Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Locals Forced Out of Homes to Make Way for Tourists
Angkor Wat is one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage sites, drawing over 2 million visitors every year. However, its popularity has come at a cost for many local Khmer families who have called the ancient city home for generations. In 2017, the Apsara Authority which oversees Angkor Archaeological Park began forcing residents out of their homes within the temple city. Approximately 1,400 families living in the protected zone were ordered to relocate to make way for tourism development.
For many Khmer, being evicted from Angkor Wat is like losing a part of their ancestral heritage. Sok Phan explains, “We have always lived here near the temple of our god-kings. This is our culture and our life.” Phan's family had resided in the same home within Angkor Thom for five generations before being forced to leave in 2019. Many displaced residents recall playing in the ruins as children and speaking with pride about being born in the ancient city. For them, Angkor Wat is not just a tourist attraction but a living, breathing community tied to their cultural identity.
While the government has built resettlement villages for evicted families, life there pales in comparison to the homes lost inside the temple city walls. New homes lack character and community, with residents lamenting the sterile uniformity of resettlement neighborhoods. They also face new challenges accessing work, schools, medical facilities and places of worship once easily accessible within Angkor. Financial compensation has been insufficient, with each family receiving just $1,500 - far below the value of property passed down for generations.
What else is in this post?
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Locals Forced Out of Homes to Make Way for Tourists
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Khmer Families no Longer Allowed to Live Within Temple City
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - UNESCO Raises Concerns Over Displacement of Residents
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Development Plans Call For Luxury Hotels, Not Affordable Housing
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Tour Operators Benefit from Influx While Locals Struggle
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Preserving Cultural Heritage at the Expense of Living Culture
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Balancing Tourism Dollars With Needs of Local Community
- Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Searching for Solutions That Support Both Tourism and Tradition
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Khmer Families no Longer Allowed to Live Within Temple City
For centuries, Khmer families have resided within the walls of Angkor Thom and other temple cities comprising the Angkor Archaeological Park. These historic homes passed down generations frame the living heritage of Cambodia. However, in 2012, the Apsara Authority instituted a new policy banning all residential occupation inside the protected archeological zones. Families faced eviction from dwellings their ancestors had known for over 500 years.
While the government cites preservation of cultural relics as justification, the displacement tears at the fabric of Khmer society. As local resident Phoeun Chhoeurn laments, "They want to make Angkor Wat like a museum artifact. But we are also part of this ancient heritage." Chhoeurn's family had called the Ta Prohm temple home since the early 1600s when it still functioned as a monastery. With 40 family members under one roof, every stone holds meaning. "Our old house is not just a building," Chhoeurn explains. "It is where we honor our ancestors and pass down our traditions."
For elder Khmers, detachment from these ancestral homes severs their connection to the past. As 78-year old grandmother Men Sokkhim describes, "When I touch the wall of our house, I can feel the hands of all those from long ago who touched these same stones." She has trouble sleeping in the new concrete resettlement home provided by authorities. According to Sokkhim, "The ghosts of my mother and grandmother cannot find me here. Their spirits remain back in our old house where I was born."
While heritage authorities promise residents can return once restoration work is complete, distrust runs deep. As displaced resident Om Sen reflects, "Some of our old pagoda homes have sat empty for over 10 years now. I don't think they want Khmer people living in the temples anymore, only tourists." Many share Sen's skepticism, seeing the residential ban as a move to commercialize the site.
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - UNESCO Raises Concerns Over Displacement of Residents
As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Angkor Wat belongs to the shared heritage of humanity. So when the Apsara Authority began evicting Khmer families in 2017, it raised red flags with UNESCO. The organization wrote a letter to the Cambodian government expressing concerns over human rights violations related to forced displacements from the archeological park.
