Tom and I first visited the Angkor complex and the neighboring town of Siem Reap in the summer of 2003. At the time, we were blown away by the magnificence of the temples and the simplicity of the small, friendly town. During the day it seemed we had the sites to ourselves and at night the streets were still. We learned only this week that there was a reason for this peaceful appearance to both Angkor and Siem Reap: SARS. As contrarian travelers, we had ignored the panic surrounding the SARS scare and flown to Southeast Asia just as it was abating. While others had cancelled or changed their destinations, we plowed forward and benefited as a result. We didn’t realize it at the time, but an American expat in Phnom Penh pointed out the coincidence this week. Angkor is a circus he warned. Soon it will be a full blown amusement park.
We weren’t sure what to expect, but as soon as the bus pulled into Siem Reap, we could tell things had changed. Where once there had been a one-story corner bank, there was a four- or five-story office building. Convenience stores, restaurants, and hotels all filled spaces where once there was dirt and debris. Legions of brightly painted tuk tuks plied the streets and the number of Toyota Camrys, the car of choice here, had skyrocketed. When our guide, Ponheary, picked us up at 8:00 the next morning, she took us first to Angkor Wat, the king of the temples, and had us enter from the back side. “We’re coming this way to avoid the groups,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the crowds in the afternoon. The tour busses come around 3:00.”
Before we could enter the temple, we had to negotiate our way around a hastily assembled stage draped in blue plastic. Paper confetti littered the surrounding earth and strings of lights lined the stairs leading into the ancient corridors. “They had a dinner and cultural show here a few days ago,” Ponheary explained. “Did you go?” Tom asked. “Oh no. The tickets were $1,500 a piece.” Sad, I thought. Tricking out the temple in this way seemed like dressing a beloved daughter up in garish clothing and sending her on a date with the highest bidder.
As I reminded Kieran and Asher that the hundreds of offensive bulbs were not put there to be unscrewed by small children, Ponheary led us around the eastern wall. She told in great detail the story of the Ramayana as depicted in the temple’s intricate carvings. No more than 5 minutes into her narrative we collided with a large group of Koreans moving the opposite direction. “Don’t worry. They’ll be gone in a minute. They don’t spend much time. They just look and move on,” Ponheary explained. Sure enough, within a minute the group had departed, but not before Ponheary had to scold one of its members for leaning two feet over the guide rope to rub–yes, rub–the 800 year old carving.
Now there is hardly a world landmark or wonder you can visit without encountering tour groups, but Angkor had seemed to defy this form of travel. It was a remote location in a war ravaged country that had been forgotten by the outside world for centuries. Only the intrepid and inquisitive reached it, and what they found once they arrived was intoxicating: a sprawling complex comprising dozens of structures covering more than 40 square miles. The complex begged to be wandered slowly, explored carefully, and considered deliberately. To this dedicated traveler, sprinting from one temple to another, snapping a few pictures, and moving on seemed a betrayal of Angkor’s grandeur, a travesty of travel.
During our first visit, we did not see a single tour group. The other visitors had either hired private guides as we had or were wandering with guidebooks close at hand, studying their contents and pondering the structures accordingly. This week it seemed over half of the people visiting the temples arrived in brightly colored tour busses, traveled between sites in stretch-limousine length golf carts, and spent about 4.2 minutes at each location.
So what happened in the last three years to change things? Korea discovered Angkor. According to Ponheary, before 2004, she had never encountered a Korean tourist. The licensed guides spoke English, French, German and Japanese, but not Korean. There was no need. At some point, some Korean decided Angkor was ripe for development and won a contract from the Cambodian government to develop a system of roads, concessions, and transport for the complex. Koreans began buying property all over Siem Reap and Korean Air established direct flights from Seoul. We arrived during the Khmer-Korean Cultural Festival, an event sponsored by Korean interests and held under brightly colored tents outside town. Cambodians stood on the streets trying to sell tickets but no one seemed to be buying them.
The land that lines the newly built roads around town sits vacant, but it is not hard to imagine waterparks, shopping malls, and movie theaters popping up overnight. The government, which has sold the police station, the palace, and other key locations, to private interests, doesn’t seem to have a sound development plan. Six Flags Cambodia might be just around the corner.
I am grateful that we got the kids here while Angkor is still beautiful and while Siem Reap is still gentle. Stringing lights across the ancient sandstone floors and plopping picnic tables on the grounds won’t erase the beauty of the temples, but it will certainly make it harder to see. If the experience of visiting Angkor becomes too easy, too air conditioned, too automated, this ancient, sacred place will lose much of its power. I am not blaming the Koreans per se; if they hadn’t come, someone else surely would have. I just hope their 21st century development doesn’t destroy what 1100 years has thus far preserved.