High-resolution photographs taken on a 1994 space shuttle mission revealed 12 impressive 14th century Khmer temples beneath the jungle under control of the Khmer Rouge.

In 1996, archaeologists working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California used radar imagery taken from the Space Shuttle to find remote Khmer temples hidden by jungle growth and then flew a DC-8 equipped with radar that penetrated jungle foliage to get more detailed data. The scientists found roads, canals earthworks and even temples that they had not previously known. Some of the sites have only recently been reached by scientists because of mines, flooding and banditry by splinter groups of the Khmer Rouge.

National Museum of Khmer Art and Archeology (a block away from the Royal Palace) has a fine collection of pre-Angkor and high-Angkor Khmer art and sculpture. Most of the 5,800 art works displayed and housed at the museum are stone sculptures and bas-reliefs that were used to decorate Khmer temples. Many of the best statues found at Angkor Wat and other Khmer temples, that weren't looted by the French and Cambodian soldiers, are found here.

Influenced and inspired by Indian art and Buddhism, the figures include images of Buddhas, Nagas (the seven-headed serpent), apsara dancers, heads of Angkor kings, and Hindu gods like Shiva, Durga, Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha. The identity of the craftsmen and artists who made all the statues and art work is unknown. Some Western visitors to the museum find the stone sculptures and art work to be repetitive and boring. Most of the items are made from sandstone; there is very little color; and many of the works seem lost taken out of the context of their temple. Take a visit to the restoration wing if it is open to visitors. It is interesting watching the craftsmen and restorers at work.

Built of red bricks by the French in a pseudo-Khmer style in 1917, around the time of World War I, the National Museum building is built around a courtyard. It was abandoned during the Khmer Rouge years between 1975 and 1979. During that time the museum’s roof caved in, the art works were neglected and the museum was taken over by three species of squeaking, insect-eating bats, which over time became more famous than the objects in the museum .

The museum comprises four courtyards which face onto a garden courtyards to the left and straight ahead of the entrance. There is a good collection of Khmer sculptures dating from the pre-Angkor period (4th century) to post-Ankgor period (14th century) Some highlights include the eight-armed statue of Vishnu from the 6th or 7th century, the statue of Shiva (circa 877-866) and the sublime statue of Jayavarman VII seated (circa 1181-1218), his head bowed slightly in a meditative pose. Elsewhere around the museum are display of pottery and bronzes dating from the pre-Angkor periods of Funan and Chenla (4th to 9th centuries), the Indravraman period (9th and 10th centuries), the classical Angkor period (10th to 14th centuries), as well as more recent works.

The National Museum of Cambodia is housed in a graceful terracotta structure of traditional design (built 1917-20) just north of the Royal Palace. Entry is $3. Photography is prohibited inside. Guides who speak French and English are available, and there is also a booklet - Khmer Art in Stone - available at the front desk for US$3, which gives a rundown with locations of the most important objects on display. The museum is open daily from 8:00am to 11:30am and from 2:30pm to 5:00pm.

Erika Kinetz wrote in the New York Times, “If you can’t make it to Angkor Wat, check out the collection of Angkorian artifacts at the National Museum (corner of Street 13 and Street 184; tel. 855-23-211-753). An open-air pavilion built around a lush garden fountain, it’s one of the calmest places in the city, despite the occasional bat flying overhead. [Source: Erika Kinetz, New York Times, September 19, 2008]

See Angkor Wat and Other Archeological Sites Under Places

Rediscovery of Angkor, Looting and War Damage There

The French naturalist Henri Mouhout is credited with rediscovering Angkor Wat in 1858 under vines and jungle growth. In Voyage a Siam et dans le Cambodge (1868) he wrote: “Suddenly, as if by enchantment, [the traveler] seems to be transported...from profound darkness into light... There are...ruins of such grandeur...that, at the first view, one is filled profound admiration, and cannot but wonder as what has become of the powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works.” The “discovery” made Mouhout quite famous. He was given credit for making one of the greatest archeological finds of all time.

In actuality local people had known about Angkor ever since it was abandoned in 1432. Other Westerners laid eyes on it before Mouhout. Some Portuguese missionaries visited it in 1580. They wrote detailed descriptions of it and discounted the possibilty that the Khmers could have built and theorized maybe it as built by descendants of Alexander the Great or Jews from China.

The French missionary Father Charle-Emile Boulliveaux who saw it in 1850. But Mouhout drummed up the most press attention with the posthumous account of his journey published in 1863, two years after he died of malaria in Laos while exploring the Upper Mekong River Basin.By 1870s the French were busy looting treasurers from the site. The French archeologist Louis Delaporte, for example, collected 70 sculptors from Angkor, many of which are now in the Guiment Museum in Paris.

In the 1920s and 30s Angkor was visited by the rich and fashionable. The Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton came here after falling madly in love with the famous Moscow-born German artist Walter Spies in Bali. During the Cambodian civil war, the Khmer Rouge years and the Vietnamese occupation, the Angkor area was the site of some fighting. Some land mines were planted around the temples and artillery pieces were set up on high ground. Bullets, shrapnel and mortars hit some of the temples but mostly the temples and building emerged from the war and Khmer Rouge years remarkably unscathed. Mostly the temples was left to be reclaimed by the jungle and rediscovered again, by tourists, beginning in the early 1990s. More than 25,000 mines were removed before the area was declared the Angkor Archeological Park.

Restoration of Angkor

French archaeologists began clearing Angkor Wat out of the jungle in 1908. They worked almost continuously until 1972, when they were forced to leave aa the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. Work did not resume until years after the Khmer Rouge was ousted and then only in fits and starts as the Khmer Rouge sought refuge in the mountains and jungles not far from the Angkor area.