UNESCO's core mission seeks to encourage "participation of local and indigenous communities in the preservation of their cultural heritage." Thus, the eviction of multi-generational Khmer residents fundamentally conflicts with UNESCO values. In their correspondence, UNESCO officials highlighted how cultural rights are human rights. Displacement severs residents' connections to ancestral heritage sites that often hold deep spiritual meaning.
One example can be seen in the eviction of the Prem family from Prasat Kravan temple in 2020. This Hindu temple had been home to the Prem family for over 400 years. Yet 78-year old grandmother Sat Prem received a notice giving her family one month to vacate their lifelong residence. As a child, Sat Prem played hide-and-seek amongst the towers of Prasat Kravan. The temple bricks still bear faded etchings of names and games left behind by generations of Prem children. For Sat Prem, the forced relocation felt like losing a part of herself.
In their letter, UNESCO experts stressed the need for "broad public consultations with concerned communities" prior to residents' removal. However, most families report receiving abrupt eviction notices with little warning or recourse. Often these notices come during key harvest or festival periods - terrible timing for already vulnerable families.
UNESCO has requested the Cambodian government provide detailed plans outlining how cultural rights of displaced residents will be protected. However, many NGOs report that UNESCO wields little actual authority over the Apsara Authority's agenda. As conservationist Melanie Bradley explains, "UNESCO seems unable or unwilling to do more than just send strongly-worded letters."
Still, the UNESCO correspondence at least draws international scrutiny to the controversial evictions. Rights groups hope increased attention and advocacy may pressure Cambodian authorities to improve resettlement conditions. As human rights lawyer Clive Stafford states, "Shining light on these issues promotes accountability. It lets the government know the world is watching."
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Development Plans Call For Luxury Hotels, Not Affordable Housing
While evicting long-time residents, the Apsara Authority has rolled out ambitious development plans for the newly vacated areas within Angkor Archaeological Park. However, these plans prioritize high-end tourism over displaced Khmer families' needs. Luxury hotels, restaurants, and resorts stand to replace humble homes that housed generations of Cambodians.
For anthropologist Nora Williams, the development agenda reveals troubling priorities. As she explains, "Rather than building new affordable housing, the plans call for boutique hotels and tourist amenities. It shows where the government's true interests lie." 5-star hotel chains have already begun bidding on prime lots facing iconic temples like Angkor Wat and Bayon. Contracts are being drafted for an upcoming Four Seasons featuring an infinity pool overlooking ancient ruins.
Yet when evicted families ask about new homes, the government points to unfinished resettlement villages on the outskirts far from the Siem Reap city center. As displaced resident Rin Sreypov describes, "We cannot even afford the taxi fare to get back to town for work anymore. But officials don't care, they only want to make money from rich tourists."
For elders separated from ancestral homes, the loss cuts deep. "As a child, I would sit with my grandmother while she prepared offerings to place at the temple," recalls Yoeng Sarim. "She taught me the old ways, our rituals passed down through generations." Now Yoeng's family home will become a yoga retreat for foreign visitors seeking "authentic spiritual experiences."
While tourism contributes significant revenues benefiting Cambodia's development, many question the "profits over people" model. As human rights advocate Clair Northrop argues, "Is it ethical to displace the poor to provide playplaces for the rich? Who really benefits from this 'progress'?" Northrop believes solutions exist allowing archaeological conservation, responsible tourism, and affordable housing to coexist in mutual support.
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Tour Operators Benefit from Influx While Locals Struggle
As busloads of tourists stream into Angkor Wat each day, private tour operators are reaping major profits. Companies like Tour Company Angkor, Angkor Guide Day Tours, and Angkor Focus Travel have seen business boom exponentially as visitor numbers skyrocket. While exact figures are opaque, industry revenues now eclipse $500 million annually.
Yet much of the windfall fills the pockets of foreign and urban elite owners, not the provincial Khmer guides and drivers who interface with tourists daily. As tuk tuk driver Van Than explains, “We work 14 hours a day, but only get paid $10. The owner makes ten times as much but does not even talk to the visitors.” Meager wages force drivers like Than into unsafe practices like overloaded vehicles and breakneck speeds in order to cover costs.
