[UPDATE: The AP has a story that looks not only at the issues facing the temples at Angkor Wat, but the monks who reside in the area as well. The author quotes a local prince about the influx of tourists: "For many tourists, coming to Luang Prabang is like going on safari, but our monks are not monkeys or buffaloes."]
Renovation workers warn that water table damage in Angkor Wat could enable the temples to slowly sink
After long years of internal strife at the hands of the militant group the Khmer Rouge, tourism to Cambodia is now booming, with over 2 million visitors arriving last year. But, as we have noted before, a sudden influx of tourists can been a mixed blessing, especially when the necessary oversight is not in place to help stem the surge.
So a recent piece in the Independent did little to assuage our fears for the region. Writer Rob Sharp described the slew of problems facing Angkor Wat, the massive, intricately-carved sandstone temples which are a World Heritage Site, and are now on every tourists' must-see list. Sharp writes:
According to heritage experts carrying out restoration work at the temple, which is one of the biggest sets of religious ruins in the world, a plethora of new hotels, cashing in on the country's near-exponential rise in tourist numbers, is sapping gallons of water from beneath nearby urban areas. They say this could upset the delicate foundations on which Angkor Wat sits and could lead to parts of it—including its famous celestial apsara, or carved nymphs—taking an unheavenly tumble to earth.
Similar unsettling (pardon the pun) trends were seen in Indonesia two years ago, and restoration workers warn that if the idols start to fall, tourists will lose interest, which makes it even more important to promote sensible growth. And the effects of mass tourism aren't limited to Angkor Wat. They're being felt at other historical sites nearby, from Siem Riep, where guesthouses have cropped up like mushrooms and tour-bus exhaust is blackening stone facades, to the hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng, where sandstone carvings are being worn down by the nearly 3,000 visitors who trek up its steps each day.
With this (frankly, depressing) news, we were glad to hear that Cambodia has made plans to expand their cultural heritage and eco-tourism options in the country, and thus redirect some of the heavy traffic that Angkor is experiencing. Tourism officials announced plans to promote the Preah Vihear temple as a cultural destination and to develop roads and infrastructure to siphon off some of the flow. We just hope that with this development comes the necessary oversight, so that we don't have to worry about any tumbling nymphs anytime soon.
Read More: The group Heritage Watch is working to protect the antiquities in Cambodia and are partnering with villagers to develop sustainable tourism opportunities. Check out their list of Heritage Friendly Tourism supporters and businesses who are working with them to promote authentic options.
In Tribute: Much of Cambodia's tourism industry today can be tied back to the work of Dith Pran, a New York Times interpreter and photographer who worked to expose the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge were committing in his country; his life story was eventually the subject of the film, The Killing Fields. Mr. Dith passed away this weekend after a lifetime of speaking out against genocide, all while he continued to shoot photographs that captured the life New York City. I was lucky enough to work with him on a story this past summer, and he was charming, inquisitive, and full of life. The Times sat down with him before he died, speaking with him for their "The Last Word" series. It's a beautiful tribute to his life, and to a place that he loved so dearly.