Wandering around the temples of Angkor, arguably the most spectacular archeological site on the planet, I could not help but wonder to what degree the economically impoverished Cambodian people, who survived years of civil war, are benefiting from the tourism boom now underway in their country. It would take a detailed investigation to determine the full answer to this question. However, it was quickly clear to me that someone is getting very rich off tourism here—and it is not the local villagers.
Consider the numbers: A three-day pass to visit the Angkor temples costs $40 per person (and it’s well worth it). The Angkor site is managed by Sokha Hotel Company, a Cambodian government official’s private business. According to a source familiar with the company, Sokha pays a million dollars in annual taxes. Another ten percent of their net income goes to the Aspara Authority, which is the government institution responsible for Angkor’s grounds cleaning, maintenance, trash removal, security, etc. International donors largely fund the actual restoration of the ruins.
Now let’s do the math: In 2007, some two million tourists visited Angkor, generating around $80 million in revenue for Sokha Hotel Company. Even if Sokha were to generously employ as many as 5,000 Cambodians to maintain the temples grounds at the going rate (which, at approximately $2-3 a day, adds up to roughly $4.68 million), the private company is making a fortune off the national heritage of Cambodia—a heritage that rightly belongs to the local people—by owning a monopoly on tourism access to the temples of Angkor.
But is something better than nothing? Taking care of the vast grounds certainly has helped give rise to a thriving informal sector economy of roadside vendors and tuk tuk drivers. Many locals told me clearly that they are better off having this opportunity to make hard-earned cash from a major tourism influx. Yet, it is no secret among Cambodia's very poor and still largely uneducated citizens that the big tourism money is going into the pockets of the rich government elite.
In the nearby town of Siem Reap, there is a similar feeling amid an almost “Wild West” economic development atmosphere. Over the past five years, the town has grown from having just 50 hotels to having more than 100 four- to five-star properties. With that boom came restaurants and bars. And with a massage parlor literally every 25 yards or so, Siem Reap could be the massage capitol of the world. (All the Cambodian’s I spoke with, and a good number of foreigners living there, emphasized that the massage business is legit.)
There is an excitement in Siem Reap, one that comes when a place goes from a tourism backwater to a tourism mainstream in a short period of time. It’s also rare to find a place where luxury travelers and backpackers easily intermingle in the same popular handouts, like The Red Piano Bar near the Old Market.
But there is also an uneasiness in the air here. As tourism grows more out of control each passing year, ever larger crowds parade around the Angkor ruins turning it into an almost theme-park environment.
My advice to would-be adventure travelers is to head out to Preah Kahn temple an hour before sunset to experience the mystery of Angkor—with fewer people around. Consider staying at the Shinta Mani Hotel , which also organizes community development projects and has an Institute for Hospitality that gives Cambodians the skills needed to enter the workforce. At $90 a night, it is one of the nicest places to stay in Siem Reap (book a room next to their rock garden like swimming pool). At Shinta Mani, your money will go beyond mere profit margins to support a bigger commitment to the local Cambodian people.
--Global Travel Editor Costas Christ
Photographs by Costas Christ