In 1986 the Archeological Survey of India began a six year restoration project at Angkor Wat. A few years later a Polish team began restoring Bayon. Part of the restoration at Angkor Wat involved replacing stones in temple's East Gallery, which contains a magnificent bas-relief depicting a Hindu creation myth. The Indian team which worked there from 1986 to 1992 temporarily dismantled part of the temple to remove lichens that had eaten away at the stone, and shored up areas that were in danger of collapsing. The India team were criticized for destroying details on carving as they cleaned off the lichen and for filling in cracks using concrete that contained salt that ate away at the stone. UNESCO, France and other Western nations did not participate in these efforts because the United Nations did not recognize the Vietnamese-back government that governed Cambodia until 1989. These days many nations and organizations are involved in the conservation and restoration efforts at Angkor's temples.

Angkor's temples fared fairly well and sustained little damage during the two decades of war. A few stone heads were loped off and looted, some entire statues disappeared, a couple of stone noses were shot off and walls were scarred with bullet holes and shrapnel pits. But all 'n all the temples and buildings are is in pretty good shape considering what happened Cambodia. Many of the missing statues in turns out were taken by the government and placed in a huge warehouse to keep them safe. Large areas of Angkor were land mined. This helped deter looters (the mines have since been removed from the main temple area but some may still be found off the beaten path).

Mother nature has done more damage to Angkor than weapons or guerrillas. Fig trees, vines and jungle growth have swallowed up several smaller temples and strangled larger building, crushing and grinding the stones.

Archaeologists and their Cambodian laborers have performed a herculean feats removing the jungle growth and rebuilding the temples. Sometimes ordinary Cambodian peasants can be seen picking weeds and clearing away vines with machetes for no pay. They are doing this out of pride for their culture and to earn merit in the next life. Local farmers can also sometimes be seen climbing on the towers to collect bats to eat and sell. Some local people sell trinkets and T-shirts. In many temples you can find local people and visiting Cambodians praying and leaving offerings, Some families have lived in the Angkor area for generations. Other are relatively new arrivals. By one estimate 100,000 people live inside the Angkor Wat park. Some monkeys and elephants have also arrived. Some well-connected people have built villas and restaurants in the park.

Foreign donors and governments, led by the U.S., France and Japan, have spent as much over $50 million restoring monuments in the Angkor Wat area. Currently there are preservation teams from about 30 different countries operating in the area, in part because the Cambodian government has little money to expend on such endeavors. Deciding how they money should be spent, what kind of work should be done or avoided is a messy process that involves the Cambodian government and a number of foreign academic and non-governmental organizations. The French L’Eole Franciase d’Extreme-Orient has been aroudn the longest, about 100 years. The Japanese feel they have a large say because they have poured a lot of money into various projects.

The massive preservation effort now involves archaeological teams from at least 12 countries. Russians, Indians, Germans, Americans, Chinese, Indonesians, Swiss, Italians and Poles are also involved and they have their opinions on how work should be done on whether trees should be saved or chopped down and their interests often clash with those of tourists, who, for example, like all he trees entangled with the ruins because the vegetation helps extenuate the aesthetic, adventurous image of the place. For the most part archeologists don’t like the trees because they can tear apart the buildings.

Most of the Cambodian researchers that studied the Angkor civilization before the Cambodian Civil War and the Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s were killed during the years of the Pol Pot regime. Japan’s Sophia University established the Asia Center for Research and Human Development in 2002 under the philosophy that "the preservation and restoration of the site should be carried out by Cambodians, for Cambodians." Six Cambodians had received doctorate degrees and 13 have received master's degrees from the university as of March 2009. In 2001, the university's investigation mission, including Cambodian trainees, successfully excavated 274 discarded Buddhist statues at the Banteay Kdei temple about 30 kilometers from Angkor Wat.

Conservation and Local People at Angkor

The Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA) is the Cambodian agency that manages Angkor. Much of the conservation and restoration works at Angkor between 1907 and 1992 was done by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the Archaeological Survey of India, the Polish conservation body PKZ, and the World Monuments Fund. The property is legally protected by the Royal Decree on the Zoning of the Region of Siem Reap/Angkor adopted on 28 May 1994 and the Law on the protection of the natural and cultural heritage promulgated on 25 January 1996. In order to strengthen and to clarify the ownership and building codes in the protected zones 1 and 2, boundary posts have been put in 2004 and 2009 and the action was completed in 2012. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

The ICC-Angkor (International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the historic site of Angkor) created on 13 October 1993, ensures the coordination of the successive scientific, restoration and conservation related projects, executed by the Royal Cambodian Government and its international partners. It ensures the consistency of the various projects, and defines, when necessary, technical and financial standards and calls the attention of all the concerned parties when required. It also contributes to the overall management of the property and its sustainable development. The successful conservation of the property by the APSARA National Authority, monitored by the ICC-Angkor, was crowned by the removal of the property from the World Heritage List in danger in 2004. The site was put on the World Heritage List and World Heritage in Danger list in 1992 after surviving invasion, civil war, the Khmer Rouge, illegal excavation, pillaging, landmines. and most recently legions of tourists.

Angkor is one of the largest archaeological sites in operation in the world. Tourism represents an enormous economic potential but it can also generate irreparable destructions of the tangible as well as intangible cultural heritage. Many research projects have been undertaken, since the international safeguarding program was first launched in 1993.The scientific objectives of the research (e.g. anthropological studies on socio-economic conditions) result in a better knowledge and understanding of the history of the site, and its inhabitants that constitute a rich exceptional legacy of the intangible heritage. The purpose is to associate the “intangible culture” to the enhancement of the monuments in order to sensitize the local population to the importance and necessity of its protection and preservation and assist in the development of the site as Angkor is a living heritage site where Khmer people in general, but especially the local population, are known to be particularly conservative with respect to ancestral traditions and where they adhere to a great number of archaic cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere.

The inhabitants venerate the temple deities and organize ceremonies and rituals in their honor, involving prayers, traditional music and dance. Moreover, the Angkor Archaeological Park is very rich in medicinal plants, used by the local population for treatment of diseases. The plants are prepared and then brought to different temple sites for blessing by the gods. The Preah Khan temple is considered to have been a university of medicine and the NeakPoan an ancient hospital. These aspects of intangible heritage are further enriched by the traditional textile and basket weaving practices and palm sugar production, which all result in products that are being sold on local markets and to the tourists, thus contributing to the sustainable development and livelihood of the population living in and around the World Heritage site.

