With travel restrictions in place around the world, and the coronavirus pandemic keeping would-be tourists at home, one of the world’s most famous wonders, the early 12th-century Angkor Wat and surrounding temples, has been left largely empty for months.
But for those who live in Cambodia, the pandemic has offered visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park a rare opportunity to explore the near vacant temples in peace, quiet and solitude.
“This is really a once-in-a-multi-lifetime experience. There’s very few people in history who have ever been to Angkor alone, or very close to alone, ” says Jared Cahners, an expatriate living in Cambodia who gives food tours in Siem Reap, where the temples are located – when there are tourists to guide.
Usually a top South-East Asian tourist destination, the park counted more than 1.1 million international visitors in the first five months of 2019. But by the end of May 2020, fewer than 400,000 have visited, according to the state-run ticketing agency Angkor Enterprise.
As Covid-19 pummels Cambodia’s tourism industry, the temple’s managers are hoping long-term tickets will draw in more visitors to the world famous temples.
Angkor Enterprise has started issuing one-month, three-month, and six-month tickets (priced US$100/RM426, US$150/RM639 and US$200/RM852, respectively), according to a Khmer Times report on June 25.
As a measure to help tourism, the initiative may be too optimistic, however. Even before the pandemic, the average length-of-stay for tourists had only grown from 5.4 days in 2013 to 6.4 days in 2018.
Now, the sector, like many across the world, is facing a disaster. The number of passengers for May plunged 98% in all three international airports, compared to the year before.
With only 654 foreigners visiting the temples in April 2020, each day saw an average of 22 international visitors in a 400sq km complex that includes more than 150 significant monuments.
Angkor Archaeological Park today seems more empty than it was in the early 2000s, before many foreign tourists were visiting, according to Long Kosal, a spokesman for the Apsara Authority, which manages the temple complex where he has worked for more than 20 years.
“Back then there were few tourists, but now there are none, ” Kosal says. “To see Angkor empty, it’s strange and extraordinary.”
But on the plus side, the lack of visitors is allowing the Apsara Authority to get planned maintenance work, like tree planting and road restoration, done early, he says.
“We’re making preparations for when tourists come back, ” he adds.
While some travellers from neighbouring countries are expected to start visiting Cambodia again next year, followed by Chinese tourists, the temples may not see their normal, pre-pandemic number of visitors for up to four years, according to Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents.
Ou Virak, a public policy analyst who lives in the capital, Phnom Penh, says he visited the temples at the end of April because he wanted to see Angkor Wat without tourists while he could.
But as a researcher, he also wanted to witness the economic effect of the pandemic with his own eyes.
As much as he, other locals and expats were enjoying the “once in a lifetime experience, ” Virak says, it was important to keep in mind that the park’s emptiness means thousands of people who earn a living through tourism are suffering financially.
For Cambodians, he added, Angkor Wat is more than a tourist attraction. It’s a holy place and part of their cultural heritage.
“It’s a symbol of the country. Literally, it’s on the Cambodian flag, ” Virak says.
For Vincent Prosper, a nongovernmental organisation director who moved to Phnom Penh in February and visited the temples for the first time in mid-May, the solitude in the park was a unique experience.
“Being alone in the Bakan, at the highest level of Angkor Wat, made me feel like Henri Mouhot, the French naturalist re-discovering the site in 1861, ” Prosper says.
“I just want to keep this image in mind and will be certainly reluctant to visit Angkor Wat again once the Covid-19 situation will be over.”
Alexandra Kennett, a consultant for a nongovernmental organisation in Phnom Penh, visited the temples with four friends in early May and said seeing the near-empty walkway leading to Angkor Wat at sunrise was unbelievable and could not be replicated.
Kennett said she and her friends also had the multi-Buddha-faced Bayon temple entirely to themselves.
“We were able to get lost in the ground level of Bayon and that was just phenomenal.” – dpa
Cambodia's new entry rules
Last month, it was reported that foreign travellers entering Cambodia are now required to pay a cash deposit of US$3,000 (RM12,787) for “Covid-19 service charges”. This can be paid by credit card too.
Visitors are also required to have a travel insurance coverage of at least US$50,000 (RM213,125).
The service charges will include transportation to a testing centre, a Covid-19 test, an overnight stay at a designated hotel while waiting for test results, meals and laundry.
Visitors must self-isolate for 14 days after testing, and report to medical officers daily. On the 13th day, they must undergo a second Covid-19 test. If their test results are negative, then the visitors are free to start their holiday. The remainder of the deposit will be returned to them. If the tests are positive, then the traveller will be sent to a state hospital.
These charges apply to all foreign travellers, except for those on diplomatic or official government business.