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  • Writer's pictureAlain Catzeflis


Updated: Aug 9, 2020

The temples of Angkor once engulfed by jungle are in danger of being crushed by tourism.

Tourists clambering Angkor Wat which is disintegrating

When I first came here on the back of an Indian NGO supply truck across the Thai border in late 1982 the only visitors were po-faced North Vietnamese Army regulars in rubber sandals and AK47s who had invaded to expel the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

In 2004 Victoria and I came lugging backpacks down across the Laotian border. Then there were a few dozen, perhaps a few hundred people,mostly wandering quietly around the sandy pathways in the sweltering heat, seeking shade where they could, awed by this breathtaking temple city that was once the seat of the Khmer empire.

When we returned today there were literally thousands of visitors pouring in on hundreds of smoke-belching buses.

Most were Chinese, trooping after their guides holding aloft cuddly toys at the end of poles - up one temple then another - posing coyly in delicate thousand-year-old stone windows framed by carved masterpieces around the lintels depicting scenes of Hindu mythology.

I nearly got pushed over a parapet by a middle-aged Chinese tourist in a pork-pie hat taking pictures of his wife and three daughters each in turn taking selfies. Unlike the rest of us traipsing around in jungle shorts and trainers the women were dressed for lunch at the local Meridien.

Fumes and heat spew from idling engines, horns blare, people battle for position, queues form to walk up rickety staircases to get into the most popular temples. At dusk (I don't do dawn) there's gridlock around Bakheng Hill as thousands make for the summit up an ancient and fragile stone stairway to catch the sunset. It's like Wembley stadium with a Stones concert.

A niche industry has sprung up offering 'discerning' travellers tours that avoid the crowds which is like offering Brexit without the pain. Even in Cambodia there are no unicorns.

Half-hearted efforts have been made to limit or control this invading army before it beats this World Heritage Site into the ground.

The World Bank has warned that some temples, including the spectacular Bayon with four-faced Buddhas carved on its 54 towers, are sinking into their sandy foundations because the water reservoirs are being drained to cater for all these people.

There are plans for a theme park and a Nick Faldo-golf course nearby. A second airport is being planned to take wide-bodied jets. Siem Reap, Angkor's dormitory town, is bursting with chic little boutiques, shopping malls, Chinese hotels, 5-star hotels and gaudy 'pub streets'. Fourteen years ago there were a handful.

This can't go on. But there's big money involved. Last year Angkor took around $100m in ticket sales. There were 2.5 million visitors - most from Asia. It's hard to believe that a good proportion of that is not being trousered by someone.

Snob alert: We tend to be proprietorial about treasures of past which we think we discovered and snooty about the new wave of Asian and east European tourists. We think they don't appreciate the finer points of world-class monuments of great civilisations like Angkor. They want to turn everything into a theme park.

Perhaps they do. Perhaps they don't. But their time has come and we'd better get used to it.

Alain Catzeflis

Siem Reap

February 2019

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