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Under The Spell Of The Khmer Empire: Impressions From My Week In Siem Reap

I left Siem Ream impressed with the hospitality of its people and would certainly recommend to you to stay more than the usual three days that most travelers take to visit this area.
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Angkor was the ancient capital of the Khmer empire. Impressively, it lasted almost five centuries and stretched over more than 385 square miles (1,000 square kilometers), covering, at its peak, most of present day Cambodia, parts of Thailand, Laos and southern Vietnam. As great builders, this ancient civilization left an impressive heritage of monumental temples, barays (huge reservoirs) and multiple canals that reveal Angkor as a city that was far ahead of its time. Historians say that this urban area was the largest of the pre-industrial world!

Six centuries later the civilization has disappeared, but Angkor remains famous because of the stunning Angkor Wat. The temple reflects king Suryavarman II's dreams and began to materialize around 1122 CE, taking about 30 years to complete. As the world's largest religious complex, visitors to Angkor Wat feel enveloped in a universe of Hindu and Buddhist culture.

It wasn't until recently, that this hidden gem emerged from the dense forest. However, the discovery was a mixed blessing as it exposed the site to significant risk. In 1992, Angkor was registered on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger, due to the bloody conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam. It was only in 2004 that the site was removed from this black list and given a more glamorous ranking as one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world with over three million international and domestic visitors per year.

Tourism in modern Cambodia means an opportunity for jobs, education and social development. But it has also caused land speculation, overuse of natural resources and social exploitation. After more than two decades of increasing visitors, Siem Reap, the once sleepy host city of Angkor Wat, has changed considerably. My week there made me think about the advantages and threats that we, as travelers, bring to such a dreamlike place.

Preserving the Khmer Ruins Requires Sustainable Tourism

Before flying to Siem Reap, I watched several documentaries not only about the beauty of its temples, but also about the turbulent political history of Cambodia. Given the years of civil war and the violence under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, Cambodia's infrastructure and social structure suffered considerably. During my stay, I learned that extreme poverty and low levels of education affected the archeological sites since stones and art have been stolen and sold on the black market. Woefully, some gun bullets can also be identified in parts of Angkor Wat, which are a stark reminder of the dark past.

Despite these challenges, tourism is a tool facilitating Cambodia's rebirth. In Siem Reap, tourists are the number one source of income and the city depends on them to keep moving forward. Nevertheless, preserving a cultural site the size of the Angkor complex is no easy task. According to UNESCO, it has been a challenge to implement conservation strategies over the last two decades due to several reasons, including the usual suspects: lack of communication between agencies; lack of community involvement in decision-making; poor governance; and weak institutions. My talks with locals made me sense these challenges from a personal perspective. For example, several tourist guides and other workers in this sector raised the problem of governmental corruption as the main obstacle for channeling foreign money into the hands of the local population. Such complaints mirror the results of Transparency International's 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). In this study, Cambodia was given the worst possible score among Southeast Asian countries and ranked 150th out of 168 countries, together with Zimbabwe and Burundi. Given this gloomy scenario, the question that we have to pose is: how can this country promote a pro-poor development that can spur resilience?

Intangible values: cherishing nature and spiritual heritage

To develop a sustainable tourism, agencies that work for World Heritage sites suggest that one key strategy is to enhance the recognition of natural values and raise the profile of Angkor as a spiritual lived-in landscape. This is valid both for the local population and tourists. Instead of competition, economic development should feed social, heritage and environmental values in order to ensure resilient growth. Investing in the education of local communities, while including them in decision-making about the tourism sector of Siem Reap is a must, if long-term preservation for sustainable development is the goal.

In addition, discouraging mass tourism and investing in wealthier tourism segments represents another aspect of a strategy that can improve the contributions of foreigners to the region. This means that making Angkor a "high-value destination" may hold promise as a strategy to promote cultural heritage and raise incomes, in contrast to the option of cheap and tawdry entertainment offered to the legions of backpackers that descend nightly on Siem Reap's seedy "Pub Street."

Overall, local communities need to take ownership of their personal cultural heritage. It is thus necessary to strengthen the link between past and future values. In this regard, tourism is not only about economic development. It is a method to promote peace and security, as it fosters "cross-cultural" understanding and poverty reduction.

Angkor Wat is one of the busiest tourist destinations of our planet. But Siem Reap goes well beyond its famous temple. Take your time to learn the recipes of Khmer food; visit the Tonlé Sap lake; travel to some temples outside the mainstream circuit (such as Beng Malea and the archeological site of Koh Ker--68km and 120km away respectively from Siem Reap); and, above all, spend some time with the locals. The best part of my trip was actually playing soccer on a Sunday night with some young Cambodians!

I left Siem Ream impressed with the hospitality of its people and would certainly recommend to you to stay more than the usual three days that most travelers take to visit this area. If you go, one interesting accommodation is the Angkor Village Resort Hotel, where a "river" pool that goes through 250 meters of tropical gardens can certainly boost your tropical experience. When visiting Siem Reap also leave some moments to simply do nothing in one of the cafés and think about your role as one piece of the puzzle assisting in the empowerment of the local population. The distinct beauty and memories will pay you back!

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