Cambodia’s Angkor heritage site reveals its dark side

Tuk-tuks and food vendors jam an area across the street from Angkor Wat, visible in the distance.

Tuk-tuks and food vendors jam an area across the street from Angkor Wat, visible in the distance.

The Angkor Wat complex enjoys enviable status as a Unesco World Heritage Site and as a prime tourist destination not only in Cambodia itself but in all of Southeast Asia and even the world.

And therein lies one of its biggest problems: Tourists.

Angkor 6Built mostly 1,000-1,200 years ago — more than a millennium — the site including Angkor temple itself covers more than 400 square kilometers (154 square miles).  Thus, the second problem: Its deteriorated and deteriorating condition.

That brings me to the third problem: The entity that manages the complex and the sweetheart contract it obtained along with accusations of financial improprieties that are largely unverified.

Last week, on my second visit to the Angkor Wat, I mostly dispensed with obligatory photos such as those I took nearly two years ago, leaving exceptional ones to the National Geographic in the foregoing link.

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Some carvings retain their glaze.

Taking my concerns in order, I was troubled by the quantity of rude clumps of tourist groups on this trip, virtually all of them from other nations in Asia. They proved to be unyielding to independent visitors and uncontrolled by their loud guides.

There are signs everywhere in Angkor Wat with warnings against touching its vulnerable bas-reliefs. When I passed by a cluster of Japanese tourists and noticed a woman in the group leaning against one carving, I mildly gestured that she should remove herself.  She did immediately with evident embarrassment.

Her guide glared at me, causing me to respond with “you are welcome” in Japanese, one of the few phrases I know. He then said something that evoked smirks and twitters in the group, so I repeated the words. (Minding my own business has never been a trait that I have been able to squelch with any consistency, perhaps thus explaining my earlier career as a traditional journalist.)

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Some of the bas-reliefs on the walls surrounding the Bayon templel boast amazing detail after weathering centuries of harsh weather.

The guide looked as though he wanted to kill me, but I was merely doing his job for him. Although I understand his resentment, I was motivated by having earlier witnessed other official guides brushing their fingers against some of the art as they unraveled their spiels, which may well have been fantasies anyway.  You can imagine that many tourists are without guilt as well.

Someone noted that Angkor Wat is “being loved to death,” and the phrase “death by a thousand cuts” comes readily to mind.

The tourist issue is huge, and I confess to the irony of my presence as one more visitor who only adds to the problem.

Angkor 13But my being there hardly takes away from the hordes who clamber mindlessly over stone carvings indifferent to their age, unable to look beyond the camera’s lens and seemingly unaware of the negative impact that literally millions of visitors annually inflict on Angkor Wat to a degree necessarily undetectable on a daily basis.

Most of the damage predates by centuries the harm caused by tourists. Significantly, the complex has been vandalized by treasure hunters, desecrated by the Khmer Rouge and overwhelmed by the jungle.

Broken sculpture awaits restaurant outside the Bayon temple.

Broken Bayon sculpture awaits restoration.

The site’s tourism manager, Sok Sangvar, 29, who just happens to be the son of a deputy prime minister (in a nation of rampant nepotism), concedes that remedies have a long way to go:

I’m happy with what we’ve done in the first year.  But of course there’s a lot more to go ahead. We need to conduct more studies, more training of guides; we need better statistics; we need to learn how to better manage events; and we need to work on our communication with visitors and other stakeholders.

Restoration is under way here and there, to be sure.

However, most of the funds devoted to preserving the ruins come from foreign governments, among them notably Japan, which currently is undertaking a multi-year, multi-million-dollar restoration of part of the justifiably popular Bayon temple.  (That’s the one with 216 inscrutable faces looking in the direction of the four compass points.)  Korea, too, is helping; it recently announced a $4 million project for the Preah Pithu edifice.

Angkor 10Yet not one penny for any major effort is expended by the Apsara Authority, to which the government of Cambodia has provided exclusive control of the place in a deal that would be laughable if not so excruciatingly generous to that private entity.

Work on an appropriate scale is tragically underfunded and even unplanned. That the Aspara Authority enjoys such extraordinary benefits from its arrangement with this country’ government is galling in light of the need.

Angkor 9Even worse — worse! — a lawmaker from the opposition political party alleges skimming, though both the government and the organization deny it.

No one even disputes that a $9 million lease payment from Aspara  to Cambodia has gone unpaid for months. The explanation, incredible in its lameness: An “accounting technicality.”

Watching the restoration being conducted on a small section of the Bayon temple, I was struck by the means employed hundreds of years ago and today.  They were using three machines to hoist the stones at a snail’s pace, and a handful of workers were fitting pieces together laboriously in a few areas.  Their undertaking has been scheduled to last four or five years, ending in 2016.

Days after the Apsara Authority said it would no longer permit pre-wedding photos, this is only one shoot that I encountered.  Reason for the "ban:" Not in keeping with spiritual site.

Days after the Apsara Authority said it would no longer permit pre-wedding photos, this is only one of two shoots that I encountered. Reason for the “ban:” Not in keeping with spiritual nature of the site. That the explanation is wildely inconsistent with the hordes who trample the ruins goes ignored.

The whole of Bayon was constructed over approximately 40 years, prompting me to marvel once again at what an architectural, artistic and engineering feat Angkor Wat represents.

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Wire mesh has been installed in several sections areas to protect visitors from falling ruins.

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