel are mitigated by the experience of Cambodia's port of entry, the miserable, seedy little town of Paoy Pet. Thais have a different interest in it since the casinos have opened here. A prominent sign on the approach to Aranyaprathet from Bangkok, newly erected, gives a warning in Thai: 'Don't give your money to the Cambodian casinos.' On the reverse side is the shorter message, 'We told you so.'
We rode into Aranyaprathet in Chai's new, luxurious Mercedes, and head for the crossing. Strictly speaking, Danny and I needed some documentation, but we were invisible behind the car's darkened windows, and Chai had a brief conversation with one of the Thai immigration officials. 'I told him I'd bring you back,' he laughed.
Not that there was any risk of our staying. We made a quick tour around the scrappy market with its dusty lanes, enough to see that there was nothing of interest in antiques, although four fresh leopard skins pegged up in one stall would have excited any conservationist. We returned to Aran and started to do the rounds of the dealers. The general pattern was a paltry collection of odds and ends on display but, once Chai had asked for the owner and we had hung around long enough, increasingly valuable pieces would be brought out. Many bronzes. Costly, perhaps, but genuine? None of us were experts. At one of the dealers, we achieved the next stage in the opening of the labyrinth — a visit to the back of the shop. In this case, it was a large shed, and in before us stretched a field of lingas, a couple of dozen stone phalluses sprouting from the concrete floor. Most were in the standard form of three different cross-sections encompassing the Hindu Trinity: square at the base, representing four-faced Brahma, an octagonal middle signifying Vishnu, and a round tip, incised with a stylised but recognisable prepuce, for Shiva. All had until recently been central images in ancient Khmer sanctuaries. Why so many, I asked. It seemed that they were not good sellers compared with figurative sculptures. A bit too minimalist, perhaps. The looters had misjudged the market or, more likely, they just took what they could and let the dealers worry about how to sell them.
For all Chai's talk of having friends in town, which he clearly did, we were not being very smart. After spending the afternoon driving around Aranyaprathet in the large silver Mercedes with its tinted windows, we had made ourselves very visible, as we were about to find out. It was almost a two-hour drive back to Chanthaburi, and we left rather late, at dusk. After twenty minutes we reached the military checkpoint and were a little surprised to be searched. Two soldiers rooted around in the back of the car with torches. It took no more than a few minutes, then we were on our way, driving fast along the newly surfaced road, hardly any other vehicles in sight.
By now it was dark and Chai was speeding. We hissed along in a tight pool of light. No signs of habitation, no traffic, just the tarmac and the branches of small shrubby trees lining the road. For some reason Chai had the headlights dipped, so that when it happened, it happened quickly.
We had a sudden glimpse of a motorbike, but right in the middle of the road, standing, no lights, a man holding it. Chai jerked the wheel to the left, but we hit the bike hard. The Mercedes, built like a tank, wasn't even deflected.
'What do I do?'
I said, 'Don't stop. Keep going.' Danny said, 'Well, I don't know...'
Complete blackness behind as we sped on. Something definitely wrong. There are two reasons for a motorbike to be standing in the middle of a border road in Thailand at night, and much the less likely is a breakdown.
'I think we just caught them setting it up ...' The procedure is: motorbike on road with rider attempting to fix it, car approaches, slows down to help, rider's accomplices emerge from bushes with weaponry, relieve passengers of valuables. Particularly if said valuables have been noted at previous checkpoint. In this case, however, Chai's reckless driving precluded the Good Samaritan performance that was expected.
Several miles further on we saw lights to the left, at a distance from the road. Chai turned into a narrow track leading towards a small building, drove some fifty yards and cut the lights and engine. This didn't leave us in too good a position if there was anyone really diligent behind, but was still better than doing the obvious and just driving on. The night was silent. After a few minutes a car passed along the highway at speed in the same direction that we had been travelling; then nothing.
We examined the damage. Expensive bodywork but nothing more serious. I discovered that the small bronze figurine in my case was missing, and for one unbalanced moment suggested returning. 'Michael, that's about the most stupid thing I've ever heard you say,' said Danny. Chai started the engine, we turned in the narrow space and returned to the highway. Chai by this time was extremely nervous, counting the kilometres to Chanthaburi Province.
