I feel like several of the trips I’ve taken in recent years have been to places people urged me to go while I still can, or at least before things change. Friends told me to visit Cuba before Castro died, American tourists flooded in, and the island became a little less special. They said to go to the Galapagos Islands before the Ecuadorian government started restricting the number of visitors. And I was lucky enough to visit Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market just weeks before it closed for good.
Cambodia is another one of these places that’s changed dramatically in recent years. It was just a few decades ago that the country experienced a massive genocide, where about a quarter of its population was killed under the rule of the dictator Pol Pot and his brutal communist followers in the Khmer Rouge. But today it’s become one of Southeast Asia’s tourist hotspots. On today’s show, my brother and I visit two places in Cambodia where the present no longer looks like the past.
First I go to Angkor Wat, a vast complex of Hindu and Buddhist temples from the 12th century that’s listed by Guinness as the largest religious structure in the world. Back in 1993 when UNESCO first named it a World Heritage site, it saw less than 8-thousand tourists. By last year, there were more than 2-and-a-half million.
Early every morning, thousands of tourists stake their claim in front of the temple to capture a perfect, Instagrammable snapshot of the sunrise. This is the iconic image everyone’s seen of Angkor Wat. But what you never see unless you go there is the hoards of other people with their cameras, iPhones, and selfie sticks, all trying to take that same photo. Tourists I spoke to compared it to a rock concert and feared that perhaps it had become too popular for its own good.
My brother and I also take a ride on Battambang, Cambodia’s famous bamboo railway, where some enterprising locals realized they could attach bamboo platform to some wheels salvaged from old military tanks, attach a boat or lawnmower engine, and make a little gas-powered cart to transport goods or passengers up and down some abandoned train tracks.
We visited back at the end of 2015. A little over a year later, the bamboo railway stopped running on the old line to make way for the resumption of passenger train service. A new track was built on the outskirts of town, but it lacks the gritty authenticity of the original one, and visitors have complained it just isn’t the same.
Check out the latest episode of Far From Home, and then let me know what you think about the rush to visit popular and special locations before they change or disappear. Have you ever felt conflicted about this or worried that your favorite place might become too touristy? Or are there amazing places you’ve visited that you hope no one else discovers? Use the voice memo app on your phone to record a short message and email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I might use it on a future episode of this show. You can also tweet me @scottgurian.
Until next time, thanks for listening!
Photos by Drew Gurian