Angkor, lost city or inhabited site? Understanding the building process of tourist imaginaries

Juliette Augerot

Taking the case of Angkor in Cambodia, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1992, this paper explores the coexistence of shifted representations of heritage between two social groups ; the visitors and the local population. After having exposed their representations of Angkor through interviews and mental maps realized in situ, this article tackles the process of building tourist imaginaries. This approach shows how interactions between images and tourist imaginaries draw Angkor as a lost city denying its living character.

Visitors to Angkor in Cambodia show a lack of awareness of the living character of the heritage. However, although Angkor is a remarkable archaeological site, it is also a space lived and used by more than 120,000 inhabitants in 112 villages (UNESCO[1]). While the imagery of Angkor suggests a “vacant” territory (Bachimon, 2013), the inhabitants use the territory on a daily basis and continue to maintain a strong link with the temples of Angkor. Even when a temple ceases being frequented, the monasteries built around the temples ensure the spiritual continuity of the place (Groslier, 1956).

“Intangible cultural heritage” as designated in UNESCO Convention in 2003[2] is, among other criteria, “traditional, contemporary and living simultaneously” (UNESCO, 2008). UNESCO, which inscribed Angkor as a World Heritage Site in 1992, declared from 1996 that its inhabitants, with their ancestral customs and know-how, constitute a living heritage that concedes to the Angkor temples an additional value: ” (…) In general, Siem Reap’s rural populations are known to be particularly conservative with respect to ancestral traditions, and a great number of archaic cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere continue to be performed in its villages… » (UNESCO[3]).

Figure 1. Angkor in Cambodia and in South-east Asia Sources : IRASEC

Figure 1. Angkor in Cambodia and in South-east Asia
Sources : IRASEC

While the inhabitants of Angkor and their roles in the process of patrimonialization of the site are officially recognized by UNESCO, visitors show a partial knowledge of the heritage by limiting their gaze to its tangible character. Visitors seem to be out of step with the meaning of Angkor which includes not only temples but also the territory in terms of geo-social space.

A survey carried out in Angkor in 2014 provides the representations of visitors and inhabitants about the site, and how tourist imaginaries are constructed. To identify the components of the visitors’ imaginary, we used a qualitative method and conducted semi-directed interviews in situ. To cover the multiplicity of tourist imaginaries, we opted for a diversity respondents. Thus, eleven nationalities are represented among the twenty interviewees. The in-depth interviews were conducted in the heart of the most famous temples like Angkor Wat, and areas further from the central zone like Bantei Srei. We also held interviews with residents to grasp the ties that bind them to the temples. To undertand  the role of geographical proximity in the appropriation of temples and its relation to tourism, we questioned inhabitants living in villages more or less close to the temples. Thus, through the help of an interpreter, we conducted fifteen interviews in five villages with informants  from different social classes including merchants, police officers, temple guards, and farmers. The interviews took place in their homes or at their workplace.

Among the visitors’ responses, one profile is widely represented : visitors didn’t imagine the site so large, they evoked the incredible aspect and the ancient character of the temples, they are particularly surprised by the sculptures and the way the temples have been built without the technology we have today. The majority of the interviewees ignore the active character of the site and the presence of numerous dwellings around the temples.

“You told me that it is still a place of worship, honestly, I can’t feel the sacred side of the place’’ (Interviewe # 6)

“We did not know, we have misunderstood” (Interviewe  # 5)

“It’s like a museum” (Interviewe # 8)

“I didn’t know, it’s cool” (Interviewe # 19)

This misunderstanding, even indifference, towards the intangible aspect is also visible through the use of mental maps. The « Mind Map » is an exercise in which the participant is invited to draw a space. It provides an expressive medium of the mental representation of space (Gueben-Venière, 2011). We offered the respondents a blank sheet and asked them to draw a representative element of Angkor.

Figure 2. Mind maps of visitors

Figure 2. Mind maps of visitors

The selected illustrations convey the themes of the set of mental maps collected: architecture, low-relief, camera, visitors. The mental maps made by the visitors are in perfect correspondence with the interview responses, since the heritage representations highlighted do not show new components their tourist imaginaries and once again exclude the living and sacred character of Angkor.

Beyond a partial understanding of the meaning of Angkor, we observe their mistrust towards the inhabitants and cultural markers:

“I thought it was for folklore … Even if we see that there is incense burning right to left, that there are some offerings at the feet of most statues, naturally I felt more like it was more for folklore than for worship” (Interviewee # 5)

“I saw it as a tourist trap” (Interview # 2)

“It’s a little commercial” (Interview # 8)

“I saw monks and I thought they just wanted money, I was thinking of a tourist attraction (…) I thought they used religion to have money … I mean they really need money” (Interviewee # 10)

Apparently, different tourist attractions and practices really exist in the territory of Angkor. For instance, passers-by can be invited to burn incense in exchange for a dollar or to attend one of the many traditional Apsara dance performances. However, the visitors cannot distinguish which among the practices are part of their real culture and the parts controlled by commercial imperatives.

