Above: Short film of Angkor Wat and surrounding monuments that I shot during my visit last spring. The incredible place was mired only by the tourist hordes amid the poverty of the local inhabitants.

I remember quite clearly as our bus pulled into the station at Siem Reap, amid a swarm of tuk-tuk drivers clamouring and clawing to be the first to catch our eye, and thereby claim our business. A few men reached in the window, tugging at the edges of my shirt as I gathered my pack and headed for the door.

Into the melee. An overwhelming chorus of voices shouting the lowest fares possible. Some wanted mere pennies to take us into downtown. I could barely here my own thoughts as it was impossible to tell which of young drivers was sincere, and which would drive us back to their friends’ guesthouse for a commission.

A hand pinched my nipple. That was enough.

My girlfriend Karen spotted another driver behind the crowd, wearing a baseball hat and a holding a sign with the words, Cheap driver, no pressure. We didn’t hesitate.

“Okay, we’ve made our decision!” I shouted back at the drivers. The noise suddenly disappeared, as if time itself had stopped. “We’re going with him.” I pointed to the quiet driver in the back. A wave of momentary anger erupted, but suddenly the men were smiling and patting me on the back. Okay, okay, they said, and the swarm left to find new game.

Barely three minutes in Siem Reap is enough to witness the effect of tourists in a country like Cambodia, where a third of the 14 million residents earn less than 56 cents a day. We had arrived like the other 700 thousand would this year, to see the temples of Angkor, architectural wonders “lost” to the Western world until the last century. We climbed into our chosen tuk-tuk and motored into the city.

CNN recently published an article on the boom in the growing Cambodian town of Siem Reap, a sight I witnessed last spring first-hand.

The steady boom has already transformed Siem Reap into a bustling town filled with luxury hotels and vehicles. Its streets are adorned with billboards promoting the latest mobile phones, pizza and burger joints and shopping malls. Several notable old buildings have been razed to make way for visitors’ lodgings, and honky-tonk strips have sprung up catering to low-budget travelers.

“The identity Siem Reap had for centuries is gradually disappearing, or maybe almost disappeared,” said Teruo Jinnai, director in Cambodia of the U.N. cultural organization UNESCO, and a 10-year resident of the country. “You have restaurants, massage parlors, hotels, and it’s very sad to see that.”

I felt the clutches of “modernization” as I arrived at my hotel ($10/night, expensive by Cambodian standards) who’s owners also owned two upscale restaurants on the “tourist strip” a few streets away. The hotel owners must have taken a lesson in brand marketing as my girlfriend and I naturally (almost unconsciously) ended up dining at their restaurant, even though it was decorated with imitation Khmer artifacts that wouldn’t have been out of place in Las Vegas.

As far as I could tell, the food was authentic. But then again, so were the child beggars in the street nagging you to buy their stack of postcards, in exchange for $1 and hearing how much they knew about your home country. (“Oh you from Canada? Big country, lot’s of snow!”)

Along with significant energy, garbage, and pollution problems, the burgeoning hotels are tapping unregulated into the groundwater to meet the rising demand. There’s speculation of how this put the Angkor monuments at risk:

“Water is being drawn from 70-80 meters (230-260 feet) underground by hotels and treated for use,” warned the World Bank, noting that no one was quite certain how this affects the aquifers, or underground layers of rocks and sand, from which it is pumped.

Already though, “one of Angkor’s temples is reportedly falling into a sinkhole, suggesting that the underground aquifers may be rapidly disappearing,” said the report.

Meanwhile, the tourist hordes (of which I was one of them) continue to explore Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples of Bayon, Ta Prohm, and Bakheng, largely oblivious to the effects of our visit. Though you have to wonder, as I did, when you see hordes of buses pull up to each temple like clockwork, proceed to unload an impossible number of aging vacationers, lead them throughout the grounds, then motor off before any locals have a chance to earn much from the “tourist boom”.

Ticket sales at the Angkor gates provide salaries for a number of Cambodians, along with a source of revenue to maintain the temples. Yet huge amounts of people arrive via these package tours and exist largely in their own bubble – their buses, hotels, and restaurants are all owned by the same (usually foreign) company, which means little money “trickles down” towards local infrastructure and development.

I’ll bet this story is familiar for many developing countries. They struggle to develop other sources of income, yet must accept the consequences of visitors along with the benefits.

It appears the Cambodian tourism minister Thong Khon is ready to accept a Japanese development plan for managing the tourist boom, which includes tapping underground water from a site further away from the temples. According to the CNN article,

He sees a bright future for Siem Reap, in which the province won’t just be a destination for touring the temples but will also become a hub providing air links for tourists to enjoy the sandy beaches of southwestern Cambodia and ecotourism in the jungles of the northeast.

He envisions that by promoting a diversity of destinations, the crowds will be distributed around the country, and the Angkor temples won’t get “too jammed up.”

It’s a nice thought.

Having also visited these sandy beaches in southwestern Cambodia it may be slightly optimistic to believe the same problem won’t be visited upon these diversified areas. In Sihanoukville, chatting with locals revealed a similar trend: developers pushing off locals to make way for their beach hotels, using such tactics as intimidation and “strong-arming” anyone who stood in their way.

Tourism: a mixed blessing just about anywhere you find it.

What do you think? Just the way tourism works? Or have you come across any examples of tourism benefitting the local populations and preserving the host environment?