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Monumental Dilemma in Angkor

"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.


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