Concerns over the impact Cambodia’s booming tourism industry is having on historic sites were underscored on Tuesday when a South Korean holidaymaker posed for a photo with a statue near the famed Bayon temple, knocking the statue’s replica head to the ground, where it smashed into pieces.
Kim Jun-hong, a 22-year-old student, was travelling with a Christian tour group, according to APSARA Authority, which oversees the temples in Siem Reap’s Angkor Wat complex. Kim was detained, then released without being charged or fined.
He was also sent to a local hospital to be treated because, as the huge head of the statue shifted, he fell and the replica landed on his leg.
Im Sokrithy, an archaeologist and spokesman for the APSARA Authority, said Kim had asked his colleague to take a photo of him with the statue, “and he went to go hold the statue from behind, and maybe he slipped, I don’t know, but the head of the giant fell down and hurt [Kim’s] right knee, and the head broke as it hit the causeway.”
The statue is one of 54 “giants” lining one side of the southern gateway to the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which encloses the Bayon temple. The other half is a formation of gods of the same number.
“The head is made from cement; it is not the original,” Sokrithy added.
“In the 1980s, there was a lot of looting, so the Ministry of Culture brought the heads of the giants and gods of the South Gate into storage and made a replica from cement to put back.
“This is the reason there are replicas,” he said of the broken head. “They can fall easily because they are cement and the body is stone so they don’t affix properly.”
All the cement heads will ultimately be removed and replaced with sandstone replicas, as they are destroying the stone bodies, he said.
The incident is a fresh reminder of an old problem. As tourist visits to the ancient sites continue to rise, ease of accessibility and the sheer volume of people passing through have made the ageing structures more prone to wear and tear.
Kerya Chau Sun, APSARA Authority spokeswoman, said that damage from visitors to the temples at Angkor Wat is not uncommon, but that this was the first major incident she could remember this year.
“Of course, this is not an isolated incident. But this kind of destruction … has not happened before this year,” she said.
“But in general, some statues, stones and temple walls are affected when tourists don’t take care.”
Chau Sun added that Kim had been released because he had not intentionally damaged the statue.
“So we allowed him to go free and concluded the case without fining him. But we will make the tour company promise that it must guide their customers to be careful around ancient statues,” she said.
APSARA later met with a representative of the Cheon First Church, Chois Suchel, and their tour guide, Lee Yong-chan of the Korea Best Tour Company. Both apologised, according to the APSARA statement.
Chau Sun added that tour companies would be asked to attend a “workshop” where guidelines on how tourists under their watch must behave would be taught.
Dr Thuy Chanthuon, deputy director of the Institute of Culture and Arts at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said authorities should create better signage and clearer paths for tourists to stick to when exploring the temples.
“I think that if people can walk all over the complex as they please, statues will be easily broken,” he said.
Siem Reap received 1.2 million foreign visitors from January to June, up slightly more than 10 per cent from the same period last year, as well as 1.3 million local visitors. Income at the Angkor Wat site increased by more than 14 per cent last year compared with 2012.