Have you ever gone to a magical place that became a disappointment the second time you visited? Well, that place for me is Angkor Wat. When I first visited Angkor Wat in 2008 with my good friend, Rebekah, we had the enormous temple for ourselves and we were able to embrace the marvelous details and grandiosity. Siem Reap was a cute little town with a handful of restaurants and shops. Yes, there were some beggars and kids trying to sell you anything at the temples. But overall it was a calm place where you could just enjoy your time at the temples.
Sebastian will be sharing the background on this wonder of the world in a separate blog and I could not have left Angkor Wat out of our world tour for obvious reasons. On a personal level, I wanted my family to feel the WOW factor that I had years ago when you enter Angkor Wat.
We certainly did say “WOW” when we arrived at the bridge to enter Angkor Wat. Only this time around it was about the hordes of tourists and buses of Korean and Chinese groups pushing everyone around to take selfies. For example, in order to climb to the 3rd floor of Angkor Wat, we had to wait in line for 20 minutes and push your way through to see the temple from the top. By the time we returned to the bottom, that line was twice as long! Flashback to my visit with Rebekah and we had the entire area to ourselves.
Siem Reap roads are just as busy as a big city. For instance, Pub Street, where a handful of restaurants were located years ago, reminds me of Carnaval for tourists today with big crowds that you need to push your way through.
Another humbling experience was a quick 20-minute family foot massage. The masseuses were 2 16 year-old boys the size of our kids who charged $1 for the massage. Great learning experience to our kids that don’t hesitate to download a $1 app from the AppStore while kids almost their age are working to earn $1 on a school night. We had a family discussion and reflection about this experience for our kids to absorb the realities of the situation for other children around the world in less fortunate circumstances.
On a positive note, we stayed in a very comfortable hotel – Shining Angkor. We also had a great farewell dinner at Mie Cafe. Our local guide, Lee, was knowledgeable and shared insight on the current political situation of Cambodia as well as its history with neighboring nations Vietnam and Thailand who seem to take advantage of the Cambodians on a regular basis. And, surprise surprise, we even found a Brazilian restaurant – Gigi Brazil. I couldn’t recall the last time I had some yummy pão de queijo, pastel and churrasco and we really loved this break from the Asian food circuit.
In the end, I know this mass tourism is good for the people of Cambodia as the increased tourism brings great improvements to their quality of life (at least in theory). At the same time, I am torn because it meant that the place I once considered to be very special, is now gone to the massive tours. So I sit here in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar this week thinking that in 5 years time the same fate could happen to the beautiful Bagan and places that we have enjoyed here. Only time will tell.