The Privilege and Consequence of Cultural Tourism

By Bethany Wells

The opportunity to visit the temples of Angkor was one of the most exciting parts of this trip for me. These temples, built by the Khmer civilization between 802 and 1220 AD, are an astonishing architectural achievement, representing a profound devotion to art, spirituality, symbolism, and endurance. From Angkor the Khmer kings ruled over the vast domain reaching from Vietnam to China to the Bay of Bengal.

My hopes and expectations of this activity were to feel a great sense of awe in the presence of such massive artifacts of legacy and story, to witness a stunning blend of symbolism and symmetry, creative ambition and spiritual devotion; the timelessness and multilayered levels of meaning, and the sacred skeleton of the vast political, religious, and social center of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire.

All of these things were present and more. We got to wander through temples of epic proportions housing intricately carved myths and legends, symbols and characters. Incense burned at altars set in quiet corners throughout. All this would have been amazing enough, but we also had the great fortune to happen to visit Angkor Wat on the auspicious occasion of a Buddhist holiday called Visakha Puja, which happens only once a year, on the eight day of the fourth moon, and celebrates Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and parinibbana (passing away). It was a great surprise to us, bearing witness to several hundred monks in brilliant orange robes and nuns all in white, ages ranging from small children to elderly, arriving to chant and meditate during a sunrise ceremony in front of the great temple.

Given all of this abundance and coincidence, I did not anticipate the discomfort I experienced realizing my romanticized vision of the world’s largest religious building did not include the swarms of tourists of which I was a part, and the toxicity of our compulsion to take something from this sacred space to keep for ourselves. For example, I watched as people hovered over the monks, boldly stepping closer and closer to get ‘the perfect shot’. Several times a camera was thrust into my hands by a couple wanting to pose vainly in front of the lines of robed men. I watched as child monks looked at us with curiosity and diversion, unable to focus on the words of their master or their task at hand.

I was overwhelmed by what I believe to be the desecration of something sacred, of participating in that by being one of the two million visitors to Angkor Wat each year, as well as my inner urges to get the same photographs as everyone else. Three old women stood near the temple, bald, toothless, kind-eyed and begging, and I would be lying to say that the “National Geographic” side of me wasn’t desperate for their portraits, exotifying their ‘look’, wanting something really ‘cultural’ to show people back home. (If you’re cringing with that last sentence it’s okay, that’s the point). What do we know of this city of temples, of this Buddhist ritual, of the lives of these old women, child monks and nuns? For me, nothing more than a paragraph or two I read in a Lonely Planet guidebook before coming here. I felt invasive and out of place, just one of thousands on this particular day who came to take what we could- memories, photographs, history lessons, blessings, and bracelets.

Furthermore, to add to my inner turmoil, we were informed by the wonderful translator who spent time with us at our lodge yesterday, that the Cambodian government gave Vietnam the rights to the temples of Angkor, so the $20 US dollars we spent to see these temples doesn’t even go to the people of Cambodia. This all culminates in the feeling that despite my best intentions I am still contributing to the centuries long history of overt and covert corruption that remains a way of life for Cambodians. While tourist dollars may be benefiting some local residents and restoration of the temples, the economic perks of the tourist industry is hardly evenly distributed. Siem Reap may be thriving now, since the 90’s when the temples of Angkor were opened to tourism, but the surrounding area still contains some of the poorest villages in Cambodia.

Earlier this semester we read articles and watched videos on service-learning trips and how to travel responsibly. One thing that stayed with me was a point made by Daniela Pepy (a fierce advocate of sustainable tourism in Cambodia) about the efforts put into preparing students for the culture shock of landing in foreign countries, but what about preparing these communities for the culture shock of meeting us?

What a wonderful opportunity our visit to Angkor Wat provided us, for appreciating the depth, magnitude and beauty of these temples, while also acknowledging the shadow side of our presence there. I hope that as a group, NCAS-I can collectively address topics relating to development and tourism, which might impact the way we engage with communities both in Cambodia and back home. I know that I have a lot to learn regarding this, and am looking forward to continuing these observations, conversations, and research during this trip and beyond.

Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings.  So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs.  And please feel free to add your perspective too.

2 thoughts on “The Privilege and Consequence of Cultural Tourism

  1. What a wonderful reflective piece about the impacts of tourism on a place and all of the people involved. I have often felt the tension of wanting to capture a moment on camera or have a unique experience while traveling without ‘intruding’…but this is an elusive balance. Thank you for such a transparent reflection.

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