Updated: May 7, 2020
Few terms in the travel industry spark as much debate and hand-wringing as overtoursim, particularly the last few years. For viable reasons, it is neither hoax or fake news. Ask any traveler who has booked a trip to a "ranked" destination in recent years. That have likely witnessed, first-hand, the impact a huge influx of guests can bring on local infrastructure and the much sought “authentic experience.”
Better yet, ask the local Parisienne who would no longer dream of stepping foot in The Louvre on an afternoon in July, or the resident in Barcelona who fondly recalls when the stalls of Mercado de La Boqueria bore room to breathe. Hell, one need not cross some great expanse to witness the phenomenon. I lived in Seattle for ten years, and swore off trips to the otherwise fantastic Pike Place Market - relegated to begrudging trips when out-of-town guests visited.
With the explosive growth and ease of travel, local municipalities are experimenting with creative methods to help control the trekking population and funnel them to “shoulder” seasons and more remote cities within their jurisdiction. Japan recently implemented a tourist tax for those entering the country. The cover model for the cause, Venice, has placed a tax on day-trippers to its stressed canals. Other popular cities are examining similar measures and finally soliciting meaningful feedback from affected locals.
Needless to say, true scientific measurement overtourism's impact would require multiple trips to the same location over a period of years to account for a variable baseline. Being this was my first time to Siem Reap, I operate within the vacuum of a single visit and a few safe assumptions. I also recognize the inherent cynicism in the hot-take from an independent traveler like myself.
However, while I am willing to shoulder responsibility for mark of my footprint, it is the opinions from large well-read travel publications and websites more specifically that point the mirror to for self-reflection. Those that repeatedly publish cover articles bemoaning this trend of mass congregation while on the same page (or a click away) explaining why one "simply must" go there. Then seemingly doubling down on the irony by outlining where to find the best nitro cold brew in town. Even for citizens of the locations themselves, this is not a topic with clear sight-lines to workable solutions. The problems that come via the well-worn paths of tourists can also bring increasing economic prosperity and opportunities to recite a cultural story to new generations of travelers who, by their very nature, are most likely to passionately share that narrative and pass down a broadened awareness. This latter outcome feels particularly important in Cambodia. The region is only forty years removed from one of the most tragic examples of mass genocide any population has endured. For those not familiar, the Communist Party of Kampuchea, recognized as the Khmer Rouge, strong-armed and took control of Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During the reign of this brutal regime, roughly 25% of the population (upward of 3 million people) of Cambodia were slaughtered, starved or left to die from sickness with no hope of medical intervention or international support.
Despite retreating to Thailand in the 1980s after the successful invasion of Vietnamese forces, the Khmer Rouge did not fully dissolve until as recently as 1999. So, this looming threat and painful reminder of the past sat at the country’s doorstep right up until the turn of the new millennium. Amazingly, the people of Cambodia have been resilient in a shockingly protracted amount of time. I was hesitant to press deeper on this subject in discussions with locals - unsure of the post-traumatic triggers and respectful of what may be unique cultural coping mechanisms foreign to a westerner. However, my homestay and many cafes I frequented were transparent in providing literature on the tragedy and encouraged visitors to educate themselves and inquire on the recency of the human devastation. My taxi driver from the airport shared his view shortly after my arrival. “It is good when visitors come to remember and see how we fight to survive,” he stated. Religion is a bedrock for many in Cambodia and surely aided in their ability to subsist and recover as a population. Any discussion of faith in this region is depleted without homage to Angkor Wat, the centerpiece of their belief story. This Buddhist temple complex stands among the oldest and most sacrosanct in the world. Constructed in the 12th Century, the temples were originally built to honor Hindu gods but transitioned along with the Cambodian belief system to represent the predominantly Buddhist history.
