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When ancient glory meets modern tragedy
Angkor and the Khmer Rouge in contemporary tourism
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 skulls a tourist attraction just like Buddhist monasteries? Welcome to one of the most contradictory and fascinating places on the face of the earth: Welcome to Cambodia! (Introduction: 90 Days in Cambodia)2
Cambodia’s turbulent transition towards political stability and a free-market economy after a history of genocide, civil war, and foreign occupation has been signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced by an extraordinary growth in international tourism. Reconciliation along with cultural and economic rehabilitation have been urgent and simultaneous demands. The challenges facing Cambodia have been especially severe because of its need to restore a national identity shattered by prolonged conﬂict, the immense scale of the past to which that identity adheres and the dependence of the state on the tourist revenue from Angkor. In this context, tourism has not only played a pivotal role in molding the country’s heritage industry, but has also been instrumental in deﬁning and valuing what is Cambodian in a post-conﬂict era. For the vast majority of tourists who have traveled to the country since the early 1990s, an inherently complex cultural and social history spanning thousands of years has been dissolved into two overwhelmingly dominant, yet polarized, episodes: one modern and “tragic,” and the other ancient and “glorious.”3 Authors of television documentaries and guidebooks, not to mention numerous journalists and photographers, have all enjoyed 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 these two histories are far less polarized and disconnected than they initially appear. Indeed, this chapter sets out to illustrate how international tourism
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has created a socio-cultural milieu within which the Khmer Rouge and Angkor now continuously intersect, often shaping each other in mutually constitutive ways.4 The chapter concludes by brieﬂy reﬂecting upon how such a tourism industry has shaped processes of economic development, nationalism, and the country’s cultural landscape since the beginning of the 1990s.
Eddie (50s, American, 10-day package to Thailand and Cambodia): If somebody says Cambodia, what do you think of, the killing ﬁelds or Angkor Wat, there is nothing else that comes to mind. Yukio (50, Japanese, 3-day tour to Bangkok and Siem Reap): Yes I heard of Angkor Wat, but all I knew about Cambodia was that it was dangerous, that’s all I knew.5 To date, studies of tourism in Cambodia have essentially fallen within the remit of policy, and received little or no academic attention. Cambodia’s post-conﬂict tourism industry has undoubtedly been both shaped and hindered by the country’s grossly inadequate social and physical infrastructures. Roads, airports, hotels, and the range of skills required for a hospitality industry have all required overhauling over the last decade or so. Given such demands, World Bank or UNESCO heritage management reports have principally discussed tourism in terms of facility provision or infrastructure development. In contrast, little attention has been given to the cultural artifacts produced and circulated by the travel and tourism industry and the role they play in shaping broader social processes such as Cambodia’s socioeconomic 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—to explore the ways in which the country is (re)presented to, framed by, and known by, today’s international visitor. Together, these four themes explore notions of place, culture, and history in metaphorical, metonymical, and literal terms. The chapter speciﬁcally focuses on the connections between the symbolic economies of tourism and the material realities of actually being a tourist in the country. This approach, referred to by Crouch (2005) as “embodied semiotics,” analytically juxtaposes a diverse range of representations and narratives—including hotel interiors, Hollywood ﬁlms, or decades of television news coverage—with the various ways in which tourists talk about and actually encounter the country. Pursuing such an analysis reveals how—despite being separated by hundreds of years and providing the country with two vastly different historical legacies—the Khmer Rouge and Angkor periods do not merely converge but actually fold through and re-cast one another within a socio-cultural landscape of con-
When ancient glory meets modern tragedy 39 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 45111 temporary tourism. The chapter also argues that the dominant framings and representations of Cambodia as a tourist destination are non-Cambodian. While the Royal Government’s Ministry of Tourism has consistently produced a range of promotional material since the mid-1990s, its impact remains minimal in comparison to the consistently pervasive inﬂuence of travel writing or guidebooks and television channels such as Lonely Planet or Discovery Channel. The ﬁnal section of the chapter reﬂects upon the wider social impact of such tourism dynamics. Themes explored in the preceding four sections are brought together to illustrate the various ways in which tourism-related representations and framings inﬂuence highly charged issues such as national identity, patterns of socioeconomic development, and the transmission of the past through forms of material and non-material culture. It will be seen that urban architecture, imbalances in infrastructure development, the priorities of a national heritage industry, and the broader social fabric of Cambodia itself have all responded to the ways in which Cambodia has become framed and encountered as a post-conﬂict tourist destination.
