In the middle of the ruins of pagodas, where a handful of visitors enjoy the calm, Tanachaya Tiandee seeks to put together an archaeological “puzzle” several centuries old. But some parts are on the other side of the world. Si Thep, the cultural and commercial capital before the advent of the kingdom of Siam in the 13th century, the ancestor of present-day Thailand, goes to the vote on Tuesday to join the UNESCO world heritage list. If successful, it will be the first cultural site inscribed by Thailand since 1992, the fourth in all.

The announcement could, however, leave a bitter taste, the old city having not escaped the looting which deprived many sites in South-East Asia of some of their treasures: “It’s as if pieces were missing to the puzzle,” laments Tanachaya Tiandee. “Many stories have not been told,” adds the 33-year-old archaeologist.

The kingdom, a flagship destination for global tourism, navigates between safeguarding its heritage and promoting its economic interests, which fuel the overcrowding of its monuments and natural sites.

A four-hour drive from Bangkok, Si Thep lives this dilemma on a daily basis, between the sensitive issue of returning looted objects, neighboring oil exploitation projects and the development of tourism. In the heat, a tourist shuttle transports visitors between the ruins, which extend over 400 hectares in the most important part of the site. Some of its jewels, testimonies of the cohabitation between Buddhism and Hinduism, are nevertheless found thousands of kilometers away. The authorities have thus identified eleven objects kept in American museums.

“There are certainly more, because some traffickers themselves dug up artifacts that we were not aware of,” Disapong Netlomwong, member of the committee launched in 2017 to identify and recover looted objects, told AFP. . In California, the Norton Simon Museum, in possession of nine Thai cultural properties, including one from Si Thep, according to an independent expert, told AFP that it had not been contacted by the Thai authorities, and promised to cooperate in the matter. applicable. The question of restitution is in the hands of Bangkok, which operates via the “discreet” channels of diplomacy, assures the agency of the Ministry of Culture in charge of heritage management – even if it means slowing down the process, for fear of offend its economic partners. Some 340 objects were returned to Thailand between 2017 and 2022, according to official figures.

In recent years, another resource hidden in the soils of Si Thep has served as a reminder of the site’s vulnerability in the absence of legal protections: oil, of which Thailand is one of the main producers in the region. A drilling project near the site’s largest pagoda aroused opposition from local residents in 2019, who ended up winning their case. But the kingdom has yet to adopt a legal framework so that similar projects are banned around the site in the future.

Si Thep welcomes on average 700 to 1,000 visitors per day, mainly Thai. Foreigners constitute only 1% of tourists in the province of Petchabun, where the archaeological park is located, according to data from 2019. On the development of tourism, a crucial sector which weighs around 20% of GDP, “there is a lot opinions around the table,” explains Sittichai Pooddee, director of the site. “The tourism department wants to promote the site and make the community richer. But we want to find a balance. We believe that we are already operating at or near full capacity (…) We don’t want to be better known.