One of the world's most celebrated temples is threatened with oblivion, as its ancient stones crumble from the sheer weight of tourism. Rob Sharp reports from Cambodia on a cultural jewel that has become too popular for its own good
Heritage site in peril
At first glance, it is business as usual at the great sandstone temple of Angkor Wat. Through a drape of evening haze, the ancient Cambodian superstructure sees another batch of tourists process across its moat and marvel at its grandeur. Local teenagers waggle cool drinks in the faces of passers-by and auto-rickshaw or "tuk- tuk" drivers loudly vie for business. It looks like what it is - a boom town.
But the modern commercial success of the high-profile complex, on the site of the ancient city of Angkor, may be - literally - on shaky ground.
According to heritage experts carrying out restoration work at the temple, which is one of the biggest sets of religious ruins in the world, a plethora of new hotels, cashing in on the country's near-exponential rise in tourist numbers, is sapping gallons of water from beneath nearby urban areas. They say this could upset the delicate foundations on which Angkor Wat sits and could lead to parts of it - including its famous celestial apsara, or carved nymphs - taking an unheavenly tumble to earth.
Philippe Delanghe, the culture programme specialist at Unesco's Phnom Penh office, said this week: "There is a very important balance between the sand and water on which the temple is built. And if that balance is taken away then we might have trouble with collapse.
"The growth in the number of hotels around Angkor Wat has meant that more and more holes are being drilled into the earth to extract water from the water table. And this has profound consequences for this important mix.
"We saw something similar with the weakening of the stability of ruins in Indonesia two years ago, and there is the possibility that we will see something like this here." Mr Delanghe added that the long-term consequences of unstable ground beneath the monument could include cracked ceilings and falling pillars. "If it becomes so damaged then we will have no tourists," he added.
Locally, it is easy to see why comments such as these go down as badly as, say, a tumbling nymph. The temple, which is venerated enough to appear on the national flag, is the jewel in Cambodia's heritage crown. Not only is it in the best condition of any such structure at the Angkor site: it has been tightly linked with Cambodia's history for nearly a millennium. It is thought to have been built as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II (who died in 1152) to honour Vishnu, the Hindu deity with whom he identified. The sandstone blocks from which it was constructed were quarried more than 30 miles away and floated down the Siem Reap river. Recent research suggests that Angkor - of which this temple was surely the centrepiece - was an urban settlement that covered some 700 square miles, comparable in size to Greater London, and therefore the world's largest medieval city.
With cultural attractions like this, it is little wonder that tourism is such an important source of revenue for the impoverished and (until 10 years ago) war-blighted nation. In many parts of Cambodia, a 100 annual income is still enough to live on.
In 1993, when Angkor was first added to Unesco's World Heritage List, the militant Khmer Rouge were still active in certain areas. Just 7,600 souls ventured to the temple complex that year. Since then, however, Cambodia has become "safe" in the eyes of the international community, and package tours have landed in fleets. In 2007, about two million tourists visited Cambodia, with half stopping at Angkor Wat. With tourist traffic continuing to increase by about 20 per cent year on year, some three million people are expected to visit the country in 2010. …