Chapter Two of this special ArchaeoVenturers series begins in Siem Reap, with my friends and I joining up with our tour guide Mr. Raty (highly recommended services!), who was born in the province. Along the way to the temple complex, Mr. Raty told us that while being a local tour guide is one of the more profitable professions in the area, they must take many expensive tests in order to become certified and to stay licensed, year after year. He is the only one in his family to be a tour guide and was very proud of how hard his family, in particular his mother, works in the agricultural realm of area. He also had one of the most infectious smiles I have ever seen- this was apparent anytime he mentioned a fact or tidbit about Angkor or Cambodian culture, which clearly made him happy to speak about. Also, I am not sure if every guide is this way, but Mr. Raty had a memory for specifics and dates that rivaled any academic I’ve ever met- all while speaking 5 languages!
You’ll hear some of the more interesting facts about Angkor Wat in the video, but since this is a syncing of hours of film footage and it has to be attention grabbing (thank you Tony Capelli!), I thought I wouldn’t make the video too audio heavy- the visuals of the temples tend to speak volumes more than I ever could. The interview with Mr. Raty however was important, and while I am still honing my interviewer skills, he was very eloquent while speaking about the affects of tourism and globalization on his community near Angkor. From his answers, we see that it’s a push-pull type relationship between the locals and foreigners- which I suppose is to be expected. The benefits of places with an abundance of tourist opportunities, like Angkor, means that the economy will grow from a natural resource (in this case, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the locals will see immediate benefit from a growth in labor, infrastructure, investments, resources etc because the presence of foreigners demand those things. However, on the opposite end of the spectrum, as Mr. Raty pointed out, foreign influences come with baggage, like religious holidays (in this case it was Christmas) or out-of-place foods like Mexican taquerias, and even more serious is the pollution, a divide between those able to benefit from direct contact with tourists and those who are less monetarily affected, deforestation, wear and tear and safety of the tourist site for posterity, amongst other issues. In 2013, Angkor Wat experienced an excess of 2 million visitors (not Cambodia as a whole, just this site) with a steady nearly 20% yearly increase. I am certainly no economist, but there is an obvious constant struggle between maintaining massive historical sites like this temple complex for future generations of visitors, archaeologists, and other knowledge seekers, while still being able to reap the benefits of open access in the present day for millions of current visitors.
As interesting as visiting this site was for me, it was more interesting hearing the perspectives of the local people that we encountered. Our tuk-tuk driver moonlighted as a tourist driver even though he has a full time job as a police officer. But they only get paid 90$ a month(!) for that, which isn’t enough to support his new wife and baby, he said that he gets 20$ a day to be a tuk-tuk driver around the site to supplement his income. Mr. Raty said he dreamed of traveling outside of Cambodia for the first time. Some people near the reflection pool (classic photo-op spot in Angkor Wat) who were visiting from another Cambodian province where there are no tourists, asked my friends to pose with them in photos in order to show their friends/family back home that they met ‘tourists’. Our guide said they wanted to pose with Hannah and Paul specifically because most visitors from other provinces were equating being fair skinned with being foreign, and those photos would prove they had the means to travel to places where tourists frequented.
Just briefly, for Southeast Asia and Cambodia, the temple complex at Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1992. Cambodia is in fact the only country to have a building on their national flag- and it is an image of Angkor Wat. The temple complex stretches over some 400 square km, throughout northwest Cambodia and contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th century to the 15th century. Places that we were able to visit included the famous Temple of Angkor Wat (which translates to Temple City or City of Temples), and Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple (which will be featured in Chapter Three of the series). Words do not describe how magnificent these ruins of a long-lost Empire reveal themselves to visitors- calling it ‘stepping into the past’ could not be more literal. The imagination truly has the chance to run wild there, where tales of kings and gods of old become more real with each step up the stairway to heaven….
Please stay tuned for Chapter 3 in “Global ArchaeoVentures: The Diver Travels to Cambodia” also known as “An ArchaeoVenture to Cambodia” where the story at Angkor Wat continues.
Please see Chapter Two on Youtube
– UNESCO: World Heritage Site
– BBC News: Are there too many tourists at Angkor’s temples?