I was in Cambodia a few weeks ago, and one morning I got out of bed before dawn and walked a couple of miles in the dark to Angkor Wat. I got there just in time to catch the sunrise, and I wasn't alone: I counted about 250 other people who were there at the exact same spot at the exact same moment. (We all took the exact same photo on our iPhones.) Yes, it was crowded. It was also kind of enchanting.
I was in Cambodia to learn about tourism, and to see how things are going at perhaps the world's most famous heritage destination. My interviews revealed many things, including the fact that the Cambodian government very much wants to control the narrative around Angkor, particularly when it comes to Western media.
Right or wrong, you can see why: Before the pandemic, tourism accounted for nearly a third of Cambodia's GDP. And of course, there's no bigger tourist draw than Angkor Wat. One government official told me that the Angkor complex — which spreads over more than 150 square miles — could easily handle 10 million visitors a year, more than triple the figure from 2019. Other people I spoke to disagreed.
That sunrise was beautiful, but it definitely wasn't my favorite moment in the Angkor complex. That came the next day, when I was wandering around the Banteay Kdei temple, pictured below, which served as a home for monks, off and on, from the 1200s all the way to the 1960s. I was there in the late morning, and saw maybe half a dozen people during the half an hour I spent wandering around its crumbling pillars and high walls, overgrown with trees.
The place is falling down, that much is clear, and the forces of entropy appear more powerful than any structure that humans could ever build to counter the temple's inevitable slip into oblivion. But for now, the place is still standing. And on that steamy morning a few weeks ago, its magic captivated me completely.