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.
Must See Tourism
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."
Siem Reap, Boom Town
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.
Invasion or Salvation?
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.
But some of the more well traveled, well-heeled tourists from Western countries have mixed feelings. Mick Moore recently visited from Australia. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, to be honest. I know the tourist crowds bring money here. But it's not as peaceful as it used to be."
Asked about the crowds perched atop Phnom Bashing at sunset, American Toni Duffy said, "I think the crowds take away from the experience." But her companion Saul Unter disagreed. "I don't feel that. The importance of this place deserves people to watch it, to see it, to witness it."
John Stubbs said that "at the end of the day, it comes down to managing change, managing the visitors who come to the site. And there is hope. There is a lot of work underway to do just that."
For the first time, top Cambodian officials are expressing concern that more planning and care will be needed if Cambodia is to protect one of its most important cultural assets.
Many Cambodians have been upset with how the temples have been used so far. In one case, the temples were rented out for the production of the Angelina Jolie film "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider."
Son Soubert, a member of Cambodia's Constitutional Council, believes that using Angkor for movies and unrestricted tourism has disrupted the Hindu and Buddhist spiritual atmosphere of the temples.
He is especially concerned with the greed of his own countrymen, looking to get rich at Angkor's expense. "They are not caring for the cultural side of this temple," he said. "They are more interested with the economic side, making money, and getting it into their pockets."
But others, like Stubbs, are hopeful. "Angkor in its day," Stubbs said, "was one of the all-time great civilizations on Earth." And, in fact, it could have been destroyed many times over.
It was all but lost to the jungles a century ago, before it was painstakingly uncovered by early European explorers.
It was lost to the world again during the years of isolation under the murderous Khmer Rouge, who sometimes used the temple grounds for shooting practice.
Following the Khmer Rouge, a small army of grave and cultural artifact robbers descended on the deserted temples. Cambodia was too weak and traumatized to defend itself.
But eventually nations and nongovernmental agencies, art communities, and ordinary individuals came to Angkor's defense. The fact that we can now can fly or drive in reasonable comfort right to the gates of this long-lost magnificent relic of an ancient civilization is a testament to those efforts.
As Stubbs reminded us, "We just need to stay ahead of the curve, so to speak. There's not a minute to waste in looking after this precious place, because it could, without a doubt, be ruined by some wrong decisions, or by lack of control of visitors."