6 February 2007 (MSNBC) –
Built by a mighty 9th-century Khmer king, the soaring temple of Phnom Bakheng stands atop the highest peak of ancient Angkor. With a sweeping view that takes in Angkor Wat — the world’s largest religious structure — the monks stationed here were probably among the first to glimpse the approaching Siamese troops that snuffed out this city’s centuries-long domination of much of Southeast Asia.
So perhaps it is not surprising that more than 500 years later, Phnom Bakheng has become the ideal perch from which to watch another assault on Angkor — by marauding armies of tourists.
Preservationists and archaeologists here increasingly fear that the frenzy to commercialize Angkor, now also a hot set location for films such as Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider,” is winning out over the need for preservation.
Nowhere is that clearer than at Phnom Bakheng, where a number of new guidebooks advise visitors not to miss the sunset from the temple’s summit. Tips like that have led to a daily siege by an armada of tour buses around dusk. On a recent afternoon, about 4,000 visitors, speaking Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, English and a host of other languages, scampered to the top of the temple, stepping on pictorial stones and manhandling ancient statues as one lonely guard sat on the sidelines, overwhelmed.
“The problem we’re facing is that the pace of visitor growth is accelerating far faster than the ability to manage such huge crowds,” said Teruo Jinnai, UNESCO’s top official in Cambodia. “There is no doubt that this is beginning to cause damage to the temples and that it has the potential to become much worse if nothing is done.”