Saturday, December 3, 2011

POV: Encore Angkor?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

As readers of this blog know, I recently traveled to Siem Reap in order to attend the Angkor Photo Festival where one of my photo essays The Possessed of Hazrat Mira Datar was featured on its opening night.

I was greatly impressed by the Angkor Photo Festival's evenings at the FCC, and by the quality of the curating. As I mentioned in previous posts, both Francoise Callier and Jean-Yves Navel were instrumental in making a success of the event, while tireless Camille Plante and Jessica Lim made it tick. However, this is not the main purpose of this POV post.

It's been the third time I'd been in Siem Reap and to the temples of Angkor, and I am chagrined that, while Siem Reap itself still has traces of a bohemian feel to it, despite the high number of tourists invading its bars and restaurants, its temples have lost their mystique due to exuberant commercialization.

For example, both the Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple in particular are overwhelmed by hordes of tourists. The tour buses disgorge Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and Chinese tourists by the thousands each day. This not only mars the aesthetic of these temples, but also has long term negative effects on the integrity of these historic monuments. The lay nuns all clad in white robes who could be found in some areas of Angkor Wat and the Bayon are now gone, replaced by men in Western shirts and trousers who sell incense sticks to tourists. To add insult to injury, there are now groups of students who dress up in apsara costumes, and who clumsily pose for pictures with tourists (see above picture). I assume these changes are approved and "endorsed" by the Siem Reap police and tourist authorities.

In my view, the Angkor Wat temple complex experience has deteriorated over the past 5 years. Both the influx of tourists and the need to maximize revenues from this world heritage site by the Cambodian authorities are the causes for this deterioration. If any of my readers haven't visited the Angkor Wat temple complex, I advise you to go as soon as possible and perhaps choose to do so when it's off-season (monsoon season may be an intelligent choice).

If and when you do, forgo the many established restaurants for dinner and try an area where there are lots of outdoor restaurants specializing in Khmer barbecue (BBQ Lover is one), and sample the grilled squid, giant prawns and fried morning glory. The area is opposite The Red Piano  and is between Street 11 and Street 8. You won't regret it.

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