Images by Alastair McCready
Finding pockets of solitude in Angkor Wat is one of those rarest of luxuries in normal circumstances.
With 2.2 million visitors, or some 6,000 per day, visiting last year – comparatively low numbers for the World Heritage site in what proved a slow year – it’s also a luxury you could have been forgiven for thinking was long consigned to history.
With its shaded courtyards, solitary libraries, and unlit winding passages, the usual throngs of snap-happy tourists that dominate the site feels at odds with its original purpose as a Hindu religious monument and funerary temple conceived with serenity and sanctuary in mind.
Inside the Angkor park, it is Cambodian visitors who are the biggest beneficiaries of this tourism slump
In high-season, queues to reach the upper portion of the temple, selfie sticks, garbage and relentless chatter lend this monument of profound Cambodian – and human – cultural heritage the dispiriting ambience of a theme park in parts.
But since the pandemic has taken hold, bringing global tourism to a grinding halt, scenes of tourist-free landscapes not seen since the Kingdom cautiously reopened to the world in the early 1990s have returned to ancient Angkor.
“About 80 people today,” the attendant manning the deserted counter at the Angkor Ticket Office said. It was already after midday on a Saturday in early-June. “We had a big group of Chinese tourists this morning, but it has been about 50 visitors per day the last few months.”
Devastating for the local economy in tourist-reliant Siem Reap, the sharp decline in foreigners means many local businesses in the town are struggling to survive. Nationwide, Cambodia saw a 65% drop in visitors year-on-year in March, with only 223,400 tourists visiting the Kingdom. That number has most certainly dropped even further in the months since with the complete shut-down of virtually all international travel.
But inside the Angkor park, it is Cambodian visitors, reconnecting with their heritage, who are the biggest beneficiaries of this tourism slump.
The conspicuous absence of people allows an emboldened monkey to nonchalantly snack on fluorescent yellow potato chips in the middle of the path
Sidelined until recently by Chinese and European tourists, they form almost the entirety of visitors on this quiet afternoon.
Several generations of Cambodian families light candles and pray at once-crowded shrines. Buddhist monks take selfies, while others meditate passively collecting alms for “social activities” at their monastery, as the complex momentarily sheds the tourists and reasserts its heritage as a sacred religious site.
A mother sits dutifully fanning her young son, busying himself playing games on a tablet in the usually-packed concentric galleries at the heart of the structure. A memento photographer, one of many losers in this scenario, passes the time chuckling to himself as he watches videos on Facebook, awaiting his next model with no guarantee they will ever arrive.
Down the cobbled walkway leading to the main temple complex, the conspicuous absence of people allows an emboldened monkey to nonchalantly snack on fluorescent yellow potato chips in the middle of the path in the late afternoon heat. Guards in blue tops scattered throughout the complex – once ushering crowds, now outnumbering them – have little to do but stand idle and wait.
Barring a second-wave of the virus, whether for good or bad, these fleeting moments of tranquility in ancient Angkor will likely be over soon, as the monument slowly – and perhaps rightfully – reclaims its status as one of Southeast Asia’s great tourist hot-spots.
With that will come desperately-needed revenue for local vendors and businesses, but over will be that glimpse provided by the global pandemic of Angkor Wat once again existing as its creators intended – a sanctuary of calm and reflection.