Tourist jungle grows over Angkor Wat
Visitors are flocking to the ancient ruins in record numbers, straining the area's weak infrastructure.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
The ancient ruins of Angkor Wat survived centuries lost in the jungle and decades of civil war. But can they survive all the tourists?
Some of those charged with protecting the temples – one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia – are no longer so sure.
"We don't have enough infrastructure to welcome mass tourism," says Tep Vattho, who heads the development department of APSARA, the government agency entrusted with managing the Angkor Archeological Park. "We are not ready. If 1 million come a year, the environment will be destroyed very quickly."
Mass tourism has already arrived at Siem Reap, the province and gateway town for the temples. All told this year, tourism officials are expecting not 1 million tourists – about the number that visited last year, breaking all records – but twice that, according to Siem Reap's Governor Sou Phirin. As many as 500,000 are expected between November and December alone, when Cambodia kicks off a World Culture Expo, a 100 day extravaganza expected to garner worldwide media attention.
Drawing that many visitors will be an amazing feat for a nation that was largely spurned by Western tourists until several years after the 1998 conclusion of a decades-long civil war. But it may well strain the city to the breaking point.
Already, fleets of tour buses and an army of moto-taxis clog the narrow roads. In Angkor Park, so many pairs of feet trod every day on ancient stone walkways that the government is considering requiring visitors to wear plastic slippers.
The Cambodian population in Siem Reap is exploding, with new arrivals driving up the local population by 50 percent over the past three years, from 100,000 in 2002, to 150,000 this year. Chaotic, ramshackle encampments line the road leading out of town, housing thousands of arrivals looking for work in the hotels and construction trades.