Deep in the jungle
Anticipating Angkor, A Dream Deferred Some people are suckers for lost cities. I am. I’ve sought out, among others, Machu Picchu, Pompeii, Petra, Ephesus, Karnak and Uxmal. But Angkor, the jungle-covered capital of the ancient Khmer civilization in Cambodia, has always seemed to me the Mother of All Lost Cities . . . The romance of its ‘discovery’ and exploration by the French in the mid-19th Century was part of Angkor’s glamour . . . Sometimes I just sat trying to contemplate cosmology and civilization, or trying to pretend I was Henri Mouhot, who came upon the ruins in 1861. (New York Times, July 21, 2002)6 Angkor’s re-emergence as Cambodia’s principal tourist attraction in the last decade has been characterized by a small number of dominant framings. In addition to being seen as the premier World Heritage Site of Southeast Asia, it has also come to be seen as the quintessential ruin. Despite being comprised of numerous temples, rivers, monasteries, and villages, the 400-square-kilometer site has been consistently represented through a small repertoire of iconic images. Postcards, travel agent brochures, coffee table books, and even the 2001 Hollywood ﬁlm Tomb Raider shot at Angkor, have all consistently portrayed the site as a deserted landscape, void of modern intrusions (see Winter 2003). In the few instances where people are represented, they are invariably orange-robed
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monks or elderly villagers engaged in spiritual acts. In essence, Angkor is merely a landscape of ruinous stone structures entwined with vegetation and an ever encroaching “jungle.” This notion of the ruin has a very speciﬁc genealogy. Within a context of mid-nineteenth-century European travel and colonial endeavor, a narrative of Angkor “discovered” in the jungle by the French botanist Henri Mouhot emerged. As Mouhot’s diaries circulated, ﬁrst across French archaeological circles and subsequently across Europe, his account of abandoned antiquities lost in the jungle and awaiting reclamation provided the political mileage for further exploration and intervention in the region (Edwards 2006). Today the various cultural artifacts of the tourism industry have become the media through which this notion of lost ruin is transmitted into the contemporary. Late-nineteenth-century engravings of Angkor are reprinted as postcards, battered suitcases become the objet d’art of hotels, and quotes from the diaries of early travelers frame the narrative of early-twenty-ﬁrst-century guidebooks and newspaper articles. At the heart of this historical transmission is romance. The ﬁgure of André Malraux, despite being arrested for looting one of Angkor’s temples in 1923, provides the theme for numerous hotel suites by personifying a golden age of luxury travel. The romance and nostalgia for an Indochina of the past being channeled through Angkor today has perhaps reached a zenith of simulacra in various new luxury hotels in Siem Reap. One in particular, the Victoria Angkor Hotel, has been extensively decorated with antique inkstands, photographs, binoculars, and other artifacts in an attempt to evoke a romanticized vision of the “Far East.” In describing the concept, the hotel manager explained: “we wanted people who would walk in to feel as if this was not a hotel, but one of those grand Indochina homes from the 1930s, whose owner had traveled through Asia and collected objects.”7 Pivotal to the hotel’s concept is the idea of temples hidden in the jungle. In addition to a suite named after Angkor’s iconic partial ruin, Ta Prohm, the hotel is lined with paintings of jungle-ridden, overgrown architecture. Far from isolated, this “imagineering” of Angkor lies within a rich landscape of tourism tropes—including souvenirs, postcards, and themed restaurants—all communicating the idea that Cambodia’s most important historical artifacts still lie buried in the jungle. Somewhat paradoxically, the jungle also acts as a repository for romanticized visions of Cambodia’s more recent history. In his eclectic analysis of how landscape features take on particular collective memories, Simon Schama (1995) illustrates how the forest has been allegorically associated with hiding, darkness, and evil. Accordingly, for many tourists arriving from outside Southeast Asia today, the forest—re-inscribed and exoticized as jungle—serves as a metaphor for a Cambodia imagined in terms of a political “other.” Even the very moment of arrival can be imbued with these very feelings:
