Angkor Wat is not as deathly quiet as it was back when it was rediscovered by the French explorer Henri Mouhot in the 1840s. He found it empty and uninhabited after centuries of gradual decay, disuse and disrepair with its ruins gradually being hidden by creeping jungle foliage.
Angkor Wat’s temples are also no longer the frightening place that they were in the 1970s back when Cambodia was spiralling into chaos and a brutal civil war. For much of that decade death was everywhere and the temples are pockmarked in places with bullet holes from that period.
Change being life’s one constant, today there is yet again a different Angkor Wat there – one that is not as crowded with people as it was a few years ago.
Following Cambodia’s national renewal in the 1990s, the temple’s campus was thronged with mobs of tourists from around the world with more of them arriving each year – year after year – until the pandemic hit.
Today Angkor Wat has lapsed into silence once again, but not an eerie quiet but one that is calm and peaceful. Right now Angkor Wat is a place where people can relax and enjoy themselves and appreciate both the natural and man-made beauty of their surroundings.
These idyllic temple surroundings conjure up visions in one’s imagination of the glory days of the imposing structures roughly 1,000 years ago, when the site was the jewel of the ancient Khmer empire that surrounded it and stretched to the horizon in every direction.
Siem Reap’s chapter of the Cambodia Hotel Association (CHASR) worries that the UNESCO Heritage Site has become a little too quiet and so it has launched a promotional campaign using the hash tag #AngkorLikeNeverBefore in order to encourage both Cambodians and foreigners to visit Siem Reap this year.
“It is a homegrown marketing campaign designed to underline the urgent nature of visiting Siem Reap despite Covid-19,” said David-Jaya Piot, president of CHASR.
The poignant 30-minute video highlights the top attractions in Siem Reap, and it opens with a young lady exploring the temple complex.
It then shows Kulen Mountain, traditional dances, Cambodia’s Phare Circus, arts & crafts, rural villages, rice-fields, the vast Tonle Sap Lake and more before it wraps up with images of smiling faces.
“The video has some nice footage of a Cambodian woman twirling around alone in the temple complex – one of the many breathtaking locations within the park that are all empty and waiting for you to visit,” according to Piot.
They are hoping the video will be shared widely on social media to remind people that they can still have the unique experience of being at Angkor Wat without the crowds ... For now. However, with vaccinations underway across the globe that situation won’t last forever.
Piot, who is also a managing director of the Angkor Village Group of hotels and co-founder of Kulen Elephant Forest, says that “Siem Reap is full of activities that are usually saturated with a high numbers of tourists. Something that has often dampened some people’s enjoyment of said activities.”
Piot is a dual Khmer-French citizen and his family has been invested in Siem Reap’s tourism industry since 1993, when they became one of the first hotel operators in the city in Cambodia’s early years of national renewal.
He studied economics and finance at an American university and after working for a bank in Jordan he joined the family business working for his father’s hotel in Siem Reap. The Kulen Elephant Forest eco-resort project was started in 2017.
“Siem Reap and its tourism landscape have been our whole lives and something that I care about very much,” said Piot, who became the President of CHASR in September 2020.
“People should realise that right now they have a time-limited opportunity to enjoy all of these activities without the crowds and with attractive prices and packages,” he says.
Piot would like to see a groundswell of support for Siem Reap in this final stretch of time before international tourism really picks up again with local people, businesses and media organisations cooperating to help the vital tourism industry rebuild some of its lost capacity in advance of the return of the customary Siem Reap crowds.
Tourism prior to Covid-19 contributed 35 percent of Cambodia’s GDP and hotels form the backbone of that, according to Piot, but right now most hotels are fighting for their very survival and many have already closed.
According to Piot Siem Reap’s tourism operators have a strong history of using grassroots social media marketing campaigns to successfully share the essence of why their city is such a wonderful place to visit.
Piot explained that a powerful and simple hashtag like #OpenInSiemReap and others like it can be developed to remind people that Siem Reap is open for business again after the initial plummet in tourist numbers.
He said that the new #AngkorLikeNeverBefore campaign drove home the unique opportunity which remained for domestic tourists.
“Only once in your lifetime will you have a chance like this again to have the temples all to yourself. Without the crowds, the temples regain their mystery and magic,” he says.
Piot told The Post that “during my childhood, visiting the temples of Angkor was very different than [it was] at the pre-Covid height of tourism. The temples were less crowded, the pacing was slow, and you could hear the surrounding nature.”
Piot, who speaks Khmer very well, said that people who visited Angkor Wat right now might experience a feeling more akin to exploration or an adventure than to the hustle and bustle of the tourism of past years, which obviously changes the nature of your visit and makes it easier to really focus on the beauty of the architecture.
“Many of the world’s greatest monuments currently offer a similar opportunity – if you happen to be present in the country where they arelocated. But most people won’t be.
“And most people aren’t here in Cambodia either – the only place where a visit to Angkor Wat is possible – but we are. It is a once in a lifetime experience to see what these places are like without the presence of crowds,” he says.
Piot says that CHASR is just throwing the idea out there for the public to consider, along with video co-producers Phare Circus and Grasshopper Adventures.
“We can only hope that the initiative will strike a chord with people who are interested in a crowd-free experience at a world-class destination.
“As hoteliers, we have no shortage of attractive offers and we are of course ready to welcome all travellers who come to Siem Reap no matter their origin, domestic or international,” Piot said.
Piot said that aside from the social media and hashtag campaign, the Siem Reap provincial government has announced that it would be promoting a calendar of events to boost tourism.
Piot said that Siem Reap’s tourism will begin to recover on the day that international tourism resumes. Or perhaps on the day that it resumes in a manner that is free of onerous restrictions and lengthy quarantine periods and international travel presumably regains the broad appeal it held prior to the pandemic.
“There is no way to estimate the date of this recovery, but we can only hope that worldwide vaccine efforts and the excellent direction of Cambodia’s Covid-19 task force will lead us out of this long dark tunnel and into the light soon.”
Piot says that the new community outbreak is obviously a serious event and he worries that it might get out of hand. He stresses that the health ministry’s recommended preventive measures should be followed if people do visit in order to maintain Cambodia’s overall public health during the Covid-19 era.
“We have been so blessed to have been able to live “normally” for so long. It is ultimately important that all of us make the necessary sacrifices to ensure that the nation stays free and safe from Covid.”
He does have a solid point in his favour right now, admittedly: With Siem Reap and Angkor Wat emptied of their usual massive crowds of tourists, maintaining social distance while you’re visiting there has never been easier than it is right now.
To see the promotional video for the #AngkorLikeNeverBefore campaign visit:https://youtu.be/iDX-mBHK2pU