The Angkor Management Plan (AMP) and Community Development Participation Project (CDPP), a bilateral cooperation with the Government of New Zealand. The AMP helps the APSARA National Authority to reorganize and strengthen the institutional aspects, and the CDPP prepares the land use map with an experimental participation of the communities and supports small projects related to tourist development in order to improve the income of villagers living in the protected zones;

The Heritage Management Framework composed of a Tourism Management Plan and a Risk map on monuments and natural resources; a multilateral cooperation with the Government of Australia and UNESCO. Preliminary analytical and planning work for the management strategy will take into account the necessity to preserve the special atmosphere of Angkor. All decisions must guarantee physical, spiritual, and emotional accessibility to the site for the visitors.

Development at Angkor

There are worries that Angkor could become too much like a theme park. Hot air ballooning trips over the ruins have left some tourist injured. Proposals have been made to install escalators to carry visitors to the hilltop temples.

Where all the money from ticket sales and entrance fees goes it s not clear. The government took the right to collect entrance fees away from the conservancy agency that ran the park and gave it to a politically-connected private firm called Sokimex which already has a monopoly on fuel and military supplies.

Money comes not only from tourism. Movies such as “Laura Croft: Tomb Raider” have been shot there and fees are collected for events such as concerts and weddings. In December 2002, a concert with tenor Jose Carreras was staged with 150 Cambodian dancers and 112 orange-robed monks. Some film companies have hired sections of sites for days at a time to shoot movies and television commercials. The military reportedly wants to open a casino.

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Sokimex Group, which has used its connections with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to become the country's biggest company, plans to build a 900-room hotel and spa, with shopping mall, water park, slot machines and conference center, on a 56-acre site in Siem Reap.Sokimex also controls the ticket concession to Angkor. Passes cost $20 a day, $40 for three days and $60 a week. It's small change for a company that deals in oil, gas stations, pharmaceutical products, garment making, property development and luxury hotels and resorts, in addition to running an airline. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2008]

Sokimex's share of the admission take is set by a contract with the government, and Burnham said it leaves most of the profit in the company's hands. One-third of the revenue is supposed to go to APSARA, a Cambodian agency set up by royal decree to preserve the Angkor sites and manage development. But some people dispute the ticket sales figures, saying Apsara -- which takes its name from the heavenly nymphs of Hindu and Buddhist mythology whose bare-breasted figures adorn the Angkor temple walls -- gets enough only to cover basic expenses. "APSARA has virtually no money for conservation," Burnham said. "All of the conservation at Angkor is being done through international assistance."

Restoration Work at Bayon

The North Library of Bayon was restored by a Japanese team that replicated ancient Khmer techniques, but in some cases used newly quarried stone, a practiced considered anathema to some archeologist, who think only original stones should be used. The Japanese team also restored the North Library of Angkor Wat.

The central tower at Bayon temple is at risk of collapse, according to research by the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA). The Japanese newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Parts of the sculptured faces have already fallen off, altering the symmetry the tower had when it was constructed during the late 12th century and 13th century. In its normal observation of the temple, the JSA detected no indication of the tower tilting. But during research at the nearby Prasat Sour Prat tower, the JSA discovered that the stone of which the Angkor monuments are constructed is vulnerable to extreme weather, including heavy rain and strong winds, and is at high risk of tilting drastically. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 06, 2005]

"The parts that have already fallen from the sculptures on the Bayon temple were presumably caused by extreme weather," said Yoshinori Iwasaki of the Geo-Research Institute, who led the JSA research into the structure of the monuments and the stability of the ground. "Some of the stone pillars supporting the tower have cracks, which could lead to the collapse of the whole tower if extreme weather conditions continue." In its "Master Plan for the Conservation and Restoration of the Bayon Complex," the JSA stressed that some reinforcement measures are necessary, such as an injection of glue between cracks or securing the tower with ropes.


Baphuon (within Angkor Thom, 200 meters northwest of Banyon) was built by King Udayadityavarman II in 1060 and dedicated to Hinduism. Originally standing five stories tall, it was the most impressive structure in the Angkor area in its time. The 13th century Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan One who saw it called it “a truly astonishing spectacle.” “North of the Golden Tower [Bayon], rises the Tower of Branze [Baphuon] higher even than the Golden Tower : a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base,” he said.

Baphuon contained five towers and was bigger than many of the pyramids in Mexico. It was originally a Hindu temple but when Angkor converted to Buddhism a 250-foot-long reclining Buddha was placed at the top. When French archeologists rediscovered Baphuon it was collapsing in chunks because it had built on sand with poor drainage. They decided to take the temple apart and rebuild it so it would be stable. As they took it apart the archeologists made careful notes of where each stone went. Half the temple was in pieces, with blocks scattered over 25 acres of grassy fields, when work was interrupted in 1972 because of civil war and the Khmer Rouge. Unfortunately during the Khmer Rouge years all the records of where the stones went were lost.

Work began anew in 1995. Without the records putting Baphuon back together has been described as the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle: one with 300,000 blocks for pieces. Over the years restoration and rebuilding work has been done by a 200-member team under the supervision of French archeologists, and slowly, block by block, it the temple is rising again.

Each block has a unique position. As is true with a jigsaw puzzle pieces that are almost correct isn’t good enough. Often only one stone fits in a given spot and finding that stone is no easy task. Aiding the team are 1,000 photographs taken before 1972, advice from archeologist who worked at site before 1972 and the shapes of the blocks themselves which offer various clues as to where they go. As of the early 2000s, archeologist said they knew where about 80 percent of the stones went and hoped rebuild the temple by the late 2000s.

Baphuon is situated inside the royal city of Angkor Thom but dates from the eleventh century and was built before the city was established. An interesting feature of Baphuon are the bas-reliefs which are scenes carved in small squares. Unfortunately few of these are visible because of the poor state of the temple. The narrative themes are realistic depictions of daily life and forest scenes.