When ancient glory meets modern tragedy 41 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 45111 Val (50s, American, Thailand and Cambodia for three weeks): as we were ﬂying in I expected to see much more jungle out of the plane window. Thick jungle. I guess I imagined it that way from all the Vietnam War ﬁlms you see. I imagined all of this region to be like that, it’s known as a place of guerrilla, jungle warfare. Many visitors arrive in Cambodia today with a rudimentary, but perhaps less than detailed, understanding of the atrocities inﬂicted by the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s. In addition to knowing about the infamous topography of the Cambodian “killing ﬁelds,” visitors also often arrive with an awareness that the country’s cities were evacuated by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and that as the regime ceded power throughout the 1980s, ﬁghting continued across remote western provinces. As with Angkor, a popular memory of the Khmer Rouge seems to have formed around an imagining of the jungle; a vision of landscape where evil has hidden, fought, lost, and eventually taken political refuge: Natalie (55, Italian, traveling in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia for two months): When I said in Italy that I go to Cambodia people say “ah . . . be careful the Khmer Rouge are still waiting there in the jungle . . . there are bombs everywhere,” we were told this by all our friends. On occasions these two histories converge within a single narrative representation. Almost all guidebooks on Cambodia, for example, make reference to the looting of remote jungle-hidden temples by “communist guerrillas” or “Khmer Rouge guerrillas.” A similar theme runs through the 1979 ﬁlm Apocalypse Now, which has become a “must see” for many visitors planning a trip to Southeast Asia today. Put brieﬂy, the ﬁlm tells the story of the assassination of a renegade American soldier who sets himself up as a leader of a mysterious tribe dedicated to the worship of Angkorean-style statuary deep in the Cambodian jungle. Mirroring Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the ﬁlm conﬂates the ancient and the modern of Cambodian history within a landscape of rivers and impenetrable jungle: an aesthetic that lingers today:8 Barry (33, Australian, visiting Southeast Asia for one month): I had the idea that the whole of Southeast Asia was dense jungle, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam . . . and that would be from movies, Apocalypse Now, Predator, from Vietnam war and other jungle type movies. With things, ruins, out there to really explore you know. Stuart (20s, English, two-month trip to Thailand and Cambodia): I expected more jungle in the temples, I think I was expecting more TV jungle. That’s what we were brainwashed to be expecting. We saw Sylvester Stallone carrying his M16 through that jungle, hacking away with his machete, swinging through the vines.
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Interestingly, the very same juxtaposition of exploration and danger also forms the basis of the narrative for documentary makers for TV channels such as the Discovery channel and the National Geographic channel. One documentary in particular, combines the archaeological exploration of lost Angkorean structures with the perils of landmine clearance in order to add a sense of mystique and drama to what would otherwise be a mundane scholarly pursuit, as the following program description illustrates: In the late 1960s war took a murderous grasp on Cambodia and didn’t let go for 30 years. The temples of Angkor were lost to the jungle. During the war years Cambodia was littered with unexploded ordinance and landmines . . . In this program, anthropologist Charles Higham and guide Sokhorn Sin travel to Northern Cambodia to explore the temples around Koh Ker . . . Dr Higham explores seven temples, one of which has not been demined, and brings his unique expertise to bear on them. The program also discusses the demining process, showing how it is done, and witnessing the detonation of some live landmines.9 This account neatly illustrates how Cambodia’s “history” has come to be encapsulated within a single vision of landscape. Continually romanticized and mythologized as either terra incognita or a site of lurking danger, the jungle serves as a metaphor that powerfully conveys a mysterious and “dark” past. For today’s visitor, the ever-present promise of hidden architectural treasures also carries a risk of exploration. Whether it be close to Angkor’s well-trodden temples or in “remote” provinces along the Thai border, the jungle both lures and repels tourists in emotional, cognitive, and corporal ways. As we shall see shortly, this has major implications for the geographical distribution of tourism development across the country. In the meantime, the following section introduces the idea of the well-trodden path in order to illuminate how this imagined geography is subjectively negotiated by tourists.
