When I was in living in Asia I would often bump into avid explorers proudly clutching a tattered but well-travelled copy of Lonely Planet. Their future footsteps commonly included a short trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. UNESCO has described Angkor Wat as one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia and it’s not hard to see why it’s so popular. The temple is nestled amongst the Angkor archaeological park and was built in the first half of the 12th century. Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to Vishnu and Hindu worship before later switching to Buddhism. It has a remarkable and mystical background that’s intrigued many countries who have tried to claim its vast ruins for their own. Nowadays tourists flock to the site intrigued by its beauty and its impressive reviews.
The tourism board of Cambodia proudly declared that Angkor Wat is an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, and has an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal. The temple itself even sits proudly on Cambodia’s national flag. Such emphatic promotion of a single location has unfortunately led to some more serious recent concerns. Angkor Wat is now in danger of being completely overcrowded and seriously damaged.
Official figures show there were around 2.3 million foreign visitors to Angkor Wat in 2013 compared with just 4000 in 1994. That makes for a staggering 57,000% increase in just under 20 years. It’s simply not sustainable to have such a high volume of people going to the same area year after year without proper zoning and management. Mass crowds are damaging the temples foundations and local hotel construction is harming the environment. Sadly Cambodia hasn’t had the resources to properly maintain the park due to large political unrest throughout the 20th century.
In recent times however, increased tourism development in Angkor has been encouraging for Cambodia’s economy as it continues to expand. In 2012, Cambodia’s economy grew by 7.3 percent but it’s still somewhat hampered by financial leakage and increased profits going to multinational companies.
We are entering a critical phase in Angkor Wat’s illustrious history. If Cambodia is to flourish under reasonable political stability it needs to emphasise other locations in the park, and other locations around the country. More rigorous management programs and better infrastructure should be a matter of top priority. Sustainable initiatives make Angkor Wat a more attractive destination in the long run. The last thing they want to do is discourage people from going altogether.