Visitors enter Baphuon and leave from the east. Access to the summit is difficult as much of the temple has collapsed and it is overgrown but for those stalwarts who want to go to the top, use the way with columns at the east and the temple of Phimeanakas on the left. Visitors should walk down the causeway, climb the steps to the first tier, turn left and walk around the temple, always keeping it on their right. It was built in middle of the 11th century (1060) by king Udayadityavarman II, dedicated to The Hindu god Siva with following Prasat Baphuon.

Angkor National Museum

The Angkor National Museum is housed in a mammoth, 20,000-square-meter building. Opened in November 2007, the air-conditioned museum has a shopping mall-like feel that contrasts with the thousands-year-old artefacts contained within it. It's composed of eight separate galleries, all connected by a vaulted corridor with a series of fountains and lined with what seems like all the Angkorian limestone lion and demon heads missing from statues at the temples. After an explanatory film screening called Story behind the legend, you're pointed toward the galleries:

Gallery 1: “1,000 Buddha Images” is the only gallery that's just one large room, rather than a series of maze-like alcoves, and the sight of all these Buddhas at once is striking. Hundreds of small and miniature Buddha figurines, made of metals, jewels and wood, all individually illuminated, line the walls here, identified according to the period they were made during and where they were discovered. In the centre, life-size and larger Buddha characters are displayed. The display includes Buddhas from Banteay Kdei, Bayon, Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear.

Gallery 2: “Pre-Angkor Period: Khmer Civilisation and all the subsequent ones combine mural-size explanations and short films through maze-like rooms explaining Angkorian history. The styles of figurines precede the trademark Angkor style, and there's a large collection of lingas, lintels and colonnettes. Gallery 3: “Religion and Beliefs” explains several of the most significant Hindu and Buddhist religious stories and folk tales depicted on Angkorian temples, including the most memorable Churning of the Sea of Milk carved into the rear wall at Angkor Wat. Carvings of Buddhist and Hindu religious figures are concentrated here as well.

Gallery 4: “The Great Khmer Kings” focuses on King Jayavarman II, Yasovarman I, Soryavarman II and Jayavarman VII, those most responsible for Angkor's greatest constructions. Figures of the kings and relics from the temples they commissioned abound. Gallery 5: “Angkor Wat”: There's a large film gallery inside this section of the museum. It features beautiful, panoramic images of the temple and explanations of how it was constructed. There are also many restored figures from the temple itself as well as post-Angkorian wooden statues used for worship at the temple until several hundred years ago. Gallery 6: “Angkor Thom”: In addition to recovered artefacts from Angkor Thom, this gallery includes a history of and artefacts from the vast irrigation projects commissioned by the king who built Angkor Thom with his smiling face looking out from every tower: Jayavarman VII.

Gallery 7: “Story From Stones” is one of the most interesting. It's a collection of stone pallets with ancient Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions. The writing on each slate is explained on placards below. The writing on them includes the declaration of the construction of a new hospital, lists of slave names, mediations of land disputes and adulations of kings and gods. Gallery 8: “Ancient Costume”: From Apsaras and kings to princesses and warriors, this room contains the busts and statues of distinct fashions and styles as they evolved throughout Angkor time. There's also a collection of ancient jewellery and headdresses. It's a clever segue to the final room -- the gift shop -- where upscale imitations of these fashions abound.

Archeology and Development at Preah Vihear

Brendan Borrell wrote in Archaeology magazine: “While Preah Vihear is not nearly as large as the ruins of Angkor, the art and architecture are significant and its setting is far more spectacular. The first archaeological investigation of Preah Vihear was conducted when the French colonized the region. The first Westerner to see the ruins was French explorer and archaeologist Étienne Aymonier, who came to the temple in 1883 and later described its architecture, as well as the Khmer and Sanskrit inscriptions. Henri Parmentier of the École française d’Extrême-Orient visited the monument in 1924 and returned to clear the vegetation from it five years later, sketching the architecture and describing its iconography. His work clarified the timeline of temple building. But since Parmentier’s time, very little work and no excavations had been undertaken at the site—until relatively recently, when the Cambodian government began preparing to nominate Preah Vihear to the World Heritage List. [Source: Brendan Borrell, Archaeology magazine, February 11, 2013, Brendan Borrell is a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation.]

While Preah Vihear was named a World Heritage site in 2008, archaeologists are still working on a management plan for the site. As part of that plan, Pheng Sam Ouen led a research team that has dug five trenches along a crumbling ancient staircase that leads hundreds of feet up from the valley floor, through a forested ravine, to the base of the temple. Most of the archaeological work at the site is focused on finding ways to preserve the stone buildings, and to allow a 2,500-step wooden staircase to be built alongside the ancient one without damaging any archaeological remains. The excavations have turned up some pottery sherds, roof tiles from the temples, and military artifacts that date to the 1980s, when the Khmer Rouge still controlled the area. Pheng hopes to learn more about the people who lived around the temple. He has found archaeological evidence of seven settlements within the temple complex and five more in the foothills. The remains of a building that may have been a hospital and a small village likely dating to the twelfth century have been found at the base of the mountain. Pheng and his colleagues also hope to restore at least one empty baray at the base of the mountain so that the reservoir can be used for irrigation. They are also building a six-mile-long trench from the baray to carry water to a neighboring village. But there are much bigger hopes that go along with Preah Vihear’s World Heritage site designation.

In 1992, Angkor became Cambodia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and a major source of income for the impoverished nation. It is hoped that Preah Vihear’s listing will be another step toward prosperity for Cambodia. The site would provide a destination in the less-developed northern part of the country, which might entice some of the tourists who visit Angkor Wat to extend their stays. Nonetheless, that is not likely to happen while the threat of fighting exists. “We are not powerful compared to Thailand,” Pheng says. “There are a lot of Khmer sites in Thailand, and we never think that they belong to Cambodia! I never tell my son that the Khmer Empire once extended to the Chinese border, and when he is older he must take it back.”

