While Siem Reap is rapidly growing with new luxury hotels, trendy restaurants and stylish boutiques, it retains a small-town character. When I recently visited for the first time in fifteen years, I was amazed at how it has changed—and how it hasn’t. The scale and sophistication of the temples remain simply awesome. Whether you approach the grandest of all monuments, Angkor Wat, at sunrise from the backside with no other tourists in sight or bike out to a remote rural area and hike into a hidden ruin, the extent of this lost civilization is just staggering. The town, which was once a row of riverside structures, where most people got around by bicycle, now sprawls in all directions and teems with cars and motorbikes. The chefs at the luxury hotels turn out sophisticated Khmer and western food and yet a colonial atmosphere (maybe brought on by the heat at high noon) fosters a lazy, laid-back pace. Even the bamboo and thatched houses in rural villages have TVs (powered by car batteries), and everyone in Siem Reap seems to have a mobile phone with hip ring tone. Yet the community feels tiny, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and supports their projects.
In the 12th century, Angkor was the largest city in the world (with an estimated population of one million) and then for hundreds of years its stone structures were swallowed up by strangler figs and jungle vines, their beauty only known to local villagers. Since French archaeologists discovered them in the late 1800s, Angkor has been known as one of the great wonders of the world. Its temples rank up there with the pyramids and temples of Egypt, the Colosseum in Rome and Machu Picchu in Peru as manmade monuments that must be seen to be believed. You can enter columned galleries hundreds of feet long where the stone carvings remain razor-sharp, their stories of daily life and heroic battles frozen in sandstone for centuries.
The first time I visited Angkor in 1999, there were many fewer tourists. At sunrise, a photographer and I roamed the main complex alone except for a few monks, their saffron robes providing bright flashes of color against the dingy terraces and towers. I will never forget when a crowd of locals streamed down the main entryway to worship in the temple, and in an instant the spectacular structure was transformed from an architectural wonder into a sacred site of worship.
This year when I returned with my family, I knew that tourism to the site had exploded and that we would see crowds. (The number of American and European tourists has remained the same but in recent years, Asian tourist numbers have boomed, particularly those coming from China.) So our first morning we went out with guides into the countryside where we hiked past rural homes and through rice paddies to reach a remote temple that we had to ourselves. We then biked a few miles to reach a larger one, with a grand entrance, a bathing area and buildings that archaeologists believe were libraries. We climbed in and out of doorways and galleries with no one in sight. “Doesn’t this remind you of Indiana Jones?” my son said to my daughter. “Or Tomb Raider.”
Later, when we went to more famous temples like Bayon and Ta Prohm, we did see tourists but our wonderful guide from Amansara timed our visits and our access points well so most of the time we were alone. One afternoon we ducked into a tower where we were invited to add incense sticks to a Buddha shrine. And when we went to Angkor Wat for sunrise, we walked in by a back entrance so we had terraces and galleries to ourselves for almost half an hour before others trickled in. There is talk that UNESCO will soon rope off access to many of the temples because so many footsteps each day are causing wear and managing the crowds in such a vast complex is too difficult.
Throughout history, the temples have been looted with many statues taken for museums or private collections. One morning I visited the Conservation d’Angkor, a storehouse where the most precious treasures fill shelves. On its grounds is one of the holiest shrines in the country; it is a spot that dignitaries visit whenever they come to Siem Reap; but it is off-limits to the average Cambodian. In fact, despite the massive efforts of the UN to establish a democracy that might lift the general population out of misery after the traumas inflicted on them under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and ‘80s, Cambodia remains staggeringly poor and corrupt.
The horrors of the country’s recent past are not so distant. Part of what makes a visit here so poignant is how close to the surface the scars remain and yet how resilient and inspirational the people can be. The country fell to the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and for four years Pol Pot and his vicious commanders tried to purge the country of Western progress. They evacuated the population from the cities and forced them into the “Killing Fields.” Anyone with an education or profession was hunted down and executed, as the regime vowed to return Cambodia to “Year Zero.” Families were purposely divided, and twenty-five percent of the population was killed. Civil war waged through the 1980s with many Khmer hiding out in the jungles around Angkor. Anyone born before 1970 lived through the nightmarish period. In fact, it is estimated that close to fifty percent of the population suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The UN entered in 1992 and tried to establish a democratic government, but corruption remains rampant, with the elite siphoning funds from everything from government to tourism development to NGO projects. Very little trickles down to the general population, which still lives as their ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Families around Siem Reap have been displaced for tourism projects for which they receive little or no compensation or benefit, and yet the people you meet are proud of their heritage and committed to progress.
Former Ambassador to Cambodia Joseph Mussomeli, purportedly said, "Be careful, because Cambodia is the most dangerous place you will ever visit. You will fall in love with it, and eventually it will break your heart.” And in some ways if you are paying attention, if you read books like Cambodia’s Curse and question your guides about their family’s story, it probably will. You will fall in love with the place and the people and then you learn how ingrained the troubles are. When I met Nathalie Ridel at her lovely small hotel Maison Polanka, her eyes welled up with tears as she spoke of having to flee in the ‘70s and of her family members who were assassinated. She returned as soon as it was safe, and she and her husband have spent decades trying to help local communities earn a decent living with their traditional crafts. The same morning I met with the men behind Shinta Mani, a resort and foundation that trains young Cambodians in hospitality so they may benefit from the tourism boom that has largely left the locals behind. And later in the day at Eric Raisina’s gorgeous new showroom, I toured his upstairs workrooms where women were sewing silk fashions in an airy space with views of a park. Eric came to Siem Reap more than a decade ago and decided to base his operations here because he believed in the people. The brand he built out of a cottage nearby has expanded to include shops in Paris and Phnom Penh. So even in the view of the scars and the heartbreak, there are glimmers of hope, which is why Cambodia casts such a deep hold on visitors, or at least it exerts one on me.
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