Noisy tour groups and souvenir touts are increasingly a cause for concern at the Angkor complex
The ancient stone entrance to Angkor Wat temple is largely obscured by a colourful sea of sun hats and parasols belonging to a throng of tourists, clattering towards it and posing to take group photographs and selfies with iPads every step of the way.
Once inside the ornately decorated walls of one of the most precious heritage sites in the world – the capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th century, the snapping of cameras doesn’t stop.
Neither does the sound of tour guides explaining the Cambodian temple complex’s fascinating history to gaggles of tourists in languages ranging from Spanish to Chinese.
“I wish there were fewer people,” complains Isabelle, a 23-year-old tourist from Chile, who hasn’t come as part of a group. “But it’s so beautiful that I understand.”
The Chilean student had basically summed up the conundrum posed by mass tourism at Angkor.
Angkor has only become a mass attraction in the past 15 years – following the end of Cambodia’s long civil war.
While it is a boon for the poor nation’s economy, tourism has had some detrimental effects on the temple complex, ranging from the encroachment of the nearby tourist town of Siem Reap and problems with shaky foundations to some graffiti on the walls.
In the past four years alone, the number of tourists visiting Angkor has doubled.
Just over 11,000 saw the complex in January 2010; more than 25,000 came through in the same month this year, according to the Apsara Authority, the government agency that manages the 40,000-hectare archaeological park.
In 2013, more than 2 million people in all visited the site.
Cashing in on this increase are the vendors who, as Cambodian nationals, are allowed into the site for free.
They come daily to ply their wares: Angkor-emblazoned T-shirts, fridge magnets and kitsch miniature temple replicas. There are also beggars and flocks of children touting postcards.
“We got no money to go school,” one child tells a tourist, showing him a range of postcards. “Where you from? Australia? G’day mate!”
One entrepreneur, Minith, has come up with a novel way to make money – charging tourists US$1 (Bt32) each to don a cowboy hat and sit on a horse in front of the temples while their friends take photographs.
Helping a Korean tourist into the horse’s golden saddle, Minith says he makes about $30 dollars a hour from tourists who want a horse photo. That is a huge income when one considers that a third of Cambodia’s population lives below the poverty line.
Ulrich, from Denmark, who’s visiting the temples with his family, says all the people pushing their wares are a “downside” to his visit.
“There are a lot of people who want to sell things and they can be quite aggressive,” he sighs.
At Ta Prohm, a temple half overrun by jungle, tourists have no hope of navigating the atmospheric corridors alone, as Angelina Jolie did in the film “Tomb Raider”, which did its location filming here.
Visitors wait to pass while others take photos in front of the tree-covered walls and some Chinese tourists purchase python-skin drums.
“I can’t photograph the place without the people,” complains Jacopo, 22, who lives in Berlin. “I finally managed to find a place by myself to meditate.”
“I really don’t like it when they ask for money for incense. It’s supposed to be Buddhism,” he adds, referring to the monks who sell incense and blessed red cotton bracelets at shrines inside the temples.
Clement, a 49-year-old tourist from Singapore, is more pragmatic.
“People want to see Angkor like the Great Wall of China,” he said. “But the [numbers of tourists] will destroy it, so it’s chicken and egg.”
Kerya Chau Sun, Apsara Authority spokeswoman, says measures are being taken to reduce the damage caused by so many feet clambering over the ancient buildings.
“For sure there’s more and more tourists and I have to say it’s quite sudden this increase,” she said, adding that Chinese, Korean and other Asian groups were especially likely to join tours. “We need to limit the negative impact.”
“The problem today is the flow – and to distribute people, because you know Angkor is big enough for welcoming everybody, but the problem is they concentrate always in the same temple, same time, same season,” she says.
For that reason, the government has put limits on the numbers of people who can visit certain areas in one day. For example only 100 people at a time are allowed to climb the stairs to the central tower at Angkor Wat and only 300 people are allowed to view the sunset and sunrise each day at Phnom Bakheng, a popular viewing spot.
Guards now prevent graffiti, and the filling in of some of the ancient reservoirs has helped stabilise foundations, she said, adding that another measure could be to ban tour buses and make people walk inside the park instead.
“It’s very important because Angkor is a very spiritual place and with the tourists ... we have to induce them to feel Angkor.”