Tag Archives: Angkor Wat

Thoughts on Mass Tourism

“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.” – David Foster Wallace

Tourism in Cambodia has taken off over the last decade.  From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a radical Maoist political party, controlled the country.  During the four-year reign, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into an agrarian socialist state where everyone lived as peasants.  Over two million people – a quarter of the population – were either murdered or died from disease or starvation before the Vietnamese invaded and took control of the country for the next decade.  Only in 1998 with the death of Pol Pot did the civil war end, which is precisely when Cambodia became a hotspot for tourists. In 1998, the country had 217,000 visitors; in 2007, it had about 2.1 million.  By 2010, the tourism minister expects about 3 million.  It’s not surprising, given that the country is stunningly beautiful.  The historical-minded traveler could spend days in Angkor.  Over the last decade, Siem Reap, the provincial capital 10 miles away, has been turned into a traveler’s paradise, with high-end restaurants, massage parlors, and shops across the city.  It is very popular among the French, Japanese, Koreans, and Chinese, all of whom have invested huge amounts of money in building up the infrastructure around Angkor Wat, including an international airport a few kilometers away that can handle wide-bodied jets.

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Fixing a Tire at Angkor Wat

In front of the Bayon, a temple at Angkor Thom.

Last week I spent three days visiting Angkor Wat and the nearby city of Siem Reap.  I’d arrived two nights before and, in the span of 48 hours, had already become cynical and jaded about the entire experience.  I’d spent the last three days getting ripped off by street vendors, restaurants, and taxi drivers, and was ready to snap.  Feeling downtrodden by the constant scams and suffocating hordes of tour groups, I opted for a more natural, pure means of transportation the second day: a bicycle.  For $1.50, I rented a fixed-gear Chinese bike for the day, threw on the muscle-tee I bought that morning, and started off for the Angkor temples north of Siem Reap.

The city of Angkor contains over 1,000 ancient stone temples, dating back over ten centuries.  Built using stones dragged by elephants from mountains miles away, it is both the biggest pre-industrial city in history, spanning 1,000 km in its heyday, and home to the largest religious structure in the world – Angkor Wat, the famous temple depicted on the Cambodian flag.  Once the capital of the great Khmer empire, Angkor was home to over a million people – an impressive feat in 1,200 AD.   Despite it’s shortcomings (to which I am an active contributor), it’s an amazing sight to see.

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