Touring Angkor with Manny

Trip Start Nov 08, 2006
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Friday, February 19, 2010

Travel is Not Timeless

This is going to be a sensitive subject, but I want to discuss my thoughts on returning to Angkor after almost 3 years.

I know it's easy to sound like a travel snob when you start deriding certain locations or types of travelers or whatever. But Angkor really highlighted something travelers deal with all the time: the fact that a destination is not only unique in its location, but also in the exact moment at which you visit. Rainy season or dry season, high season or low season, before or after an economic crisis, during political turmoil, weekday or weekend, even morning or afternoon. All of this determines the number and types of people around, the state of the environment, the accessibility, and the availability of light for the perfect photograph. We think of places, particularly archaeological or historical sites, as being timeless. But everything changes. Decade to decade, year to year, day to day, and hour to hour.

In the 3 years since we first visited Angkor, they have paved the road from Siem Reap to the Thai border. Last time, we traveled on a dirt road in a non-AC bus that broke down, and it took us almost 6 hours to make the journey. On the paved road, with a lot more private cars available, we can now do the run by taxi for $10 each and make the journey in less than 2 hours. It was easier and a hell of a lot more comfortable this time, but that means more people are doing it. Also, Cambodia recognized that they have a world wonder and have commercialized it. Instead of just intrepid backpackers and Angelina Jolie visiting Angkor, there are busloads of Western retirees and seriously thousands of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans with tour groups. They have built elevated wooden walkways so visitors no longer have to navigate fallen stones and jungle vegetation. Lindsey and I climbed onto capsized columns to take photos in front to towering trees perched impossibly on temple walls with nothing but the sounds of the jungle echoing on the ancient facades. Now there are now sturdy platforms with stairs so that hundreds of people can line up politely to take the same photo, but that means it now seems no different than waiting your turn to take a picture with Mickey at Disney Land. Much of the magic has been lost, and I think that’s worthy of lamenting.

I realize that the increased revenue from this onrush of tourists has benefited the Cambodian people. I don’t blame the government for developing the site. They should. Now more people can have a pretty cool experience, but I openly admit that I’m glad that I got there when it was limited to a few people having an amazing experience. That’s the trade-off.

We saw the same thing happening when we were in Ninh Binh in Vietnam. We road a motorbike on a tiny road through rural Vietnam and were the only Westerners for hours at a time. But we saw the bulldozers cutting through the mountain to make a main road for buses to inundate the area.

We got there just in time, and I’m sure just a few months later it was an entirely different place. My friend Amanda told me that when she took the slowboat through Laos, there were ten Westerners and a 100 locals on the boat. When we took the same journey 2 years later, the numbers had reversed and we shared the boat almost exclusively with

Western backpackers. So we haven't always made it in time. Something as small as Lopburi, the monkey temple town, changing from selling tickets to the site to a required purchase of sunflower seeds means that the once raucous monkeys are now so overfed that they won’t even bother to eat the ubiquitous fruit and nuts that lay scattered around them. Consequently, it’s a different place and a different experience.

However, I think it’s also important to point out that these places are still awesome and life changing without a basis of comparison. And we did find some parts of the ruins that the tour groups didn't go through, and we managed to find ourselves alone in the solace of ancient temples. They were just fewer and farther between. But I think, and hope, Manny has loved everything we’ve done here. Actually, we couldn’t afford to fly to Angkor, so without the increased accessibility of the site, which is why we had to share it with so many people, Manny may not have seen it at all. That would have sucked, because it’s still an incredible place. So I’m not saying these places are ruined. I’m just saying they’re different, and these changes can occasionally be cause for disappointment.
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