Reflections on tourism in Angkor

A brief meditation on a trip to Cambodia back in 2015…

To be a mass tourist… 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 non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is… 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, “Consider the Lobster”

Of the hundred temples scattered across Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park, none are more iconic than Angkor Wat. Built in the 12th century in dedication to the Supreme God Vishnu, Angkor Wat is the holy jewel of the Khmer Empire and is heralded as the largest religious monument in the world. It is a delirious marriage of theology and architecture. Its moat represents the Ocean of Milk from which the universe was born, its bas-reliefs depict the great battles of Hindu epics, and its central tower represents Mount Meru, the nexus of all creation. It is a wonder of stone and time.

But even excluding Angkor Wat, the Archaeological Park is a menagerie of long-lost treasures. One moment, you are gazing up at the crumbling, smiling faces of the Bayon, the next you are stumbling through the jungle temples of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, where tree roots have fused like shadows into the stonework. One hour, you are cycling between the dusty red sandstone carcasses of Pre Rup and East Mebon, the next you are crossing a walkway towards the island of Neak Pean, over haunting swampland.

Yet despite being surrounded by wonder, it is hard to ignore that grinding feeling in your stomach that something is, well, a bit wrong. As you bump into fellow travellers in narrow temple corridors, as you clumsily dodge out of family photos, as you wave away the souvenir hawkers and trinket touts, the marvel of Angkor begins to slowly grind away. You start wondering: Are all these stones merely bait in one giant South-East Asian tourist trap?

And once the realisation fully sinks into your chest, it’s all over. You realise that it’s you. You are both the trapped and the trapper. You are truly in the thick of it, in the deep end. You are just another insect in the global locust swarm of mass tourism. There is no escaping it.

Indeed, we all come in great hordes via tour bus, tuk-tuk, and bicycle. We come for that perfect photo of sunrise over Angkor Wat, for an (ethically dubious) elephant ride around the Bayon, for that silly selfie on top of the Terrace of the Leper King. Even the orange-robed monks that visit Angkor shake the authenticity of the experience, as they also reveal themselves to be mere tourists, whipping out smartphones and waving selfie sticks. As David Foster Wallace puts it so starkly: As tourists, we are all insects on a dead thing. We come, we go, and Angkor remains a lifeless, breathless empire.

But another thought also emerges. A thought that is reserved for those seeking a story that speaks not of a cadaverous empire, but of a modern nation-state. The thought is simply that perhaps it is contemporary Cambodia, and not just these ancient Khmer ruins, that is also a dead or dying thing?

Cambodia’s recent history is a wretched one, that much is certain. Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge. Year Zero. Three million Cambodians murdered by a deranged agrarian socialist experiment, or tortured and executed in the Killing Fields. To this day, the country remains one of the poorest in South-East Asia. While the country’s prospects are beginning to improve, over a third of the population is still living in poverty. To complicate matters, Cambodia’s current leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, is by all accounts a strongman who has solidified power through corruption, cronyism and political violence.

To this day, the country remains one of the poorest in South-East Asia. While the country’s prospects are beginning to improve, over a third of the population is still living in poverty. To complicate matters, Cambodia’s current leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, is by all accounts a strongman who has solidified power through corruption, cronyism and political violence.

In visiting Angkor, you can observe many of the challenges the country faces. You can see Cambodia’s weak education system in the children who run up to you, asking you to buy their postcards. You can see the country’s difficulties with unexploded ordinances in the disabled musicians who play at temple entrances. The beauty of stone ruins juxtaposed with the bluntness of social reality. It’s quite the contrast.

Its no wonder that many Cambodians have elevated Khmer’s ancient past when the recent past has offered them so little. But does all our tourism, our buzzing mass tourism, only exacerbate the problem? By visiting only its distant, bas-relief past, are we encouraging Cambodia to form a national identity that is inherently backward-looking? Honestly, I don’t have an answer. Cambodia very clearly has a future, it is just a question of whether it can realise it, just as how the ancient Khmer kings realised the magnificence of Angkor Wat.

Perhaps in places like Cambodia at least, David Foster Wallace gets it backwards. Perhaps the dead thing needs the insects in order to remind itself, that deep down beneath the broken stones, it is still alive.


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