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Expressions of Cambodia: When ancient glory meets modern tragedy

Expressions of Cambodia: When ancient glory meets modern tragedy

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Published by kiletters

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Published by: kiletters on Jul 29, 2011
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3When ancient glory meetsmodern tragedy
Angkor and the Khmer Rouge incontemporary tourism
Tim Winter
1
Introduction
In which country can you stroll through the biggest temple in the world?In which country can you shoot a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and  play roulette with former Communist guerrillas? In which country are skullsa tourist attraction just like Buddhist monasteries? Welcome to one of themost contradictory and fascinating places on the face of the earth:
Welcometo Cambodia!
(Introduction:
90 Days in Cambodia
)
2
Cambodia’s turbulent transition towards political stability and a free-marketeconomy after a history of genocide, civil war, and foreign occupation has been significantly influenced by an extraordinary growth in internationaltourism. Reconciliation along with cultural and economic rehabilitation have been urgent and simultaneous demands. The challenges facing Cambodiahave been especially severe because of its need to restore a national iden-tity shattered by prolonged conflict, the immense scale of the past to whichthat identity adheres and the dependence of the state on the tourist revenuefrom Angkor. In this context, tourism has not only played a pivotal role inmolding the country’s heritage industry, but has also been instrumental indefining and valuing what is Cambodian in a post-conflict era.For the vast majority of tourists who have traveled to the country sincethe early 1990s, an inherently complex cultural and social history span-ning thousands of years has been dissolved into two overwhelminglydominant, yet polarized, episodes: one modern and “tragic,” and the other ancient and “glorious.”
3
Authors of television documentaries and guide- books, not to mention numerous journalists and photographers, have allenjoyed considerable stylistic mileage from juxtaposing the Khmer Rouge(1975–79) and Angkor (802–1431) eras as paradoxical, contradictory, and inherently ironic.Closer examination of such representations, however, reveals that thesetwo histories are far less polarized and disconnected than they initiallyappear. Indeed, this chapter sets out to illustrate how international tourism1111234567891011123111456789201111234567893011112345678940111123445111
 
has created a socio-cultural milieu within which the Khmer Rouge and Angkor now continuously intersect, often shaping each other in mutuallyconstitutive ways.
4
The chapter concludes by briefly reflecting upon howsuch a tourism industry has shaped processes of economic development,nationalism, and the country’s cultural landscape since the beginning of the 1990s.
Conceptualizing tourism
Eddie (
50s, American, 10-day package to Thailand and Cambodia
):If somebody says Cambodia, what do you think of, the killing fieldsor Angkor Wat, there is nothing else that comes to mind.Yukio (
50, Japanese, 3-day tour to Bangkok and Siem Reap
): Yes Iheard of Angkor Wat, but all I knew about Cambodia was that it wasdangerous, that’s all I knew.
5
To date, studies of tourism in Cambodia have essentially fallen within theremit of policy, and received little or no academic attention. Cambodia’s post-conflict tourism industry has undoubtedly been both shaped and hin-dered by the country’s grossly inadequate social and physical infrastructures.Roads, airports, hotels, and the range of skills required for a hospitalityindustry have all required overhauling over the last decade or so. Given suchdemands, World Bank or UNESCO heritage management reports have prin-cipally discussed tourism in terms of facility provision or infrastructuredevelopment. In contrast, little attention has been given to the cultural arti-facts produced and circulated by the travel and tourism industry and the rolethey play in shaping broader social processes such as Cambodia’s socio-economic development or post-war nationalistic anxieties.In response, this chapter offers four analytical themes— 
the lure of the jungle; the well-trodden path; revival and restoration; megalomania
 —toexplore the ways in which the country is (re)presented to, framed by, and known by, today’s international visitor. Together, these four themes explorenotions of place, culture, and history in metaphorical, metonymical, and lit-eral terms. The chapter specifically focuses on the connections between thesymbolic economies of tourism and the material realities of actually beinga tourist in the country. This approach, referred to by Crouch (2005) as“embodied semiotics,” analytically juxtaposes a diverse range of represen-tations and narratives—including hotel interiors, Hollywood films, or decades of television news coverage—with the various ways in whichtourists talk about and actually encounter the country. Pursuing such ananalysis reveals how—despite being separated by hundreds of years and  providing the country with two vastly different historical legacies—theKhmer Rouge and Angkor periods do not merely converge but actually fold through and re-cast one another within a socio-cultural landscape of con-
1111234567891011123111456789201111234567893011112345678940111123445111
38
TimWinter

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