“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.
The ancient city of Angkor is one of the coolest places I’ve visited. Temples do not usually wet my proverbial whistle, but the sheer scale of the place is humbling. Formerly the capital city of the Khmer empire, Angkor once spanned 1,000 km with infrastructure connecting the furthest reaches. Construction began in the 9th century, and thrived until the 13th century when it was sacked by the invading Thai army. At its peak, it was home to one million people. Today, a deluge of global visitors comes to tour the temples every day. It’s one of the most impressive sights in the world, and its being visited to death.
The growth of Siem Reap has taken its toll on the region. A massive increase in water usage driven by the hotels and restaurants has led to the drilling of more wells, altering the water table beneath the giant sandstone temples. Some are in danger of sinking into the ground. Sokimex, an oil conglomerate with a hand in several Siem Reap hotels, control the ticket sales. A third of the entrance fee is supposed to go to Apsara, the non-governmental body in charge of protecting the temples. In reality, Apsara gets between 10-30% – barely enough to have any sort of impact. Foreign governments have invested huge money independently and through UNESCO, while the Cambodian government, Sokimex, foreign hotel chains, and a host of others pocket the rest.
Tourism can be a good thing for an economy. Ecotourism offers an alternative to development, and mass tourism can bring big money to the government, which can then spend it on improving education and healthcare, building roads, etc. Unfortunately, Angkor Wat is tourism at its worst. It is an invasion of piranhas wearing fanny packs and hats with neck protectors, families uncomfortably taking $20 elephant rides, and swarms of tour groups in giant buses that go from one temple to the next, all day long. I’m part of the problem, of course, just like everyone else. And on top of it all, the economic benefits for Cambodia and, more specifically, the area around Siem Reap, are marginal at best. It is still one of the poorest regions in one of the poorest countries in the world. Your presence ruins the essence of what you are trying to appreciate. At the end of the day, all of the benefits of tourism are lost at Angkor Wat, which is unfortunate.