Angkor Wat is the most famous temple of the ancient ruins of Angkor. The name Angkor Wat means "Capital Temple," a modern Khmer name. The site is located near Siem Reap, about a four hour taxi ride north of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Since the late 90s, Cambodia has welcomed a rapidly rising tide of tourists, with Angkor Wat as its main attraction.
History of Angkor Wat
Archaeologists date Angkor Wat's construction to the 12th century, built for King Suryavarman II. The ruins of Angkor stretch over 120 square miles. A few of the temples are Buddhist, such as Bayon Temple, erected as a Buddhist sanctuary. However, most are Hindu. Angkor Wat, considered the largest religious structure in the world, honors Hindu god Vishnu.
Importance of Tourism in Cambodia
According to a 2009 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, Cambodia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and is ranked 137 out of 182 countries.
A 1995 (UNESCO) study found that tourism ranks alongside agriculture and industry as the Cambodian government's top priority because it creates jobs, boosts the economy and brings foreign investment into the country's cash-strapped economy, while simultaneously promoting Cambodia's culture to the rest of the world.
According to the Cambodian government tourism report, in 2008 more than 2 million people visited the country, and half of them visited the Angkor region.
Southeast Asian affairs expert and British journalist Tom Fawthrop, wrote in "Will Angkor Wat Survive the Invasion of Mass Tourism" (2007) published in "Third World Resurgence," a monthly magazine based in Malaysia, that much of the country's tourism profits aren't used to service national sites and monuments because of corruption and mismanagement.
Conservation agencies such as Heritage Watch and government agencies like the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA) say graffiti on temple walls, crumbling monuments and uncontrolled sewage remain a threat to the ruins as well as poor irrigation exacerbated by the many hotels cropping up in nearby Siem Reap. In addition, heavy foot traffic is wearing the steps and pathways thin, as tourists are often allowed to wander freely in and out of the temples with few restricted sections.
In 1992, UNESCO designated the ruins of Angkor a World Heritage Site and created a program to protect the ruins. According to UNESCO, Angkor is "one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. " The protection program, which cost over $20 million, consisted of two phases conducted by JSA with help from the Japan International Co-operation Centre (JICE). Phase one, from 1995 to 1999, focused on Bayon temple and the Royal Plaza. Phase two, from 1999 to 2005, continued the restoration of Bayon and added the Northern Library of Angkor Wat.
Heritage Watch, founded in 2003, is a non-profit grass-roots organization that protects heritage sites in Cambodia. Part of its mandate is to "promote responsible tourism that furthers cultural and economic development and encourage the tourism industry to support the arts, culture, heritage and development." Heritage Watch also trains Cambodian archaeologists and educates the local community to preserve sites like Angkor Wat. In 2009, the organization received the Archaeological Institute of America's Conservation and Heritage Management Award.