Angkor Wat: Protecting Cambodia’s historic national symbol
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Angkor Wat: Protecting Cambodia’s historic national symbol

IT was once obscured by hundreds of years of vegetation and covered by accumulated soil. Later it was damaged by modern wars and then plundered by looters in the 1980s and 90s. Cambodia’s national treasure, the planet’s largest religious monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Angkor Wat, is not only a reminder of the region’s rich Hindu and (later) Buddhist history, it functions as a testament to the grandness of the Khmer Empire, a territory that once encompassed the majority of mainland Southeast Asia.

In modern Cambodia, a country troubled by poverty, hunger and corruption — though with a rapidly growing economy — Angkor Wat is a lucrative tourist attraction. It is also a valued cultural and natural site. Its status as a national symbol is evinced by the fact that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev began his recent state visit at Angkor. Medvedev’s safety was enforced by some 10,000 Cambodian soldiers and police.

The rewilding of Angkor Wat

Much of the rich surrounding flora and fauna were decimated around the same time looters decapitated most of the temple’s statues in the 80s and 90s. Yet like the structure’s regeneration, important species once thought to have been wiped out are now returning in droves.

Via the Guardian:

[The] Angkor Temple Complex, a World Heritage Site, contains some of the oldest forests in Cambodia. However, nearly all of the wildlife that used to live there had been extirpated due to overhunting in the 1980s and 1990s.

— Nick Marx, director of Wildlife Rescue and Care Programs, Wildlife Alliance

The return of nature to Angkor Wat is in part thanks to a rewilding program, launched in 2013 by conservation group Wildlife Alliance, in cooperation with the Cambodian Forestry Administration and APSARA, the management authority charged with the care of Angkor Archeological Park.

The area around the temple complex once again echoes with the calls of gibbons, which along with silver langurs, have been reintroduced to the park. Cambodia, like much of the region, is plagued by the illegal wildlife trade. Desperate poverty, coupled with unscrupulous business practices and superstitious beliefs in traditional medicine, have spelled doom for many of the country’s native species.

Happy #Thanksgiving! Grateful for being able to #travel & see places like #AngkorWat with my own eyes. #happythankgiving

A photo posted by La Carmina 🎃👻 (@lacarmina) on

A moral tale

Due to the cultural, archeological and ecological importance of Angkor Park, authorities have attempted to stem mass tourism, instead opting to encourage a kind of cultural tourism that truly respects the site. A reworking of how Angkor functions as a tourist destination has manifest in some new rules, which take into account both financial benefits and local customs.

While daily hours of operation will expand this year in order to accommodate more visitors, a new code of conduct is to be imposed. The code is partly in reaction to a recent trend among foreign visitors to strip naked on the grounds. The new rules include bans on nudity, as well as shorts, skirts above knee-length and bare shoulders. Guests will also be prohibited from smoking, taking selfies with monks and giving to begging children.

From a poster detailing the new rules at Angkor Wat:

Any act of looting, breaking or damaging Angkor, or exposing sex organs and nudity in a public area is a crime punishable by law.

Understandably, the code prohibits touching, leaning against or sitting on temple structures and climbing on loose stones.