The layout is expansive beyond belief, covering roughly 400 acres. To attempt consequential syntax on a page to describe the experience of seeing these Brobdingnagian structures with your own set of eyes lacks the necessary gravitas. It is a humbling experience to stand next to foundation stones measuring twice your height and stacked as deep as three king-size mattresses and realize - human hands without modern earth-moving equipment built this of shear will. Getting tossed about down unmarked dirt roads in our trusty tuk-tuk, I first began to witness the crests of these massive manmade structures emerge from the kicked up dust and canopies of hulking banyan trees. It was not dissimilar to the excitement experienced as a youth when our family car would turn a highway corner to reveal the curved metal twists and peaks of amusement park rides rising monolithic above the pines.
The complex sits north of the city of Siem Reap - about a twenty-five minute tuk-tuk ride. This was my mode of transport and, honestly, the only real option from town to temple. The ruggedness and open-air views of the less inhabited countryside rounds out the experience. Nothing heightens the senses better than a 4:15am wake-up call followed by a pitch-black dusty ride in blind darkness to catch sunrise over the temples. My driver, Chantha, was excellent and informative company for two days. Eager to practice his English with me, teach me some Khmer and patiently answer my peppering of questions. I joked with him on the ride out if his lone halogen headlight had a more capable brightness level that would ensure our staying on the road and avoiding the narrow roadside ditches. “Do not worry, Mr. John. I can do this if light goes out,” he assured me. I assured him that I was all in on his capabilities and there was no need to prove his skills.
Chantha stuck with me for the duration of my five days in Cambodia - something it seems is typical once driver and rider are confirmed to be simpatico. I question how one could find fault with any of the devoted tuk-tuk operators while visiting. Some of my cherished moments were relaxing in the carpark filled with tuk-tuks in between temple grounds, candidly chatting with Chantha and the handful of his peer operators who were not busy with the tuk-tuk driver pasttime of napping. Each of us peppering the other with questions about our cultures, our passions and drones. They were giddy to know I had a drone while also very disappointed to know that they were strictly forbidden on the temple grounds. Born and raised in Siem Reap, Chantha expressed mixed emotions on the changes brought to the area while we took a scenic route to the Bayon temple. The increase in tourism has been a blessing for his family of four and steadied his income, but along with it comes commercialization and a party crowd looking to temple tour by day, exhaust Pub Street by night and book it out of town back to Thailand or Vietnam after just a few nights. Pub Street, in particular, feels garish and woefully misplaced in the center of Siem Reap. Eyesore neon advertisements for major beverage companies outnumber people. Even on the periphery of town, the installation of shipping container makeshift nightclubs selling watered down pints of beer for $.50 are common. These are the recent additions Chantha wishes were better managed and kept in check by local authorities and development efforts. “No Cambodians go to these places,” he assured me. I think he knew by that point I needed no such reassurance.
The issue is not some case against having a good time in country. The issue is places exist that allow for enjoying Cambodia without necessitating 33oz. beer steins and bass dropping beats. Spots like Meng Cafe and Lilypop, where I settled in for some regional dishes and a reasonable amount of local beer. These spots have certainly adapted to tourists traffic, but not at the expense of their souls. One issue Chantha sees contributing to the rapid change is the limited education and understanding provided to visitors for all Cambodia offers beyond Angkor Wat. This blame is rightly shared by the local tourism industry and guests alike. While the temple complex is massive, the average trekker will realistically cover it in three full days. Because of this, he predominantly sees short-term travelers who come into town for less than a week and then move on to the next southeast Asia stop, or return home. He told me that he often introduces other destinations in the country, like Kep or the Cardamom Mountains, but they are dismissed or struggle to muster even feigned interest. This puzzles me, as it feels like these slightly more far-flung locales are a logical step for travelers who were willing to set out for a country like Cambodia to begin with.
