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I  landed at the modern and clearly tourist-oriented airport in Siem Reap where the cash machine dispensed crisp US Dollar bills allowing hundreds of backpackers landing there every day to pay $30 for the visa-on-arrival. After a swift visa process, which felt more like being in a shop than crossing the boarder, I got picked up by a tuktuk driver working for the hotel I was staying in for the night. Driving through the night in the back of the rickety rickshaw , with my cabin luggage rattling across the wooden floor of my ride with every turn, I was taking in all the sights and smells of that dusty Cambodian night. The landscape continued to alter dramatically – one moment we were passing by quiet homes, their yards providing a cool respite for families enjoying their dinner outside, next we were facing impressive hotels and busy bars filled with intoxicated tourists.

The next day, after paying $10 for the night at Angkor Pal Boutique hotel (price inclusive of the airport pick up), I joined a small group with whom I was going to visit Angkor Wat. Since everyone arriving in Siem Reap is heading in the same direction, there are organised tours everywhere and many locals offer to take you there for a small fee (within my first hour in Cambodia I already had 3 offers from the 3 people I’ve spoken to), but you can also get a taxi to the ticket office where you pay $37 for one-day entry and explore the temples on your own. Having less than 24 hours in Cambodia I chose to go with the organised tour. Holding the blue ticket with my photo, I joined the group in the car and we headed towards the country’s old capital.

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The previously empty roads covered with the red dust from the sand gathered on their sides suddenly gave way to a shaded road running through the forest. We continued to drive for a few more minutes through the wide streets, passing occasional sign warning us against the elephants on the road (which as I quickly noticed were there solely as a means of transport to the tourists wanting a more “authentic” experience than driving in an air-conditioned van). Where the trees began to clear, I saw first glimmers of water , reflecting the shy rays of the morning sun. What I first mistook for a lake, turned out to be the moat guarding the entrance to the timeworn city. Above the liquid surface, stone faces were peacefully welcoming the visitors.

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Walking down the statue adorned bridge towards the crumbling stone gate covered with moss and surrounded by trees embracing the green slopes with their powerful roots, I felt like I was entering an enchanted forest.

A UNESCO world heritage site and Cambodia’s number one tourist attraction, Angkor Wat is a temple complex dating back to the 12th century. Located next to a town of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is only one of the many temples that can be found around the old capital of the Khmer Empire.

While there are a few gates through which one can enter Angkor Thom, our guide luckily has taken us through the less crowed one, nearest to our first stop  – the Bayon temple.

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Famous for its smiling faces, which are believed to represent Bodhisattva in the state of Nirvana, the Bayon temple is a popular destination for the tourists flooding Angkor city every day.

Although less iconic than Angkor Wat, the smiling stones amidst the forest were no less impressive. I didn’t know if it was the place itself or the peaceful expressions of the carved Buddhas, but there was something positive and calming about the Bayon temple.

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Past the crumbling stone entrance,  the richly decorated walls of the main temple building bore testament to the city’s past. The detailed carvings on the southern side of the building tare believed to tell the story of the battle between Khmer and Cham Kingdom, as well as the scenes from the city’s everyday life. From religious rituals to childbirth, the walls of Bayon give us an idea of what living in Angkor Thom could have been like in the times of this ancient civilisation’s greatness, when the city’s size resembled today’s Berlin and supported a population of one million.

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Angkor Wat, meaning City Temple, is one of the many religious sites around the old capital’s remains. Built at the turn of the 12th century by the King Jayavarman VII, this Buddhist temple was later turned into a Hindu worship grounds after the King’s death, reflecting the changing demographic of Angkor city.

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Aside from its historic value, the Bayon temple is still an important place of prayer for the Buddhist majority in Cambodia. Due to its religious significance, when visiting Angkor Wat and the neighbouring temples, the tourists must cover their shoulders and knees as a sign of respect.

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While Angkor was known to the local Khmer and was shown to a few selected European visitors, the ruins of the city remained mostly hidden in the jungle until the end of 19th century. From 1907, the restoration of the site began, clearing away the surrounding forest and protecting the building from further damage and looting.

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Not soon after it started however, the restoration works had to stop, due to Cambodia’s turbulent political upheaval. Considering the unrest brought by civil war followed by the murderous rule of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, it is hardly a surprise that Cambodia was not a number one tourist destination  throughout the 1960s and 70s. Following the bloodshed and mass murders that wiped out one-quarter of the Cambodian population,  the country started to slowly get back on its feet and recover from the horrors of its past in the 1990s. With the relative political improvement and increased safety, the country opened up to tourists who eagerly came to admire the impressive remains of Cambodia’s ancient civilisation and its murder fields alike.