In the 1990s the Khmer Rouge was still active in the area. At that time Ivan Kraskin wrote in International Travel News: "The whole area still possesses an aura of mystery because of the present circumstances: Thai border guards, gates that must be locked, barbed wire encircled paths, Cambodian gun-toting patrol soldiers and wire mesh everywhere, all surrounded by the Dangrek Mountains...These places have been systematically looted! Statues have disappeared. And Pol Pot's troops have used parts of temples to construct bunkers."


The looting of treasures from Cambodia's archeological sites is a big problems. Among the items that have been stolen are 12th-century Buddha heads from Bayon; an 8th-century torso from Prasat Lololei; and 12th-century Apsara dancers from Bantey Kdei. At Kroal Kor temples, a Buddha was stolen by looters who climbed on the statue and whacked away with chisels until the head came off. In some cases the looters have nothing to show for their work as chisel strikes in the wrong place can reduce stone to splinters and dust.

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “The art of Angkor has been the target of occupiers and looters since French explorers rediscovered the city in the mid-19th century. Drawings of the period show large statues strapped to rafts and protected by armed Frenchmen as they floated down rivers on their way to Paris. In the 1920's, as a young writer, André Malraux, who later became France's minister of culture, was convicted in an Indochina court for stealing priceless figures from one of the most beautiful temples, Banteay Srei. He was sentenced to three years in prison but never served any time. Cambodia's recent violent history provided an almost ideal opportunity for plundering. The Communist Khmer Rouge destroyed temples and written records, while the occupying Vietnamese Army, well aware of the value of Angkor art in the West, removed pieces by the truckload. The peace of the 1990's brought some help, but not enough, say scholars and others concerned with the protection of Angkor art."[Source: Jane Perlez. New York Times, March 21, 2005]

In March 2003, looters used an electric saw to rip out the statue faces of Vishnu and his wife Lakshmi at the remote 11th century temple of Kbal Spean The face of Lakshmi broke into pieces as they worked, and pieces were left behind. Archeologist estimate that the Vishnu head alone could selll for $50,000 in Bangkok and many time more than that in the West.

Looting is particularly a problem in remote places where land mines have recently been cleared and there is no security to monitor the site. The opening up of Cambodia and the demining of the countryside has been a boon for looters, giving them easy pickings at archeological sites that are so numerous it is impossible to guard them all (in fact hardly any have guards).

In the 1960s the Depot de la Conservation in Siem Reap housed the finest collection of Khmer antiquities in the world . During the 1970s a large chunk of the collection disappeared and about 150 statues were decapitated. Looting of the Depot continued into the early 1990s. As of the mid 2000s only seven objects had been recovered.

According to Associated Press: “A 1993 Cambodian law prohibits the removal of cultural artifacts without government permission. Pieces taken after that date have stronger legal standing to compel their new owners abroad to return them. But there is also general agreement in the art world that pieces were acquired illegitimately if they were exported without clear and valid documentation after 1970 — the year of a United Nations cultural agreement targeting trafficking in antiquities.”

Looting Art in the Angkor Wat Area

Looting is not as much of problem in the Angkor area as it once was because of the large numbers of tourist and security personal there But still it goes on. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “Hidden among stands of bamboo far from the throngs of tourists who clamber over the grand temples of Angkor, a series of bas-reliefs in rose and gray sandstone stand in solitary splendor. The gods and demons and half-human, half-animal figures revered by the Angkor civilization were carved at Mount Kulen by anonymous artists and, like countless other artworks, disappeared into nature when the empire collapsed 500 years ago. Now, like much else at Angkor, the carvings are symbols not only of the mystique of the past but also of the greed of the present. [Source: Jane Perlez. New York Times, March 21, 2005 **]

“In the past six months, a head of one of the figures was gouged from the rock, said Sin Sokhorn, a Cambodian guide who often comes to the site by motorcycle. A scar in the rock marked the place where looters had hacked at the statue, leaving a crumpled, headless torso. The head was probably on display in an antiquities shop in Bangkok or in a European city with a handsome price tag, he mused. Or, he suggested, it could be in a private collection of Angkor art, secure from prying eyes. "We need protection from the looters, but where are we to get it?" asked Mr. Sin Sokhorn as he showed the bas-reliefs. **

“One of the astonishing aspects of the Angkor sites is their diminished nature at the hand of modern man. Amid the grandeur, empty pedestals, headless carvings and missing lintels cast an aura of indelible loss...The relentless looting strikes at the very artistic and cultural value of one of the world's most admired ancient civilizations, art historians say. "There is not a single site that is not affected," said Helen Jessup, the founder of Friends of Khmer Culture, an American nongovernmental group. "The Western collectors continue to be as guilty as those who do this." **

Museums, Auction Houses and High Prices for Looted Khmer Art

Khmer art is increasingly being sought after by collectors. Art auctions sponsored by Christie’s and Sotheby’s often feature art that was looted. Souren Melikian wrote in the New York Times, Watching the sale "Indian & South East Asian Art" at Sotheby's, any observer aware of the background of some of the works must have experienced deep unease. An 11th-century sandstone standing figure of a woman in the Baphuon style of Angkor Wat, with one arm sawed off, half of the other missing, and chopped off at the ankles, evoked memories of the havoc wrought in the greatest Buddhist temple city in Cambodia. This did not stop it from becoming the most expensive Khmer sculpture ever auctioned, as furious bidding sent it climbing to $1.12 millionAt Christie's, a sublime head broken off some late 10th-century statue somewhere in Angkor or nearby sold as briskly as the record statue. It almost tripled its estimate at $41,825 [Source: Souren Melikian, New York Times, October 23, 2004]

Helen Jessup, the founder of Friends of Khmer Culture, an American nongovernmental group, told the New York Times: "Fewer objects have become available at auction, and the quality has declined." Even so, Ms. Jessup, the curator of a show of Khmer art at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1997, said she remained alarmed at the persistence of the pillaging. Her group is organizing an inventory of the thousands of Angkor-era works in storage at provincial museums and police barracks in Cambodia. If those pieces are stolen and re-emerge on the art market, she said, it will be easier to establish their provenance. [Source: Jane Perlez. New York Times, March 21, 2005]

Fake art is also a problem. Roger Warner wrote in Smithsonian magazine, "Some of the best fakes come from a talented Thai artist who makes replicas and then enhances their monetary value (if not their aesthetic appearance) by chipping away at them with a hammer and burying them in dirt or cow dung to obtain a stolen-and buried look."

