Solved puzzle reveals fabled Cambodian temple

It has taken half a century, but archaeologists in Cambodia have finally completed the renovation of an ancient Angkor temple described as the world's largest three dimensional puzzle.

The restoration of the 11th-century Baphuon ruin is the result of decades of painstaking work, hampered by tropical rains and civil war, to take apart hundreds of thousands of sandstone blocks and piece them back together again.

"When I first saw how devastated the monument was, I never thought we would be able to put it back together," said Cambodian restorer Ieng Te, who joined the project as a young student in 1960 and was tasked with numbering stones.

"I am so happy and excited that we were able to rebuild our historic temple," the now 66-year-old said as he oversaw the final construction activities at the site.

On a recent rainy morning workers were adding a final layer of paint to newly-installed wooden staircases at Baphuon, one of the country's biggest temples after Angkor Wat, the largest structure in the famed Angkor complex.

It is one of the last jobs to be done before the temple reopens to the public next week, finally revealing itself in full glory after spending decades in pieces.

Cambodian King Sihamoni and French Prime Minister Francois Fillon will be among the first to tour the impressive three-tier temple during an inauguration ceremony on July 3.

The story of the 10-million-euro ($14m) renovation began in the 1960s when a French-led team of archaeologists dismantled the pyramidal building because it was falling apart, largely due to its heavy, sand-filled core that was putting pressure on the thin walls.

The workers numbered some 300,000 of the sandstone blocks and laid them out in the surrounding jungle.

But efforts to rebuild the crumbling towers and lavishly ornamented facades abruptly came to a halt when Cambodia was convulsed by civil war in 1970.

The records to reassemble Baphuon, including the numbering system, were then destroyed by the hardline communist Khmer Rouge which took power in 1975.

In 1995, when the area in northwestern Cambodia was again safe to work in, the French government-funded project was restarted under the leadership of architect Pascal Royere from the Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO).

"It has been said, probably rightly so, that it is the largest-ever 3D puzzle," Royere told AFP.

The team carefully measured and weighed each block and then relied on archive photos stored in Paris, drawings and the recollections of Cambodian workers to figure out where each part fits.

"We were facing a three-dimensional puzzle, a 300,000-piece puzzle to which we had lost the picture. And that was the main difficulty of this project," Royere said.

"There is no mortar that fills the cracks which means that each stone has its own place. You will not find two blocks that have the same dimensions."

The restoration of Baphuon, one of Angkor's oldest ruins, was completed in April and Royere said it was a moment of joy for the 250-strong, mainly Cambodian, team.

Finishing the "unique" undertaking was "a collective satisfaction because it was a complicated project," he said.

Built around 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II in honour of the Hindu god Shiva, Baphuon was the country's largest religious building at the time, 35 metres high (114 feet) and measuring 130 by 104 metres (426 x 340 feet).

In the 16th century, a 70-metre long reclining Buddha statue was built into a wall on the second level using stones from the top of the temple.

These two phases of construction, hundreds of years apart, further complicated the restoration, said Royere, and working during the rainy season proved another major challenge.

But those struggles are behind him now and as the Frenchman watched camera-toting tourists amble along the long elevated walkway that leads to the temple, he said he was confident the site would become a top attraction.

Located at the heart of the Angkor park, it "certainly promises to be a great success," he said.

Gazing up at Baphuon, first-time visitor to Cambodia Gayle Sienicki from Washington DC marvelled at the temple's long journey to recovery.

"It's just amazing, I mean truly amazing, that they could take these bits of stones and figure out how to put them all back together," she said. "I'm in awe. I think this is just the coolest thing."

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Day In a Page

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices