I flew into Siem Reap, Cambodia at dawn on a weekday morning. The sun was rising and it was so symbolic of the anticipation I felt about visiting Angkor Wat. There were already lots of people up and going about their business on the dusty road leading from the airport to the city center where I was staying.
Lots of tourists riding tuk tuks, bicycling, on scooters and being led on those huge tour buses undoubtedly headed towards the temples.
I had been warned that there would be lots of visitors but I didn’t expect so many. I had a romanticized Lara Croft vision of the temples. Just me and a few hardy tourists traveling off the beaten path but that is certainly not so.
Would the temples live up to their expectations inundated as it was by all these visitors?
I was on a 3 day small group tour with Intrepid Travel. There were 5 people on my tour the first day when we headed to Angkor Wat. I am going to give you a condensed history of the temples and you should most definitely read the multitude of literature available about this site especially if you are planning on visiting.
The Angkor Archaeological Park stretches over 400 square kilometers. The complex is basically an ancient city which consists of temples, reservoirs and canals. For several centuries Angkor, was the center of the Khmer kingdom.
Angkor Wat was first a Hindu, then subsequently a Buddhist temple which was built in the first half of the 12th century. Construction took about 30 years under King Suryavarman II and the temple was dedicated to Vishnu. Angkor Wat, the largest monument of the Angkor group is the best preserved.
There are several mythical figures and motifs which feature prominently on the carvings around the temple. Among them are Asparas or celestial nymphs which represent an ideal of female beauty.
There are also lots of carvings commemorating battles and daily live in the ancient kingdom.
We also visit Ta Prohm which is probably the most recognizable and popular temple in the Angkor complex. It is the picturesque temple which has giant tree roots growing around and on the structures in the jungle. It is stunning in real life and exceeded all expectations. Fun fact: Lara Croft Tomb Raider was filmed here.
Our last stop is Angkor Thom, another huge temple complex which was built in the Bayon style in the 12th century. Bayon architectural style is represented by large scale construction which can be seen in the giant Buddhas on the facades of the structures. Nagas or multi headed serpents guard the entrance to Angkor Thom.
For lunch I tried a local favorite, amok which is essentially the Cambodian version of a Thai yellow curry. It was sweet and I especially enjoyed it because I have a penchant for coconut milk curries.
I went out for dinner at the trendy Pub Street section with some of the people from my tour group. We tried fried spring rolls, mee ketang or stir fried noodle and papaya salad.
The papaya salad or bok l’hong was the most interesting dish of the night. The unripe papaya makes the dish tangy and it comes in a lime, hot chilli, fish sauce dressing which is sweetened with palm sugar. The combination of the papaya with tomatoes, beans and plums make the salad as wonderful tasting as it is beautiful.
The Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. At the same time, it was also placed in the List of World Heritage in Danger due to looting, a declining water table, and unsustainable tourism. Our tour guide told us that 4 million visitors came to Cambodia last year and they expect 5 million this year.
Cambodia has had such a rough history. The killing fields and the brutality of the Khmer rouge is still vividly remembered by most Cambodians because everyone has had family affected by the atrocities. Cambodia’s government has been described by the Human Rights Watch’s Southeast Asian Director, David Roberts, as a “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.”
The rights to the Angkor Archaeological Park was sold by the Cambodian government in 1990 to Sokimex, a private company founded by an ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman. Sokimex manages tourism here for profit. Most of the money to restore Angkor Wat comes from foreign aid. Only an estimated 28% of ticket sales goes back into the temples.
I discovered long ago when living abroad that government policies do not necessarily reflect the opinion of its citizens. Also of importance was to not project my value system onto different cultures especially when traveling. We’re in their sandbox so we need to play by their rules.
My tour group was aghast at the thought of ever increasing tourists but it meant a steady form of income and economic freedom for our guide. Here was finally an opportunity to move up the economic ladder. To pay for education perhaps even university for his children and to support his extended family who had suffered incredibly during the war.
Spending our money at the temples and the city meant increased business and opportunities for the local markets and new jobs in the tourism and construction industry. Hotels were sprouting everywhere and Cambodia seemed intent on expanding tourism exponentially.
Is it possible to travel ethically? We have opportunities now to patronize fair trade establishments that pay artisans a fair pay. We have Eco tourism venues with sites that participate in the practice of a sustainable environment.
It is time for us all to start traveling responsibly. Tread lightly, be mindful of how you treat national heritage or really any foreign sites, read about the culture, interact with the locals beyond your tour guides and extreme bargaining is really not necessary especially considering the per capita income of people living in developing countries.
I discovered this website GreenGlobalTravel.com which highlighted a movie called “Are backpackers destroying the world?” The movie is based on an anthropological study about the impact mass tourism has on the culture and environment of a destination. I encourage everyone to read about it or better yet view it and empower yourself at becoming a responsible tourist.
Cambodia was such a paradox. I knew all these challenging facts before I went and I enjoyed the people and the sites immensely. The temples are magnificent, truly earning their accolade as one of the wonders of the world and I hope my amateur pictures are able to capture this.
The people are kind and friendly, eager to please and most eager to claim a better life. So go and enjoy Cambodia in all its splendid glory and while you’re there help us all preserve this ancient city for future generations. I would also be much obliged if you could help spread the word about responsible tourism. Thank You!