Of the hundreds of temples scattered across the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia, none are more iconic than Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world and the crowning jewel of the Khmer Empire. Built in the 12th century in dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat is a stunning marriage of theology and architectural design. Its moat represented the Ocean of Milk from which the universe was born, its bas-reliefs depict great battles from Hindu epics and its central tower represented Mount Meru, the nexus of all creation.
However, it can be difficult to appreciate the majesty of Angkor Wat and all its surrounding temples when you are constantly bumping into fellow travellers in narrow temple corridors, clumsily dodging out of their photos and waving away countless souvenir hawkers and trinket touts. Mass tourism, as David Foster Wallace put it, “spoil[s], by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience… As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
Indeed, thousands of these insects descend upon Angkor everyday. They come in great hordes via tour bus, tuk-tuk, and bicycles, drawn by the crumbling sandstone ruins of Pre Rup and moss-covered statues of Preah Khan. They come for that ‘perfect photo’ of sunrise over Angkor Wat, for an (ethically dubious) elephant ride around the Bayon, or to take a silly selfie upon the Terrace of the Leper King. Even the orange-robed monks seem to shake the authenticity of the experience, as they also reveal themselves to be merely tourists, as they whip out smartphones and wave around selfie-sticks. Yet the sensation that these ancient stones are merely the bait in one giant tourist trap is made only worse by the realisation that I too, as a member of the tourist hordes, am contributing to this most inauthentic of all experiences.
But perhaps it is contemporary Cambodia, not just these ancient Khmer ruins, that is also a dead or dying thing? We all know of its wretched recent history, of the totalitarian dictator Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and ‘Year Zero’, of how around three million Cambodians died under a deranged agrarian socialist experiment from disease and starvation, or were tortured and then murdered in the Killing Fields. To this day, the country remains one of the most impoverished places in South-East Asia. Whereas neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have developed into middle-income economies with robust manufacturing sectors, most Cambodians remain trapped in subsistence farming activities, with around a third of the population living on less than a dollar a day. Its current leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, is merely a tin-pot dictator who has solidified his power-base through corruption, cronyism and political violence.
It is no wonder then that Cambodians cling tightly to the ancient glories of the Khmer Empire, when the recent past offers so little. You can see its broken education system in the children who run up to you, begging you to buy their postcards. You can see the problems it still has with land mines and unexploded ordinances in the disabled musicians who play at the entrance of temples.
But that begs the question – does all this tourism, including my tourism, only exacerbate the problem? By visiting only its distant, half-forgotten past, are all of us tourists encouraging Cambodia to form a national identity that is inherently backward-looking? This question bothers me and honestly, I don’t think I have an answer. This is still a beautiful country, inhabited by kind people, that is still dealing with scars, both new and old. It very clearly has the potential for a future, it is just a question of whether it can realise it, just as how the Khmer kings of old realised the magnificence of Angkor Wat.
Perhaps in a place like Cambodia at least, David Foster Wallace gets it backwards in terms of tourism. Perhaps the dead thing needs the insects on it to remind it that it, that deep down inside, it is still alive.