The well-trodden path
These days, Cambodia is not necessarily the most dangerous place in the world, or not even a nasty place, but it is an exotic, very inexpensive stop that every traveler to Asia should make. Is it safe? Well if you stay inside the tourist ruts (literally), don’t venture outside the ill-deﬁned safety zone and watch your step, Cambodia can be safe. Cambodia can also be brutal if you pass through the invisible safety barrier and end up in the hands of the Khmer Rouge . . . One tourist can ﬂy into Phnom Penh and Siem Reap on a modern jet, stay in a ﬁve star hotel, and see the temple complex, complete with ice cold Pepsis, an air conditioned car and a good meal. Another tourist can
When ancient glory meets modern tragedy 43 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 45111 ﬁnd himself kneeling at the edge of a shallow, hastily dug grave, waiting for the riﬂe butt that will slam into his cortex, ending his brief but adventurous life. The difference between the two scenarios might be 10km or lingering a few too many minutes along the road. (W. Fielding’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places, 1998)10 It was suggested above that the re-working of a French colonial history has placed the idea of exploration at the heart of Angkorean tourism. Events in recent history have also led to a strong touristic narrative around the idea of exploring a country that is once again “opening up.” In such a context Cambodia is a land of discovery, a frontier territory, a place embattled by war and political turmoil. Thanatourism—travel oriented around sites of war and genocide—has received considerable academic attention in recent years (Adams 2001; Lennon and Foley 2000). This theme is pursued further here via the notion of the well-trodden path, an element of landscape that is simultaneously kept to, and left, both in metaphorical and literal ways. An omnipresent feature of all guidebooks on Cambodia and Angkor is a “Warning, Landmines!” section. Although the text of these sections is tempered with each new edition as more sites are cleared, readers are commonly advised to “not stray from well-marked paths under any circumstances” (Robinson and Wheeler 1992: 47). Not surprisingly, the very real danger presented by unexploded ordinance has charged many visits to Angkor with feelings of apprehension and fear: Ming (44, Chinese, in Cambodia for three days): Everything I heard about Cambodia was like . . . stick to the path, do the safe things, it has that reputation of landmines, Khmer Rouge, danger. Michiko (60s, Japanese, two-day tour to Siem Reap via Bangkok): We talked to the villagers. They wanted to show us where their village was. We thought about it but we were too worried about landmines to wander off. Michiko’s response illustrates how a call to explore can be countered by a rational voice of caution. For many, though, the very allure of Angkor directly arises from the close proximity of fear and trepidation, and a desire to unearth the secrets of the jungle: Jacqueline (60, French, fourteen-day group tour of Vietnam and Cambodia): We did not adventure ourselves into the jungle, we wanted to, it feels slightly dangerous. Aren’t there animals, snakes in there? And there was no pathway marked. It’s true there are landmines! Our guide advised us not to go off the bigger tracks because there are still some landmines.
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Interestingly, this emotional tension has now become embedded within the narrative accounts of Angkor presented by local tour guides, as this excerpt from an interview with Sophong, a Siem Reap-based guide, illustrates: Sophong (23, resident of Siem Reap, full-time guide): Yes many Japanese tourists want to know what happened to Pol Pot. They always ask if the Khmer Rouge were hiding in the jungle, or in the libraries of Angkor Wat, which temples they mined. So I always talk about that now. They want to know if there are still mines in Angkor, it’s interesting for them I think. For certain visitors to Cambodia, the hidden danger of millions of unexploded landmines generates far more than merely a passing interest counterbalanced by a sense of caution. Since the early 1990s, a game of cat and mouse has been played between de-mining agencies and adventure-seeking tourists. Working geographically outwards from the Angkor world heritage park, bodies such as the Halo Trust and the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) have endeavored to make numerous temple complexes—including Beng Melea, Koh Ker, and Banteay Chmaar—safe and accessible. The interweaving of travelogues and guidebooks with the more ephemeral, but equally potent, circuit of backpacker tales has created an imagining of the Cambodian countryside bound up in the romance of un-chartered, danger-ridden, territories (see Figure 3.1). It is not only unexploded ordinance that lies in wait; tales of expeditions to remote and dangerous, jungle-buried temples also await their intrepid authors. Sitting at the heart of this desire to “ﬂirt with space” (Crouch 2005) is the idea of kairos, where it is not only important to be (among) the ﬁrst to encounter a landscape, but also to be there at a particular moment in history: Marc (29, Belgian, Thailand and Cambodia for one week): We like to travel to places after there has been some kind of insurrection, we thought Cambodia was stabilizing a bit too fast and if you don’t come here quickly it will be a normal country and boring. We want a sense of danger, not actual danger. We don’t want actual danger, just perceived danger, and exploring all these remote temples gives you that feeling. Implicit here is a broader reading of the country as a whole. Cambodia represents an opportunity to “explore” a place that has yet to be incorporated into the heavily populated tourist circuits of neighboring Thailand, Malaysia, and even, to some extent, Vietnam. More speciﬁcally, Marc’s response illustrates how there is a seduction of place in Cambodia’s landscapes, both rural and urban, built around leaving the well-trodden path of international tourism. In order to mark this spatial transition, both guidebooks and tourists alike commonly present Cambodia’s border crossings
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Figure 3.1 Postcard available in Phnom Penh, 2003
Monument Books Publishing, Phnom Penh.
