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Syed Nazakat in Siem Reap,Cambodia

IT WAS once dangerous to visit Angkor Wat and the other temples surrounding it. The area was within the reach of Khmer rouge guerrillas who had decamped to the wilds of northwest Cambodia after being driven from power in 1979. But today, the country is at peace, and its glorious temples are crowded with tourists.

A couple of miles to the south of Angkor, the once dusty streets of deserted Siem Reap are full of tour buses and the tuk tuks of motorcycles. The city is abuzz with energy. The shopkeepers call prospective customers to come inside their shops. Along the road near the city’s international airport, hotels are opening up quickly and they are doing good business. “We are having one of the best tourism seasons. All our rooms are already booked,” Chea Sokhon, sales executive of La Residence d’ Angkor hotel, told Asia News Network. The city of Angkor comprises of over 70 temples, lying in various states of repair, spread across more than 30 sq km. The city was built between 9th and 14th century at the height of Cambodia’s Khmer empire, which once governed much of modern day Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos as well as parts of southern China and Burma.

Today it is only the temples that survive the remnants of a metropolis that was the envy of the ancient Southeast Asian world. But it is Angkor Wat, which is the most popular tourist attraction. Certainly the temple itself is an architectural marvel of the ancient world, built in a perfect square more than a kilometre on each side and listed by the United Nations as a world heritage monument.

“Angkor Wat is a treasure of Cambodia and of the world,” says Sermkhun Kunawong, vice president of Bayon CM Organiser, which is organising the mega theatre performance of US$1.5-million The Legend of Angkor Wat. Bayon CM Organiser is a joint venture between Cambodia’s Bayon Radio & TV, and the Bangkok-based CM Organiser, an event and production company.

Sermkhun Kunawong is a modest, quiet-spoken man — part of the generation that survived the Khmer rouge and the ensuing years of civil war. He says whenever he looks at Angkor Wat, he is inspired to do something to spread the rich culture and history of Angkor Wat. Shifting projected light, sound and special effects, colour, and silhouette embracing the architecture of the temple, brings out unexpected aspects of its beauty. Apsara dances and contemporary Khmer performances have been used to tell the historical story of Angkor Wat. The show, which will end on Jan 20, 2008, is believed to boost tourism in Cambodia.

“The show will transport you back in history during a time when this ancient wonder of the world was once the centre of a powerful empire. I hope people will come to have an understanding of pre-Angkor times through this show,” says Kunawong.

The temples of Angkor still bear the scars of the brutal regime of Khmer rouge during which an estimated two million people died. The regime destroyed anything they regarded as decadent or culturally impure, including many buildings and temples. But the temples are being reclaimed and efforts are being made to promote the Cambodian culture by individuals like Kunawong.

“Angkor is our identity. It is our strength and hope for better future,” says Kunawong. “We hope that more and more people visit the great temple and our rich culture and heritage spreads all across the world,” he adds.  

In some ways things are changing. Foreign visitors are flooding in.1.7 million tourists visited Cambodia in 2006 and during the first seven months of last year the temple saw around 975,349 visitors. Siem Reap arrivals have increased with 615,445 visitors while Phnom Penh and other destinations had brought in a total of 359,903 visitors. And while there are no official figures on how much each tourist spends in Cambodia, the dizzying array of luxury hotels in Siem Reap—ranging from the Raffles Grand Hotel d’ Angkor to quirky boutiques like Hotel de la Paix—testifies to the emergence of a new generation of high-end travellers.

With the tourists, comes money, desperately needed in a country where people are still mired in grinding poverty. In Siem Reap’s old market, where tourists gather, so too, do maimed land mine victims who have been reduced to beggary.

On a visit to the old market in Pokambor, I met Chang, a roadside bookseller. Her husband, Chan Vanna, a former member of the Cambodia army, had lost both legs in a landmine explosion in 1993. “After he lost his legs, we turned to begging as we had no other way to support our family. It was terrible, humiliating,” remembers Chang. “But now we have decided to work and never to beg. We just hope that more tourists come here so that we get more customers,” says Chang.

Perhaps if Cambodia has to come out from the decades of despair, it needs the kind of resilience Chang has. “Sometimes we need to be tough and strong. We need to fight back”, says Chang.

Behind her the light creeps across Angkor Wat. The great temple stands in the bright sunlight as it has for hundreds of years as a symbol of hope and faith for the Cambodian people, who are still trying to come to terms with the turmoil and bloodshed inflicted by the Khmer rouge regime.

(Asia News Network, April 2008)

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