At sunset, many
visitors to Angkor, the vast temple complex
in the Cambodian jungle, go to the only hill
in the area, a place called Phnom Bakeng. Hoping
to have the view to myself, I hiked up in the
morning instead. I reached the temple ruins
at the top only to find that a tour group of
French-speaking senior citizens had beat me
That would not have happened 20 years ago,
when the area was within the reach of Khmer
Rouge guerrillas who decamped to the wilds
of northwest Cambodia after being driven from
power in 1979. Today, the country is at peace,
and its glorious temples are crowded with tourists.
A couple of miles to the south of Angkor,
the dusty streets of once-sleepy Siem Reap
are full of tour buses and the motorcycle-drawn
taxi carriages known as tuk-tuks. Out along
the road near the city's international airport,
hotels are going up quickly.
Strange as it may sound in view of Cambodia's
history, the country has a thriving tourism
industry and ample room to develop it further.
But tourism has a downside: not just the wear
on 12th-century structures or the continuing
theft of antiquities, but also the uncertain
effects of a fast-money industry on a poor
country with a sketchy political system.
Cambodia's economic picture has improved markedly
in recent years, and tourism is just about
the brightest spot in it. Construction, another
engine of growth, depends on infusions of foreign
aid. The garment industry flourished last year,
but local experts fear that over time China
and Vietnam may prove to be cheaper places
for clothing factories. Meanwhile, the number
of foreign visitors grew 27 percent in 2006
alone, according to the Economic Institute
of Cambodia, an independent research group.
It's now relatively convenient to visit one
of the world's architectural marvels. Lodging,
food and local transportation are easy and
The temples at Angkor aren't the only appealing
sight. Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, has
a pleasant, French-influenced downtown. The
city abounds with ex-pat hipsters and bohemians
lured by the possibility of adventure or the
chance to do good.
In some ways, though, Cambodia remains a rather
noirish place for a vacation. Despite years
of mine-clearance efforts, unexploded ordnance
still dots the countryside. In urban public
places where tourists gather, so too do maimed
land mine victims reduced to beggary.
The Khmer Rouge period still exerts its dark
pull. One popular attraction outside Phnom
Penh is the Choeung Ek killing field, where
the clothes and bones of people thrown into
mass graves are still visible in the ground
upon which tourists tread.
Another attraction near the capital is Tuol
Sleng, a school that became a torture center.
One walks across bloodstained tiles to the
metal bedframes where suspects were found shackled
and bloodied. To the extent that the museum's
curators offer any interpretation, it's meant
Such images serve the current government, led
by the heavy-handed former communist Hun Sen,
to remind Cambodians that it is a more benign
presence than the Khmer Rouge. And if Tuol
Sleng and Choeung Ek are popular with international
visitors, so be it. The problem with tourism
in Cambodia isn't the attractions themselves,
but rather its potential to delay the political
and economic reforms needed to move the country
In neighboring Vietnam, the foreign companies
investing billions in equipment, factories
and other businesses are asking the government
to fix an education system that, they say,
doesn't cultivate scientific or management
skills. In contrast, the tourism industry doesn't
require the same skills, so it doesn't make
the same demands, and more of the money it
generates moves under the table.
This is a worrisome fit for Cambodia, a country
that ranks low on the United Nations human
development index and near the bottom of Transparency
International's corruption index.
Sure enough, for a one-day visit to Angkor
Wat and surrounding temples, foreigners pay
a $20 fee that's collected by a politically
wired hotel company. Critics complain that
only a small percentage of ticket sales end
up being used to maintain the temples. Indeed,
the preservation and restoration efforts now
underway depend on overseas benefactors.
As long as Cambodia is at peace, there will
always be tour groups at Angkor. Whether the
country can move beyond a tuk-tuk-based economy
is another question entirely.