To become the 'Italy of Asia', Cambodia should preserve and promote all of its temples, not only its most famous ruin
Professor Sachchidanand Sahai, who has been carrying out research in the Southeast Asia for more than 40 years.
Bringing the past to life
Indian historian professor Sachchidanand Sahai has spent 40 years researching Southeast Asia. He is currently working to establish a foundation to survey and document the history of thousands of temples across Cambodia. He is the author of the books The Bayon of Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, A Glorious Era of Angkor Civilization. He also literate in Sanskrit, Khmer and Pali. Professor Sahai spoke to the Post’s Kay Kimsong.
CAMBODIA today is a politically small country, but in terms of culture Cambodia is the country with the richest resources in the region.
Cambodia could become the Italy of Europe. How? Well, the whole of Europe, but particularly Italy, has benefited - owes much of its development - to the income it makes from tourism. And how the tourism industry works in Italy is that even a small village is perceived to be, has been projected, as a tourist attraction.
Cambodia has renovated and targeted as a tourist attraction the great Angkor Thom, and there are maybe 50 temples inside the complex. But if you go into villages across Cambodia there are temples. UNESCO may not know, I may not know the name, but the villagers do, so now what is needed?
Cambodia could earn so much in the future if it is able to make all of Cambodia's temples into tourist destinations.
Even suppose you just want to go from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, there is Sambor Prey Kob in Kampong Thom and many other temples on the way, each with a unique and interesting history. Even within Siem Reap province itself, there are so many ruined temples, damaged, but still standing.
French scholars have catalogued 909 temples, but the whole of Cambodia has at least 2,000 temples, and each temple has a history.
Imagine somebody, a historian, travelling from Phnom Penh to Preah Vihear, stopping at temples all the way. They will need breakfast, dinner and accommodation.
The last four years I have only been interested in Angkor Thom, but now I am studying temples all over Cambodia. The idea is to try and learn the history of each of these small temples.
We know where some of the temples are, but we are traveling all over the country to find them, find the inscriptions, read them, write the temple history. Even sometimes when the inscriptions are broken, it is easy to read the story.
And I believe that it is this information, these stories, which could help Cambodia develop its temple tourism industry more.
Angkor is the dollar earner not only for Cambodia but for the whole of Southeast Asia. Cambodian policymakers need to understand this - I hope Cambodian policymakers can project Angkor in this light - Angkor needs to be linked to other tourist centers. In 10 years' time it will happen.
We have had a road rally from New Delhi to Angkor Wat in previous years. So we are moving fast to link India to Angkor.
But the most important thing is that we get villagers involved with the telling of the history of the temples, that they are able to read the inscriptions written by their ancestors.
We need to tell tourists the stories of the temples. But villagers I speak to often don't understand how the research I do could be applied, could be relevant to the tourism industry. I will explain.
Establish a small foundation to save all isolated temples that are decaying, which have interesting stories written on their walls.
This is not only to preserve their stories and the history of this country, but to preserve the future. Tourists will want to visit these temples.
With the small temples the idea is to protect the lives of the temples. You also create hundreds of small but beautiful sites of historical value which tourists will want to visit.
And preserving and opening up all these small temples would make Cambodia as a whole a more attractive tourism destination.
Cambodia is not only Siem Reap, temples are all over the nation, they are historically and economically valuable. They could be good sources of income. The only thing we must be careful about is the impact of the crowds.