Looted Khmer Art and Thai Dealers

Much of the stuff that is looted in Cambodia ends in Bangkok, where it is often sold quite openly. At the River City shopping plaza in Bangkok stores display sculptures that are purported to be Khmer originals. Most are fakes but the fact that even some are real is very troubling. Authorities can't do much because Thailand never signed a 1970 UNESCO convention against international art smuggling.

Some shops give items labels like “12th century Khmer.” One French archeologist told AP he admired several heads of vultures at Banteay Srei and when he returned six months later they were gone. An American archeologist said he saw one piece he discovered at Banteay Chhmar on sale at aa Thai antique shop for $8,000.

Much of them blame for their thievery has been directed at Thai antiques dealers. Up until the mid-1990s, customers could reportedly go into antique shops in Bangkok and look at pictures books of temples and order pieces that would later be sawed off and looted from them. The back of some pieces on sale at the shops have fresh chisel markers. Dealers claim they acquired the stuff legitimately and pull out paper to back them up. The offer pieces for $10,000 and say they be sold in New York for $50,000.

Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Military and Looted Khmer Art

The Khmer Rouge was also involved in looting Khmer art. The group used looted art to finance there operations. Around 20 to 30 tons of antiques was found at the home of Khmer Rouge leader Ta Mok, when the Khmer Rouge camps were shut down.

Tess Davis wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “During the Cambodian civil war from 1970 to 1998, the Khmer Rouge and other paramilitary groups began decimating that country's ancient sites in search of treasures to sell on the international art market. Along with arms dealing and drug smuggling, the looting and trafficking of artifacts became organized industries, which helped finance one of the 20th century's most notorious regimes. [Source: Tess Davis, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2012 <>]

“My colleagues and I have documented the painful scars from this plunder — desecrated tombs, beheaded statues and ransacked temples — at archaeological sites throughout Cambodia. We've spoken with looters, middlemen and dealers, and have even posed as collectors. The exact path of pillaged objects is admittedly difficult to trace. But when they do surface, more often than not, it is in the legitimate art world.” <>

In November and December 1999, a huge bas-relief frieze on the Banteau Chhmar temple, a site near Sisophon, Cambodia, was removed under the guidance of Cambodian military officers and trucked across the border into Thailand. At the Thai border all 117 pieces were reloaded onto trucks normally used to carry water buffalo. The trucks were intercepted by Thai police who were struck by the fact the trucks were so heavy they looked as if they had flat tires. The drivers of the trucks were arrested and eventually jailed and the frieze was returned.

The gangs that took the frieze used power tools and heavy equipment to remove pediments, heads, pieces, bas reliefs and entire walls. Roads were bulldozed through the jungle so the trucks could pick up their loads. One French archeologist told the New York Times, "It's as if you have Notre Dame de Paris and somebody comes and starts to cut of all the pediments."

Andre Malraux and Other Looters of Khmer Art

Much of the looting or archeological treasures in the Angkor Wat area and other sites in Cambodia has been organized by criminal gangs or syndicates based in Thailand. They are sometimes financed by Thai businessmen, and protected by corrupt officials and soldiers in Cambodia. Entire bas reliefs have been carted away and monks have been attacked by armed gangs hired by syndicates.

The looters typically don’t make much. One journalist with Smithsonian was introduced to 14 inmates at the Siem Reap prison who were sentenced for sculpture theft. They were peasants who had been offered between $10 and $50 to remove or transport the heads of Angkor statues—which weigh around 200 pounds. Middlemen who hire the looters can earn more. For a Angkor-era Khmer statue or head, they may be paid $3,000, a small faction fortune in Cambodia, but a small fraction of their worth on the international market.

Looters also include tourists who bribe customs officials to get stuff out of the country and diplomats who use their diplomatic immunity to smuggle artifacts in their pouches. There have been stories of tourists photographing statues they like and then hiring looters to steal them for them.

Police and customs officials are often in cahoots with the looters. At the very least they do little to investigate looting but in some case facilitate them. Trucks filled with sculptures reportedly routinely pass through Thai border posts. They are also towed in nets by fishing boats.

The most famous looter of Khmer art is Andre Malraux, the French writer and philosopher and French Culture Minister. In 1924, he was arrested by French colonial authorities and jailed briefly for using a handsaw, chisel and crowbar to take 20 statues from Angkor Wat and the temple of Banteay Srei. Altogether he carted away nearly a ton of stuff in ox carts. Much of it he hoped to sell for a considerable profit. Malraux was 22 years old at the time. He was given a one year suspended sentence.

Efforts to Save Art from Looters in the Angkor Wat Area

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “Apsara, the Cambodian government agency responsible for the protection and management of Angkor, runs a force of gray uniformed guards who patrol the main temples. Their presence has helped dampen looting at Angkor Wat, the central temple, Cambodian officials say. But in a recent statement, Apsara acknowledged that it was fighting an uphill battle against armed gangs using chain saws and motorcycle brake wire, one of the latest tools for quietly slicing through artifacts. The agency suggested that the Cambodian Army was involved in the destruction. "Vandalism has multiplied at a phenomenal rate," the agency said. "Employing local populations to carry out the actual thefts, heavily armed intermediaries transport objects, often in tanks or armored personnel carriers, often for sale across the Thai border."[Source: Jane Perlez. New York Times, March 21, 2005 **]

“Out of desperation, many objects have been deliberately removed and placed in safekeeping at the Angkor Conservation Office, a row of buildings set behind a high fence here in Siem Reap. In the padlocked rooms, a visitor can see row upon row of the heads of demons, gods, snakes, lions and Buddhas. In one corner, a prized stele inscribed in Sanskrit and listing the wealth of the Ta Prohm monastery stands without any special marker amid a jumble of other artifacts. **

