The steep climb will be worth it, I remind myself. In the dry-season heat, sweat streams down my face as I scramble over rocks and roots toward the summit of Phnom Bakheng. Four years ago, the panorama from the hilltop temple was memorable and mystical: to the east, the towers of Angkor Wat budding through the forest canopy; to the west, an enormous reservoir, shimmering at sunset like molten metal.
I had lingered atop the silent, 1,100-year-old temple with a few Buddhist monks and a dozen other travelers.
Two hundred feet below, the dust bowl now swells with the blare of traffic, idling buses, and shouting vendors. When I finally reach Phnom Bakheng, I've got company: more than 1,000 people clog the upper tiers while a group floats nearby in a hot-air balloon. I'd expect such a sundown spectacle in Key West, but not at the ancient ruins of Angkor, a 154-square-mile park encompassing more than 100 historic structures, including Angkor Wat, the best-known. Just a decade ago the area was at the mercy of the jungle, looters, and Khmer Rouge rebels. Well into the nineties, horse carts outnumbered automobiles in the provincial capital of Siem Reap, where a handful of guesthouses put up the few travelers who'd weathered the 200-mile journey from Phnom Penh. Land mines riddled the sprawling park complex. Pol Pot was holed up in the mountains along the Thai border, 70 miles away; his soldiers ambushed tourists near outlying temples.
That recent history seems as remote as the 12th-century reign of Jayavarman VII, who erected the majestic Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan temples. Pol Pot died in 1998; his guerrilla movement collapsed the following year. Thanks to a concerted international effort, the plundering of Angkor's sculptures nearly ceased. Mines were cleared, the forest was cut back, collapsed stonework was painstakingly reassembled—and the influx of travelers began.
In the past year, approximately 1 million people visited Angkor and Siem Reap, spending tens of millions of dollars on lodging, meals, guides, and DANGER! MINES! T-shirts.
The shift was bolstered by an "open skies" policy that allowed international carriers to fly directly to Siem Reap, eliminating the costly transfer in Phnom Penh. The number of foreign visitors has nearly quadrupled since 1999, from 83,000 to 321,557 in 2003. (In total, Cambodia received 701,014 visitors last year and an estimated $525 million in tourism revenues.)
The site has held up because of a coordinated effort by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Apsara (a Cambodian authority created by governmental decree in 1995), and organizations like the World Monuments Fund (WMF). Security patrols operate around the clock to prevent theft, vandalism, and illegal logging within the park. To alleviate choke points along the guidebooks' lockstep itineraries, a traffic-management plan has been drafted and bypass roads built. Because of such progress, UNESCO removed Angkor from its list of endangered World Heritage sites this summer.
The transformation of the seemingly timeless landscape has been so swift and scattershot, however, that even Angkor's boosters worry that the temples and town may soon be swallowed by their own success. Management of Angkor now falls on Apsara, whose deputy director general, Seung Kong, admits that the increasing number of tourists is causing concern. "Yet we cannot refuse," Seung tells me. "Our policy is conservation but also development, because we need money."
It is hard to criticize one of the poorest countries in Asia for hitching its tourist industry, and a substantial portion of its long-term economic development, to attractions like Angkor Wat. French explorer Henri Mouhot's 1863 account of the jungle-choked area created a sensation in the West; the lost-city fantasy resonates still in films such as Tomb Raider and Two Brothers.
As evocative as the monuments are for foreigners, they provoke an even deeper response in Cambodians. Angkor Wat lies at the core of Khmer culture and ethnic pride, its beauty and grandeur empowering a haunted people.
The aid-dependent government also views the region as an unprecedented business opportunity. In 2001, Prime Minister Hun Sen replaced Apsara's preservation-minded director with an official who soon declared: "The decade for conservation is over. The decade for development has begun." The temples served as a backdrop for a 2002 charity fund-raising concert by tenor José Carreras, but Apsara has resisted subsequent proposals to install sound-and-light shows and an escalator at Phnom Bakheng.
Three miles south of Angkor Wat, however, once-sleepy Siem Reap is a different story. When UNESCO representative Étienne Clément first arrived in 1991, he slept in a windowless storeroom at Conservation d'Angkor rather than at Siem Reap's shabby, solitary hotel.
"Badly equipped," Clément recalls. "The price was negotiable at the desk. It was just a few dollars. There was no lift, no facilities, just one dish offered in the restaurant."
By 1997, Raffles International had restored the moldering Grand Hotel d'Angkor to its five-star, colonial-era glory. Sofitel soon built an enormous property a stone's throw away, and Pansea opened a boutique hotel along the Siem Reap River. Across the waterway, the former provincial police station has become an upscale restaurant-bar, the Foreign Correspondents' Club.
That's the good news. Boxy, charmless ventures, many with ties to Cambodian generals or politicians, clutter the airport highway. Zoning requirements, such as height restrictions, are routinely flouted. Apsara's planned development, the 2,500-acre Angkor Tourist City, remains devoid of hotels or shops. Last year there were 57 hotels, 27 resorts, and 120 guesthouses in the town itself—a total of 4,528 rooms.
Public services have not kept pace. Properties run their own generators to avoid blackouts. Without a public water supply, they also operate their own wells. Overconsumption has lowered the aquifer, says Tim Winter, a young English scholar who came to Siem Reap to research a book about Cambodian identity and international tourism, and the long-term effect could potentially threaten temple foundations.