Monday, August 06, 2007

Crowded House

Okay, so here I am in Cambodia. And no trip to Cambodia is complete without a visit to the country’s main attraction: the Temples of Angkor. In fact, most tourists fly into Siem Reap, tour the temples and leave again without seeing any more of the country. On Intrepid Travel’s tour of Cambodia, my group spent two days exploring the temples and we only skimmed the surface.

I have a theory about the world’s most famous sites. They are spectacular and deserve their fame. However, their fame is also their downfall. Legions of tourists from every corner of the world are coming to Cambodia to see the temples. They line up at Angkor Wat to watch the sunrise, climb the hill at Phnom Bahkeng for sunset, form single-file lines to weave through the narrow paths at the jungle temple of Ta Prohm and past the intricately carved stupas at Banteay Srei. They are loud, sometimes yelling and laughing or talking on cell phones (“I already paid $28 for the buffet!”). And they take a lot of bad pictures (I can tell because they never get close enough to their subjects).

But Matt, you say, you are a tourist too! Yes, I am. I’m here like all the rest to gawk and take photos. But in my mind, I approach the temples and the artwork with a degree of respect and knowledge that I just don’t see from other tourists. Perhaps the company that manages the sites is to blame. Perhaps limiting the number of people who can enter sites at any given time would alleviate the crush. As it stands, the temples have survived for a thousand years against the forces of nature. I fear they might not last another 50 against the forces of tourism.

There’s little I can say that will add to the millions of words already written about Angkor Wat and the other temples in the region. The history, the architecture, the carvings, the bas-reliefs, the intrusion of the jungle on abandoned sites – it’s enough to keep your mind busy for anywhere from an hour to a lifetime. They are piles of old stones, yes, but I felt like Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft, choose your own fantasy) exploring these ancient sites.

So here’s my plan. I’m going to become so rich and famous that I can demand/afford a private tour of the temples. I’ll gather my entourage (if you are reading this, you are invited) and tour each temple in turn, marveling at unobstructed views and soaking up the silence.

Until that day, here, for your enjoyment, are some pictures snapped by your favorite tourist.

Eight-Armed Vishnu, Angkor Wat


Angkor Wat


Ta Prohm


Bayon


Banteay Srei Detail


Sunset Crowds at Phnom Bahkeng


Flickr Photoset: Temples of Angkor (102 photos)

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