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While in the mid-1990s Angkor Wat would have seen around seven thousand visitors a year, by the 21st Century the 7th Wonder of the World would attract over 2.5 million visitors annually, transforming Siem Reap from a small French colonial town into a bustling tourist hub. The architectural wonder of Angkor Wat and the raw beauty of the jungle-clad  Ta Phrom, Angkor’s Buddhist monastery and university, popularised in the movie “Tomb Rider”, continue to attract curious travellers like a magnet.

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Leading to Ta Phrom was a pathway cleared across the forest. The air was filled with the captivating sounds of the tro and roneat, traditional Khmer instruments, played by the local band performing for tourists in hope of earning a few dollars by selling their cd. After a few minute walk in the scorching heat, the first buildings started to appear. While the groups of Chinese tourists began to rush for their first photos with the entrance of what is now known as Tomb Rider Temple, I paused by a forgotten building few meters from the monastery.

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Walking around the jumbled piles of stones between the remains of the temple half-claimed by the jungle, half taken over by the equally greedy looters, left me feeling ambivalent. On one hand I was standing in front of the stunning architectural marvel, which encircled by the strong roots of silk cotton trees and trunks growing from between its walls looked like a place from a fairytale. On the other, the loud crowd of Chinese tourists taking hundreds of selfies and group photos was spoiling all the mystic beautify of this breathtaking place. I yearned to be there alone, and yet as I followed our tour guide to escape other tourists, I knew I was being part of the problem and the moment the site would clear up, I would rush there to take photos just like everyone else, desperate to steal a little bit of this place’s magic for myself.

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Thanks to our guide, we managed to stumble on moments of silence and in the parts of the temple clear from the other groups, we were able to find peace needed to inhale the surreal atmosphere of this place. As much as I dislike organised tours, I was glad to have a local expert with us and being able to find out a bit more about the place I was visiting. When our guide told us how many statues have been stolen from the Angkor’s grounds over the years, I was grateful the site is being looked after, that it’s got the protection it needs. I was however, also painfully aware of the costs of keeping it alive.

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While the money left by the western, Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists certainly contributes to the area’s economic growth and provides the funds for further restoration efforts, the impact of mass tourism on the Angkor complex is worrying. The increasing tourism means growing number of hotels and restaurants to sustain it, with each new building requiring underground foundations, sewage and drainage systems that upset the stability of the sandy soil. In addition, with the peak of the tourist activity falling in the middle of the country’s dry season, there is an even greater pressure on the water supply, leading to excessive ground water pumping.

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The environmental stressors, combined with the apparent economic gap between the local population and the wealthy visitors, pose a lot of challenges for Cambodia. Considering that the country remains one of the most corrupt in the world and continues to struggle with violation of human rights, this beautiful part of the world can become an easy target for those wanting to exploit its natural resources, heritage and vulnerable parts of the society. After all, Cambodia’s past is full of painful lessons in human greediness and cruelty. Angkor Wat saw the collapse of the powerful civilisation which ruled these terrains from 802. In 1431, the neighbouring kingdom of Ayutthaya (now Thailand), annexed economically stagnant Angkor following a series of wars, only to abandon it shortly due to ecological failure brought on by the city’s former overpopulation , unsustainable deforestation and overworking of the soil.

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Thanks to its impressive architecture and good preservation, Angkor Wat still remains the best known and best-preserved religious temple at the site. While it continues to charm tourists with its jungle backdrop and romantic surroundings, it serves as a global and local reminder of Cambodia’s past as a major regional power. It also provides hope for the country’s economic growth, but only if executed with a big-picture in mind. Although the money focus of the local community is completely understandable and provides the opportunities for the people of Siem Reap to improve their economic situation while catering to the tourists’ demands, I hope the financial motives do not prove detrimental to the country’s interests in the long term.

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Today Cambodia appears torn between its humble and respectful culture and the dream of wealthier, more globalised life. Tourists from around the world travel to admire the country’s cultural gems while paying next to nothing for living a life of luxury for the duration of their stay.  It is a difficult relationship, one in which everyone benefits and everyone looses. I hope that Cambodian society finds a way to make the most of the foreign interest in their past in a way that doesn’t compromise its future.

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