“A former Cambodian ambassador to the United States, Roland Eng, who recently returned home, said his country was doing its best to protect the Angkor treasures. But he said there were two severe limitations: Cambodia's rock-bottom economy and the exorbitant prices for Angkor art on the international market. "The country remains very poor, the army is very poor," Mr. Eng said. "There is a high demand for Angkor antiquities. We have to encourage people not to buy any antiques where they cannot trace the source." He was pleased, he said, that in 2003 the State Department and Cambodia signed a Unesco convention, known as the Cultural Property Implementation Act, that outlaws in the United States the import or export of illicit Cambodian cultural artifacts. The accord has already helped curtail the illegal trade. **

Meanwhile, the destruction continues at a startling rate. At Angkor Thom, for example, a 12th-century ruler, Jayavarman VII, built a highly fortified city with five causeways, each one lined with figures of benign gods and fierce demons. After many of the heads were chopped off by looters, the authorities replaced them with concrete copies. "Even some of those have been taken," Ms. Jessup said. **

Protecting Angkor Area Sites

Angkor Wat is protected by 450-member team of French-trained motorcycle-mounted Heritage Police. The have largely shut down looting in the Angkor Wat area. But for the most part groups in charge of protecting antiquities are poorly funded and understaffed.

The Angkor Conservatory is protected by barbed wire fences an watchtowers. Even so it has been burglarized on several occasions. In 1993, thieves machine gunned their way in and killed one guard and made off with 10 valuable pieces, after a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a storeroom door to break in.

Some temples reportedly have a shoot first ask questions later policy. Preah Khan is guarded at night by a guard with an AK-47, where there had been shoot between guards and looters. The guard that worked there in the mid 2000s said he hadn’t lifted his gun since early 2003 but that was not always the case. In the late 80s he said “the guards who stayed awake were fine. Those who slept always died.” At one time it was easy to find spent shell around the temple. In the mid 2000s the guards were paid about $22 a month. Hotel workers in Siem Reap at that time got $30 a month.

Return of Looted Art

In 1993, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Honolulu Academy of Arts published a book called "One Hundred Missing Objects," detailing pieces that had been taken from the Angkor Conservation Depot. The York's Metropolitan Museum of Art returned two stone heads from the Angkorian period to Cambodia because they appeared to have been stolen from the Angkor Conservancy after the mid 1980s. Art has also been returned from Thailand, France and private collection in Britain. In 1996, the Thai government returned 13 pieces that had been seized at a Bangkok antique store in 1990.

In April 2012, Tess Davis wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “ federal agents filed suit against Sotheby's in New York demanding that the auction house forfeit a 10th century statue of a Hindu warrior that was "illicitly removed" from a Cambodian temple. According to the complaint, the expert Sotheby's hired to appraise the sculpture warned that it was "definitely stolen" and suggested returning it to Cambodia to "save everyone some embarrassment." Sotheby's contends that the piece entered the United States legally and promises to vigorously defend itself. [Source: Tess Davis, Los Angeles Times, April 25, 2012 <>]

“Across the country, the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena is no doubt following the case closely, as the mate to the disputed Sotheby's figure is on display there. Digital reconstructions and other studies demonstrate that the two sandstone fighters, which represent fabled enemies from the Hindu epic "The Mahabharata," were once locked in combat at Prasat Chen, a temple in the ancient capital of Koh Ker in Cambodia. Now they are on opposite coasts of the United States with only their pedestals — and feet — left behind. <>

“The U.S. and Cambodian governments, as well as scholars who have studied the site, firmly believe the pair were looted as Cambodia fell into civil war, then smuggled onto the European art market before eventually coming to America. The Norton Simon, like Sotheby's, denies any wrongdoing and notes that no one has formally challenged its ownership since the sculpture was acquired in 1976. <>

“In recent years, a number of American collectors, galleries and museums — including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Honolulu Academy of Arts — have repatriated disputed objects to Cambodia after discovering that they were looted or stolen. Still, it remains difficult for countries such as Cambodia to recover their pillaged heritage in legal actions because of a high burden of proof, the statute of limitations and other bars to claims. It's easier to make a moral claim for repatriation. Most Cambodian "artworks" are sacred objects that were never meant to be bought or sold on the international market. <>

“Without doubt, the art market has improved its practices regarding looted objects in the last decade, but it has not done enough for Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge may no longer be a threat — to temples or people — but the pillage of the nation's archaeological sites continues, driven by an increasing demand for antiquities. With each artifact plundered, untold knowledge of the past is lost and a piece of the world's heritage destroyed. <>

Metropolitan Museum Says it Will Return Cambodian Statues

In May 2013, Jason Felch wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art has agreed to return two ancient statues to Cambodia after receiving convincing evidence they had been looted and smuggled out of the country illegally. The 10th century Khmer statues, known as the Kneeling Attendants, have flanked the entrance to the Met’s South East Asian galleries for years and are among the museum’s most prized objects from the region. They were acquired in fragments between 1987 and 1992 as donations primarily from Douglas Latchford, a British collector based in Bangkok who is at the center of a federal investigation of antiquities looted from the ancient temple complex of Koh Ker. [Source: Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2013 <<<]

“Cambodian officials announced in June that they would seek the return of the statues. At the time, Met officials said they had no information to indicate the statues were stolen. The Met would not release details on what information led it to decide to return the statues, but noted recent press reports and information provided by UNESCO officials, who have been investigating looting in Cambodia. “All I can say is that sufficient evidence came to light,” said museum spokesman Harold Holzer. “It was dispositive and more than satisfied the director.” <<<

“The returns come amid mounting evidence that several American museums and auction houses possess objects looted from Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. The federal government is suing the auction house Sotheby’s on behalf of Cambodia for the return of a 10th century warrior statue that investigators claim was looted from the Koh Ker and illegally exported by Latchford. Latchford allegedly knew the statue was looted and fraudulently obtained export licenses with the British auction house Spink and Son, which later sold the statue to a Belgian collector. Latchford has denied the allegations. <<<

