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July 18, 2011

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Saving Angkor from Disneyization

THE blistering heat at Cambodia's Angkor temples eases, and the sun's last soft shimmer will soon brush some of the most wondrous monuments ever created by man. A moment for peaceful reverence? Hardly.

A traffic jam of up to 3,000 tourists surges up a steep hillside, trampling over vulnerable stonework and quaffing beer at a sacred hilltop that provides spectacular sunset views of the massive beehive-like towers rising from the main temple in this ancient city: Angkor Wat.

Below, guides describe its wonders through blaring loudspeakers in a host of tongues as buses circle what is said to be the world's largest religious edifice, one of hundreds erected by Angkor's kings between the 9th and 14th centuries.

"Nobody should be allowed to walk on 1,000-year-old stones," says Jeff Morgan, executive director of the US-based Global Heritage Fund.

He says limits on tourists at the temples are decades overdue.

The influx hastens the deterioration of edifices already buffeted by invasive tropical vegetation and monsoon rains. The relentless tread of feet and the fumes from heavy traffic wear away the soft sandstone. Oily fingers harm the magnificent bas reliefs. Noisy crowds rob visitors of near-mystical moments of quiet contemplation or the chance to imagine they are jungle explorers discovering a lost city.

Too many tourists are not Angkor's only woe.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site and its gateway town of Siem Reap are also beset by crass development, alleged corruption and endlessly delayed plans on how best to preserve the temples.

Once abandoned and overgrown by the jungle, and isolated by wars, these stone buildings have emerged as one of Asia's top tourist draws and a vital money spinner for one of the world's poorest nations. Cambodian Tourism Minister Thong Khon says some 6 million visitors per year are projected by 2020.

The growth curve has been spectacular.

One day in 1980, shortly after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime, this correspondent was the sole tourist in the entire complex. The inauguration of direct international flights to Siem Reap in 1998 was pivotal, and the filming at the temples of Angelina Jolie's 2001 Hollywood hit "Tomb Raider" also helped put Angkor on the map.

Tourist arrivals quadrupled from 60,000 in 1999, to 250,000 in 2001. This year's expected total is 2.5 million.

"Mass tourism is the major challenge. There will be an accelerated use of temples that were not constructed for that purpose," says Anne Lemaistre, who heads UNESCO, the UN's cultural and educational body, in Cambodia. "It's not time to talk about it anymore. We need to act."

There has never been a lasting master plan to preserve and regulate the 400-square-kilometer site, although an Australian-devised Heritage Management Framework enacted this year should help, she says.

"It's just the beginning. I am not going to say if it is going to be successful or not but we will try," Lemaistre says.

Previous plans over the past two decades have been violated or became outdated.

In 1994, zoning rules to keep approaches to the temples development-free were openly flouted. Today, the once-grand avenue flanked only by towering trees leading to Angkor Wat is a congested line of top-end hotels mingling with cheap, ugly shop houses.

Vann Mollyvann, an architect who headed an independent Cambodian agency to manage Angkor, fought for the zoning and other measures to prevent what he called an "Angkor Disneyland." He eventually was fired for being obstructive, and the agency, Apsara, was put under the direct control of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.

A company owned by Sok An's son was later awarded a contract to light up the temples. It was revoked after widespread criticism that the installations were damaging the monuments. Still, a high-profile critic of the project was sentenced to prison in 2009, accused of spreading disinformation.

The way entrance fees are collected also has drawn criticism. In a hushed deal with no bidding, Sok Kong, a tycoon close to Prime Minister Hun Sen, was granted a concession to collect the fees.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay and others allege some of that money flows into the deal makers' private pockets rather than government coffers and Angkor's restoration.

Morgan says Sok Kong's company "is just milking the site."

"Everyone knows it. It's a great deal. You are getting lots of money without putting in any investment," he says.

The government denies any wrongdoing, and the tourism minister said it's "a good mechanism. We can get a lot of money."

The population of Siem Reap is projected to double to a quarter million by 2020. Unrestricted pumping of underground water has sparked fears that the earth under Angkor's temples might sink and collapse.

The once-charming town now has 320 hotels and guest houses. More will soon rise after the construction of a new airport that can handle long-haul jets. The current airport now takes smaller planes from regional points.

Many protectors of Angkor say the time has come to strictly limit the number of tourists per day, as is done at Spain's Alhambra palace and Peru's Inca citadel Machu Picchu, or to require slippers and severely curtail where visitors can walk.

Starting this past year, only 100 people have been allowed entry into the uppermost section of Angkor Wat at any one time, and they can stay for no longer than 30 minutes. Some wooden walkways have been installed at the most popular temples.

But much of the temples remain free-for-all zones.

"Tourist management at Angkor sucks and they've had 20 years to work on it," Morgan says.

Lemaistre agrees that Angkor's romantic charm has faded - standing alone on the glorious causeway of Angkor Wat is no longer possible - but that all is not yet lost.

"It's very complicated to maintain Angkor's great quality but it must be maintained," she says. "It cannot become a tourist factory. That would be a nightmare."


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