As stunning as Angkor Wat is to take in visually, it exceeds as a tactile experience. Imagine walking into one of the Smithsonian museums, like the Museum of National Museum of American History, and having an usher point to the two hundred year old Star Spangled Banner flag and offering up, “Isn’t it just beautiful? Would you like to hold it to really appreciate its delicacy?” Hard to fathom, right? Now just add a timeline of about six centuries to those artifacts and you have the Angkor ruins. Everything before you can be touched, set foot on and scaled. One must calm their inner ten-year-old, the one eager to ascend these bygone structures and live out the ultimate version of childhood fort fantasy. It requires discipline and constant reminding that, despite their striking resemblance to facades straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, these are the furthest thing from movie sets and lifeless props. Hands make contact with walls breathing lives and stories untold. Walls that predate the Mongol Empire are adorned with ancient hieroglyphics and stonework that puts up a valiant fight against massive tree trunks and root systems doing what nature does - surviving…advancing.
Many of the sites are already showing visible signs of wear. The most off-limits of the temples was the Ta Prohm temple. Made famous from inclusion in Hollywood b-roll of recent years, this spot is dogeared by sightseers planning a day in the complex. The ancient facades were disrupted by modern scaffolding and work crews sweltering under the afternoon sun in a battle to refortify walls that saw their fight against nature’s advance further complicated by that of crowds and selfie sticks. I have a sneaking suspicion these barriers will be more the norm than the exception in the future. A large part of me hopes that is the case, as it exhibits some awareness by the local governments that sustainability requires proactive steps now before things actually crumble. Even if that results in images with a slightly broader depth of field, a tradeoff even a photographer like myself is willing to sacrifice. By the final full day in town, Chantha and I were like old acquaintances settled into an established routine. He would roll up to my home stay and waive me into the buggy with slightly more enthusiasm than it warranted. Like we were either skipping school for the day, or making a heist getaway. I told him I would like to spend my final day in the city casually seeing some of the surrounding local villages and neighborhoods. He was happy to oblige.
We made a quick pitstop at Little Red Fox Espresso for an immediately refreshing iced coffee, and then our janky chariot thwacked over one of the two-lane bridges that crosses the Siem Reap River to the eastern side of town. We spent the day exploring the local market, doing a few miraculous four-point turnaround maneuvers at dead-end dirt roads and swapping some final stories over a bag of mangosteens. Our last stop late that afternoon led to a favorite memory. While exploring one of the Buddhist temple grounds, I noticed a shadow in the trees that somehow multiplied into two…then three…then four. A group of young Buddhist monks in training tracking me as I made my way across the grounds. Shy to approach, yet they were incapable of hiding their curiosity. The inquisitiveness was reciprocal, they likely wondering what it was I found so fascinating about these grounds they call home everyday. When finally they peeled off, one turned around just before disappearing from my field of view and mimicked holding a camera up to his right eye. I took it as his blessing and captured one of my all time favorite images of the gaggle of young monks.
One overriding thought consumed me during my visit - how thankful I was to be doing this now. The likelihood that the current level of human ingress and unfettered access to these historical sites remains very unlikely. One easily realizes a scenario where travelers must relegate themselves to the further reach of a zoom lens and roped-off barricades in the coming years. It would be a seismic change but a collaborative effort to retrofit and preserve these sacred structures.
A finely drawn balance is necessary to both maintain, and share, these relics from history that whisper closely held secrets still not entirely clear to our present day and that serve to inform us. The manner with which we interact with them tests our ability to steady our selfish conquests with measured sustainability. A journey to Angkor Wat rightly sits atop many travel lists, and that puts it squarely in the bullseye of needed rescue. Still, for all the negatives of overtourism, there are a number of positives that should be part of any broader plan going forward. Greater economic opportunity for locals, greater compassion and cultural understanding from those fortunate to visit, less close-mindedness overall. Like all issues in need of a solution, the answer is nuanced and requires thoughtfully deliberate steps with a greater good in mind. My aim is to do my part. That means recognizing that my passion to continue traveling requires trade-offs in other areas of my life to offset. It also means bestowing unflinching respect upon the places I visit, and encouraging others to do the same. I am hopeful to test this hypothesis in charting a return visit to the region years from now. In the meantime, please handle with care.