Many years ago when we lived in South East Asia, Angkor Wat had been one of the top places on the list of places I wanted to see. It was almost three decades later, this year, when I finally travelled to Cambodia and found my feelings about Angkor Wat were mixed. The ruins were awesome, in the true meaning of the overused word, but the crowds …
While I walked around the temples of Angkor, at times I found it hard to switch off and dodge the phenomenal number of tourists, at their worst in large noisy glutinous groups. The once scarcely know site of multiple temple ruins set amidst jungle, had become a victim of its own popularity. Even starting the day well before dawn, it was impossible to find space to simply sit and be. There were only snatches of peace and spirituality to be found in those brief moments when the crowds were stilled and when we visited the outer circuit of temples. And this was not during peak tourist season.
Obviously it is now a desirable, if not iconic, place to go and to be seen to go to. Maybe that is the problem. In this world of social media and Instagram, when the perfect photo or selfie is so important, has that become the aim and main purpose of travel rather than the actual act of travel and experiencing a place and culture?
After the craziness of Siem Reap we went on to the temple ruins at Sambor Prei Kuk, dating back to the 6th century and some of the oldest in the country. At last we found some space and tranquillity, but alas two young French couples were trying to get that perfect photo of their partners in front of each ruin. Out of politeness, probably due to the lack of crowds, we waited endless minutes before viewing the temple ourselves as they cavorted and posed and pouted at the cameras on their iPhones. By the time we got to the third of the temples — unfortunately we were taking the same route around the ruins — we could no longer contain ourselves and walked into their ‘photo space’. They might have been students of ancient history and already with knowledge of these impressive monuments, or they might have no interest in the temples other than a backdrop to their photos. All I observed was their guide stood rarely speaking and impassively watching before leading them on to the next temple.
I now hesitate to go to Machu Pincchu, another destination I have longed to visit. Perhaps the fact that it is on top of a mountain will spare it from the worst of the crowds. But no, then I think of how Mt Everest, once the place only experienced climbers could even think about ascending, has now become the must-do-place for anyone with enough money and reasonable level of fitness. Yet at what expense to the lives of ‘sherpas’, fellow climbers and guides, and with what impact on the environment?
I still long to travel, but I suppose I shall have to accept that it is never going to be that intrepid adventure into an unknown country, not knowing where or if there will be a bed for the night, no mobile or landline phones and not even a guidebook never mind internet to help you out. Nor will it be with a slide film in my manual camera requiring each precious photo to be carefully shot at the right exposure and speed, only to be developed and seen upon reaching home. There must be few places on mother earth that have not been visited and if I do come across some wonderful wilderness I will be sure not to take a photo on my smart phone and add the location to my Instagram or Facebook.