as not merely territorial boundaries, but as frontiers of wilderness and danger involving a rite of passage. To quote Marc again: Marc: I have wanted to come here for years, a friend of ours came here in 1995 and was telling us how the road is dangerous, and if you take the train it will get hijacked, so in my head I have all these maps. For me the border town of Poipet is a name that is utterly dangerous, my friend came across it by accident and he survived certain death . . . Dani (30, Belgian, partner of Marc): It is now you’re telling me all this! In our guide books it says you cannot go anywhere apart from the temples. I was very scared, and we think it’s the same thing for Phnom Penh. Marc’s account indicates the allure Cambodia holds as a place of insurrection and danger. Sales of T-shirts emblazoned with images of military ordinance or the words “I survived Cambodia” illustrate how this framing is communicated to, and thus circulates across, the broader touristic community (see Figure 3.2). However, while the quest for adventure and risk often seems largely unabated for many young (male) travelers, other
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visitors—including, it seems, Dani as she learns more—see Cambodia as a series of landscapes where desires for exploration are more tempered by concerns for personal safety: Neal (45, American, trip to Thailand and Angkor, in Cambodia for two days): I had the feeling a guide would be assigned to you, the government would be watching what you’re doing, that you had to stay on the paths and that you couldn’t linger anywhere. I was even told to stay on the path in Angkor. They were kind of left over ideas, from American TV, because of the Khmer Rouge, that kind of thing. Alex (32, German, living in Singapore, in Cambodia for three days): Cambodia’s dangerous, for sure. We heard even around Angkor it’s not safe, landmines, old Khmer Rouge cronies. We were recommended by friends, that to be safe, take a guide, see the temples and get the hell out of here. So that’s what we’re doing. Considered together, these various responses once again indicate how visions of an ancient Angkor have become deeply infused with narratives of
Figure 3.2 T-shirts on sale in Phnom Penh market
Photo by Tim Winter.
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Revival and restoration
Inherent to the idea of history lying in the jungle is the notion of decline. A key part of Angkor’s allure as a tourist destination today relates to its fall and supposed abandonment in the mid-ﬁfteenth century, a narrative that, once again, can be traced back to the diaries of Henri Mouhot. As Edwards (2006) extensively illustrates, the publication of Mouhot’s account of “discovering” Angkor in 1860 would come to play a pivotal role in shaping France’s political strategies in Indochina. Instrumental in molding Angkor as a socio-political totem unifying the cultural, ethnic and nationalistic histories of an emergent Cambodge, France would encapsulate the restoration of former glories within the larger political agenda of forming a protectorate. Reframed as “national” monument, Angkor symbolized a nation in ruins, and the provision of restoration expertise in the form of the French conservation school, the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) would be closely tied to the idea of “restoring” the political strength of early-twentieth-century Cambodge. In other words, moving far beyond merely an architectural enterprise, the reconstruction of temples was imbued with hopes of social and political restitution for a country threatened by conﬂict and potential subjugation from either side. Interestingly, this bond between architectural and socio-political reconstruction would powerfully re-appear after the turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s. Designated as one of the world’s most endangered World Heritage Sites, Angkor would become the recipient of a huge program of aid, with organizations from more than twenty countries offering assistance. Given that Cambodia had suffered one of the most brutal social experiments inﬂicted upon a nation in the twentieth century, restoration of a common cultural heritage was, understandably, seen as a vital part of societal reconstruction. Ongoing international media coverage of Angkor’s desecration and purloin would also ensure this convergence of cultural and socio-political restitution emerged as a prevalent theme within tourism. The following thoughts left in the visitors book provided by the World Monument Fund at the Preah Khan temple complex indicate the role such a theme plays in the way many tourists reﬂect upon their visit to Angkor:
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Tim Winter Naoya (Japan): It has been my dream to come to Angkor for a long time and ﬁnally I have come. I have felt a strong need for the restoration work you do. It is very important for this poor country and for everyone. Dominique (France): We are so glad this country is now open to tourists, it allows us all to beneﬁt from the splendor. Your efforts to repair and protect this magniﬁcent temple are important for this sad country and the entire world. Katia (Canada): Hoping that these marvels will give visitors and humanity the will to live in harmony. The temples should counterbalance the destruction wrought by the Khmer Rouge. Keep up the good work and feel proud.
