Most people go to Cambodia to see the Angkor temples. With millions of tourists each year, it is not unreasonable to say that the Angkor area, including Siem Reap, the closest city and the hub for visiting the temples, has become excessively commercialized and tailored for tourism. That is to be expected at any popular tourist destination, for like many others, Angkor was my reason for visiting Cambodia.
I was genuinely fascinated by Angkor Wat, THE most famous temple of them all, even though its grandiosity was with no doubt undermined by the sheer number of tourists within the temples at any given time. Of course, the other temples, like Bayon, Baphuon, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Srei (all the ones we went to that day), each had its own unique characteristics. I am not going to spam you with only the typical photos of each temple itself, but rather, I will show you some parts of the exploration that you may not see on postcards and advertisements.
Angkor Wat from afar
Ancient roots of Ta Prohm
Monkey at Angkor Wat
Butterfly at Bayon
Elephant riders at Phnom Bakheng
It’s easy to get templed-out in Angkor, especially when that’s all you go there to see. With two and a half days in the Siem Reap area, my friend and I could only afford one day in the temple complexes, which means that between 9am and 6pm, we were temple-hopping in the scorching, 33-degree heat. Some interesting sightings included elephant-riding tourists, gorgeous butterflies, and monkeys…lots and lots of monkeys just chilling around Angkor Wat. It was quite a miracle that I didn’t end up with a heat stroke.
Carvings at Banteay Srei
Ancient roots of Ta Prohm
Statue at Bayon
Smiling faces at Bayon
Artifacts in Angkor Wat
When touring the Angkor temples, I couldn’t help but ponder whether tourism has harmed the country than helped it. Sure, tourism is a significant source of income for Cambodians, and I don’t deny that it has helped the growth and development of the country. However, every time I visit a popular tourist destination in a developing country, I think of the impact and implications of the tourism industry on culture and society. When the sacred histories of your country become the Facebook profile pictures of foreigners who don’t understand what it took to make those histories happen, when the realities of life in this country is masked by the glamorous image of tourism and overlooked by most, do you feel saddened? Indifferent? Does it even matter at all?
Children at Banteay Srei
Little girl at Angkor Wat
Woman at Angkor Wat
Man at Angkor Wat
Man working at Angkor Wat
Of course, I have to come back to the people. I struggled to decide whether I should post more photos of the Cambodian people because they made me feel so…sad and torn. On one hand, I want to avoid the possibility of disrespecting the people who appear in these photos but on the other hand, I would not be telling the whole story if I omit them from my experiences. In the end, I decided that I would post them.
I cannot forget that little girl at Angkor Wat, walking back and forth through the queue of people lining up to climb a temple, picking up, crushing, and bagging plastic bottles and cans from anyone who threw them away. This was life for her. While I paid $20 for a single visit to the temples and hundreds of dollars to get to her country in the first place, $1 might be more than what she gets a day. This is her life.
It is no secret that Cambodia is a poverty-stricken country and when I see the stark contrast between my life and that of the little girl, I even felt a bit guilty. And the tourism question comes back – do we do good by “supporting” Cambodia – or any other country where tourism plays a main role in its economy – through its tourism? If this is what life is like here, then I can’t even begin to imagine life in the more rural parts of the country, perhaps its true face.
We see so much, yet know so little.