Sunday, April 5, 2009

Seeds of friendship

With the two armies of Cambodia and Thailand facing each other at Preah Vihear, elsewhere the Living Angkor Road Project is planting the seeds of friendship between academics and students in both countries.

Project on Thai-Cambodian border bridges cultural ties through learning about a shared history
- by Napamon Roongwitoo (Bangkok Post)

The emphasis on wars and territorial conflicts in national histories has pitched neighbouring countries against one another and fuelled ultra-nationalism. Thailand and Cambodia are no exception. But a group of Thai-Cambodian academics believe they can help turn it around through a new kind of history classroom. A group of students from Thailand and Cambodia had a taste of it recently when they met at Buri Ram province to learn how to use the neutral tools of modern science and equipment to help them appreciate their common ancestral roots. Their two main classrooms were at Phanom Rung Historical Park and Ban Kruat. At Phanom Rung, the students learned together that the religious structures were built based on the sun's position, which originally penetrated its rays through all 15 doorways of the temple on equinox days, both at sunrise and sunset.

That had been the case for the temple's first 900 years. With the gradual shifting of the Earth's core, however, the alignment line changed and people can now observe sunlight going through all 15 doorways either at sunrise or sunset, but not on the same day. Then the on-site history class was filled with a flurry of activity when each student was given a compass to measure the angles of the temple to see for themselves the change in the structure's alignment. Another of their "history classrooms" was the archaeological excavation site at Chantobped village in Ban Kruat District, where two skeletons were recently uncovered. The skeletons are believed to have been buried according to ancient Khmer funeral rituals. The students were not only told how the excavation was done, but also got to experiment excavating by themselves. "The main objective was to show them, not just tell them, that we share the same ancestry," said team leader Col Surat Lertlum. "If we look at traditions in Thailand and Cambodia, we see a lot of similarities that still exist today. I hope the realisation of our shared culture and history will help patch the gap between us and minimise conflict in the future."

This alternative history classroom is an offshoot of the Living Angkor Road Project - a collaboration between Thai and Cambodian archaeologists to survey ancient sites along the route. Leading the Thai team is Colonel Surat Lertlum from Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. Through the use of modern technology in geo-informatics, geophysics, archaeology and remote sensing, the team has succeeded in plotting the whole ancient route built under the reign of King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Empire. The project, sponsored by the Thailand Research Fund, aims to identify the historic road and community settlement established in the Khmer Empire era. Apart from using modern technology, the interdisciplinary project also involves historical and archaeological research as well as interviewing local communities. The 254km-long ancient route extends from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. The project is a collaboration between the Fine Arts Department of Silpakorn University, Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy, Prince of Songkla University and Cambodia's Apsara Authority.

The researchers have found much archeological evidence of ancient communities - roads, canals and irrigation systems as well as religious structures - along the whole route. After the completion of the first phase, phase two of this year involves additional village-level surveys being conducted to gain further cultural information. The Cambodian team is led by archaeologists Dr Ang Choulean and Im Sokrithy from Apsara Authority. According to Col Surat, the alternative history classroom provided youngsters from both countries an opportunity to learn first-hand about the history of this ancient route from the findings in the Living Angkor Road Project. Twelve of the students were from Oddar Meanchey, a border province in Cambodia. About 30 students were from different regions in Thailand, the youngest being a nine-year-old boy from Chulalongkorn University Demonstration Elementary School. When asked where the idea of a joint learning experience for children came from, Col Surat simply pointed to his head. "It all started here. I thought the research was invaluable and I should make use of these findings. I wanted to start with something local, and since the findings took place at the border, it was best to get people from both countries involved so that they would appreciate their shared hometowns together."

Using integrated learning methods, the project urged the children to consider the motives behind the construction of the ancient structures and the way of life in ancient times. "Such knowledge could be developed into so much more and the most tangible benefit is that it could help develop eco-tourism in this largely neglected area," said Col Surat. "I believe the knowledge about previous relationships can help form a mutual understanding and positive outlook for the two nationalities from a young age."

At the ancient burial site at Ban Kruat, the students learned that there is no point in arguing what nationalities and race the ancient skeletons were. And that it is more important to learn how they could shed light on lives beyond memories. According to Dr Naraset Pisitpanporn from the Institute of Language and Culture for Rural Development at Mahidol University, the deceased in ancient times in this region were buried with their heads facing east and their feet to the west. This is because they believed the living should sleep with their head facing south and feet facing north, so the dead should be buried in the opposite direction. He added that in Khmer language the word for south is the same for head and north can also mean foot. Also found next to the skeletons, one of which was wearing bronze bangles, were pottery, animal bones and numerous ancient iron smelters, which show that this area used to house a community where the metal industry was important. It is believed to date back to the pre-Angkor age.

Outside activity hours, students also had a chance to mingle among themselves and to learn some words and expressions in Thai and Khmer from their peers. Such joint border activities also benefit local communities, since they help to raise awareness in common cultural history and conservation, said Col Surat. Initially, Surat planned to invite both children and adults to join these activities, but he thought it would be more effective if the collaboration started with children. "Adults usually already have very set visions and ideas so it might be difficult to convince them otherwise. It is always easier to paint on an empty canvas."

Usanee Chinchaloendee, 17, said she greatly enjoyed learning how and why the Phanom Rung was constructed through scientific methods. "I had previously learned about the history of this place, but I had never measured the angles with my own hands before. It was even more fun to do this experiment with my new Cambodian friends. Although there was a language barrier, we used Thai, Khmer, English and even sign language to get the message across." Pouch So Cheth, a 16-year-old student from Oddar Meanchey, said he was fascinated by the road from Angkor to Phimai. "To learn about the communities in the ancient times and actually be in the place was very eye-opening." Ownership was never a topic of their discussions. "We do not think about which construction belongs to which country. It is not what we are interested in. We came here to learn about culture and make friends," said Pouch So Cheth.



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