Here’s why Angkor Wat’s high tourist numbers are a double-edged sword

The Angkor Wat temple site drew a record 2.19 million visitors last year. Source: Shutterstock/Yuliia Kononenko

THE Angkor Wat Archeological Park has long been the trademark of Cambodian tourism, having drawn a record 2.19 million visitors just last year alone.

However, the sprawling temple complex, which dates back to the 12th century and is one of the largest religious monuments in the world, is now forced to walk the fine line of allowing select modern amenities on its ground to accommodate the flurry of tourists while also needing to preserve its ancient facade from degradation.

The International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC-Angkor), a Unesco-backed group tasked with conserving the heritage site, said in a recent interview they will be addressing these very concerns during the first of two meetings held this year.

“Though we welcome the increase in the number of tourists at the Angkor site, it causes several problems, such as congestion by concentration of tourists at certain monuments at certain time, and the need to ensure visitors observe the code of conduct to maintain cleanliness and safety of tourism facilities,” Japanese Ambassador to Cambodia Hidehisa Horinouchi, who is the co-chair of the ICC-Angkor, said in an interview with local daily Khmer Times in January.

However, ICC-Angkor stopped short of providing any tangible solutions.

ICC-Angkor along with the Apsara Authority, the government body that oversees the Angkor Wat Archeological Park, has constantly had to grapple with restoring and preserving the historical site.

In fact, Angkor Wat’s being awarded the Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1992 was in response to Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk’s plea for help from the international community to restore the faltering site.

Awarding the site World Heritage Status would attract enough international interest to sustain preservation efforts while also creating a benchmark for acceptable standards of operation and conservation.

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Despite the efforts of international bodies and the Cambodian government, the site remains under threat today by the very tourists whose dollars help fund restoration works.

The late Cambodian deputy prime minister Sok An last year called on Unesco to increase funding for restoration and conservation efforts as the Angkor Wat stonework needed maintenance, local daily The Phnom Penh Post reported.

Apsara Authority spokesman Chau Sun Kerya said the heritage site needed more expert attention as the massive influx of tourists was deteriorating the temple complex faster than restoration efforts.

Tourists at Angkor Wat go to great lengths to get the perfect photo. Source: Shutterstock

Beyond the struggle of conservation, visitors to Angkor Wat, who otherwise would have been greeted by an imposing piece of history are instead likely to be inundated with selfie stick-toting tourists who have little interest in the culture embedded in the structure.

Tour companies drop off busloads of tourists before dawn so that, as many tour guides and travel books have recommended, they may gather at the Reflecting Pond to snap Instagram-worthy photos of the sunrise over the ruins.

However authorities last week limited the number of people clamoring for a spot at the pond at dawn and dusk in a bid to, yet again, preserve the sanctity of the site, the Telegraph reported.

These very social-media crazed tourists were the ones who prompted Apsara Authority to impose a strict dress code last July after several instances of nude photography at the sacred site.

SEE ALSO: Tourists in ‘revealing’ clothing to be banned from entering Angkor Wat

Juggling the protection of the site’s aesthetics while still attracting enough tourists who bankroll, but also hinder, preservation efforts remains a tricky task for authorities.

The double-edged sword extends also to the development of Siem Reap.

Telecom operator Camtowerlink Communications in January put up six mobile network towers on the Angkor Wat grounds in areas previously limited by dense foliage. However, operators had to also disguise them as trees to preserve the overall look of the site.

“The six towers were placed in crowded tourist areas where there used to be connection shortages and will now provide better network access to visitors while minimizing the impact on the environment,” local daily the Phnom Penh Post quoted Camtowerlink Communications spokesman Rath Sok Khoeurn as saying.

Angkor Wat has brought on development for Siem Reap. Source: Shutterstock/GuoZhongHua

Beyond that, overpopulation in the city has also been a cause for concern as the increase in residents and tourists have begun severely depleting water resources there.

Having had to tap into the groundwater has been disconcerting as any shift in the ground would permanently damage Angkor Wat given that the stones, which are not secured to one another like brick-and-cement structures should shift or worse, fall apart.

ICC-Angkor co-chairmen Jean-Claude Poimboeuf and Horinouchi said this was one of the issues the group planned to tackle this year, without going into further details.

What remains indisputable is the immensity of Angkor Wat as a representation of the architectural genius of the ancient Khmer folk as well as the beautiful intricacies of the Hindu religion.

The grandeur that often smack visitors in the face is quickly subdued by the detailed carvings that depict history and mythology.

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From the sandstones mined from the nearby Kulen Mountain to the moat that surrounds it, Angkor Wat has long been a source of great national pride for Cambodians.

In fact, Pol Pot during his genocidal reign killed millions and destroyed all forms of art except for the Angkor Wat, which he actively attempted to protect.