What caused the collapse of Angkor

Without tourists, Angkor belongs to the Khmer again - but the economic consequences are serious

90 percent of the population of Siem Reap lives from tourism. The high season would have started now. But an industry is collapsing in Cambodia.

"Covid is a disaster." The 25-year-old Kheang sits on his plastic chair under a shady tree and shakes his head in resignation. At the age of ten he was already selling postcards, small sculptures and souvenirs of all kinds in Angkor. Today he works at Angkor Entreprise in a neat uniform at the access control. His four work colleagues, who are bored playing with their cell phones, nod. At the end of October in Cambodia - as in Thailand - the main travel season actually started. But the 2020/21 season will to a certain extent take place without tourists.

Two million visitors - now there is a standstill

The world-famous temple complexes of Angkor shine in an enchanting light after the saturated rainy season. It is a natural stage without equal and almost without people: the huge water reservoirs, the so-called «baray», once the basis of life for the Khmer civilization, are full to the brim; Birds and insects whistle and chirp around the clock. The spectacle includes individual monks in their saffron-colored robes, who find meditative calm in the abandoned ruins.

The central importance of the sacred buildings for tourism in the Southeast Asian kingdom can only be guessed at these days: the wide boulevard that leads from Siem Reap towards Angkor Wat is not very busy. The large parking spaces in front of the ticket counters, where the coaches stop and queues form, where otherwise local travel guides wave and souvenir sellers advertise their goods, appear bizarre oversized and deserted. Not only ticket sellers and ticket inspectors like Kheang have little to do at the moment; an entire industry is collapsing here.

Basis of life Textile and tourism

On normal days before the Corona crisis, 7,000 to 8,000 foreign visitors flocked to Angkor every day; that is around 2.5 million annually, which corresponds to almost half of all tourists that the kingdom attracts. Now Angkor is literally owned by the locals again: Currently, only 20 to 30 foreigners are counted per day. For twenty years the frequencies rose incessantly. The tourist infrastructure was expanded accordingly, including an information center. English became the second national language and branches of hotel management schools were springing up. And of course thousands found employment here.

The temples, which have been entwined with plants over the centuries and, to a certain extent, recaptured by nature, have been diligently worked on in recent years: international teams of experts have carried out renovations or even rebuilt historical buildings from rubble. Practically all work is now suspended. After years of tragedy in the 1970s and 1980s, Angkor's temples once again embody the pride and cultural center of Cambodia. Nothing will change about that. But many can no longer make a living from it for the moment.

Recapture through nature

Even 27-year-old Oung, who is sitting with a radio in front of the famous Bayon Temple these days, has little to do. He used to keep an eye on tourist groups from sunrise and enforce the very strict rules of behavior: no climbing in the ruins, no jumping from the balustrades, no peeing and picnic bans, no loud parties and no rubbish. Chinese visitors in particular have increasingly provided work, he says. Now Oung has completely different worries: Angkor Entreprise has introduced short-time working and practically halved salaries. The government is doing nothing to cushion the situation, he complains, and the local banks are insisting on timely payments despite Prime Minister Hun Sen's appeal.

Nature, it is often said casually, is regaining its place. This applies - once again - in an impressive way to Angkor's unique architecture. But the idyll in the country has its downside: The entry ban issued in April has brought another major industry to its knees. After the textile industry, which is also vital for Cambodia and has been affected by the economic crisis in the western sales markets, the billions in income from tourism and jobs are now disappearing.

Expensive microloans and unemployed returnees

Another problem is household debt: the microcredit institutes popular among the poorer classes are showing signs of a wave of bankruptcies. Because most of the 15 million Cambodians do not yet have access to a bank, institutions for small-scale financing have sprung up in recent years. Now the economic problems are accumulating: Thousands of workers who were legally or illegally employed in neighboring Thailand and thus supported their family members in Cambodia have returned. Now Thailand is also in crisis, the borders are tight and the income streams dry up.

Cambodia has so far recorded comparatively few Covid-19 cases. Officially, there is only talk of about 300 infections; So far there have been no deaths related to the disease. This is an astonishing statistic, but it corresponds to the low numbers that are also reported from the neighboring countries Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. This group of Southeast Asian countries has apparently managed to keep the epidemic under control. The means to do this: The four countries are no longer issuing entry visas and have closed their external borders. The collateral damage, however, can be seen in a dramatic way in Angkor: the tourism sector has come to a complete standstill.

The beggars are back

Virginie Kury, the country manager of the tour operator Asian Trails, believes the information about such low infection rates is very good. The Cambodian government has given the protection of the population from Covid-19 top priority; this has mainly to do with the situation in the healthcare system, which would not be able to cope with a major outbreak. Economic considerations thus took a back seat. This will end a long phase of economic upswing in 2020, which led to a remarkable reduction in poverty. But now the economic misery is spreading again.

Nowhere is this change more visible than in Siem Reap. In the provincial capital, around 90% of the population live from tourism. It is now known as the “ghost town”. This is a bit of an exaggeration because most of the shops remain open. But many hotels and restaurants are completely empty. In the entertainment mile “Pub Street”, guests can be counted on two hands these days; the otherwise omnipresent coaches have disappeared from the cityscape. The beggars, on the other hand, are back in the streets.

A challenge for the relief organizations too

According to Samuel Flint, director of the Temple Garden Foundation (TGF) relief organization in Cambodia, the current crisis also poses additional challenges for humanitarian initiatives. For a large part of the population, the setback came out of the blue, so to speak; in developing countries like Cambodia, it primarily affects the poorest. Aid projects that strengthen the resilience of village communities with regard to employment, training, self-sufficiency and infrastructure are more important than ever.

The effects of the Covid crisis in Cambodia can be seen in another aid organization, whose activities are well known in Switzerland and whose signature is significantly obvious on the arterial road towards Angkor Wat: when Dr. Beat Richner founded the Children's Hospital Kantha Bopha. Nothing has changed there in terms of the lively influx of mothers and their little patients. But the financial contribution that the Children’s Hospital Fund received from the Angkor visitor flow every day. $ 2 per entry ticket goes to the children's hospital. In good times that was a considerable support. In bad times like now, however, this source has almost dried up.