Today is formally called the International Day for Monuments and Sites (informally, World Heritage Day). Activities around the world include visits to monuments and heritage sites, conferences, round tables and newspaper articles. Each year has a theme. Last year (2017) was sustainable tourism. The International Day for Monuments and Sites was proposed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) on 18 April 1982 and approved by the General Assembly of UNESCO in 1983. The aim is to promote awareness about the diversity of cultural heritage of humanity, their vulnerability and the efforts required for their protection and conservation.
I’m more than slightly ambivalent about the whole “world heritage” thing. On the one hand there are many countries who can benefit from having sites designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites. The designation brings attention to them and attracts tourists. Although not an unalloyed benefit, tourism can bring in much-needed foreign currency. There are downsides, however, and the designation is completely uneven. Some European countries have a long list of sites, while Third World countries usually have a bare handful at best. Furthermore, what counts as a site worthy of attention can be really vague. The banks of the Seine in Paris, for example, are a heritage site. Why not the banks of the Tonlé Sap river in Phnom Penh. They have been the site of major events in Cambodian history for 1,000 years or more. Are chain-smoking French intellectuals and artists hanging out in Left Bank cafes more inherently worthy of notice than Khmer peasants and monks? What about the Devon coast? Sure it’s pleasant, and has been associated with art and literature for a long time. So what? Aren’t there thousands of coastlines worldwide that are equally attractive and of historic interest? To dig deeper into the issues, let me focus on Angkor in Cambodia because I have visited a number of times with guests.
Angkor was designated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992. Foreigners typically do not understand that Angkor is a great deal more than Angkor Wat (which is the centerpiece and of fundamental importance to Cambodian history). Angkor is a 400 km2 zone containing hundreds of temples of various ages, and the UNESCO site encompasses it all. Foreigners (and most Cambodians) are not allowed in Angkor before dawn or after dusk except in certain places that are listed as “must see” places. Chief of these is the area to the west of Angkor Wat where tourists are encouraged to experience sunrise over the temple. In consequence, foreigners are dutifully shuttled in their thousands to a parking lot near the lake by the Wat in the pre-dawn hours, via tuk tuk or bus, to pick their way over rocky paths and steps in the dark to await the great moment. I have done this on 3 occasions with guests and know the ropes by now. First problem is that the vast majority do not even know what sunrise is. They click a few photos with their phones at first light, and then drift off to stand in line for entrance to the Bakan, the highest point in the central tower. They completely miss the actual rising of the sun, which, in my ever-humble opinion, is pretty ordinary in comparison with sunrises I have experienced in other places. Second problem is that this same vast majority pay scant, or no, attention to all there is to see in the general Angkor Wat complex – which is enormously complex. I have been 4 times, and barely scratched the surface (not literally I hasten to add).
Before Angkor was a UNESCO site there were almost no foreign visitors. In 1993, there were only 7,650 visitors to the site. A great deal of the paucity of tourists previously is directly attributable to various wars and the dominance of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, of course. The UNESCO designation was a major component in the reconstruction of Cambodia in general. By 2004, government figures show that 561,000 foreign visitors had arrived in Siem Reap province that year, approximately 50% of all foreign tourists in Cambodia. The number reached over 1 million in 2007, and over 2 million by 2012. Most of them visited Angkor (particularly Angkor Wat), which had over 2 million foreign tourists in 2013. The influx of tourists has so far caused relatively little damage, other than some graffiti, and bits of wear and tear. Ropes and wooden steps have been introduced to protect the bas-reliefs and floors. Tourism has provided much-needed funds for maintenance and restoration—as of 2000 approximately 28% of ticket revenues across the whole Angkor site was spent on the temples—although most work is carried out by teams sponsored by foreign governments rather than by the Cambodian authorities.
Since Angkor Wat has seen significant growth in tourism throughout the years, UNESCO and its International Co-ordinating Committee for the Safeguarding and Development of the Historic Site of Angkor (ICC), in association with representatives from the Royal Government and the Authority for the Protection of the Site and Management of the Region of Angkor (APSARA), organized seminars to discuss the concept of “cultural tourism.” Wanting to avoid commercial and mass tourism, the seminars emphasized the importance of providing high quality accommodation and services in order for the Cambodian government to benefit economically, while also incorporating the richness of Cambodian culture. In 2001, this incentive resulted in the concept of the “Angkor Tourist City” which would be developed based on traditional Khmer architecture, contain leisure and tourist facilities, and provide luxurious hotels capable of accommodating large numbers of tourists.
The prospect of developing such large tourist accommodations has encountered concerns from both APSARA and the ICC, claiming that previous tourism developments in the area have neglected construction regulations and these projects have the potential to damage landscape features. Also, the large scale of these projects have begun to threaten the quality of Siem Reap’s water, sewage, and electricity systems. It has been noted that such high frequency of tourism and growing demand for quality accommodations in the area, such as the development of a large highway, has had a direct effect on the underground water table, subsequently straining the structural stability of the temples at Angkor Wat. Locals of Siem Reap have also voiced concern that the charm and atmosphere of their town have been ruined in order to entertain tourism. I am wholeheartedly in agreement. I have taken the time to explore parts of Siem Reap that are quite different from Angkor, but every bit as intriguing. Last time I was there I spent several hours exploring Wat Bo, which is filled with stupas of various ages, murals, and sacred enclosures, and in all that time I saw no tourists – zero – they were all off in search of the Night Market and Pub Street where they could get cheap beer, schlocky souvenirs, and overpriced massages. All good for the economy but terrible for local culture – which UNESCO is supposed to be promoting.
UNESCO has a category of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is designed to incorporate parts of a culture that are not solid structures: things such as dance, music, AND FOOD. Here too the designation is spotty and also vague. Naples has been fighting for some time now to make Neapolitan pizza an intangible heritage, and it was granted in 2017. I am not sure why, since EU regulations encompass a wide range of foods that have protected status of different types, including the Cornish pasty, Stilton, and Herefordshire cider (for people who know anything about English food and drink). Most UNESCO food designations are so general as to be worthless. Mexican food, for example, is one. You might as well characterize the cuisine of any country in this way. Mexican cooking is regionally distinctive, so that designating the cuisine of the whole nation as special is ridiculous. Or, how about The Mediterranean Diet? This encompasses the dishes of Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, and parts of France at minimum. Fortunately, some recipes are quite specific, such as Croatian licitars (gingerbread) which I have mentioned before: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/roerich-pact/ French baguettes are now fighting for the status. I cannot remotely understand why. Bakers are pushing for the designation to combat inferior supermarket bread. Good luck with that. UNESCO status will not soften the taste buds of morons with cardboard palates.
For today’s recipe I suggest you go rogue and find the best regional cooking you can wherever you are, and revel in it. Good regional cooking is still available just about everywhere – even in the US – if you know where to look. The US may look like a wasteland of hotdogs and hamburgers, but there are amazing treats in store if you get off the beaten path. One of my favorites is Cincinnati chilli, or Kentucky smoked mutton. North Carolina pulled pork and pork BBQ are also old friends. Your challenge today is to find a dish locally that you would designate for UNESCO status. Cambodian sour fish soup gets my vote today.