It is important to note, that while the answers are relatively homogeneous, some Asian visitors reveal their thoughts about religious matters by using their own references:

“In Malaysia, Buddhism and Hinduism are two different things, I mean, Buddhism has its temple and Hinduism has its temple too. Here, it is like a combination of both. But we have no idea how they practice here” (Interviewe # 8)

“I think, in China there are people who have the same kind of religion (…) countries are close” (Interviewe # 17)

“These temples belong to India … I understand the spiritual value of this place” (Interviewe # 11)

The interview with the inhabitants quickly led us to almost uniform responses. According to them, temples occupy a central place in their lives. They represent sacred high places that should be cherished and respected:

“The temples are like the gods” (Srah Srang, Interviewe #1)

“Every night before I sleep I think of the temples” (Srah Srang, Interviewe #2)

“I go to Angkor Wat to calm my sickness, the pain” (Nokor Krau, Interview #6)

“It is very important for the Cambodians, if Angkor Wat disappears, Cambodia will disappear too” (Pradak, Interview #4)

“The people here are deep believers towards the temple, they were born beside here. The bond is very strong between the inhabitants and this temple” (Leang Dai, Interview #12)

“The temples are like my parents” (Prasat Char, Interview #10)

Another theme common to all the inhabitants interviewed concerns the commercial dimension of the temples. About the question : “Why are temples important to you?”, spontaneously, many inhabitants evoked economic reason, tourism.

“It’s important, my children make souvenirs and sell them. Yes, we’re grateful  for the tourists coming to the village, to buy things” (Srah Srang, Interviewe #2)

“They are important because there are lots of tourists and I’m thankful that I can work with them” (Pradak, Interview #4)

“Temples are important because they attract tourists” (Pradak, Interview #3)

“I want and need tourists. I want them to come more and more so that the people of this village can have a better life” (Leang Dai, Interview #13)

Aside from the four interviewees in Prasat Char, the least accessible village, who didn’t speake about the economic aspect of tourism, the eleven other people interviewed in villages closer to the temples all stressed the positive impact of tourism for them and their community.

Therefore, we can observe the divergences of representations of Angkor between the two groups. When the inhabitants evoke the immaterial aspects of the temples, considering them as their family, as part of themselves, visitors are interested in the tangible part of the heritage, namely architecture, nature, sculptures. Differences are also visible in the representations of the other group: inhabitants view visitors as an economic opportunity, hoping for more tourists to come, on the other hand, visitors are not well aware of inhabitants existence (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Crossover representations Source : Juliette Augerot, 2016

Figure 3. Crossover representations
Source : Juliette Augerot, 2016

Such discrepancies in the representations do not allow us to foresee intercultural interactions. Only trade exchanges through the sale and purchase of souvenirs seem to be the source of meetings between the two groups. However, other interactions may be possible with tuk-tuk drivers, guardians of temples or with waiters in the restaurants, but these other types of exchanges are absent in the discourse of the visitors interviewed.

In an attempt to understand the reasons the visitors’ lack of knowledge about the intangible aspect of Angkor, it is now time to question the construction process of tourist imaginaries. Tourist imaginaries are partly made up of shared representations, that is, images made and conveyed by tourists’ descriptions (Gravari-Barbas, Graburn, 2012). Images and imaginaries maintain a dynamic link (Ibidem): the performative character of imaginaries participates in defining some images of the tourist system from a perspective of the attractiveness of the destination, when, at the same time, the imagery of the place nourishes the imaginaries. In this way, while the EFEO (French School of the Far East) was commissioned in 1908 to “clean” the temples of Angkor of the vegetation which had grown up there, the program of restoration decided, a few more years later, to leave some temples in an “abandoned” state to satisfy the romantic aspect of the myth of Angkor (Pottier, 2000). In the same way, it is classic elements such as the history and architecture of Angkor that nourish the rhetoric of the tourist industry: “Tour guidebooks bombard the visitor with a seemingly endless amount of information about the kings of Angkor, their dates of rule, chronological shifts in architectural style, between styles of sculpture and a bewildering list of gods, demons and their various avatars” (Winter, 2009, p.9). In contrast, visitors receive very little information about Buddhist monasteries near temples or about the multitude of local spiritual sanctuaries. The villages crossed by the millions of visitors who join the temples are not highlighted. If they are inscribed on the tourist maps available on the spot it is for the legibility of the site but in no way to be highlighted or encouraged to visit. The designation of Angkor as an isolated World Heritage has contributed to a spatial rupture (Winter, 2004) and does not promote awareness of its intangible character by visitors (Lloyd, 2013a). The local spirits, the annual ceremonies and the spiritual places, so important for the local population, remain unknown for the visitors (Lloyd, 2013b).

Furthermore, the physical aspect of a place can be seen as the logical starting point of any tourism motivation, since living heritage can not motivate the tourist to move (Morisset and Noppen, 2005). According to the authors, visitors travel to discover a place that differs from their usual living environment and this place is first distinguished by its material configuration. Our approach using the mental maps showed that the materiality of the temples strongly marks the imaginary of the visitors and they showed little curiosity when we tell them about the presence of 120,000 inhabitants among these temples. Hence, visitors who are unaware of Angkor’s living character may not be interested in this aspect of heritage (Lloyd, 2013b), preferring to keep in mind the idea of an abandoned city. Thus, in order to satisfy the wishes of visitors, the tourism industry does not seem to need to diversify the tourist, demonstrating the performative character of tourist imaginaries.

So, lost city or inhabited site? Angkor presents this situation of juxtaposing two places existing independently of each other without apparently wanting (or being able) to meet.


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[2] UNESCO (2003), Convention pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine culturel immatériel



Juliette Augerot