Faces of Bayon, Angkor Wat

In search of Bayon faces – part I


There is such a dream…

I don’t know how about you but me, I travel with my eyes. More often than not, it’s some picture or movie scene that decides where I go next time. When I get there, instead of reading the guidebook, I rather go to small stand with postcards. Guidebook has failed me many times, what is great for one person, to me may be unbearable due to crowds interrupting the place beauty. Other time, what guidebook barely spent time on describing, occurs to be the most amazing place on planet Earth to me. I know this for sure: pictures are my best compass.

I don’t remember when I saw the picture of the temple with towers wearing four faces but this picture landed deeply in my imagination. It sprouted, started to grow and till today, there is a quite big jungle in my head… There is such a dream: grass tickles my knees, it is a dawn; sun has disappeared already behind the horizon. I feel vibrating silence in my body, goosebumps on my skin, chaotic thoughts are running like crazy in my head. Everything is so intense, as if my entire body was swallowing noises, smells, views and subconscious whispers. Tremendous temple looms against the darkening sky, from towers, those in corners of the surrounding wall and those in the middle of temple, eight faces look down at me. Their eyes are half closed but I feel I’m being observed, I know they are watching. I feel I have to go inside, there is no escape – they are watching… they will not let me run away. Do I want to run away? No, I don’t, I want to go in and see! What is inside? Who is inside? The first low sound of warning drum spreads around like a storm echo and I wake up with regret, I will never find out…

For years I was sure I have seen Angkor Wat on that picture. When we started our 12 months travel to Asia in 2009, Angkor was the only “must see” place on my list – and we were going to India, not Cambodia. This trip was supposed to be completely spontaneous, without plan and without guidebook – and it was. Of course, we’ve never got to Angkor. J Until 2016.

UNESCO, mass tourism and two sides to everything

I knew there will be crowds; I knew I will not like it. Someone has said that one cannot die not seeing Angkor Wat. Can, cannot, for years Angkor is sitting on my “100 dreams” list which I tick off on regular bases. At least one day – I thought – somehow I will manage to survive this completely charmless way of exploring. Just in case, I’ve decided to check what guidebook is recommending. I tend to read guidebooks backwards, meaning, what guidebook recommends, I avoid 😉 As soon as I found out that it is best to start with sunrise over the Angkor Wat, I’ve decided to find different place for my morning. Bayon temple has won. Of course! That’s the only temple having towers with faces in entire complex and this was actually Bayon’s picture that made my mind blow with the imagination years ago. This was great choice, even though the guard made sure no one enters the temple before 7AM. Lonely sunrise underneath looming half-smiling faces was the best morning I could have hope for in Angkor.

Kindly guard allowed us to enter before opening hours. In company of another six people we could see the temple from the “eye level” of its stony protectors. It is an amazing, beautiful place which gives chills… at least before 8:00-8:30AM 😉

Ta Prohm was a nightmare to me. Bit better was Angkor Wat but it has more space where crowd can spread out. Whole pleasure of visiting is literally being trampled by thousands of people, who move around here every day. I haven’t even entered the main temple in Ta Prohm as I was too afraid that pensioners’ excursion that has just spilled out of the bus will squash my Cooba. They say it is 6000 people at average who visit Angkor Wat itself – a day. Taking into consideration seasonality, this number has to reach tens of thousands in peaks. I don’t know if February is a peak month but really, I felt like on Woodstock festival in Poland and each year there is around 300.000 people (feeling comparable in terms of amount of people, not atmosphere 😉 ). Constant wave of people moving back and forth the road, countless excursions calling each other, 2 hours long queue to the tower with view – that is just a part of not really pleasant scenes in Angkor temple. If you value atmosphere of the place, you won’t find it there. I only envy those who could actually be there when walls were still protected by the jungle and popular tourism had no access to it… What’s interesting, this place is still being used as a temple, what makes this a place a little more bearable. I just can’t really understand how one can pray in place where you constantly hear laughs, talks, shuffling shoes and camera snapshot sounds – cameras that are pointing in your (read: praying person) direction…

Since Angkor Wat has been added to UNESCO heritage list, each year there is more tourists coming. It is estimated that during next few years, number will increase from 3 billion of people yearly (in 2015), up to 6 billion (in 2020). This number requires really good preparation and neither Angkor, nor Siem Reap – major starting point – are not ready for that. Temples are suffering already from the excess of tourists. What’s interesting, in contrast to Machu Picchu in Peru, which is simply trampled down and slides down the slope, for Angkor Wat this is not the major issue (in 2008 limit was set for daily visits on Machu Picchu: only 2500 people are allowed to slow down this process and further restrictions are coming). Billions of people visiting Angkor every year need place to eat and to sleep. Lying 7km away Siem Reap is practically the only starting point for trips, so hotels are rising there every day. Once village, now small city, it does not have enough water resources to supply all houses, hotels and restaurants that grew there over past years. A lot is missing; current resources can deliver only 1/25 of what is truly needed. Illegal wells are very common in Siem Reap – as a result, Angkor Wat and Bayon temples start to… sink in the sand, as they are standing on delicate, sandy ground. Great design of irrigation system in Angkor era, today is on the verge of collapse. Walls of the temples lose verticality, start to lean and fall over and reconstruction is one never-ending story in Angkor. What is going to happen, when Siem Reap needs to cope with 6 billion of tourist?

Issue of sudden increase of mass tourism immediately after adding place to UNESCO heritage listing is a well-known one, even UNESCO themselves are doing research on it. Is it doing more good, by bringing funds to the endangered area or doing more bad, as by accident it is increasing tourism in those places? As an example, Luan Prabang – beautiful town in Laos – got onto the heritage list in 1995. Number of visitors has increased since then from 2.000 up to 500.000 people per year. There is practically no locals now in the town as property prices has increased so significantly, that it was worth selling and moving out of town only to come back for work. Buildings are saved but the town’s soul has practically died.

Some 160km away from Angkor Wat is standing another, incredibly beautiful and not yet well know temple – Banteay Chhmar. Cambodia government has just proposed to add it to the heritage list. Are they ready for that?


If you want to know more about UNESCO impact on mass tourism, I can recommend the movie: UNESCO, The Heritage Curse

More pictures available in Angkor gallery.

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