Monday, March 17, 2008

Blank cheque for posterity

It could not have been in the mind of Suryavarman II in 1150 when he was planning Angkor Wat (any more than it was in the mind of Shah Jehan when he was planning the Taj Mahal in the mid 17th century - or the merchants of Venice in their time) that what was to be created would one day become - in the time-honoured phrase - a licence to print money for people undreamt of. It wasn't even in the mind of people here 39 years ago how important the ruins just up the road from the town of Siem Reap ("Thailand Trounced") would become for the economy of Cambodia. ($40 for a three day pass - and most of that goes to the government. Multiply by around 1.5 million visitors a year, with 5 million predicted!) Back then, it felt as if I was the only visitor, although of course there were a few others: now the feeling is that a distinct slice of the world's tourists are here, including many from the menacingly huge potential source of China. Nor can it be said that it has no impact on the experience - it has a great deal. After all, an important element for many of us in such places is the chance to try to think / feel our way back to how it might have been at its inception. Now the priority is to think our way towards the places and times when the crowds will be the thinnest.

And the hot end of my mistaken choice of route is now being felt: too cold in Northern Laos in mid-February, too hot in inland Cambodia in mid-March. Still, it didn't stop us cycling 20 miles yesterday in pursuit of the remote and uncrowded corners - starting with sunrise at the many-towered temple of Bayon, the one with sublime faces on the four sides of each tower. Today, a tuk-tuk took us to the distant temple of Banteay Srei, a small jewel of intricate sandstone carving 35 km. north of the main group, but not far enough and not large enough to save us from the crowds. Two later temples, Banteay Samre and Preah Khan, though less celebrated (or because), provided a much more serene experience.

Still, mustn't grumble! The phenomenon of a totally tourist town is interesting and the heat, when dry, is exhilarating. And if the slightest temptation to grumble should arise, the town has a significant population of land-mine victims, working under the slogan "not begging but trying to work". Their presence in town, and around the sites, selling books and postcards, playing traditional Khmer music, brings our minds very frequently back from imaginings of the 12th century to consciousness of a history only too recent.

We have often asked ourselves/each other why it was that Guardian readers recently voted Cambodia their top holiday destination. Given the readership of that revered journal, perhaps the astringency of the reminders of recent war and genocide had a role. Cambodia is hard to ignore, either for those reasons or for the charm of the people and the countryside. And then there's Angkor. By comparison, Laos is relatively insipid and Thailand extremely westernised - and commercialised, too.


Blogger E said...

Hope the change from tranquility to tourist mekka was not too shocking an experience! Enjoy the warm temperatures while you can: cold, damp and windy here, and snow forecast for Easter; do think of us when cooling off at some lovely beach. Take care!

Tue Mar 18, 12:26:00 pm GMT  

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