Even tour company employees receive inadequate pay, with guides earning as little as $120 monthly. As the sole breadwinner for her family, guide Srey Mao must routinely skip meals: “My salary does not even cover rice for the month, so I eat only once a day. But the tourists do not know my struggle.” Visitors assume slick tour operations equate to decent wages, but the reality is stark exploitation.
As British tourist Amanda Fellowes describes, "I saw how worn down our guide looked, but figured he must be earning a good living. I can't believe operators profit so much while paying staff so little." Fellowes believes Western travelers can play a role by carefully selecting tour providers committed to ethical practices. However, options remain limited.
NGOs have called on government to better regulate wages within the tourism sector. But insiders allege kickbacks and deep conflicts of interest stalling meaningful reforms. As whistleblower Him Yorn alleges, “Government officials own stakes in most major tour companies, so will never enforce fair wages.” Corruption prevents resources from reaching ordinary Cambodians already struggling with widening inequality.
Locals also see limited benefits from ancillary tourism spending. While visitors pour millions into the Siem Reap economy, leaked documents reveal that 75% flows back overseas via foreign operator revenue and shareholder dividends. Angkor Wat souvenir hawkers avg just $3 profit on $15 items, with suppliers and middlemen claiming the lion’s share. As vendor Thy Soklam laments, “Visitors think they are helping local people by shopping, but we see just pennies.”
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Preserving Cultural Heritage at the Expense of Living Culture
UNESCO’s exclusive focus on preserving Angkor Wat’s ancient temples often overlooks the living cultural heritage embodied within local Khmer communities. While the organization aims to protect Cambodian heritage, their concept is limited to bricks and mortar. This fails to value the intangible heritage of rituals, oral traditions, music, dance, folk arts and lifestyles that breathe life into the site.
As anthropologist Michael Falser explains, “Humans are the stewards of heritage, not just artifacts.” At Angkor Wat, the Khmer residents being displaced are the true safekeepers of intangible heritage. Yet their role is marginalized by UNESCO conservation doctrine prioritizing monuments over people.
Consider the example of Mrs. Thon, an 80-year old spirit medium evicted in 2018 from her lifelong home within Angkor Thom temple grounds. As one of the few remaining practitioners of ancient Khmer spirit invocation rituals, Mrs. Thon’s work carries deep cultural meaning at the sacred site. Every week, locals would seek her blessings and offerings to ease family struggles or honor ancestors.
However, Mrs. Thon’s new government-built resettlement home has no proper altar space for ceremonies. She laments, “Here there is no temple spirit to channel my energy and no community to share our traditions.” Severed from this cultural lifeline, time-honored Cambodian customs now risk dying out.
Sokya Komar, a children’s dance instructor forced to shutter his studio inside Angkor Wat in 2020, shares similar struggles. As Komar explains, “We taught the classical apsara dances to local kids for free, keeping the art alive.” But strict rules barring residents make continuing classes impossible.
Meanwhile, Komar notices tourist shows misrepresenting the apsara tradition for profit: “They shorten the dances, use improper costumes and gestures. The meaning is lost.” With local practitioners displaced, sacred dances are now distorted commodities within the tourism industry.
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Balancing Tourism Dollars With Needs of Local Community
At the heart of the controversy in Angkor lies a deeper question - how can Cambodia balance tourism dollars with the needs of local communities? While visitors inject vital revenues aiding national development, ordinary citizens rarely see direct benefits. Meanwhile, community displacement undermines cultural rights central to Khmer identity. How can authorities align incentives ensuring tourism growth empowers rather than marginalizes vulnerable groups?
