Angkor has been protected from the worst tourism excesses - someone should be thanked

| 17 Aug 2018
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17 Aug 2018

I spend more time than I would like lamenting the degradation of the places I visit while covering Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for Rusty Compass. Often tourism is the cause. Sometimes it’s a developer / government dash for cash. Then there are the environmental impacts of decades of rapid development, poor regulation and enforcement, and corruption. Taking account of those threats, the temples of Angkor in Cambodia have held up better under the strain of the tourist deluge, than could have been imagined when the first post-Khmer Rouge travellers began arriving in the 1990s. I’m not sure whether the UNESCO listing, the Apsara Authority, or other parties are responsible. But some recognition is in order.

Going back twenty five years, the World Heritage listed Angkor temples in Cambodia looked incredibly vulnerable to short term exploitation. Angkor is probably the most impressive human creation and tourism attraction in South East Asia - located in one of the poorest most tragedy stricken countries.

The temples of Angkor consist of hundreds of stone structures dating back as far as the 9th century, and spread across hundreds of kilometres. They were part of the vast Khmer Empire of the period. The most famous temples, Angkor Wat, The Bayon and Ta Prohm, are massive ruins that combine scale with intricate detailed carvings. The most dramatic of the temples are covered in jungle.

Almost twenty five years since my first visit to Angkor (I’ve been at least once most years since), I’d say the temples have withstood the two decade tourism boom better than many other destinations in the neighbourhood. It’s an achievement that’s even more impressive when you consider where Cambodia was as a nation in the early 1990s. Those were the early years of recovery from the Khmer Rouge catastrophe.

Ta Prohm Temple - Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer Ta Prohm Temple - Angkor

 

I’m not ignoring the threats faced by Angkor Wat, or the failures. Lots has been written about looting, the deterioration of some of the most visited temples, poor preservation work, the impact of water usage and the concentration of the economic spoils of the Angkor tourism industry in a few hands. The town of Siem Reap where the temples are located is a mixed bag too. All of these criticisms have merit.

My interest here is the visible and sensual experience of visiting the temples in 2018 - the way Angkor feels in 2018. And the extent to which a visitor can still experience the magic I first experienced 25 years ago. 

I still find the temples as captivating and magnificent as ever. Perhaps more so as I am more aware of the atmosphere of the place now than I was in the 1990s. And the tourist hordes tend to focus on a few places - leaving the rest of the vast complex remarkably peaceful.



I am mindful of the deterioration of other heritage sites and natural attractions - including World Heritage sites like Halong Bay in Vietnam.  I am also mindful that even a rich country like my home, Australia, is proving a mediocre custodian of one of the world’s great natural heritage sites - The Great Barrier Reef. This stuff is difficult - especially in a developing country.

In that qualified context, Angkor is in impressive shape. I’m still besotted.

So what is that makes me still so positive about Angkor? Here are some of the things that stood out from my most recent visit.


1. The Angkor Archeological Park is still free of heavy handed commerce

It’s easy to imagine a poor country like Cambodia opting for some very short term revenue earners around the temple complex. I’m thinking hotels, large gaudy restaurant developments, casinos - or a cable car perhaps. For the most part though, the Angkor park has been shielded from such developments.

That is a miracle and it deserves recognition.

You may find the young sellers around the temples annoying. Be grateful the temples are overshadowed by magnificent ancient trees and not surrounded by hotels and shopping malls.

Ta Prohm Temple 0 the jungle is everything.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Ta Prohm Temple 0 the jungle is everything.

 

2. The temples are beautiful ruins and they’ve been left that way

The temptation to rebuild ruins is everywhere. In neighbouring Vietnam, the template for handling crumbling heritage sites is to rebuild them shiny and new - this is especially evident in the plans for developing the citadel in the former capital of Hue.

There is a place for such an approach in some cases.

But apart from the logistical impossibility of restoring the Angkor temples, a shiny new Angkor would miss the point - as shiny new heritage structures often do. More often than not, the ruins tell the story.

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a lot of work going on. Many millions of dollars have been spent on the protection and conservation of the ruins. You may see evidence of this during your visit. But these efforts have been mostly focused on conserving the essential character of the ruins and ensuring they survive for future generations.

Over the years I’ve seen major work under way at Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm, Ta Som, The Baphoun and other temples. After the removal of the scaffolding, these places were as beautiful and compelling as they were two decades ago. And I assume the work undertaken helped to ensure their longevity.

Preah Khan Temple - Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer Preah Khan Temple - Angkor

 

3. Nature still rules at Angkor

A visit to Angkor is less a visit to a temple complex and more an experience of a human creation in decay at the hands of nature. And the presence of the irrepressible force of nature is key to the magic of the place. If the temples were set in pristine heritage parks, their appeal would be lost. The unruly natural setting is as important as the temples.

Preah Khan Temple - Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer Preah Khan Temple - Angkor

 

4. Cycling heaven

I don’t know another heritage site that is so perfect for cycling. The Angkor Archeological Park has cycling paths, there’s very little traffic, and the ancient trees provide a glorious cooling canopy as you ride. As you leave the central complex, you’ll also experience picturesque and ricefields - unspoiled by souvenir stalls, restaurants and the other usual fellow travellers of mass tourism.

 

To fully appreciate the beauty of Angkor, and the points made in this piece, you’ll need to spend a few days. Take your time. Head out beyond the most visited temples. Ride a bike if you can. And spend some time with the jungle. Then you’ll start to understand why Angkor remains one of the most amazing places to visit.

 

IMPORTANT NOTE - WHEN YOU TRAVEL MATTERS

Like most major tourist sites in the world, there will be times when Angkor is so crowded that an experience of the kind I mention above will be impossible. Christmas New Year period will be very busy as will major Khmer holidays and Chinese New Year.

For more, check out our full travel guide to the Temples of Angkor here.

Cycling Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cycling Angkor
 
Family cycling Angkor
Photo: Mark Bowyer Family cycling Angkor
 
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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