The Downsides of Popularity

Do you ever feel that it’s too late to visit some places that have become overly popular?

I just recently read an article about visiting Angkor Wat (for the first-time tourist), and while it explained a lot about the site itself, it conveniently omitted the realities of what it means to visit that complex (and the area in general). I went there for the third time this past February, and I can say that it’s changed so much that I won’t be going back there again. The unspeakable crowds that have already swollen by 7 or 8 in the morning, the scaffolding that covers much of the monuments (Angkor Wat in particular) due to restoration, the boardwalks and roped-off areas in previously more atmospheric temples like Ta Prohm, and the unbelievable number of massive tour buses ejecting scores of tourists. I was so glad that I visited that area back in 2001, when I went the first time. Although we never had the temples completely to ourselves, they were still mostly empty, you often got tours from the local children hanging about, and it wasn’t uncommon to see old monks or nuns praying in secluded areas of various temples (a la Steve McCurry*).

In reading about other people’s experiences (for example: Easter Island), I’ve realized that there are some places that I’ve always wanted to go to, that now I probably never will, due to their over-popularity. In particular, Macchu Picchu, Easter Island, the Galapagos,and Potala Palace (and Tibet in general) are a few on my bucket list that will probably always remain there. And it’s not just about the popularity, but also about the management of these places, and whether my going there actually does more harm than good.

Last year I went to Burma and Bhutan, and although I doubt that the latter will ever become a huge tourist mecca, the fact that they are allowing more and more tourists in every year will no doubt change what people find magical about it now. And with everyone rushing off to Burma now, well, I’m glad I went when I did (and even then I thought it was too late). Ha Long Bay in Vietnam in 2005 was already way over-touristed and I found nothing magical about the place, despite the photos that show otherwise.

I also don’t want to over-romanticize places and people that were in much more dire situations than before: it’s good that I don’t have children guiding me because that means they’re in school, I’ve seen the benefits of tourism in better roads and road safety (people tend to wear helmets), you don’t see as many whole-families-on-bikes as you used to, and generally the locals are not as desperate for your custom as they used to be. I know it’s rare to re-caputre the magic of the first time you visit places, but I guess I can’t help but be nostalgic about them, when they still were a little off-the-beaten-track and you still had a sense of the country and culture you were in.

In any event, I know that some people will probably agree with me, and some won’t. I’ve been thinking more about it, and I’ve come to realize that my feelings are highly influenced by two things: if I’ve been to a particular location before and have since revisited it, and/or how well known the place is to the general public (and not just to hard-core travellers, although I wouldn’t necessarily put myself in that category). To look at the examples I’ve posted above, I went to Cambodia back in 2001 when it was probably on most backpackers SE Asia itineraries, but not tour groups (how could they? the roads could not cope with tour buses in any way back then). Fast forward to 2005 when it was an incomprehensible blur of tours and construction sites at every corner; and then 2012 when things were more settled.  I realised that I missed the old Cambodia, even though it was poorer, more desperate, more uncomfortable….I realised that that back then it also felt more authentic. This was still a Cambodia for Cambodians…tourists were still guests, still strangers, to the country. Back in 2001 we were constantly being warned about straying off main trails because of the landmine danger. There were still kids hanging about the temples trying to earn a buck or two off gullible tourists, but they were entertaining. How else could I have seen “the most beautiful woman in the world” carved into the wall at Ta Prohm? Or have had numerous Khmer Rouge bullet holes pointed out to me? Or have had hilarious stories of Japanese tourists falling off the temples (although those did hit a little closer to home?). Instead, my interaction in 2012 was mostly with other tourists (or trying to avoid them), or dealing with locals out of necessity (water, toilets, etc.) In some ways I was glad to see that it was no longer possible to scale the walls of Angkor Wat like we could back in 2001, but at the same time, I’m glad that I was able to relish that experience for all that it was worth — even though I was terrified going up and down the temple and feared that I would be like one of those Japanese tourists falling off the miniscule stairs to the hard stones below! Is Angkor Wat still worth visiting if you’ve never seen it before? Yes, absolutely. Is it (mostly) the same experience it was ten years ago? Absolutely not.  Be prepared for massive crowds, lots of scaffolding (restoration work), and limited access in some places.  The “lost in the jungle” temple of Ta Prohm?  Of course everybody goes there, it’s incredibly scenic, but most of the best areas are roped off, and you are generally limited to the boardwalks that go through the temple (being forced along by all the crowds there as well).  And for all the naysayers out there, yes, I do know that you can go to some of the smaller temples to avoid the crowds, or at different times of day (I’ve done both) but it doesn’t help when you do want to go to the iconic places, especially when the light is right, and have to deal with the mess that surrounds you.

Well, I didn’t mean for this to focus on Angkor Wat in particular, but I think it’s a good example of the dangers of overpopularity, or perhaps the Disneyfication of tourism.  Huge crowds, long lines, expensive charges/goods, etc. We know they’re there, the difference is when travel writers, whether professionals or amateurs, journalists or bloggers, continue to spout about the “magical” properties of certain places, without giving any indication to what it’s really like there.  And Angkor Wat is definitely one of those places that many people see or remember with rose-coloured glasses, despite the realities right in front of them.

*Note: I love Steve McCurry.  He’s one of my favourite travel photographers.  His pictures are definitely iconic.  I’ve seen him speak and he has admitted himself that he could never take the photos he took back then now.  Even though those photographs were taken only 15 years ago, the place has just changed too much.

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