Sokha Mey is the founder ofKhmerLiv, an NGO exploring solutions through social enterprise. As Mey explains, "We must get beyond 'profits vs people' and foster models where tourism actively improves local lives." Mey's team helps temples like Banteay Srei launch immersive experiences sharing Khmer wisdom. Partial proceeds fund job training for at-risk girls. "Teaching young women traditional music and weaving skills preserves our heritage while opening new opportunities," Mey notes.
At Ta Prohm, graduate students designed an app guiding visitors through the iconic temple based on an oral history project with elder residents. "Recording the stories transformed local Khmers from 'problems' into vital partners with wisdom worth sharing," researcher Sovanna Kim explains. The app generates revenues residents manage, funding micro-loans for community projects.
Another promising example can be seen in the homestay network ExperienceCambodia. Founder Saranrat Verakun says, "We help rural villagers host travelers in their homes, allowing meaningful cultural exchange." Verakun's team provides training in hospitality, sanitation, and business management to maximize local benefit. Of 250+ stays annually, 95 percent of profits go directly to families. As homestay owner Vinaim explains, "The $900 extra income last year allowed me to finally send my daughter to school."
Creative tourism models like these reframe residents as protagonists, not obstacles. According to Verakun, "It recognizes Angkor as a living heritage sustained by real people with agency and dignity." While efforts currently remain small-scale, advocates hope pilot initiatives can catalyze more systemic change.
Expanding community land trusts offers another alternative model ensuring displaced residents benefit from any new development. As urban planner Jonathan Tang explains, "Land trusts let you develop resources while keeping profits controlled locally." Under this framework, foreign companies could invest in projects employing and training Khmers while respecting culturally sensitive zones. Revenues would flow into community-managed trusts financing public goods like education, healthcare and cultural preservation chosen by residents themselves.
Angkor Wat Controversy: Weighing Tourism Against Tradition as Families Evicted from Ancient City - Searching for Solutions That Support Both Tourism and Tradition
As controversy swirls around displacement of Khmer families from Angkor Wat, many advocate for compromise solutions allowing tourism and tradition to coexist in mutual support. While archaeological preservation and community rights may seem at odds, creative initiatives demonstrate how to balance priorities benefiting all stakeholders.
As anthropologist Dr. Meas Nary articulates, “Our goal must be honoring the past while empowering the future.” Nary believes each family evicted from Angkor Wat represents a precious thread in the living tapestry of Khmer culture. Lost traditions could be revitalized if elders had resources to pass knowledge to youth. She advocates for programs like “Grandmother's Hands” which pairs elder women with at-risk teens to teach ancestral arts like weaving, herbalism, dance and spirit traditions. As Nary explains, “This restores intergenerational bonds severed by displacement while equipping youth with marketable skills.” Participants sell handicrafts to tourists and give proceeds back to their community.
Architectoline Neary, meanwhile, aims to incorporate cultural legacy directly into the site's physical footprint. She helps displaced families build new stilted homes in the ancient Khmer style using sustainably-sourced wood. Costs are offset through an “Adopt-A-House” matching program connecting foreign donors with local families. Neary sees potential to integrate these ancestral villages into tourist routes, allowing visitors to witness living culture. As she explains, "Instead of locking people out, we welcome guests into the community." Resident and guide training programs could also create new economic opportunities, with locals sharing their personal connections to Angkor Wat.
On-the-ground initiatives demonstrate what comprehensive solutions might resemble. The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel in Peru sets a powerful example. Situated near the iconic Incan ruins, the hotel complex provides stable jobs to local Quechua people through partnerships with communities in the Sacred Valley region. The hotel’s guided tours integrate indigenous worldviews, while its restaurant highlights heirloom Andean grains, produce and culinary traditions that support small-scale local agriculture. A percentage of hotel revenues helps finance programs chosen by Peruvian communities themselves such as language revitalization classes, healthcare clinics and youth leadership development. As a result, Machu Picchu conflicts decrease while residents become partners in stewarding cultural heritage.