- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Ra Pheap, 19, is a garbage sweeper at Cambodia’s world-famous Angkor Wat archaeological site and is keenly grateful for the influx of tourists to the centuries-old monuments. Because of the visitors, she has her $50-a-month job.

Suos Samnang, a souvenir vendor at 17, also knows that her livelihood is linked closely to the busloads of camera-toting foreign visitors that arrive every day.

However, as they witness the frenzied construction of hotels and guesthouses to tap the flow of visitors’ dollars in this once-quiet town, even these two poor country girls realize that the blessings of tourism are mixed.

“I am worried this will cause more pollution and migration to the town. The number of people living here keeps growing. The streets are getting more crowded now,” Suos Samnang says.

Some experts are more concerned than that. They fear the unregulated development — specifically, unrestricted local pumping of underground water to meet rapidly rising demand — may be undermining Angkor’s foundations, destabilizing the earth beneath the famous centuries-old temples so much that they might sink and collapse.

Tourism is a key moneymaker for Cambodia, about one-third of whose 14 million people earn less than 56 cents a day.

Last year, about half of the 1.4 million visitors who came to Cambodia went to see the Angkor monuments, architectural masterpieces built at the height of the Khmer empire from the ninth to 15th centuries. Total tourist arrivals for Cambodia in 2005 were an impressive 34.7 percent above 2004’s figures.

The steady boom already has transformed Siem Reap into a bustling town filled with luxury hotels and vehicles. Its streets are adorned with billboards promoting the latest mobile phones, pizza and burger joints and shopping malls. Several notable old buildings have been razed to make way for visitors lodgings, and honky-tonk strips have sprung up to cater to low-budget travelers.

“The identity Siem Reap had for centuries is gradually disappearing, or maybe almost disappeared,” says Teruo Jinnai, director in Cambodia of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and a 10-year resident of the country. “You have restaurants, massage parlors, hotels, and it’s very sad to see that.”

Culture shock aside, the health and quality of life of many of the 120,000 residents are imperiled by the boom, as is plain to see when traffic snarls the roads and streets get flooded by rain because of clogged sewers.

“This tremendous growth added to population increase has been exacerbating pressure on infrastructure,” says a World Bank report on Cambodia’s tourism sector that was released last year. “Energy, water, sewage and waste are all significant problems.”

It notes that hotels are not legally required to have sewage treatment facilities, although larger ones have their own plants.

“But most guesthouses reportedly dump used water directly into the river, causing noticeable river pollution,” it says, adding that E. coli, the bacteria found in human feces, reportedly has begun seeping into local wells.

At least as threatening is the uptake of water, with unrestricted pumping from the water table underlying the area. “Water is being drawn from [230 to 260 feet] underground by hotels and treated for use,” the World Bank warned, noting that no one was certain how this affects the aquifers, or underground layers of rocks and sand, from which it is pumped.

Already, “one of Angkor’s temples is reportedly falling into a sinkhole, suggesting that the underground aquifers may be rapidly disappearing,” the report says.

Japanese Ambassador Fumiaki Takahashi, whose country has drawn up a development master plan for Siem Reap to deal with the tourism boom, says most of its hotels are pumping underground water for their own use, “and there is no control.”

It is the Cambodian government’s “urgent task” to control the practice, he says, because “if you take too much water, it might affect the Angkor site. In the long run, the underground water will go down, and the site would sink.”

The plan of the Japan International Cooperation Agency calls for tapping underground water from near Phnom Krom, a hill near the edge of the Tonle Sap lake about 7.4 miles south of the town, to avoid depletion of Siem Reap’s underground water and reduce the risk of endangering the fragile temples, he says.

Deputy Tourism Minister Thong Khon says the government is ready to accept the master plan to address existing problems and accommodate future growth.

He sees a bright future for Siem Reap, in which the province won’t just be a destination for touring the temples but also will become a hub providing air links for tourists to enjoy the sandy beaches of southwestern Cambodia and eco-tourism in the jungles of the northeast.

He envisions that promoting a diversity of destinations will result in distributing the crowds around the country, protecting the Angkor temples from getting “too jammed up.”

Meanwhile, though, the tourist hordes continue to tramp through fabled Angkor Wat and its satellite temples of Angkor Thom, Bayon, Ta Prohm and Phnom Bakheng. Even at the lesser-known 10th-century Phnom Bakheng temple, an average of 3,000 tourists climb the 223 feet just in the two hours before dusk each day to view the spectacular sunset.

Ra Pheap, the sweeper, says she knows the onslaught could damage the delicate monuments. She is employed by a Cambodian company that sells entry tickets to the temple site, and the visitors essentially are paying her salary. With her earnings, she has reduced her family’s reliance on rice farming and has been able to help pay for Japanese-language classes for her younger brother and sister.

• • •

JICA Siem Reap Planning Study: Go to www.jica.go.jp/ english/about/policy/envi/ profile/cam02.html.

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