'That's my province,' he said. 'I know the police there. We'll be all right. Do you think we'll be all right?' We were. Eventually, a sign flashed in the headlights, Chiangwat Chanthaburi, in Thai and English. Another hour and we were home.
But this was very small stuff. More dramatically, on the first night of one visit to Siem Reap, I woke at 1.20 in the morning to automatic gunfire and grenade explosions. In a multiple robbery and general mayhem, a number of unidentified assailants attacked the Angkor Conservancy. Blowing off the gate, and convincing the guards to run off with their display of firepower, they made off with several of the best pieces in one of the warehouses. For good measure they sprayed the UN compound with automatic fire and robbed two nearby houses. The toll: two dead, 11 injured (including one Portuguese tourist at the Grand Hotel who unwisely thought to look out of his window) and several (uncatalogued) sculptures. A later official government report which I saw predictably placed the blame on 'the Pol Pot Armies', but few people were in doubt that this was simply a well-executed robbery, probably with inside help. Years later I spoke to In Phally, who has been on the staff of the Conservancy since the 1980s. In fact, he grew up in the compound, where his father was buildings superintendent until killed by the Khmer Rouge when they took over the town in 1975. On this February night in 1993, Phally had returned home to sleep, although he often did a turn of duty during the night. This was lucky for him. The room at the Conservancy where he normally spent the night was sprayed with bullets. Indeed, one unarmed guard died. 'They knew exactly what they were looking for', Phally said. 'They went straight to that door.' He gestured to one of the buildings where the most important pieces were kept. 'They took only the best, so they must have had information from someone who worked here.'
In Phnom Penh a fortnight later, Pich Keo, the Director of the National Museum expressed his fears for the safety of even that collection. With Khmer art prices standing at over £1 million for a top-quality life-size statue (as in a recent sale in London), there is every reason for renewed pillage. Khmer pieces appear with increasing frequency in Europe and America — and more than ever the best ones are likely to be sculptures of real importance. Typically, the pieces, in stone and in bronze, are unattributed. The dealers remain coy about the sources, not through ignorance but because they know that they have recently been plundered. Corruption is on the increase, and with the connivance of local officials it is becoming increasingly easy to remove large and important sculptures and transport them to Thailand.
But the principal artery of the Khmer empire ran north and west — Malraux's Royal Way — leaving the North Gate of Angkor Thom to link the capital with what is now Thailand, its destination Phimai. About a hundred kilometres from Angkor it reaches Banteay Chhmar, Citadel of the Cat, the largest ancient city in the north-west of Cambodia, a tremendous complex inside a two by two-and-a-half kilometre city wall and moat. If Angkor itself was largely abandoned for 400 years, then this remote site was truly Cambodia's lost city. Even when building started in the late 12th century, this was a dry wilderness, known as 'the sand country'. Contemporary with the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan at Angkor, Banteay Chhmar has the same huge stone faces — King Jayavarman VII as the compassionate Bodhisattva — and a massive wall around the central complex carved with almost one kilometre of bas-reliefs.
After the capital moved from Angkor to Phnom Penh, the roads that fanned out to connect it to the outposts of empire had no use. There is no record of what happened at Banteay Chhmar, but it was in a war zone — the no-man's land on the way to Siam, and was probably soon deserted. The grand Royal Ways withered to a scattering of trails leading from one occasional village to another. The city was forgotten by everyone except the farmers who used the inner moat to bathe their water buffaloes. Even in the twentieth century, the French did nothing with Banteay Chhmar. No restoration was undertaken, no excavation, not even clearing of the forest, which by this century had grown in and around the collapsing stone temple. Although one of the greatest of the French archaeologists, George Groslier, had a personal affection for the place, he did no more than look and make notes.
When the Vietnamese invasion succeeded in driving the genocidal Pol Pot from power at the beginning of 1979, the border areas became a new area of conflict. The Khmer Rouge occupied some, the KPNLF and Sihanoukists took control of others. Banteay Chhmar was close to a KPNLF stronghold and was spared major fighting. Also, unlike temples like Ta Muen Thom further north that were in the hands of the Khmer Rouge, there seems to have been little if any theft at the time (at Ta Muen Thom, the Khmer Rouge used dynamite to break up buildings for the carvings).
