I think many of us have an imagined picture of Angkor Wat. I certainly did, before I actually got to see it. My picture was composed mostly of things I had read. It was supplemented by images from films about tomb raiders and adventure, some of them made on location in and around it. In my mind Angkor Wat was a remote, mysterious place, reachable only by an arduous journey, a place in which spirits and ghosts would definitely outnumber the other human beings you'd see when you finally got to visit.
The reality, I must report, is quite different. I saw Angkor Wat twice in the last week. One day I arose before dawn and pedaled a few miles on a rented bicycle to see it as the sun rose. On the other day I arrived at mid morning with a group of tourists .
Even at dawn, the long stone walkway over the moat and through the ramparts at Angkor Wat was as crowded as a subway platform at rush hour. You had to keep moving or you'd be blocking the herd. At mid-morning a couple of days later, it was still more crowded. Buses idled along the side of the two lane road leading to Angkor Wat as their passengers queued to have their pictures made for the $20 daily admission ticket. Tuk-tuk drivers and cars tried to squeeze past, creating chaotic traffic in both directions. Closer to the actual temple complex, which is roughly the size of Versailles, vendors lined the road, peddling bottled water, soda, beer and fruit on a stick at the top of their lungs. “Sir! Beer one dollar! Beer one dollar! You want water, I got water! One dollar!”
Inside the walls, I wouldn't say that commerce was unrestrained, because otherwise the beer and water vendors wouldn't have been out on the road beyond the complex walls. They'd have been inside. Even so, an astonishing number of vendors had managed somehow to set up shop in the sacred precinct. They sold tee-shirts and postcards and guide books. They sold Angkor Wat paintings of roughly the same quality as those rugs painted with portraits of Elvis I used to see for sale in roadside stands in Appalachia. They use little kids to do the actual hawking, on the theory, no doubt proven in practice, that tourists will more easily part with a few bucks if the vendor is an appealing urchin.
One team comprised of a horse owner and a photographer had its steed stationed about a hundred yards in front of the famed Angkor Wat spires. For a fee, they'd set you up on the horse, put a hat on your head, and pose you heroically, like one of the fabled Khmer emperors who built the Angkor Wat temples (with the uncredited assistance of hundreds of thousands of slaves and tens of thousands of elephants). Then the photographer would snap the picture and sell it to you. The crowds inside the temple buildings were so thick that there was, I heard, a 40-minute line at the staircase for people getting ready to make the steep descent after seeing the highest galleries and carvings.
Upon reflection, the surprising thing about Angkor Wat was that I am still capable of being surprised when I finally get to a place I've long imagined and find it overrun with other tourists. I shouldn't be surprised any longer. That is the way of the world we live in.
Angkor Wat, if it shows anything, shows how rapid the life cycle of a tourist attraction has become in the 21st Century. Places like the Grand Canal in Venice or the Louvre in Paris had decades and centuries of what you could call their tourism prime. Those would be years in which enough people visited to sustain a pleasant network of hotels and restaurants, but not so many that the places felt crowded.
Angkor Wat, by comparison, had a prime of about ten minutes. The temples were built around 1000 years ago. A couple of centuries later, the decline of the Khmer Empire began. Vietnamese and Thai armies sacked the place, burning the wooden buildings. The Khmer kings eventually abandoned it, and the jungle had its way with the ruins for a century or two. Europeans “discovered” the ruins in the middle of the 19th century. But for another century or so, Angkor Wat remained a remote place, difficult to reach. There were no airliners, no railroads. You got to Angkor Wat at the end of an expedition.
Then came the wars—World War II, the anti-colonial wars that drove the French out, the American war in Vietnam that spilled into Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge revolution that drowned the country in its own blood, the Vietnamese invasion to drive out the Khmer Rouge, and a long civil war. It was only in the 1990s that Cambodia was peaceful enough for tourists. Jet travel, by then, was cheap. First came the backpackers, drawn by the prices, the warm weather and the exotic wonder of it all. Then came the real game-changer, the rise of middle classes in China, Korea and other countries, making it possible for vast numbers of people to take a fairly short flight and see one of the man-made wonders of the world.
This confluence of demand factors might have been mitigated if the Cambodian government were other than what it is, a dictatorial kleptocracy trying to maintain power and amass wealth in a country with few natural resources (other than lumber, which the government has already clear-cut and sold to line its members' pockets.) There was never a chance that the Cambodian government would do anything other than try to maximize the short-term revenue streams to be gained from allowing as many people as possible to see Angkor Wat, all the while spending money on hotels, restaurants, bars, massage joints and pony-photo vendors that provide the regime with opportunities for silent partnerships. Siem Reap, once a village a few miles from the ruins, now has a street called Pub Street (left) that every night resembles Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.
I suspect that the only thing that will control the tide of tourists into Angkor Wat will be a kind of market correction. When it gets a reputation for being overcrowded and overcommercialized, some people will stop coming to Angkor Wat It's possible for a tourist attraction to decline, just as the old Khmer Empire declined. Atlantic City and Niagara Falls were glamorous American resorts a hundred years ago. Now they're struggling. Angkor Wat may someday have the same problem.
But that won't immediately help the traveler who has Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or any other famed but overcrowded spot on his or her must-see list. In today's world, any place that's famous is going to draw masses of tourists. That's a by-product of two positive developments, the rapid growth of disposable income in places that didn't use to have much and the peace that makes travel safe. There's no point in complaining about it.
If you want to travel and you don't want queues, traffic, and children hawking trinkets, you just have to skip the Angkor Wats of the world, be creative, and find your wonder somewhere else.