Angkor Temples Inspire Awe, Burger Joints

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."

Managing Change

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."

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