Magnificent. Miraculous. Mystical. Words that only begin to convey the majesty of the temples at Angkor, Cambodia. And today, you can add another word: mobbed!
Day after day, this wonder of the world is being assaulted by hordes of tourists, an estimated 2 million visitors this year. A number almost certain to double in the next few years.
They crawl like colorful lines of ants across the steep stairs and towering spires of the 12th century temple, the most recognized of the Hindu and Buddhist shrines sprawling over 300 square kilometers.
They scamper across ancient stones to pose in front of the hundreds of massive enigmatic stone faces of the 13th century Bayon Temple.
At the end of each day, one can barely make out the shape of the 9th century temple, Phnom Bakheng, literally buried under an onslaught of four to five thousand visitors who have scaled its ancient sandstone walls to witness a once-in-a-lifetime sunset.
In the tourist industry, Angkor has rapidly become one those "must-see destinations." It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and largely unspoiled in a still remote and exotic corner of Cambodia.
But tourism, according to John Stubbs, vice president of the U.S.-based World Monuments Fund, "has become a double-edged sword."
On the one hand, tourism can bring an enormous amount of revenue to countries and organizations trying to preserve the great cultural treasures of the world.
Stubbs and his WMF teams have worked for 15 years helping preserve two of the most seriously threatened temples at Angkor. He's watched tourism grow from a trickle to a flood. "The tourists are blessing," he said. They bring money and curiosity and respect for the temples. And tourist dollars help pay for restoration work that runs into the millions of dollars.
"Most tourists want to be responsible," Stubbs said. "They understand the importance of behaving properly and cleaning up after themselves. It's our responsibility to keep encouraging that."
On the other hand, the rapid growth in visitors to Angkor and the nearby town of Siem Reap now threaten to overwhelm the region's limited resources. Noise, traffic and pollution have become serious threats to the temples and the culture they symbolize.
Angkor is now experiencing the same stress and threats as the other Heritage Sites, including the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza.
Ten years ago, Siem Reap, the gateway to Angkor, had one hotel. Today there are over 100 and more are being opened at a rate of one a month. Ox carts and bicycles have given way to horrendous traffic jams. Entertainment districts have sprung up, offering nightspots for every taste, massage parlors, pizza and burger joints. And the constant drone of jet aircraft landing at the new international airport has some wondering whether vibrations will damage the fragile temple walls.
However, for many Cambodians, impoverished survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, the growth of tourism has meant salvation. At least for the time being.
Som Vannak, who hawks souvenir photographs for the tourists, said he hopes to start his own photography business with the money he makes in tips. "Tourism," he said, "of course it's good, good for Cambodia, and very good for me." That sentiment is echoed by hundreds of small merchants selling guidebooks, souvenir hats and T-shirts to the tourists.