By Global Travel Editor Costas Christ
To get a glimpse of what Angkor was like before mass tourism arrived, head to Koh Ker, a group of mostly unexcavated temples dating back over 1,000 years, including Prasat Thom, the highest temple pyramid in Cambodia. There is no place to overnight, so you have to day-trip it out from Siem Reap, which is about 90 miles away (you can negotiate a hired vehicle for around $50 to $75).
At Koh Ker, the jungle encrusted ruins stand much as they have for centuries—in the middle of no where. Although not as large as Angkor, they remain free from tourist crowds due to the remote location and a rough road leading to it (a new paved road is now two-thirds complete). There’s another reason the crowds stay away: While exploring Koh Ker, you are likely to hear explosions from land mines around the unexcavated temples still being unearthed and destroyed in a systematic process. This makes it important to keep to the well-marked trails.
One group is working to prevent Koh Ker from becoming another Angkor mass tourism site, where the local people have largely been excluded from the economic benefits of tourism development. Koh Ker is the pilot project of Heritage Watch, a Cambodia-based NGO that was started by archeologists to curb looting from remote temple sites and promote sustainable tourism. Its goal is to help local villagers empower themselves with capacity-building projects, including bee keeping, ox cart tours, and palm sugar candy making as part of a village micro-enterprise initiative to help generate economic income from tourists who make the journey to Koh Ker. Bou Rithy (pictured with local kids), the program’s director who lost a leg to a land mine when he was 19-years-old (though you’d never guess it from how he gets around on his motorcycle), believes that sustainable tourism done right can help make his country free from the scourge of land mines. It is a glimpse of hope in a challenging tourism development reality for Cambodia.
- Nat Geo Expeditions