Former Washington Post journalist-turned-temple-author John Burgess has had a long-lasting love affair with Angkor.
“What’s not to love?” he says. “Beauty, history, adventure, mystery, culture, spirituality, flawless sandstone architecture, all on a majestic scale.”
Which is probably why he has written about it profusely after visiting Angkor numerous times.
He first visited Angkor as a teenager in 1969. Since then, he’s been back to Siem Reap in 1980, 2002, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2015 and 2017. On each of those trips he’s undertaken “multiple visits” to Angkor, plus he’s written four books about Angkor, with a fifth book just published.
Two books are fiction including ‘A Woman of Angkor’, a rollicking historic novel set in twelfth-century Angkor and praised by the late John le Carré who wrote: “Burgess has done something I believe is unique: set a credible and seemingly authentic tale in the courts and temples of ancient Angkor…”
Two of Burgess’s past books about Angkor are non-fiction as is his just-published new work titled, ‘Angkor’s Temples in the Modern Era: War, Pride, and Tourist Dollars’.
Describing his new book, Burgess says: “Most history books about Angkor are about ancient glories and the long slumber in the forest. My book is about what came after, the many personalities who showed up in modern times, their hidden stories.”
“Angkor is so amazing that people won’t leave it alone. Ever since the French reintroduced it to the world in the 1860s, it’s been drawing people from pretty much everywhere to study it, possess it, worship it, or vacation in it,” he says.
Researching the book was like a “treasure hunt of finding old stuff”, Burgess says, but the biggest treasure for Burgess was discovering Angkor for the first time in 1969.
“I was 18,” he says. “I had spent about half my childhood years in Asia – my father was a diplomat – and I spent time living in India, Indonesia, and then Thailand, where my dad was the UNICEF director.”
“My mother and I flew, I think in August, from Bangkok via Phnom Penh for a several-day visit. In 1969, there was a feeling of serenity and time frozen. My mother and I rode around in a van with perhaps a half dozen other tourists,” he recalls.
“My main memory of that visit is getting up early one day and going alone to Angkor Wat and having the place to myself. I recall being enchanted, emotionally pulled into the place, even as an American teenager,” Burgess says.
But when he returned in April 1980, as one of the first western journalists admitted by the new government, he discovered a different Angkor.
“Perhaps the biggest change was in the mood,” he says. “In 1969, Angkor was quiet, at peace. It was a comfortable place for a foreigner to visit. In 1980, it was a conflict zone. Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers were standing guard at many spots around the temple. We moved around with an armed Cambodian guard.”
The new book also gives a fascinating insight into modern era tourism.
“The French colonial authorities worked long and hard to promote tourism at Angkor and the rest of Indochina,” Burgess says. “Among other things, they tried to depict Indochina as the perfect place for big game hunting, no doubt envious of the rich hunters who were going to European colonies in Africa.
“In those days, people who travelled internationally for leisure were mostly wealthy Europeans and Americans, doing months-long tours of Asia, as were Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in 1936,” explains Burgess.
Moves were made at the time to improve tourism and the airport opened in 1932 – prior to this, tourists arrived in four-seater open-cockpit flying boats that landed on the Angkor Wat moat.
“Tourism was promoted through advertising in Europe, construction of roads, the distribution of brochures – the cover of the new book is from one of them,” Burgess says.
“In general, tourism was quite a big concern of the administration in Hanoi, where officials saw it as an economic engine and a way to demonstrate to the world that France was taking good care of this great gem of human creativity. In other words, a justification for colonial rule,” he says.
Tourist numbers were initially small: in January-June 1935, the high season, 1,695 tourists, or about nine people a day, visited Angkor.
Tourism fell away during World War II, then resumed, and by 1970, it had reached a level of about 50,000 a year.
In 2018, 2.6 million foreign tourists visited the temple. This fell to 2.2 million last year, and this year’s figures will be a shocker.
But Burgess proffers some sage advice as to how to reset Angkor tourism post-pandemic.
“I understand the intense pain that the COVID-19 shutdown has imposed on the people of Siem Reap,” he says. “But I’ve wondered whether there might be some rethinking of tourism as it resumes. Things like figuring out ways to spread the crowds out, to channel people to places other than the big temples at the Angkor core.”
Burgess says: “I think that if tourism goes back to its unrelenting march to ever-higher levels, the future might be in trouble.”