The Magic of Angkor Wat is Lost, and Never to be Found Again.
When one imagines the temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the first thoughts that emerge are of a magical ancient temple secluded in a dense jungle. One envisions peeling back the canopy of the jungle to reveal a towering temple. Perhaps once that was the case, but due to the heavy influx of tourism, the temples have become nothing more than a glorified theme park.
Over the course of 6 days, I visited 10 temples in the Angkor Wat complex (some of which multiple times). Unlike most tourists who visit the temples on a guided tour in one day, I decided to take my time to explore on my own. My intentions were to find a nice tranquil area of the temples to pray and meditate. This proved to be the most challenging task of all.
During the months of May through September, heavy rains descend on Southeast Asia (SEA). Due to this the number of tourists drastically decreases, and the time is known as the “low season” or “rainy season.” Despite being low season, there were vast numbers of tourists at each of the temples I visited; even ones that were remote and out of the tour path. I dare not think what the temples are like in the high season.
Although there are signs posted everywhere declaring what the rules of entrance are (no short shorts or tanks, no speaking loudly, no climbing on structures, etc), I saw very few tourists adhering to and no employee enforcing them. One issue I came across time and time again was the level of noise the tourists created. I recall a moment at Angkor Wat; I sat down in front of a shrine to pay my respects, bow my head, and pray. I was unable to concentrate on what I was reciting due to a number of tourists speaking in very loud voices. A young Chinese girl, close to 23, was posing near the shrine and loudly barking instructions at her boyfriend on how to get the perfect shot, presumably for social media.
It seems as if most people don’t recognize how sacred the temples are to Hindus and Buddhists alike. They visit to take selfies to show social media that they have traveled to such and such destination. In fact, I doubt most even care about the historical, architectural, or cultural significance of the temples.
Since most tourists don’t recognize the sanctity of these temples, they don’t bother to adhere to the dress code either. It is forbidden to enter the temples with shorts that rise above the knees, tanks which expose the arms or shoulders, and small t-shirts that expose cleavage or the midriff. I saw many men and women in the temples with both tanks and shorts. Two girls from Spain even had the audacity to visit in booty in shorts! I honestly doubt that they would walk into any one of the many cathedrals in Spain dressed in a similar manner. Somehow since they are in a foreign land they don’t feel compelled to give the same amount of respect. The fault doesn’t only lie with the tourist though, it also lies with the staff of the temples who do not enforce the rules implemented by their organization. There are those, however, who go a step further and remove their clothing entirely for “artistic” nude photography. Such people have rightly earned the title “scum of society” due to their sheer lack of respect.
In February of 2015, sisters Lindsey and Leslie Adams were caught posing nude for a photo at the temple of Preah Khan. They were fined 1 million Riel (approximately $250), given a suspended jail sentencing of six months, deported, and banned from entering Cambodia for 4 years. I have no issues with nudity or nude photography, what I take issue with is the desecration that removing one’s clothes in a place which is considered sacred to others. The Adams’ sisters were not the only ones who were guilty of this, in fact many people have gotten away with it as well.
I believe that incidents such as the Adams’ were one of the reasons why so many areas of the temples are off limits now. Walking through the temples you will see a beaten path with signs directing tourists to head this way or that. A lot of the chambers and secluded paths are now roped off or gated. The magical experience of getting to explore temple ruins is lost and a visit feels more like taking a stroll through a park.
To accommodate the high influx of tourists, the actual structure and feel of the temples has been altered. Many tourists find themselves unable to walk easily around the many obstacles such as large stones, tree roots, and deteriorated steps. In an effort to make visiting the temples easier, scaffolding, wooden steps, and wooden platforms have been placed. These have also been implemented to keep tourists from climbing onto the structures for the “perfect photo.” Some may argue that the platforms are a good thing, but as a photographer, I am severely disappointed because such things take the beauty and magic out of the temples. The two images below, taken years a part, show how the added platform effectively ruins the artistic and ancient appeal of the temple.
The story doesn’t just end with the tourists, it extends to the locals, and unfortunately, the monks as well. At the 3 most popular temples, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, you will find a handful of monks seated at various places. For a price, usually a dollar or two, the monks will recite a Buddhist prayer, bless you with holy water, and tie yarn around your wrist. The act of receiving a blessing for purely spiritual reasons seems to be over now that one is expected to pay.
At Ta Prohm, I sat down to pray in front of a shrine, and seated to the left of me was an employee of the temple. I could tell she was an employee and not a nun due to her uniform; besides that her head wasn’t shaven. After I finished my prayers, she began reciting a prayer of her own, took my hand, tied some yarn to it, and pointed at a bowl with cash in it. She remarked that I could donate as much as I wanted, but the option of not donating wasn’t available. I couldn’t understand why I was being asked to pay by an employee of the temples and refused as I didn’t ask for the blessing. It seemed to me that this particular person, and her teammates, were looking to make a few extra bucks by tricking the uninformed tourist.
Cambodia has a turbulent history which is why it is one of the poorest and underdeveloped countries in SEA. After breaking free from the bonds of colonization, Cambodia was plunged into a civil war within a decade. The prevailing regime, led by Pol Pot and his Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), terrorized, victimized, and brutally murdered millions of people. Even after the CPK were removed from power, successions of corrupt administrations bled the country dry. So I can understand the need for some Cambodians to try and earn as much money from whatever means they can, even if that means taking advantage of tourists. Though I understand why, my morality does not sit well with it.
The rise of tourism in Cambodia, and subsequent influx of foreign currency, has brought great change to the country. The effects of which are that the temples are no longer viewed as holy places by foreigners and locals alike. They have become a means to generate income and nothing more. The magic and holiness that once was is no more. But if we work to change our attitudes, respect the temples, and hold each other accountable, then perhaps we can introduce a new wave of magic to the temples. Perhaps we can view these structures as not just a mere collection of stones arranged in intricate fashions, but as a center for spirituality.