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1 July 2008

Angkor Wat


Damian Evans: Right now we're at Angkor, which is a collection of temples on a flood plain in the north of Cambodia which, about a thousand years ago, was the centre of a huge empire which stretched across most of mainland South-East Asia. The true significance of the place is that it's probably the world's most amazing collection of religious monuments. What you see here is a scale of engineering and aesthetic beauty and a complexity that isn't really seen at any other collection of monument sites around the world.

Dr Tim Winter: Well, Angkor is one of the most popular World Heritage sites in the whole of Asia. Every year now there are over one million tourists coming to Angkor. And they were coming from around the world, but there's much more emphasis now for tourists coming from within the Asian region. Over 70% are now coming from within Asia. Mainly it's Korea, China, Japan. There are a number of differences between Asian and non-Asian tourists in the way they travel, the length of stay. Often it's a shorter length of stay. And I think Cambodia's very much struggling to understand those changes and understand how to build policies around that address this new wave of tourism.

Chau Sun Kerya: My biggest concern today is about how to manage the flow and to regulate the stream of tourists, especially in the main temples that most are visited by tourists. Because everybody touch, they violate the sculpture. So we close the most fragile part.

Dr Tim Winter: Here we have a staircase that's over 1,000 years old. The vast majority of tourists are coming to this site for the sunset. In less than 10 years, this staircase has virtually been completely destroyed, and hence the reason why they need to close it - purely because of the pressures of tourism. Considering we have hundreds of millions of dollars of tourism money coming into this one town every year, the Siem Reap province is one of the poorest provinces in Cambodia, making it, undoubtedly, one of the poorest regions in the whole of Asia.

Dr Dougald O'Reilly: You can see the development, the amount of wealth that's been generated in Siem Reap province just by looking at these monuments to opulence, basically, where people go and stay in absolute plush luxury, as compared to motorcycle taxi drivers sleeping on their motorcycle at night. So there is a real dichotomy, and it's quite apparent.

Chau Sun Kerya: You have very luxury (sic) hotels in town. Sometimes some of them, it's $800 per night. And people in the core of the pack, they are still very poor.

Dr Tim Winter: But there now are many Korean businessmen, many Chinese that have set up businesses in and around the Angkor area. Much of the revenue that's generated for tourism is actually leaving the country, and one of the challenges is to try and keep the money in Cambodia. One of the implications of this pressures of tourism is that the average length of stay of tourists in Cambodia is just hovering around the two-day stay. So that people are coming here to Siem Reap and then leaving the country straightaway.

Dr Dougald O'Reilly: Our organisation and others are encouraging people to stay longer, spend more money, spend more time and go outside of Angkor.

Chau Sun Kerya: And I hope, in the future, they will stay longer to visit not only the temple, but also the nature, the other provinces in Cambodia, the seaside, and to discover very important thing - its people.

Damian Evans: My role here is to broaden the focus beyond these huge sandstone temples and look out in the countryside to find out where people actually lived. We've put together a huge digital map across an area of about 3,000 square kilometres. Over 1,000 square kilometres shows evidence of having been occupied by the same people who built these temples here.

Chau Sun Kerya: Bayon is one of my favourite temples.

Dr Tim Winter: In recent years, there's a growing strong connection between Australia - particularly through the research that's been done at the University of Sydney - and the Angkor area. That started with archaeological research and now it's various projects that are looking at the issue of how to deal with the pressures of tourism, how to understand the site as a living religious site. Angkor is an extremely important site, as a religious site, as a pilgrimage site, for Cambodians today. There are many monasteries located within the Angkor area. There's real challenges. It's using culture for development.

Dr Dougald O'Reilly: The project that the University of Sydney has, the Living with Heritage Project, is really groundbreaking, because it's showing a pathway for other heritage sites around the world - how to balance this massive influx of people with the local development of the community. Angkor is a World Heritage site, and as such, it has a special prominence. So it really demands an international perspective. Everybody has to work together to try to make this thing work and make sure it retains its special qualities.