The Khmer royal capital of Angkor Wat survived successive Empires, rampaging militia and one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. But can it survive the army of tourists descending on its fragile temples?

The numbers of tourists visiting the ruins of Angkor are growing rapidly, putting unprecedented pressure on the important monuments.

While hiding out from Vietnamese forces, Khmer Rouge soldiers used the extraordinary bas-reliefs at Angkor for target practice. The bullet holes are still visible, sitting alongside botched restoration jobs and headless statues of voluptuous Apsaras dancers, decapitated long ago for the illegal antique trade.

Built between the ninth and 15th centuries, then reclaimed by the jungle for half a millennium, the temples of Angkor represent one of the most spectacular and important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Following the complex’s ‘rediscovery’ in 1860 by Henri Mouhot, a French naturalist taking part in a Royal Geographical Society-sponsored expedition (the locals always knew it was there), French archaeologists began restoring the temples, clearing away the forest and meticulously rebuilding many of them stone block by stone block.

With the outbreak of civil war in 1967 and the ensuing Khmer Rouge regime, work ceased, but following the end of the conflict at the beginning of the 1990s, it was restarted. In 1992, shortly after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, the internationally brokered settlement that restored a degree of stability to the country, the site was inscribed onto the World Heritage list and reopened to visitors. The next year, UNESCO began co-ordinating the restoration, together with archaeologists from France and Japan.

With the surrounding jungle strewn with landmines and still alive with remnants of the Khmer Rouge, about 5,000 tourists made it to Angkor in the first year after it was reopened. Fifteen years on, it has become the fastest-growing destination of any World Heritage monument, with 1.7 million visitors last year alone. Preservationists claim that this number already exceeds the capacity that the site can safely manage, and that the temples’ future is being compromised. But tourism to Angkor, which is growing at 30 per cent a year, is a jackpot for Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries, and it’s unlikely to slow down any time soon.

Highly sacred

‘In 1995, when we opened the first visitors’ centre at Preah Khan, we would be lucky to see one tourist a day,’ says John Stubbs, the vice president of field programmes for the New York-based World Monument Fund. ‘Now, numbers are increasing exponentially. There are literally hundreds of tourists arriving at certain temples per hour; traffic jams from buses offloading passengers.’

Canadian archaeologist Dr Dougald O’Reilly is founder of Heritage Watch, which aims to protect Cambodia’s historical sites. ‘The problem is that these temples were never designed as public spaces,’ he says. ‘They are highly sacred monuments and in their day, only the highest levels of the religious order would have been allowed inside. Temples such as Phnom Bakheng would have seen no more than a handful of people a day.’

Phnom Bakheng is Angkor’s current hotspot, attracting up to 4,000 visitors each afternoon to watch the sun set. The main pathway, as old as the temple itself, has recently been closed off due to rapid deterioration. But that has done nothing to deter the throngs. Visitors regularly clamber over the statues and there have been reports of graffiti being spray-painted beside figures of celestial nymphs.

‘There are so many extraordinary places to watch the sun set inside the park,’ says Stubbs. ‘But guidebooks and tour operators label Phnom Bakheng a must-do experience, so this is where the tourists go. Now, it’s nearly impossible for people to have a quality experience.’

Alongside the dangers involved with thousands of people climbing up the uneven and precarious steps are the physical threats to the temples. Bas-reliefs gleam from the touch of sweaty palms, names and dates have been gouged into walls, and some of the temples’ delicate sandstone facades have started to crumble.

‘For now, there are not enough people on the ground to control [the tourists],’ says Teruo Jinnai, the director of UNESCO in Cambodia. ‘When we first came to Angkor, we were concerned about stabilising the temples, getting them back in order. They were very vulnerable, some almost completely reclaimed by the jungle. Tourists came, but mainly backpackers and high-end [tourists]. Then, all of a sudden, there was mass tourism. Boom.’

But it’s water shortages and pollution, says Jinnai, not destruction to the temples, that are the gravest issues facing Angkor. Most building regulations are negotiable and hotels aren’t legally required to treat sewage. A recent report from the World Bank stated that a number of hotels and guest houses in Siem Reap, the town that serves the temples, were dumping untreated waste water straight into the rivers, and E. coli bacteria have been found in local drinking wells.

Alarmingly, the report also says that one of the temples has begun sinking into its foundations, destabilised by the draining of underground aquifers, probably by the hospitality industry. According to UNESCO, Siem Reap has only half of the water needed to sustain its current tourist numbers.