Angkor’s omnipotence within Cambodian history and sense of national identity would also mean efforts to rehabilitate more contemporary, vernacular, or non-material cultural forms would frequently seek their validity through an association with past glories. Not surprisingly, this connection invariably emerged because of the potential presented by a rapidly expanding tourism industry primarily trading upon the site’s global fame. In this respect, tourism initiated a conﬂation of histories, where the ancient and modern converged within a single narrative of cultural rejuvenation. Crucially, however, the all-too-familiar cultural logics of the tourism industry meant that the legacy of Pol Pot would principally gravitate around the recovery of those traditions or knowledges that could be performed, wrapped or photographed. Take dance for example. Edwards (2001, 2002) has argued that “classical Khmer” dance played an important role in symbolically connecting latenineteenth-century Cambodge with a former Angkorean period. Strongly reminiscent of the carved apsaras lining numerous temples, the dancer represented an embodied and nationalized manifestation of a templed landscape. Today, with the apsara dance now installed as the obligatory cultural performance for visitors to the country, those values have been re-politicized through tourism. Typically introduced as either the “authentic Angkorean,” “traditional Khmer,” or “classical Cambodian” dance, its ubiquity also stems from its metonymic status within a process of national and cultural recovery. Captured within a richly costumed aesthetic of timeless beauty and grace, performances by young dancers involve abstract and unfathomable histories of war and genocide being feminized, domesticated and transformed into a narrative of progress and hope. In addition to dance, the kudos and historical legitimacy attained by associating “endangered” cultural forms with ancient glories has also led to the restoration of Cambodia’s artisan skills being dominated by certain textile or stone and wood-carving industries. As Dahles and ter Horst illustrate in their chapter on the silk industry, this has largely happened through
When ancient glory meets modern tragedy 49 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 45111 a non-governmental civil society deliberately targeting the tourist dollar as a way of marrying demands for community development with the rejuvenation of traditional arts and crafts. The now annual Angkor Silk Fair, along with the Siem Reap-based carving school Les Artisans d’Angkor, are two examples of a well-established landscape of organizations invoking a theme of restitution, a landscape capitalizing on the interweaving symbolic exchange values of Angkor and the Khmer Rouge within a contemporary economy of tourism.
In Cambodia today the grand narratives of the country’s history largely pass unquestioned. The sublime resplendency of an ancient past lies in stark contrast to the demonic inhumanity of modern times. Invariably, the construction of these two historical narratives centers upon the idea of a political elite. As the master creator of some of Angkor’s most magniﬁcent structures, including Bayon and Ta Prohm, Jayavarman VII is now widely revered and celebrated as the apogee of Khmer history. Conversely, the name Pol Pot has become synonymous with an era of evil, destruction, and brutality. While the polarization of the two ﬁgures is—or would appear to be—entirely natural, it does, however, mask certain parallels. Closer attention reveals that both leaders shared agrarian-based ideologies requiring the mobilization of vast amounts of enslaved labor. More speciﬁcally, in pursuing their respective ambitions, both forged a social structure around a framework of communitarian politics. A quest for omnipotent power also meant their leaderships were characterized by strong megalomaniac tendencies, traits that, unsurprisingly, contributed to their downfall. Despite Pol Pot’s claims of returning Cambodia to “year zero,” signiﬁcant elements of his radical ideology drew inspiration from a vision of a glorious Angkor. In his examination of the party speeches of Democratic Kampuchea, Chandler indicates how the temples were cited as an example of the power of mobilized labor and “national grandeur which could be re-enacted in the 1970s” (1996b: 246). An attempt to reproduce Angkor’s irrigation technology would, however, lead to horriﬁc consequences for the population (Barnett 1990). Interestingly, international tourism is one context where such parallels are simultaneously hidden and revealed. In essence, the two ﬁgures have come to personify their respective histories, linked by the common thread of megalomania, a theme that continually generates curiosity, awe, and feelings of disbelief among visitors to the country. These feelings are invariably compounded by the fact that such contrasting ﬁgures are presented within a single national history. Within Cambodia’s post-conﬂict tourism industry, Jayavarman VII remains a highly conspicuous motif. Depicted as the apogee of a Khmer civilization by both guidebooks and tour guides, his face also adorns
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numerous coffee-table souvenir books, postcards, and paintings. Most notably, however, is the predominance of his bust as the deﬁnitive souvenir of a visit to Angkor. Countless shelves in market stalls and souvenir shops across Siem Reap and Phnom Penh are burdened by the weight of tens of thousands of miniature stone carvings. A weighty, yet portable, replica of Jayavarman VII promises an enduring connection for tourists between the very materiality of Angkor’s temples and the stories of empires and kingdoms received from guides and guidebooks. Clearly, the circulation of such imagery serves to commemorate Jayavarman VII as the megalomaniac leader of an exalted monumental culture. In the case of Pol Pot, however, this celebratory tone is replaced with a quest for understanding, explanation, and a certain level of fascination in the macabre. Rather than ﬁlling the glossy pages of coffee-table books, Pol Pot is more commonly consumed in the form of dense biographies written by university-based academics or journalists. Along with the ubiquitous Lonely Planet guide, these books have come to dominate the rampant pirate publishing industry that has sprung up around the tourism industry in the last decade. As Wood extensively illustrates in his chapter here, Pol Pot’s death in 1998 heralded the beginning of Anlong Veng’s rise as an international tourist destination. Located in the far north of the country, the town has steadily attracted a growing number of adventure tourists hoping to see the house and grave of a notorious despot. The localized tourism infrastructure now includes a market where tourists can purchase old Khmer Rouge uniforms, grainy video CD documentaries or spent bullet cartridges as evidence of a trip to Pol Pot’s ﬁnal resting place. The Ministry of Tourism plans to develop a package tour combining trips to Angkor and Anlong Veng will also mean Cambodia’s two histories of megalomania will soon be consumed either side of lunch.11 Considered together, the examples provided here illustrate how both Angkor and the Khmer Rouge weave in and out of a landscape of contemporary tourism that focuses on a megalomaniac political elite. The ﬁnal part of this chapter turns to consider some of the broader societal implications arising from the convergence and interweaving of these two histories within tourism.
