Just after 5 am our alarm clock went off for the second time. Siem Reap was slumbering as we stepped onto the balcony to survey the star studded night sky. There was not a hint of the sunrise we had risen so early to see, but today, fighting off the urge to stay in bed we were determined to walk 20 km around the temples of Angkor.
After a cold and consequently quick shower, we got dressed hurriedly, and descended into the darkness of the alley that led to our guesthouse clutching the baked treats we had bought the night before. Once out on the dusty street, a succession of bleary-eyed tuk-tuk and moto drivers approached us. A few unsuccessful negotiations ensued before we were able to find a tuk-tuk driver who was willing to just take us to the ticket gate at Angkor. Finally, we were on our way chugging towards the gates of Angkor in the cool dawn.
After paying for our 3-day passes, we began walking the 4 km to Angkor Wat; as the only pedestrians on the road through the forest, we were in a race against the rising sun as we marched towards our goal. Coaches, cars, taxis and motorbikes sped past us, but we arrived just in time to see the first rays of sunlight peek over the horizon, climaxing in the warm glow of the burning orb, which quickly rose into the sky bathing everything in its subtle light.
After sunrise at Angkor Wat, we hot-footed it to Angkor Tom and the Bayon to beat the crowd of tourists snapping photos of Angkor and purchasing breakfast from the cafes which had been set up inside the complex to meet the needs of the captive audience. From there, we headed over a bridge, which was bordered on either side with figures tugging a mythical Naga. Some of the figures’ heads had been removed, and reportedly sold on the black market to so-called “collectors”, but many were still intact.
At the Bayon, we saw a much cruder, starker and less ornate style of decoration and came face-to-face with the famous carved heads, which make one feel surrounded.
Later we visited Ta Prom, better known as the setting for Tomb Raider. I had visited Ta Prom on my last visit, and was saddened to see that it lacked much of the magic it had had when I first saw it. Gone was the lush grass underfoot – it had been walked away by the steady stream of tourists; so bad was the erosion that ugly wooden walkways had been introduced throughout. Much of the overgrown forest seemed to have been cut back so that restoration work could be completed. The complex was no longer the ‘secret garden’ I remembered. It was impossible to find a quiet spot to just lie back and relax in peace because guided tour groups crowded every available space.
This made us reflect on the negative effects of tourism and the fact we were also part of the problem. After all, we had paid for our three day ticket and made the pilgrimage to Siem Reap specifically for Angkor. Do the positive effects of tourism e.g. employment, preservation of cultural heritage etc outweigh the negative impacts of pollution from tour busses, inflation of prices, foreign investment or damage of the very ruins which attracted tourists in the first place? Would quotas need to be introduced as they have on the Inca Trail in Peru or at the Potala Palace in Tibet?