The run-up to the May 1993 elections gave a short window of opportunity to visit this remarkable site. I drove from Siem Reap with Janos Jelen, the UNTAC Deputy Director of Civil Administration for the province — five hours in a tunnel of dust that hung in the air and coated the landscape on either side. By mid-afternoon the sun was shining a weak yellow through the haze. The tenuous control that UNTAC troops and civil police were supposed to be exercising was already dissolving. An hour and a half from Siem Reap we stopped at the village of Kralanh to see some of Janos' compatriots, Hungarians manning the police post. The room in which we were given coffee was lined with full rice sacks; at first glance I took them to be part of a food distribution programme, but was told they were hastily filled sandbags — the police station came under fire two nights previously.
We drove on through Sisophon and Svay Chek, finally reaching the village of Thma Pok, a base for United Nations police and military observers. A major from Russian Military Intelligence met us at the police station where we were to spend the night, and escorted us from there. Mine clearance has hardly begun, the tactical map confirming what the abandoned land on either side of the road suggests (among the colour coded pins on the map showing incidents there was a scattering of the dark red ones for land mine injuries and deaths).
After fifteen kilometres, the edge of a forest appeared directly ahead. A little closer and we could see water in front of the trees — the moat of the temple. We had already passed through the surrounding city limits without noticing them; after some six hundred years there was little trace. The only settlement now was a small hamlet, named after the temple. It occurred to me that quite possibly the bamboo, thatch and wood houses might be the descendants of original dwellings. In the twelfth century, however, only Angkor Thom was larger.
The central sanctuary is one of the most complicated structures of any Khmer building, and unusual for being long and narrow. The only practical way of moving around was at roof level, over the galleries and the remains of towers. In the late afternoon haze the features were not at first obvious, but as we crawled along a gallery roof the light caught a face carved on one of the towers, broad, fleshy-lipped, with that famous enigmatic half-smile. There were others, draped with lianas or supporting trees.
We returned the following morning to see the temple's masterpieces — a series of eight multi-armed Lokesvaras carved on the west wall — only to find that this time we were not alone. There were voices from the other side of one of the galleries, speaking in Thai, which fortunately Danny and I could follow. One said, 'What do you think of this one?', another replied, 'Sure, we can get that.' We made our way over, to find a group of young Thai men examining carvings on the lower walls of one of the towers, and taking photographs. We approached. Surprised, they told us they were soldiers from a unit across the border, on an outing. A Sunday cultural excursion for teenage Thai squaddies is such an original idea that even they sound unconvinced as they told us. We volunteered that we were making a photographic record of the temple because of the threat of thefts. They nodded vigorously, agreeing that this was a serious problem, and we all climbed out of the ruins together, they to a capacious army truck, we to our white UNTAC four-wheel drive. On reflection, all we may have done was to speed up the process of theft. 'I suppose they'll just come back tonight for some of the pieces', Janos remarked as we drove away.
Our Russian major added that there was nothing that the UN could do about it. If their mandate left them helpless to stop the nightly political killings and occasional Khmer Rouge massacres of ethnic Vietnamese, art theft was a barely noticeable problem. The previous year, however, other forces appeared to have taken a hand. The major described what had happened. Eight men had been seen entering Banteay Chhmar one night, and the police were alerted. Relying on the moat to help seal the temple, the police surrounded the site, preferring not to enter and get involved in a fire fight. During the night, there was a muffled crash from inside, but no other movement.
When the police entered the next day, they discovered that a large section of gallery was freshly collapsed. The local UNTAC police also inspected the site, and concluded that the men had dug their own grave. In the process of levering out carved blocks, they had brought the many tons of gallery down on top of them. Still, the investigation was under local police control, and some aspects seemed a little strange. No attempt was made to recover the bodies, and the verdict rested on what the major called 'collateral evidence' — the circumstances and various tools and items of clothing left at the site. No-one, however, seemed to have mentioned the smell, an unavoidable component in this climate. For the local Khmers, this was clearly revenge exacted by the tutelary spirit of the place.