The consequences of tourism
L’histoire Café (8am-11pm) Experience the Khmer Rouge lifestyle. Staff Dressed in KR uniform. Khmer Rouge Meals, drinks and the unforgettable Songs. Traditional Khmer show from 5 to 11pm. St. 130 (in front of Tuol Sleng Museum)12
When ancient glory meets modern tragedy 51 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 45111 As one of Cambodia’s biggest industries today, tourism has become instrumental in driving the reclamation of traditions, which invariably accompanies modernity, urbanization, and (post-) industrialization. An era of isolation and “erasure,” immediately followed by an extraordinary level of global interest and investment, has produced extreme and seemingly contradictory processes. Located at the heart of a highly interconnected and competitive regional tourism industry, the Royal Government has sought to foster wealth and development by branding the country around classical glories. The continual adoption of Angkor’s iconic temples by the state and wider Cambodian tourism industry does, however, reﬂect a much deeper anxiety to re-establish vital cultural, ethnic, and national identity markers devastated by decades of turmoil. The prevalence of Jayavarman VII—a situation that can be traced back to early-twentieth-century French historiography—illustrates how tourism is providing a vehicle for this process. Given that the demonic ﬁgure of Pol Pot still very much resides within the nation’s living memory, Jayavarman VII’s megalomania represents a source of much needed pride and strength. In a country seeking out past glories, Jayavarman embodies a history beyond deprecation. This situation, however, raises major questions concerning identity constructions and a state nationalism rooted in a static, if not timeless, vision of a glorious past. As the Cambodian government carves out a brand in such terms to proﬁt from the global tourist dollar, it risks trapping the country in a mono-cultural, monolithic, unchanging, and inﬂexible identity. The combination of this anxiety to reclaim former glories with the touristic interweaving of the Angkor and Khmer Rouge eras also serves to “erase” the six hundred years of history in between. With Angkor dominating a post-conﬂict heritage industry, signiﬁcantly less attention and funding has been given to other aspects of the country’s socio-cultural past, an issue explored in greater detail by Robert Turnbull here. Despite recent efforts by bodies such as UNESCO to address this situation, tourism is contributing to the imbalance.13 Not only is it not helping to ﬁll these gaps, tourism is actively reinforcing the idea that there is little social or cultural history capable of ﬁlling the present voids and ruptures. The distillation of Khmer performance arts around the apsara dance, and material culture around “traditional silks” or replicas of Jayavarman VII illustrates this point. Moreover, as Turnbull highlights, the ongoing destruction of a cultural heritage associated with the vibrant years after Cambodia achieved independence is passing largely unnoticed in times of rapid urban regeneration and with a national heritage industry consumed by ancient temples. It should be stated that the one exception to the historical vacuum argument advanced here is the French colonial period. Nonetheless, as we have seen, beyond the restoration of certain buildings in Phnom Penh, the memory of this episode is principally driven by its connections with Angkor. Somewhat problematically, such nostalgia for a golden era of
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European jungle exploration and discovery contrived for touristic consumption romanticizes, aestheticizes and strips Cambodia’s history of all its contradictions, political conﬂicts, and complexities. More speciﬁcally, the notion of a lost civilization reclaimed from the jungle and restored by foreign experts has created a situation whereby indigenous perspectives of that period are in danger of being denied or overlooked. This issue holds particular pertinence for a country that has faced major obstacles to the cultivation of a postcolonial voice capable of critically addressing that period of its history. Not surprisingly, critical reﬂections concerning the past have principally focused on more recent events. Although internationally sanctioned trials of Khmer Rouge leaders are vital to ascertaining a sense of accountability and retributive justice, a broader societal understanding of this infamous period, and the tumultuous years either side, remains in its early stages. Marschall (2004) has illustrated how South Africa’s attempts to promote social healing and negotiate a national memory through the erection of memorials and preservation of symbolically charged structures has been largely driven by tourism. Anlong Veng, landmine museums, the “killing ﬁelds” of Choeung Ek, as well as the Tuol Sleng genocide centre in Phnom Penh, all present similar “opportunities” for Cambodia. However, as we have seen in the contexts of Germany, Israel, and Japan the use of politically sensitive memorials and their touristic commodiﬁcation is