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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.
🇳🇪 I'm fascinated by the idea of thisfestival of Tuareg culture, but not sure I'd be up for hiring my own military escort to get there. (AFP)
🚢 Residents of Key West, Florida have voted to limit cruise ship traffic on their island — even though some local businesses will take a hit. (Miami Herald)
Worth a watch
I'm a few years too old to have been swept up in the Zac Efron wave of teen heartthrob fandom, but you can count me among the recently converted, thanks to his travel show, Down to Earth with Zac Efron, which recently released its second season on Netflix.
Sure, Efron gives off some pretty strong "himbo" vibes in the show (sorry, Zac, if you ever read this: 💛), but you get a sense that there's some depth beneath the Hollywood sheen — even if the takeaways the show delivers are less than earth-shattering. Whether he's in Iceland, Paris or the Brazilian Amazon, Efron shows genuine curiosity about the places he visits, genuine compassion for the people he meets, and a genuine desire to use his platform — which includes 56 million (!) Instagram followers — to do some good in the world.
The show is entertaining and occasionally educational. (The Puerto Rico episode is my favorite so far.) I think our kids would love it.
Worth a listen
🇦🇫 Fatima Haidari, Afghanistan's first female tour guide (pictured below), blew me away when I spoke to her for The Better Travel Podcast. What a story, what a woman. She's definitely one to watch.