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.
"The infrastructure is grossly inadequate to support all the hotels," says Riaz Mahmood, manager of the Raffles Grand Hotel. "There is no will. There is no master plan. We firmly believe Cambodia has a lot of potential, but I think it's about time the government got its act together."
Seung would like to preserve Siem Reap's intimate character; he pleads, however, that "it is not easy for Apsara to achieve. Many people would like to get money. They build the hotel or the guesthouse or the restaurant, and have no respect for the law."
Unlike Luang Prabang, Laos, where the entire old royal capital has been designated a World Heritage site, Siem Reap falls outside the Angkor protected area, Clément explains.
"The initial vision of zoning, where Angkor would be a place of preservation and Siem Reap would be the place of economic development—you see the legacy of that now," Winter says. "[The town] is seen as open to the market, and in Cambodia that's fairly anarchic, chaotic, and less than transparent."
The short-term strategy has sowed social ills. Children skip school to hawk trinkets. Prostitutes now operate from massage parlors or prowl riverside clubs. "These are big and growing problems," Winter says, "and they are being fueled by tourism."
Thousands of prospective workers have migrated from other provinces, squatting in the park or settling in slums on the east side of the booming town. Siem Reap's population has almost quintupled since 1995, to more than 100,000 people.
At my boutique hotel, the 18-room Shinta Mani, a class of 14 at-risk youths receives free training in the hospitality industry. A mile away, in a raised wooden house south of town, Morimoto Kikuo gestures at the rows of looms and spinning wheels filling his Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, where 400 employees create silk sarongs and scarves. "This way they can survive," says the Japanese weaving expert.
Clément, for one, believes Siem Reap is salvageable."I'm not sure that it's a success story, but it's certainly not a disaster," he says. "We are now in a situation to be monitored."
Meanwhile, the region's allure grows. For the month of June, Siem Reap's tourist arrivals were up 226 percent over 2003; first-half figures for this year indicate a 43 percent increase in visitors to Cambodia over the prior year. For many package tourists, however, Angkor is a hermetic experience; the average stay in the country is five days.
To expand its tourism industry, the Cambodian government needs to aggressively leverage Angkor, says Don George, Lonely Planet's global-travel editor. "I think for a certain amount of time, putting all the eggs in one basket is okay," remarks George, who has been tracking Cambodia for decades. "But they need to use that portal to introduce other attractions in the country. If they don't, they run the risk of having a lot of their finances centered in one little area, which will cause all kinds of social imbalances. And over time, the tourist stream will slow to a trickle.
"In people's minds, they fly into Siem Reap, do Angkor, and get out," he adds. "That's a huge missed opportunity for Cambodia."
In an effort to extend visitors' trips, Apsara has opened some of the more remote temples, including the 12th-century Beng Melea, which lies 25 miles east of town and rivals Angkor Wat in size. For a grimmer day trip, there is Pol Pot's final bastion of Anlong Veng, a collection of decrepit huts scattered across a jungled, heavily mined escarpment 70 miles north of Siem Reap. Through its Web site, the Ministry of Tourism (www.mot.gov.kh) also promotes Kompong Som, the country's lone seaside resort, and the remote northeastern province of Rattanakiri, which is home to hill tribes and wildlife.
But developing a national tourism industry will be "a real uphill struggle," Winter says, especially given the head start other Southeast Asian nations enjoy. That's a shame, because Cambodia remains a place filled with discoveries: the floating villages of Tonle Sap lake; the old French quarter of Battambang; the eerie, abandoned hill station of Bokor.
One humid morning, Alice Harvey of WMF leads me through the half-restored ruins of Preah Khan, four miles north of Angkor Wat. We enter from the east, following the old royal processional route, avoiding the busloads of tourists streaming from parking lots west of the temple. We have this section of Preah Khan, with its giant statues of Garuda and its rock-strangling ficus trees, nearly to ourselves.
I follow Harvey over massive stone thresholds, admiring the decorative lintels overhead. The light dims as we work our way through stone corridors toward the central sanctuary's cruciform shrine. There she turns north, tracking the scent of incense to a wizened Buddhist nun.
Harvey pokes through a few smaller rooms, then stoops and smiles. This is her secret, sacred place. A shard of light cuts through the half-collapsed roof, revealing a tumble of stones, a few offerings of joss sticks and garlands, and a small, delicately carved figure of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of fortune.
The chamber is silent, graceful, and cryptic, inspiring the frisson that Mouhot must have experienced upon his first encounter with Angkor's inscrutable, ancient beauty.
A feature reporter for the Boston Herald, CHRISTOPHER R. COX last wrote for Travel + Leisure about East Timor.