inevitably fraught with tensions and dilemmas. Apart from the Ministerial proclamations cited by Wood in his chapter, the level of public discussion or detailed reﬂection concerning the role these sites can, and should, play in the construction of a social memory for both Cambodians and foreign visitors alike has remained extremely limited. Examples such as the Khmer Rouge-themed cafe noted above illustrate the risk of this traumatic history being fetishized for lurid consumption. In a society characterized by high levels of illiteracy, it is important that careful attention is given to the ways in which material culture and heritage can simultaneously memorialize tyrannical megalomania, but also allow a population to cultivate “the art of forgetting” (Forty and Küchler 2001). The conﬂation of Cambodia’s history into two particular episodes, and the resultant idea that great voids and barren periods lie in between, has its spatial parallel in the geographical distribution of tourism. For the last decade or so the international tourist dollar has been a vital engine of socioeconomic growth for the country. While Phnom Penh and Siem Reap have been the clear beneﬁciaries of this booming industry, the discursive rendering of the Cambodian countryside as jungle has helped forge the idea that these urban centers are “highlights” surrounded by a barren landscape, devoid of any attractions. Moreover, the commonly held notion among tourists that leaving the well-trodden path comes with risk and danger in Cambodia is also stiﬂing the organic development of a more nationwide tourism industry. Since the beginning of the early 1990s, the
When ancient glory meets modern tragedy 53 1111 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9 20111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 40111 1 2 3 4 45111 average length of stay of tourists has failed to climb above a mere two and a half days (Ministry of Tourism 2003). Very little of the millions of dollars generated by tourism every year reaches the 85 percent or so of the country’s population that continue to live in the countryside today (Ministry of Planning 2003). In this respect, tourism is signiﬁcantly contributing to the major social ills arising from the country’s ever increasing wealth inequalities. By considering these various threads together, we can see that only those places, cultural forms, or moments of the past associated with either the Khmer Rouge or Angkor, and their points of intersection, get promoted and consumed within an environment of tourism. By implication, those areas that have fallen outside the cultural logics of Cambodia’s postconﬂict tourism industry remain neglected. International tourism is playing a major role in the country’s social and economic development. This chapter has attempted to offer some insights into that process and highlight a number of implications arising from an industry dominated by an unlikely partnership between ancient glory and modern tragedy.
1 I would like to extend my thanks and appreciation to Laavanya Kathiravelu, Keiko Miura, Thina Ollier, Nicola Piper, Jake Ramsey (FD), Amanda Summerscales, and Winnie Wong for reviewing earlier drafts of this chapter. 2 M. Stoessel (1999) 90 Days in Cambodia, July–October 1998; www.stoessel. ch/cambodia1.htm (accessed on December 12, 2005). 3 From the 140 semi-structured interviews I conducted with international tourists, the words “tragic” and “glorious” were the most commonly cited terms when discussing the Khmer Rouge and Angkor periods. 4 In using the term international tourism there is little attempt to claim this represents a global/universal account. The examples of media coverage presented here are an attempt to represent the framings and representations that have dominated tourism in the post-conﬂict era. As will be seen, excerpts from interviews with tourists spanning multiple countries, continents, and languages do suggest a strong sense of narrative and representational coherence. 5 These excerpts, and the ones that follow, are taken from interviews conducted with tourists in Siem Reap during 2000–01 and 2004. Lasting between two and three hours, interviews were semi-structured in nature, recorded on minidisk, and later transcribed. 6 See Rose 2002: 23. 7 See Cambodia Daily Weekend (2004) “Rebuilding a bygone era,” July 3–4, pp. 8–9. 8 See also Hartley 2002. 9 For further details see Guardians of Angkor, www.nationalgeographic.com. 10 R. Pelton, C. Aral and W. Dulles (1998) W. Fielding’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places, Redondo Beach CA: Fielding Worldwide. Cited in Adams 2003: 43. 11 For further details see A. Sipress (2004a) “Tourism Plans for the Khmer Rouge Site,” Washington Post, April 28. 12 Advert from Phnom Penh Eating and Drinking (2005), free guide, July– September, Phnom Penh: Cambodia Pocket Guide Co Ltd. 13 See for example UNESCO/Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (2004) Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Cambodia, Phnom Penh: UNESCO/Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
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