ON JULY 8, the ancient temple city of Sambor Prei Kuk became the third site in Cambodia to achieve World Heritage Status by Unesco.
The recognition was widely hailed in the Southeast Asian nation, but what will this do for the site and the local population whose lives have grown dependent on tourism?
It’s important to illustrate why the complex – a cluster of over 50 pre-Angkorian brick temples in the Kampong Thom province some 200km north of Phnom Penh – was awarded such a prestigious and elusive label.
From an aesthetic angle, the site is simply gorgeous. The “temple in the richness of the forest”, as it is known in Khmer language, is a sprawling ancient metropolis that was once the capital for the Pre-Angkorian Kingdom of Chenla.
To give an idea of just how long ago this kingdom was formed, an inscription found at a temple complex bears the date 627AD. According to Unesco, the area was the capital for the Chenla King Isanavarman, called Isanapura.
Cambodia’s Culture and Fine Arts Ministry said the inscription brought “great national pride”. On Facebook, Prime Minister Hun Sen reportedly referred to the decision as a “historic event”, also urging Cambodians that day to celebrate by banging pots and water jars in public spaces.
Local media reports splashed images of Sambor Prei Kuk’s iconic structures across its pages, along with pictures of thousands celebrating the event, fireworks lighting up the skies.
This wave of publicity for the area could not have come at a better time for Cambodian tourism, which has been flourishing in recent years. According to figures released recently by the Tourism Ministry, international tourist arrivals to Cambodia climbed five percent from 2015 to hit five million last year, generating receipts worth over US$3 billion.
With its World Heritage status, Sambor Prei Kuk joins elite company; the famous 12th century Angkor Wat Temple received its Unesco listing in 1992 while the 11th Century Preah Vihear temple near the Thai border was listed in 2008.
Apart from international recognition, the expected tourism boom and its attached benefits to the local economy, the Unesco listing also means Sambor Prei Kuk will get the monetary support it needs for restoration works.
“The benefit we gain from Unesco is their financial support for repairing [the temples]. Any place that is not safe we would never let tourists enter.
“The place has to be good and safe like Angkor Wat,” Culture and Fine Arts Ministry spokesman Thai Norak Satya was quoted in the Phnom Penh Post after the decision was announced.
On concerns that the expected influx of tourists to the newly-crowned site would bring further damage to its crumbling structures, local authorities disagreed.
“We are not concerned that tourists will have a bad impact on our temples because Unesco will know how to take care of it,” said Provincial Deputy Governor Sok Lau.
According to Miles Gravett, General Manager of Khiri Travel, the Unesco inscription will turn Sambor Prei Kuk into a good stopover option for travelers on the road between Siem Reap to the capital.
He told TTG Asia: “With (upgraded) roads and this new recognition, more people will opt for (an) overland route, particularly in the green season when the Kampong Thom countryside is a sea of green rice fields and sugar palm trees, the iconic image of Cambodia’s heartland.”
Unesco has history of turning sometimes desperately poor rural areas into places of great national pride and intrigue for tourists.
One example is Indonesia’s Temple of Borobudur. For 800 years, the world’s largest Buddhist temple was consumed by the rainforests of Java.
Fast forward to present day, the combination of a gargantuan restoration project by the Indonesian government and Unesco, followed by the World Heritage status, gave Borobudur the illustrious title as Indonesia’s most visited tourist attraction. This is turn has transformed the area into a hotbed of tourism and retail.
It’s perhaps true that Sambor Prei Kuk can never compete with the overwhelming splendor of Angkor Wat, but it can make a lasting impression and help grow the local economy, which depends heavily on the tourism dollar for revenue.
As Chin Meankung, founder of Cambodian Experiences, says, the complex’s “serene forests and solitude make a much welcome change from the human masses of its famous cousin”.