Siem Reap struggles with growing pains

Siem Reap struggles with growing pains

As a teeming tourism industry steadily redefines the once sleepy

Siem Reap, efforts to manage the temples are increasingly interfering with daily

lives. To a growing minority, the panacea of steady growth looks more like a cure

worse than the disease.

E Ke, 59, lives near the military airport in Siem Reap province. He claims he is

not allowed to erect a new building on his land without paying a bribe to get permission

from the Apsara Authority.

Seung Kong, deputy director general for administraion of Apsara Authority.

Ke is among 50 families whose land lies inside an area designated as an historic

Angkor heritage site. The villagers are not allowed to build foundations for additional

stories and every new building has to be approved by the Apsara Authority (Authority

for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap). No one

has actually paid a bribe yet.

"I have been living here since Sangkum Reastr Niyum. I lived here through the

war, and have spent my life working and maintaining this house," Ke said. "Only

now does the Apsara Authority come here and want to control my land. Why?"

Ke and his neighbors flocked around Post staff members when interviewed on September

15, saying the law was good for the government and the rich, but not for the poor.

He said everyone in the country understood that to get permission from government

officials they needed to pay money.

"If we don't pay money to officials, we don't know how long we will have to

wait to get permission to build. We will have to live under the rain and the heat

of the sun," Ke said .

Chap Nhalyvud, Funcinpec governor of Siem Reap province, said the Apsara Authority

has had to implement the heritage law in order to achieve sustainable conservation

and to balance development of local housing with protection of historic sites.

He said developing the tourism industry was a government priority for reduction of

poverty and the Apsara Authority has done a lot of work for the protection and management

of historic sites.

One of the many dramatic approach paths to a restored temple in the Angkor area, surrounded by vegetation regrowth. To the local farmers it is another grazing area.

"I believe that people should understand about the management of historic sites,"

said Nhalyvud.

Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch in Phnom Penh, said the law was a good

idea, but it must be applied to all people equally.

Seung Kong, deputy director general for administration of Apsara, said individual

villagers still owned their land, but adding foundations to support an extra story

was not allowed in the historic site areas. He said the Apsara Authority was responsible

for the protection and management of about 400 square kilometers, including about

20 villages in the Angkor conservation area where future home construction will need

the authority's permission.

In all, he said an estimated 200 buildings in the protected areas were facing removal

or demolition, and the Apsara Authority was looking for land to exchange for the

displaced residents.

He said the increasing numbers of squatters in the parks of Angkor as the tourism

boom continued was a hot issue for the authority to resolve.

Squatters increased from 10,000 families to 90,000 families between 2000 and 2004.

Kong said the government target was to have 3 million tourist arrivals per year by


He said the Apsara Authority has cooperated with the international community since

1992 in efforts to rescue the ancient temples from decline after more than two decades

of civil war in Cambodia.

He said the International Coordinating Committee (ICC) meets in June and December

of each year to consider ongoing restoration, conservation, research and development

projects in the Siem Reap/Angkor region.

Kong said different temples were restored and conserved by experts in archaeology

from the USA, France, Japan, China, German, India, Italy and Switzerland, and include

organisations such as German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP), Japanese Government

Team for Safeguarding Angkor (JSA), the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO),

the Sophia University Angkor International Mission (Japan), and the World Monuments

Fund Program (WMF).

He estimated donors had invested about $20 million in temple restoration and conservations

since 1992.

"At the moment, everybody is working closely together and it has taken 10 years

to achieve that," said John Sanday, field director of the WMF.

The WMF sent its first team to Angkor in 1989. An important component of the WMF

program is on-site training of Cambodian architecture and archaeology students from

the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

"Our responsibility is one of the handing over to future generations; we want

to try and stop future deterioration, future collapse," said Sanday.

However, Kong said Cambodia itself was still lacking human resources in archaeology.

"I think that in just ten years the international communities have succeeded

in rescuing the ancient temples from danger of collapse," he said.

However, he confessed he has bad dreams about the temples collapsing because of underground


He said the increase in building construction - homes, hotels, guesthouses and other

commercial-use structures - was occurring without proper consideration of drainage,

and silting up of rivers from increased soil runoff could cause more flooding in

the future.

Kong said that from a series of accumulative floods, old wells had absorbed water

flowing across the base of the temples and experts were concerned this could weaken

temple foundations.

Due to the lack of a reticulated local water supply, all the hotels in Siem Reap

used water from wells to supply their customers.

"We don't know what is happening underground, or what effect increased well

draw off could have," Kong said.

Thai Khin, who used to work with WMF in Siem Reap, said he agreed that the base of

the temples could move if it absorbed water.