siem reap town – A nightly sound-and-light show at Angkor Wat. Visitors in plastic overshoes scrambling gecko-like up Phnom Bakheng, or riding a zig-zag escalator up its northeastern face.
A huge yellow hot-air balloon, moored permanently next to Angkor Wat that bobs up and down for an aerial view.
These were the most dramatic development proposals presented last week at a meeting of the international committee that protects the temples.
A top government official made it clear that development has been moving too slowly, and it’s time to pick up the pace.
“Angkor is asleep. We will wake it up,” Council of Ministers Secretary of State Chea Sophorn said.
Cities with far less impressive cultural heritage attract millions of visitors a year, and it is time for the Angkor area to encourage private investors, Chea Sophorn added.
“Development cannot be delayed any longer,” he said.
Officials of the International Coordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor, the ICC, sat in silence as developers, armed with slide shows and video presentations, made their pitches.
Some delegates did not seem receptive.
“We are very concerned about the possible bad effects on the cultural heritage [posed by] tourists and rapid development,” Japan’s ICC representative Mari Kaneko said.
All proposals must be approved by the World Heritage Committee, and Japan remains “greatly concerned” a hefty percentage of ticket revenues goes to Sokimex, which runs the ticketing operation, Kaneko said.
Japan has maintained for some time that “all profits should go to the National Treasury” for distribution to ministries charged with maintaining the Angkor temple complex, Kaneko said.
The plastic shoes proposal, presented by Men Lux of RI TAI International of Hong Kong Ltd, was intended to protect the crumbling laterite steps leading up to the temple atop Phnom Bakheng, a popular spot at sunset.
The company also wants to build an escalator to spare elderly or infirmed tourists the steep climb, he said.
Those ideas provoked an outburst from one delegate, who said neither proposal is in keeping with the “dignity or solemnity” of the site.
The escalator in particular, he said, “is terrible. I am against it.” And providing tourists with non-slip shoes just means they will climb more places they shouldn’t. “They will be climbing the walls,” the delegate said.
The balloon proposal, presented by Sok So Na of the Sokha Hotel Corp of Cambodia, features a bright yellow balloon measuring 32 meters high by 22 meters in diameter, or about the height of a 10-story building.
The ring-shaped gondola can hold up to 30 passengers, who are elevated up to 300 meters in the air for 30 minutes at a time. It apparently would not travel over the area but would hover over one spot, tethered to a cable.
The developer wants to permanently base the balloon 200 meters from Angkor Wat and said the yellow globe could be painted with designs or advertisements.
About 20 such balloons are in use at tourist sites around the world, including Egypt, Rome and Paris, he said. It is non-polluting, would not shake the temples with vibrations, and would give tourists a view they can’t get now, he said.
The sound and light show presentation, by a French-Cambodian partnership called Heritage Vision, included a slide show of dramatic computer-generated views of Angkor Wat bathed in vibrant colors.
“We are a team of people who are passionate about light,” spokesman Henri Chabert said, adding he had previously lit 1,500 buildings in the French city of Lyon.
A thousand visitors a night would sit in a grassy amphitheater just east of the southern library, west of Angkor Wat. They would not be allowed into the main temple, he said.
Slides showed the temple’s long causeway illuminated by pools of light, while disembodied faces of apsaras floated above its moats. The temple itself glowed in reds and yellows, or blues and greens; in one slide, a giant face from the Bayon temple was superimposed on a tower.
Chabert said the $3 million project would employ about 120 people, would not hurt the structures, and is designed to run six nights a week for nine months a year.
Documents submitted with the proposal show a parking area adjacent to the western moat, and refer to devices for creating “water haze” effects and “flame spot displays” for “smoke effects and minor pyro effects.”
He said the developers appreciate the cultural and religious significance of the temple, and would work to educate tourists about “the genius qualities of the Khmer.”
“We are not planning some kind of Disney installation,” Chabert said. He noted similar shows had been effective in St Petersburg, Havana and the Coliseum in Rome.
Delegate Giorgio Croci of Italy noted that the Coliseum in Rome is lit three to four times per year, and that its original purpose was spectacle, not religion. “Still, we didn’t turn the Coliseum into a movie house, where everyone goes every night,” he said.
Takeshi Nakagawa, director of the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor, said that Angkor Wat holds tremendous religious significance for pilgrims.
“I believe this project should not be in Angkor,” he said.
Azedine Beschaouch of the ICC Secretariat acknowledged that sound-and-light shows are very popular, but said Angkor “is a very fragile site.”
The ICC will work with the government on all its development proposals, and that he hopes through collaboration to set goals everyone can accept, Beschaouch said.
That can happen even when agencies are not as eager to cooperate as they are in Cambodia, he said. At the World Heritage site in Machu Picchu, Peru, the government wanted to install a “sky chair,” a kind of ski lift to carry tourists to the top of the central temple.
Beschaouch said the World Heritage Committee threatened to revoke Machu Picchu’s heritage status if the government went ahead despite the committee’s objections. The standoff ended when both sides agreed to a “better solution” which he did not describe.
“We don’t want to threaten, ‘Do this’ or ‘Don’t do that,’” he said. “That has never been the spirit of our committee. Let us not bring in such damaging solutions. We are committed, as a committee of experts, to find better solutions.”