“In 2010, Sotheby’s was set to auction the statue for the collector in New York, despite having been told by one expert that the statue was “certainly stolen,” the government’s complaint alleges. The U.S. attorney’s office filed a civil lawsuit in April 2012 seeking the statue’s return to Cambodia. In a statement, Sotheby’s said Friday, “The Met’s voluntary agreement does not shed any light on the key issues in our case .... When the court ultimately addresses these questions, we expect to prevail on each.” <<<

“Cambodian officials are also seeking the return of a matching statue, also tied to Latchford, that is on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Museum officials would not comment on whether the Met’s returns would affect that request, referring to a January statement in which they said they were cooperating with the appropriate authorities. Cambodian antiquities from Latchford have also been identified at the Denver Museum of Art and the Kimbell Museum in Ft. Worth. <<<

The Metropolitan returned the two figures in June 2013. “Experts who have followed the Sotheby’s case hailed the Met’s decision to voluntarily return the statues without litigation. “A judge didn’t have to tell the Met to do the right thing,” said Tess Davis, an attorney who researches the illicit antiquities trade in Cambodia for the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. “I hope that other museums -- the Norton Simon among them -- will follow the Met’s lead.” <<<

Sotheby’s Agrees to Return 10th-Century Cambodian Statue

In December 2013, Georgina Adam wrote in the Financial Times, “After a two-year legal battle, Sotheby’s has agreed to return a 10th-century sandstone statue that was pillaged from the Koh Ker temple complex deep in the Cambodian jungle in the 1970s. The 500lb statue, the Duryodhana, was sent for sale in 2011 by Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had owned the piece since it was bought from Spink in London in 1975. Sotheby’s valued the statue at $2 million to $3 million and it was put on the cover of an antiquities sale in New York. However, the statue was quickly withdrawn from sale when it became the subject of a federal US lawsuit, with prosecutors seeking its forfeiture on the grounds that it had been looted from Cambodia and illegally imported into the US. [Source: Georgina Adam, Financial Times, December 20, 2013 /*/]

“Now the case has been resolved, with Sotheby’s agreeing to pay to send the statue back to representatives of the kingdom of Cambodia in New York. Ruspoli will not receive any compensation, and the court decided that there was a “good faith disagreement” over whether both the owner and the auction house knew of the statue’s true provenance. “Further litigation would be burdensome,” US attorney Preet Bharara concluded. This should encourage the return of a second statue, Duryodhana’s twin, which is now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California: officials are now expected to travel to Cambodia to discuss this. The institution bought the statue in 1976 from the now-deceased New York dealer William Wolff.” /*/

Will Nine Looted Ancient Khmer Statues Be Returned to Cambodia

In December 2013, Associated Press reported: “Rising out of the jungle on white pillars, the new Preah Vihear Museum’s largest building stands empty. But Cambodian officials hope that one day it will be the place where nine ancient statues depicting a dramatic battle scene are reunited from around the world. They came a step closer to that goal a week ago when Sotheby’s auction house in New York agreed to return one of the statues to Cambodia, ending a heated legal battle that began when the U.S. government filed a lawsuit last year at Cambodia’s initiative to press for its return. [Source: Associated Press, December 23, 2013 <+>]

“The decision marks the latest progress in efforts to bring back together the nine figures, which once formed a tableau in a tower of the 1,000-year-old Prasat Chen temple. The scene captured a famous duel in Hindu mythology in which the warrior Duryodhana is struck down by his cousin Bhima at the end of a bloody war of succession while seven attendants look on. Experts say looters hacked the life-size sandstone figures off their bases during the brutal civil war in the early 1970s. Some of the statues were apparently smuggled out of the country and eventually wound up in the hands of private collectors or in museums abroad, as did many statues from other temples that the Cambodian government now hopes to reclaim. <+>

“The footless figure of Duryodhana, valued at $2 million to $3 million, was placed in Sotheby’s auction catalog in 2011 after its former private Belgian owner’s widow gave it up for sale. Discussions are now under way between the Cambodian government and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California, about the possibility of returning the statue of Bhima, which has been on display there for over 30 years. “The spirits of the Khmer ancestors are not at peace when they see artifacts that were either looted or being commercialized, so we hope that others will follow the very good example of what Sotheby’s has done,” said Ek Tha, a government spokesman. <+>

“The figures of three onlookers to the duel are now in Cambodia, including two that were returned in June by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The remaining four are still missing. The goal of the museum is eventually to re-create the scene as it stood for centuries in the Prasat Chen temple, one of many ruins within the sprawling Koh Ker complex, north of the Angkor Wat temples. Although repatriations of some Cambodian statues began in the 1990s, the high-profile Sotheby’s case has proved a catalyst for much of the recent momentum, said Anne Lemaistre, a UNESCO representative in Cambodia. The case “has been the red thread that has led us through an incredible scientific adventure,” she said. <+>

“A 2012 dig to gather evidence for that case unearthed the seven pedestals of the onlookers with some of the feet still attached, which archaeologists pointed to as evidence of pillaging, she said. Two of the pedestals matched statues then on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Met said the statues, called the “Kneeling Attendants,” were given to the museum in pieces by different donors between 1987 and 1992. Evidence from the temple site convinced the museum’s representatives that the statues had indeed been looted. The two figures, which joined a third statue that had remained in the country. <+>

“As a result of the attention generated by the Koh Ker statues’ return, “Cambodia is learning more about the plunder of its past, and doing more to protect it in the future,” said Tess Davis, a lawyer who focuses on the illicit trade of Cambodian antiquities. Meanwhile, representatives from the Norton Simon Museum will visit Cambodia at the end of January or early February, said Chan Tani, a senior government official. Leslie Denk, the museum’s director of public affairs, confirmed the visit. Interest in the statues has also prompted more archaeological research of Koh Ker, which was briefly the center of the great Khmer Empire after King Jayavarman IV moved the capital from Angkor in 928 until 944. Until now it has received far less attention than Angkor’s better-preserved temple. <+>

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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