In Cambodia mass tourism may be the price of peaceBy John Ryle • 16 January 1996 • City of Words • The Guardian • Revised • Posted 2016 • 1,113 words
It’s back in 1993 and I’m seeing Angkor for the first time—gazing down from the porthole of a Russian military helicopter at the huge, geometrically ordered capital of the mediaeval Khmer empire, now the archetypal jungle city, ruin of ruins.
It’s the half-way point in the eighteen-month period that Cambodians will come to refer to as the UNTAC Time. The United Nations Transitional Authority is a multinational force of soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats, charged with supervising an uneasy truce between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed army that drove it from power. The Khmer Rouge, whose homicidal rule decimated the Cambodian population in the 1970s, used the Angkor temples as munition dumps. In some—an unknown number—they hid landmines amid the sculpted masonry and monumental statuary.
The helicopter approaches Angkor from the West, coming in low over dense forest: below us are the shining moats and reservoirs of the ancient capital, and sandstone towers taller than the trees. The UNTAC soldiers in the helicopter, Bangladeshis and Australians, lean out into the warm wind to gaze at the spectacle: Lost Horizon meets Apocalypse Now. Even the crew, who fly the same route every day, are diverted by the effect of light: the brightness on the water, the long shadows on the stones.
Everyone is astounded by Angkor. It is a place no photograph can prepare you for. The world’s first megacity, the size of Los Angeles: so vast, so strange, so perfectly concealed. The French archaeological administrators of the colonial era ordained that the surrounding forest should be preserved to retain the frisson of exploration, the temple-of-doom effect. Some sites were cleared and the monuments restored or rebuilt, but others were deliberately left as they were found, the haunt of gibbons and macaques, their walls and towers and serpentine carvings tangled up in the colossal roots of strangler figs and kapok trees. A curator of the time referred to himself as “stage manager of a vegetal orgy”.