Coming from a family that restores ancient Khmer temples, Ek Eam uses the same craft skills as his grandfather and father, making him the third generation of artisans in the family. Despite a meager salary, he pours his pride and passion into the work.
Now 62, Eam was born in Kork Beng village of Kokchak commune in Siem Reap city. He was expatriated from his hometown as a teenager during the Khmer Rouge era.
He remembers the terrible times: “During the Pol Pot regime, I left Siem Reap. I was in Chi Kraeng district until the end of the Khmer Rouge rule, then I returned home. When I returned home, I learned that I was an orphan. I had no education and worked as a farmer.
Eam married in 1986 and had two daughters and four sons. Besides farming, he also found work as a construction worker at Siem Reap airport. In 1999, he found himself involved in temple restoration work.
“The first temple I was involved in restoring was Baphuon Temple, which took over 15 years to restore,” Eam told the Post.
As he transitioned from construction worker to temple restorer, he took pride in working to preserve the architectural heritage of his Khmer ancestors, as well as continuing the path of his grandfather Iv and father Iv Ek .
“I follow in the footsteps of my father and my grandfather. My grandfather did this job during the French colonial period, and my father was in the restaurant business from 1960 to 1971, when the war prevented him from working,” he added.
The stories of his grandfather’s temple restoration work during the French colonial period were told to him by his father. As a child, he was passionate about his father’s work and fondly remembers watching him prepare his tools to work on ancient temples like the Terrace of the Elephants, built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII.
“I followed him and watched him sculpt. I have memories of my father restoring a sculpture of a five-headed horse on the Terrace of the Elephants,” he recalls.
At that time, he was too young to learn the trade from his biological father. He acquired his early knowledge of temple restoration from French specialists and continued to hone his skills through many years of practical experience.
“I learned a lot of technical skills from the French. They taught me my first chasing techniques, then I worked alongside foreign students who also specialized in the restaurant trades.
Currently, Eam is restoring Ta Nei Temple, which is surrounded by forest. Every day he loads his tools – big and small hammers, carving tools and saws – onto his motorbike and drives to the site.
“There hasn’t been rain for over a month. When it rains, we stop work, although on some sites we set up a tent above the restoration area so that work can continue regardless of the weather,” he said.
The temple restoration expert says that even though the techniques of each generation are different from the last, some things remain the same.
“We have become more advanced, and of course more experienced. That means we’re often able to get the job done faster,” Eam said.
“When we were working at Angkor Wat, we restored from the front of the central pillars in the west, then in the south. We started in mid-November and finished in mid-May. We even had to move sculptures that weighed up to five tons,” he added.
Despite modern technology, temple restoration work is still labor intensive, especially in enclosures where heavy machinery is not permitted.
“When we restored Angkor Wat, we could only use our physical strength. The top of Angkor Wat could not be lifted with a crane, which we would have done if we were outside the enclosure. Of course, the things that are as true today as they were in the days of my grandfather and my father are the importance of diligence, patience and endurance in work restoration of the temple,” he said.
“It’s very difficult. As we work, we have to carefully study the patterns of the temples. We have to look at the carvings, the carvings, everything. In short, it’s like putting together a broken plate. One or two small columns of the temple of Ta Nei took a month and a half to chisel,” he added.
Eam had spent a lot of time restoring ancient temples. He worked on the Baphuon temple for 15 years and spent five at Ta Prohm. He also worked a full year on the temples of Banteay Chhmar, Srah Srang, Angkor Wat and Ta Nei.
“While I was restoring the Banteay Chhmar temple, I was training young artisans. They are now continuing the work there,” he said proudly.
The daily income from work is not high, but it continues to do so out of a desire to keep the temples in good condition for future generations.
“Currently, there is little income. The price of goods is rising, but our wages remain low,” he said.
Eam has heart disease and suffers from its symptoms from time to time. He admits his health may be failing, but he refuses to give up his important work.
He said there weren’t many people interested in learning his skills; not even her six children, who are either students or work in tourism or construction.
“There are very few people left who know how to handle a scissor like me. Some are not interested at all, some show interest but will not accept the low salary. I do it out of love and determination, so I will continue,” he said.
That being said, Eam trains some of the people working alongside him and teaches them about the ornate designs they work on.
“Over the years, I have trained many artisans. At Banteay Chhmar Temple, I trained 73 people. I provide them with measurements and drawings before they start chiseling. Giving them step-by-step instructions also gets the job done faster,” he added.
He wants the next generation to be involved in the conservation and restoration work of the temples, so that this marvelous architecture will last a long time and continue to be famous throughout the world.
“This work may not pay much in terms of money, but we earn abundant merit. Once restored, each temple will easily survive for one or two generations. These temples must be preserved for our children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and beyond,” Eam said.