These days any number of people will delight in ruefully declaring how such and such a place has been ruined — overrun by tourists and commercialism — and, as if to rub salt into the wound, they’ll tell you that if you’d only visited it when they first did, you too could have savored Paradise.
These killjoys may be right in some instances, but they’re dead wrong when it comes to Angkor, the stunning and magical “city” of over 200 temples built between the ninth and 13th centuries around what is now the modern Cambodian town of Siem Reap.
I first visited in 1996, and then again in 2000, and indeed the inroads of mass tourism were already evident, but muted. In 1996 there were about 55,000 arrivals, and in 2000 some 194,000. It was a tranquil place still emerging from the ravages of civil war.
So, having heard dire reports from recent visitors, and seeing that 2006 arrivals topped 850,000, I returned with some trepidation to probably the world’s most stunning sacred site.
I am happy to report that the massive and widely dispersed Angkor temple complex retains its mystique — and that it’s absorbing larger numbers of tourists without losing what makes it so appealing.
Angkor retains its allure because the temples, carvings and bas-reliefs chiseled out over the centuries are awe-inspiring and unrivaled.
However, from a tourist point of view, the new toilet facilities located near some of the temples are a welcome convenience and help limit littering.
It is also miraculous how much more peaceful it is now that the authorities have somehow managed to rein in the trinket-selling children. On past visits this was a perpetual hassle impossible to shake off, and it certainly detracted from the contemplative experience. Now, those youthful hawkers remain at the entrances and exits and ply their sales trade without overly bothering visitors.
But then, departing from the swish new airport, I reflected on all the changes swirling through this once sleepy backwater where construction sites now abound. Certainly, locals are sharing very little in the tourist income, as foreign investors are creaming off most of the profits. The lucrative ticket concession is held by a Vietnamese company, the soon to be opened Angkor National Museum is controversially owned by a Thai company, and international investors prevail in the booming hotel and services sector.
In exchange, Cambodians are getting low-paying jobs and are mostly on the outside looking in on the milking of this cash cow. Managers say they would like to promote Cambodians into managerial roles, but they complain they have not had much success with the limited talent pool.
It’s worth remembering that civil war raged here until 1993, and so this war-traumatized nation is still recovering and it will take some time for educational investments to pay off.
Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.