The chocolate Bayon, and other stories

The chocolate Bayon, and other stories

2 khmer arts ensemble dancers

There’s a Tom Waits song called Chocolate Jesus which ran through my mind when we came up with the idea for this cover.

“Don’t go to church on Sunday

Don’t get on my knees to pray

Don’t memorize the books of the Bible

I got my own special way

Well it’s got to be a chocolate Jesus

Make me feel good inside.”

So too our cover star this week: the chocolate Bayon temple, melting away under the feet of the millions of tourists who descend on the Angkor Wat complex each year. More than two million visited last year. That’s around the number that live in Phnom Penh, and around double the annual tourist count at Machu Pichu, which has put in place a daily cap but still been criticised for not doing enough.

Everyone’s got a ‘shame on tourism’ Angkor Wat story. They got up at the crack of dawn to see sunrise over Angkor only for the ancient ruins to be obscured by camera-snapping hordes and banner-waving tour guides. A monkey sighted holding a Coke can. Consumerism!

Some of it – there have been stories about groups of women turning up in bikinis – is truly grotesque. What’s even more awful is that, some argue, if it continues at this rate, there will be no Angkor Wat at all.  

We spoke to celebrated journalist and author Elizabeth Becker, whose new title Overbooked tackles the impact of the global travel industry and, specifically, its toll on the temples at Angkor Wat. She shared old memories and newer, deeply critical, opinions on what has happened since.

For a story of ancient Cambodian culture degraded, however, there are two of contemporary cultural triumph. Season of Cambodia festival underway in New York has been met with acclaim from the New York Times and
Wall Street Journal, among others. We spoke to the people involved about the highlights of the festival and what it means for the art scene back here.

We also heard how an increasing number of authors have decided to write about Cambodia or set their novels in the Kingdom.

Not surprising for those of us who live here. One of our writers is part-way through a year living with monks at a temple in Takeo, and has written a lively account of his time there so far, and the colourful collection of people he has met.

He got an inside view into the debates within the Buddhist community on how, as development in the country advances, there are new arguments about right and wrong.

If you’re wondering what happened to the chocolate Bayon after we photographed it for the cover, it took barely a minute for our staff to eat.

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