Pundits are split on how to tackle a spate of “offensive” naked photos taken by tourists at the Angkor Archaeological Park in recent weeks, with suggestions ranging from ignoring the antics to overhauling visitation to the World Heritage site.
In less than a month, the Kingdom has kicked out seven foreigners for public nudity, including two American sisters and three French tourists who, in separate cases, disrobed at different ancient temples in the Siem Reap complex and posed for pictures.
Further, the Apsara Authority, which manages the archaeological site and has vowed to boost security in response, is investigating two more sets of naked pictures taken amid the ruins, including one captioned “hakuna matata” that features a naked couple wearing animal masks.
Citing a past trend to flash while on rides at theme parks, professor of tourism at Queensland’s James Cook University Philip Pearce suggested ignoring the fad would see it die out.
“Maybe not immediately, but more cheaply than security guard use,” he added.
But Elizabeth Becker, former Cambodia correspondent and author of Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel Tourism, disagreed.
“This is not a theme park, and you do not allow this,” said Becker, who recently spoke at the UNWTO/UNESCO World Conference on Tourism and Culture in Siem Reap.
“This is Cambodia, and if Angkor, which is so much the embodiment of what Cambodians think of themselves, is starting to be treated by foreigners like a theme park, Cambodia’s in trouble.”
Sometimes called “naked tourism”, nude shots by travellers featuring well-known monuments aren’t exclusive to Cambodia.
Last year, Peru’s Ministry of Culture began cracking down on tourists stripping down and streaking at the 15th-century Inca site Machu Picchu.
Pearce said disrespect for local culture was indicative of less-experienced travellers, while taking nude travel shots spoke “predominantly to the need to proclaim difference and identity”.
“It is a ‘clever’ twist on the theme of achievement and ‘I am/have been here statements by also proclaiming I am liberated and can break the rules in an exotic place,” Pearce said via email.
Becker said the incidents should serve as a “wake-up call” to authorities to consider better regulating visitors at the site, which, according to official figures, saw more than 2 million tourists last year.
She suggested seriously studying the park’s visitor capacity and looking at ways to improve the flow of people through the site, including introducing electric trams.
“It’s not a question of restrictions, it’s a question of preserving this amazing sacred space, these are temples; this is not Disneyland.”
The president of Cambodia’s Association of Travel Agents, Ang Kim Eang, suggested more education for visitors about local customs and laws, including information at hotels and tourist sites.
“Awareness is very important,” he said. “Not just about culture but also the law. [Public nudity] is prohibited by the law.”
But Greg Richards, a professor of leisure studies at the Netherlands' Tilburg University who has researched local backlash against naked foreigners in Barcelona, warned against any further laws if the incidents don’t die down, instead suggesting grassroots action such as publicising local customs through tourism operators.
“I guess with more tourism and more tourists taking selfies, there’s almost bound to be more naked pictures appearing,” he said, via email.
Far from being harmless fun, the behaviour was deeply offensive to Khmer culture, said National Museum director Kong Virak, echoing previous statements made by the Apsara Authority.
“If I went into a Catholic Church and did the same thing, how would people feel?” Virak, who welcomed the beefed-up security, asked.
“This is not just an archaeological site but a live site where many Cambodians go to worship, it is a sacred place and foreigners have to respect our culture.”
Gareth Butler, humanities lecturer at Flinders University in South Australia, said the consequences of being caught, particularly deportation, were probably enough to deter most, but not all, people from taking naked photos at Angkor.
“There will be some that will see this as an even more enticing challenge,” he said.