Despite its booming tourism industry, the province of Siem Reap remains one of the poorest in Cambodia, with only a few local businesses appearing to benefit. Many hotels and restaurants fly in their food supplies, souvenirs are made in China, and foreign guides take tourists around the temples. Even most of the souvenir sellers are from Phnom Penh.

Then there are the constant allegations of corruption and the lack of transparency that surrounds Sokimex, the company that controls Angkor’s admission centre. Maintaining close ties to the prime minister, Hun Sen, Sokimex was granted the concession without any public debate in 1999 for a flat annual fee of US$1million.

The agreement was revised in 2000, and the company is now required to give the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap (APSARA) half of the first US$3million collected and 70 per cent thereafter. Critics claim that the company merely pays lip service to these figures and that only a fraction of the money actually reaches the monuments. Early last year, Radio Free Asia reported on huge discrepancies between the tourist numbers reported by Sokimex in 2005 and those counted by the tourism department, suggesting that the former may have underpaid by tens of millions of dollars.

Working wonders

So far, the government hasn’t made any attempt to limit the number of people visiting the temples, or to protect them from the consequences of the tourism boom. Instead, it’s pushing for even greater numbers.

Four years ago, Hun Sen declared that tourism to Angkor Wat would be the locomotive to pull Cambodia into the future. And a recent campaign pushed Cambodians to vote for Angkor Wat’s inclusion in the new Seven Wonders of the World. ‘When our Angkor temple is selected… we hope more and more foreign tourists will be interested and come to visit the temple, bringing more revenue for the country,’ Soeung Kong, deputy director general of APSARA, told Agence France Presse before the result was revealed in July. Ultimately, Angkor was a finalist but failed to make the winning seven.

Japanese and Korean tour companies were recently given the right to hold banquets and light and sound shows inside the temples at night, much to the chagrin of Chau Sun Kerya, the spirited tourism director at APSARA. ‘I don’t deny we have problems, big problems,’ she says. ‘We didn’t realise tourism growth would be so quick, and preparing isn’t so easy. Now many Asian countries are getting rich. They come here, but don’t behave very well, pushing the Khmer people to behave badly, be corrupt and do bad business.

‘Angkor is a place of worship for Khmer people,’ she continues. ‘Tourists should understand this; they should wear appropriate clothes. But they don’t, because, they say, it’s hot. I know it’s hot. But they must understand that this is our culture. Then there are the stupid guidebooks telling people not to miss out on sunset from Phnom Bakheng, and now we have up to 4,000 tourists climbing to the top every afternoon. Personally, I would like to close the temples and make people book to go in, but from the point of view of the government, Cambodia needs the money that people bring.

‘We are trying to prepare, but it takes time and money. I hope, in five years from now, we have the infrastructure to control everything, and that one day Angkor will be a role model for other heritage sites.’

According to Stubbs, however, ‘there is no shortage of physical solutions’. He reels off a list of potential ways in which APSARA could address the issues at hand: redistributing the crowds by offering alternative sites for watching the sunset; emphasising other jungle experiences and the amazing temples, pagodas and shrines off the beaten path (so far unknown to the travel agents); employing more guards; and catching rainwater to ease the pressure on local water sources.

The good news is that a number of travel proprietors have taken it upon themselves to redress the situation. Spearheaded by the World Bank, travel website champions responsible tourism in Siem Reap, giving local tourism providers access to web bookings, scoring tour operators on their sensitivity to the environment, and encouraging tourists to stay another day in order to increase the revenue yield from each visitor.

At the Hotel de la Paix and the Shinta Mani, both run by Bangkok-based Bed Management, a percentage of room rates is used to support hospitality and sewing schools for disadvantaged youth. Guests are also actively encouraged to interact with impoverished villagers and, under the guidance of the hotels, to make donations towards wells, vegetable seeds and even pigs, which are then used to build market gardens and promote self-sufficiency. The response has been overwhelming: in the past 16 months, the programme has provided 370 wells, and another 100 are under construction.

‘These days, many travellers aren’t just looking for a hotel room, but an experience,’ says Bed Management director Bill Black. ‘Most tourists, if given the chance, want to make a difference. They want to give something back.’

And Stubbs says: ‘There is such extraordinary attention from the foreign community, and they all have solutions. But implementing them is a matter of urgency: it has to happen now.’

This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of Geographical, the magazine for the Royal Geographical Society in the UK.