War in Iraq, SARS Give Ancient Temples a Respite From Mass Tourism

siem reap town – A year ago, tourist buses jammed the parking lots around the ancient temples of Angkor. Trash piled up and exhaust fumes from taxis colored the air a hazy blue.

I had come to work on a story about how these architectural wonders were in danger of being overrun—not by the surrounding jungles, but by hordes of package travelers.

“The serenity of one’s visit to Siem Reap and the temples is what’s magical and, unfortunately, that’s in jeopardy,” UN conservationist Tamara Teneishvili said then.

What a difference a year makes, after the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome and the war in Iraq.

When I flew into Siem Reap recently to show my daughter these Hindu and Buddhist temples dating back more than a thousand years, there were a dozen passengers on a 72-seat Bangkok Airways flight that in the past was usually fully booked.

Outside the newly built Siem Reap International Airport, a crowd of taxi drivers waited in the humid morning air. Drivers who once asked $20 to $25 for a day of chauffering tourists around the temples happily settled for $15.

At the Khompu Pich Hotel, one of a clutch of new hotels, we proved the only two guests and the broadly smiling manager gave us a $60-a-night room for a third of the price.

Tourist officials say many hotels and other tourist businesses have had to cut staff because of the plummeting number of visitors. The 3,500 who came to Angkor in May was 63 percent less than a year earlier.

But there is optimism among tourism officials that as the SARS scare ebbs, the planes will fill up again and Cambodia will reach its goal of

1 million annual visitors to Angkor by 2010.

That would be good news for Cambodia, where tourism is among the few money-generating industries.

But it will be hard on the stones of Angkor, trampled on by thousands, and the serenity of a special place will again be swept away by the chatter of sightseers and hawkers.

 

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