In a single three-hour period during April’s New Year holiday, 7,000 people visited the tiny temple of Banteay Srey, considered the jewel of Angkor.
To Vann Molyvann, it was a frightening glimpse of what the future holds if tourism and development are not controlled.
“All the tourists were climbing all over the walls and everywhere,” he said, looking stricken. “No monument in Angkor can support such numbers.”
For six years, Vann Molyvann headed the Apsara Authority, the UN-backed organization charged with protecting the temples. On June 6, he was fired without official explanation.
He thinks he got the ax because, over the years, he had thwarted or annoyed too many powerful people who want to make money off the nation’s premier tourist attraction.
Is he worried now that those same people will overrun the Angkor Archaeological Park, throwing up hotels and karaoke parlors, and cramming in more visitors than the park can safely hold?
Not a bit.
“I have trained 40 very good young people,” he said during a recent interview in the airy, light-filled home he designed during his heyday as Cambodia’s most accomplished architect.
“They are not very well paid,” he said, “but they will do their best. And they will save Banteay Srey.”
It isn’t just tourists who are flocking to Siem Reap. Businessmen and entrepreneurs from inside and outside Cambodia are jostling for a piece of the famed temples, from the airlines who want to schedule more and more flights to hoteliers who want to build as close to the temples as they can get.
Rules were shattered in the headlong rush to profit. The Siem Reap area, under Khmer Rouge control until 1998, was full of military bases and personnel, some of whom claimed large tracts of land near the temples as their own.
When King Norodom Sihanouk asked the UN to help protect the temples in 1991, Cambodia agreed to a number or provisions, including setting up the Apsara Authority to protect the temples and control development.
Recently, Apsara has objected to a number of illegal developments, including RCAF General Chea Morn’s karaoke resort on the Western Baray and a hotel-and-karaoke resort on land owned by Senate second vice president and former Funcinpec General Nhiek Bun Chhay southwest of Angkor Wat.
Vann Molyvann said the law is clear: buildings not approved by Apsara are illegal and must be torn down at the owner’s expense. He has been backed up by UN officials who say Cambodia must honor the deal it made when the temples won World Heritage status.
Yet so far, the karaoke parlors still stand, and Vann Molyvann is out of a job.
Other Apsara officials have said the karaoke parlors are just two among dozens of structures built without permission in the last decade, most in an area between Siem Reap and the temples that is supposed to be an undeveloped “buffer” zone.
Vann Molyvann is the French-trained architect who designed such Phnom Penh landmarks as the Independence Monument, the Olympic Stadium, and the Chaktomuk and Bassac theaters.
Photos of his work, which fill a pair of albums, provide glimpses of a hauntingly different Cambodia—a clean, orderly place where exuberant public buildings are set amid spacious public gardens.
Vann Molyvann was the only Cambodian architect working during the King’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, when modernizing the country was a top priority.
The King “would call and say, ‘I am taking a diplomatic delegation to Kirirom [National Park] in a week, and we need something,’ ” he recalled—so he and his crew would race to the park and build a Swiss chalet to host the dignitaries.
His professional connection with Angkor goes back to the 1960s, when he worked with French archeologists and experts to catalogue and preserve the temples.
Nearly 30 years later, he was instrumental in convincing the government to seek emergency help from the international community to protect the temples.
“Already, then, there was tremendous pillaging of Angkor,” he says of the situation in 1991. At the behest of the King, he asked the United Nations for help, and Unesco—the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—stepped forward. By 1992, Angkor had been granted emergency World Heritage status and donors such as France and Japan were working to protect the temples.
Today the monuments have been demined, a half-dozen major restoration projects are underway, and tourism keeps climbing. Last year, 351,660 tourists flew into Cambodia, a 34 percent increase over the 262,907 who came in 1999.
In the first quarter of 2001, the total was 117,645, a 28 percent increase over the same period in 2000. Most came to visit the temples of Angkor.
The factional fighting in 1997 temporarily depressed tourism to Angkor, but traffic has since surged, from 40,678 in 1998 to 83,641 in 1999 and about 185,000 in 2000, said Vann Molyvann.
Those figures include only those who bought entry tickets to the park, not official guests or Cambodian citizens, who pay no entry fee. During special festivals, between 100,000 and 200,000 Cambodian tourists might visit the park.
Although he will no longer be at the helm, he says his staff will do its best to handle the influx responsibly. By 2004, Apsara estimates, the area will attract at least 640,000 tourists per year, and by 2008 that number could reach 1 million.
That many visitors present a host of problems, from congestion and pollution to greater demand for water, electricity and toilets.
“So we are trying to disperse the tourists elsewhere,” said Vann Molyvann, by organizing monuments in Angkor, Roluos and Banteay Srey into 10 distinct “monument groups” that tourists can visit in a half-day.
Ideally, he said, no monument would be visited by more than 300 people in a day, and motorized traffic would be banned near the temples. Monuments within a group will be close enough for walking, and transportation to each group would be by electric shuttle, horse or buffalo-drawn wagons, bicycles, cyclos or even elephants.
In future years, government officials hope to further ease the pressure on Angkor Wat by expanding the tourist circuit to include more remote temples such as Preah Vihear, Bang Melea, Banteay Chmar and Koh Ker.
In the meantime, said Vann Molyvann, the government must not exclude the poor from its plans for development. The 1998 census showed about 150,000 people living near the temples of Angkor, Banteay Srey and Roluos, he said, and most of them are poor.
So far, the bulk of the tourism dollars have gone to foreign-owned luxury hotels like the Grand Hotel d’Angkor or the Sofitel Royal Angkor, airlines and tour operators and the handful of expensive restaurants and shops tourists patronize.
Apsara has long-term plans to employ as many of the local villagers as possible as groundskeepers, guards, builders or vendors near the temples. “We want to avoid displacing residents from the temple areas whenever possible,” he said.
He said he is sorry he will not be there to bring those plans to fruition, but he has plenty to keep him busy, from translating his history “Les Cites Khmers Anciennes” into Khmer to finishing the next volume on cities of the modern era.
He is confident his successor as head of Apsara, Bun Narith, will do his best, as will the new generation of professionally trained Cambodians.
“It is a joy to work with these young Khmers,” he said. “I would like the help of the international community in training more of the Cambodian people to preserve their heritage.
“Please, don’t let us down.”