Ancient Temples Face Modern Assault

Thousands of tourists a day climb to the top of Phnom Bakheng, the highest peak in Angkor, to watch the sunset.
Thousands of tourists a day climb to the top of Phnom Bakheng, the highest peak in Angkor, to watch the sunset. (By Anthony Faiola -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

ANGKOR, Cambodia -- Built by a mighty 9th-century Khmer king, the soaring temple of Phnom Bakheng stands atop the highest peak of ancient Angkor. With a sweeping view that takes in Angkor Wat -- the world's largest religious structure -- the monks stationed here were probably among the first to glimpse the approaching Siamese troops that snuffed out this city's centuries-long domination of much of Southeast Asia.

So perhaps it is not surprising that more than 500 years later, Phnom Bakheng has become the ideal perch from which to watch another assault on Angkor -- by marauding armies of tourists.

As Cambodia has settled into peace and opened to the world, the temples of Angkor have in recent years gone from stone to gold for the national government. This year, a deluge of tour operators is expected to cart in nearly 1 million foreign visitors, a sixfold increase since 2000.

Including Cambodians, the number of visitors to the archaeological park will reach a record 2 million this year and at least 3 million by 2010, according to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which identified Angkor as a World Heritage site in 1992.

The growth has put the Cambodian government in a difficult position, observers say, forcing it to balance the potential to make money against the need for preservation, restoration and study. It is a dilemma familiar to other countries that profit from treasured cultural sites.

The Acropolis in Athens, the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Hagia Sophia area of Istanbul are all experiencing tourism pressures. In Peru, the massive sand lines at Nazca and Palpa have come under threat from encroaching power lines and roving tourists in jeeps. In Nepal's Kathmandu Valley, UNESCO has decried "uncontrolled urban development."

Preservationists and archaeologists here increasingly fear that the frenzy to commercialize Angkor, now also a hot set location for films such as Angelina Jolie's "Tomb Raider," is winning out over the need for preservation.

Nowhere is that clearer than at Phnom Bakheng, where a number of new guidebooks advise visitors not to miss the sunset from the temple's summit. Tips like that have led to a daily siege by an armada of tour buses around dusk. On a recent afternoon, about 4,000 visitors, speaking Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, English and a host of other languages, scampered to the top of the temple, stepping on pictorial stones and manhandling ancient statues as one lonely guard sat on the sidelines, overwhelmed.

"The problem we're facing is that the pace of visitor growth is accelerating far faster than the ability to manage such huge crowds," said Teruo Jinnai, UNESCO's top official in Cambodia. "There is no doubt that this is beginning to cause damage to the temples and that it has the potential to become much worse if nothing is done."

Six months ago, the U.S.-based World Monuments Fund, which is doing major restoration work at Phnom Bakheng, was forced to rope off the rapidly deteriorating main stone path leading to the temple area because of a combination of trampling tourists and rain runoff.

Inside Phnom Bakheng, statues and carvings in low relief have sustained new damage from tourists. Fresh graffiti have been sprayed alongside sandstone carvings of flying celestial nymphs and Garuda warriors.

On one side of the temple, piles of sandbags placed last year to hold up a retaining wall have been damaged by tourists who have climbed and descended the temple's sides without waiting their turn on a number of steep stone staircases.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company