More than a dozen years ago I visited Ta Prohm, the famous Tomb Raider temple, with my girlfriend. As we walked along the dirt path that led from the east gate to the temple itself, I became distracted by everything around me: branches hanging from trees that didn’t exist in the United States, tourists from all over the world, bugs that wouldn’t quit flying into my ear. Suddenly my girlfriend grabbed me and used her full 42 kilograms to pull me aside, breaking my stride and making me stumble. I quickly realized why: I had almost stepped on a massive black scorpion. We hurried down the path away from the alien creature that had attempted to murder me and away from the crowds of tourists laughing at my terror.
After a long break, I finally returned to Ta Prohm this week, during the Age of Corona, and a lot has changed. The girlfriend was no longer there. Though I had pledged my everlasting gratitude to her at the time for saving my life, our relationship lasted only a couple of months more (probably because of my terrified whimpering). More interesting was that the crowds weren’t there, either. I was totally alone except for the scorpion, which was presumably still hiding somewhere along the path, plotting my destruction.
In fact, most of the temples now sit empty or nearly empty. The drop in tourist travel thanks to the worldwide spread of COVID-19 has proved immune even to a Cambodian Ministry of Tourism promotion. On February 26th the Ministry announced that it was extending the duration of Angkor entrance tickets: one-day tickets are now valid for two days, three-day tickets for five days, and seven-day tickets for a full ten days. However, this offer was soon rendered mostly pointless by the government’s increasingly drastic anti-coronavirus measures, including the mid-March ban on entry for travelers from Italy, Germany, Spain, France, and the United States and then the temporary elimination of all visa waivers.
The ticket promotions have, however, allowed more expats like me to visit the temples and enjoy the quiet on the cheap. And quiet it is. Yesterday I rode a tuk tuk from Phsar Leu on National Road 6 to the Angkor Ticket Office, and from there through the Angkor Park checkpoint and the eastern part of the park to the village of Preah Dak and then to Banteay Srey. On the way back I stopped and walked around three temples: Preah Rup, Banteay Kdei, and Ta Prohm. During the entire trip I saw only ten foreigners — fewer than I’d normally see in tuk tuks even before getting to the checkpoint.
The statistics collected by the Angkor Park staff tell the same tale. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is one of the quintessential experiences in Cambodia, and the ticket office is usually bustling before the crack of dawn to get tour groups and individual tourists off to the park for the spectacle. As of 10 a.m. on March 31 only 12 people had bought Angkor tickets, and statistics from Angkor Enterprise confirm that no additional tickets were sold that day. By contrast, in January 5,000 to 10,000 tourists bought tickets every day. Entries into individual temples reflected the same trend. At midday Preah Rup had seen four tourists, Banteay Kdei, 5, and Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple, all of 15.
These stats are collected by Angkor Park staff, who seem to outnumber the tourists. Anyone who has a job these days is very lucky, even a job outside in the intensifying Cambodian heat, but there’s not much work to be done. Normally park staff would be checking tickets, telling tourists they can’t enter the temples in bikinis, and stopping people from climbing on the walls behind the “Do Not Climb” signs. Now there’s not much to do but sit around and play games on your phone.
My favorite tourist policeman, whom I would see every day during my morning tour, has stripped down to an undershirt and seems to be substituting the local rice wine for his normal tea. The story is different for the non-salaried Cambodians who work in the park, but not for the park. Most of the restaurants and drink stalls are empty. The minimal potential income from the handful of tourists coming through is apparently far outweighed by the desire to go home, stay away from foreigners, and, probably, play games on phones there.
The few visitors to the park can enjoy an emptiness that has been rarely experienced since the French colonial era. You can walk around Angkor Wat, one of the most famous religious structures in the world, and hardly see another soul. The climb up the central tower, which usually requires standing in line for an hour or more, no longer has a wait. The famous bas-relief of the Churning of the Sea of Milk can be enjoyed and photographed from any angle without danger of random tourists’ photobombs.
Ta Prohm has the same tomb-like quiet. You can roam around and feel just like Angelina Jolie looking for whatever it was she was looking for. Except for the wooden walkways restricting your freedom of movement, and the occasional sound of stones being pounded by restoration workers right next to the temple, and the inaccessibility of the underground room where the stone statues have come to life to attack you (closed for renovation until 2021), it’s just like the movie.
The price is right and the experience is awesome. And with temperatures rising to 40 degrees and beyond in the weeks ahead, and further emergency measures a good possibility, now is the time to check out the Angkor temples. It really might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Do beware the scorpion at Ta Prohm, though.