Angkor temples, jewel of Cambodian heritage, under threat from tourist invasion

By CHRIS DECHERD, Associated Press Writer

SIEM REAP, Cambodia - Until recently, Cambodia was happy to let the temples of Angkor exist as a beacon of Khmer pride, rising from a jungle canopy like jewels dotting a green silk scarf.

Now the ancient Buddhist and Hindu monuments have become the pillars of Cambodia's nascent tourism industry, and officials are counting on them to lift the country out of a downward economic spiral.

But Cambodia's culture leaders warn that the very survival of the 9th-14th century temples may be in jeopardy as planeloads of invasive tourists trample through the hallowed corridors, climb the stone steps to the shrines and brush grubby fingers on the magnificent bas reliefs of gods, goddesses and demons.

The concerns are typical of the debate going on at ancient monuments around the world from the Pyramids of Egypt to Taj Mahal in India on how to balance the hunger for tourism dollars with the need to protect the stunning legacies for future generations.

The Cambodian government has vowed it will do everything to protect the 40 or so sacred structures, located on the outskirts of the northern town of Siem Reap.

Critics and conservationists are not convinced.

"The temples are under severe pressure," says Tamara Teneishvili who works for UNESCO to conserve the temple complex, which includes the world's largest religious monument built of stone, the Angkor Wat, Cambodia's national symbol.

"The serenity of one's visit to Siem Reap and the temples is what's magical and, unfortunately, that's in jeopardy," she said. "...Instead, people are trying to turn it more and more like Las Vegas."

Very true, says Vann Molyvann, Cambodia's most prominent architect who led the government authority in charge of the Angkor's development for seven years until 2000.

"It could be catastrophic. Siem Reap-Angkor cannot cope with the impact of mass tourism," said Vann Molyvann, who was fired after refusing to back down in a dispute with well-connected developers on building codes for Siem Reap.

"It will be a disaster for us if as many people come as they say will," he said.

Some 250,000 foreign tourists visited the temples in 2001, up from 60,000 in 1999, according to government figures. The government's goal is to host 1 million annually by 2010. Tens of thousands of Cambodians also visit each year.

The Apsara Authority, in charge of Angkor's development, acknowledges that the tourist influx is a concern but maintains it has time to improve the small town's outdated infrastructure.

However, donor and private funding for desperately needed upgrades of the water, sewage and electrical systems still must be finalized.

The government has turned down requests from businessmen to start a sound and light show at Angkor Wat and a plan to build an escalator to the top of a hill providing stunning views. But it recently granted permission for a company to start taking tourists up in an anchored hot air balloon.

"Our first priority is preservation," said Bun Narith, director of Apsara Authority. But "we cannot control everything," he added.

Built by a series of god-kings who ruled an empire that covered much of mainland Southeast Asia for 500 years, the temples were forgotten for centuries and preserved by dense jungle until a French explorer stumbled upon them 140 years ago.

Angkor Wat is the best-known of the structures but monuments such as Bayon, Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Banteay Srey, Ta Prohm, and Roulos are other favorites.

Even after their discovery, tourists stayed away from Cambodia as it went through a series of civil wars. A 1997 coup stalled the expected tourist boom, but elections the following year seemingly entrenched peace and guests poured into the poverty-stricken land like never before.

Until five years ago, a visitor to Angkor could be virtually alone while watching the sunset from Phnom Bakeng, a 70-meter (230- feet) hill between Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.

Today, the peak is elbow to elbow with people at dusk and its base is a quagmire of honking tour buses, cars and motorbikes jostling for parking space that doesn't exist.

"It's a view pollution," Teneishvili, the UNESCO official, said.

Vann Molyvann warns that the temples will crumble unless cars are banned from the temple park -- a large swath of jungle and Savannah -- and aircraft stop flying directly over the ancient structures and landing a mere 5 kilometers (3 miles) away.

The drastic measures are required to reduce stress on the ancient structures, most of which were built without mortar, he said.

"Vibrations are slowly destroying the temples," he said. "The current flight path is directly over the Bayon and a crash could destroy it."

Government officials deny the temples will be even damaged, much less destroyed by development.

Apsara Authority officials say a ban on vehicles is being studied and a new international airport for Siem Reap could open in 2012.

There are varying figures for income generated by tourism. But estimates range from US$200 million to US$450 million in 2001, making tourism a major engine driving the economy that largely depends on foreign dole.

"Angkor can help the whole country by bringing people with money to Cambodia," said Chap Nhalyvudh, the governor of Siem Reap province, noting how tourism kick-started neighboring Thailand's economy 40 years ago.