Cambodia’s most popular tourist attraction — the complex of ancient temples that includes Angkor Wat — is suffering from a form of overexposure: At least five foreign visitors have been arrested and deported this year for taking nude photos at the sacred sites.
Authorities have no tolerance for people stripping down at Angkor Archaeological Park, a sprawling, centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Site that drew 2 million visitors last year. The incidents are also upsetting to ordinary Cambodians, for whom the Khmer-era complex holds enormous spiritual and historical significance.
“Angkor Wat is the most famous sacred … temple in Cambodia, where everyone — not only tourists but also Cambodians themselves — has to pay respect,” said Rattanak Te, an administrative assistant who lives in Phnom Penh, the capital. “It definitely upsets me and all Cambodians, because outsiders will think we — Cambodian people — are careless and do not take good care of this World Heritage (site) by allowing these tourists to do such an unacceptable act.”
This month, guards arrested two American sisters after seeing them snap photos of each other’s naked backsides in the temple of Preah Khan, said Kerya Chau Sun, spokeswoman for the Apsara Authority, which manages the temple complex in Siem Reap, in northwestern Cambodia. Lindsey Adams, 22, and Leslie Adams, 20, both of Prescott, Arizona, were each sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence, a fine of 1 million riel ($250), deportation and a four-year ban from the country.
In January, three French men in their 20s were deported after they were caught taking nude photographs at Angkor complex. Another photo showing a topless woman at the site has circulated on social media, but officials believe it is fake, according to Chau Sun. Three tourists were also caught riding a motorbike naked near Phnom Penh in January, according to local media.
Reached via email, one of the Frenchmen, Rodolphe Fourgeot, said he did not want to talk about the case. He said it demonstrates “endemic corruption” in Cambodia but did not elaborate.
A message on a cellphone listed for Lindsey Adams said the voicemail was full and not accepting messages. She also didn’t respond to a Facebook message. A message was left on a cellphone number listed for the sisters’ mother.
This year’s incidents were not firsts for the Angkor temples, but Chau Sun said earlier attempts by tourists to get naked were thwarted.
Signs at the temples and ticketing booths urge visitors to behave respectfully, and Chau Sun said the Apsara Authority plans to add posters warning them that taking nude photographs can lead to arrest and deportation.
“As a Cambodian, I am hurt … I think especially to the poor Cambodians saving to be able to come across the country to pray at Angkor,” she said. “They don’t understand why people could behave like that.”
Angkor Archaeological Park is the biggest tourist draw for this Southeast Asian country, which still feels the effects of the Khmer Rouge, the fanatical communist regime behind a reign of terror that left an estimated 1.7 million people dead from 1975 to 1979.
The massive Angkor complex is in a sense a proud counterpoint to that painful legacy. It contains the remains of capitals of the Khmer Empire, which existed from the 9th to the 15th centuries and at its peak controlled most of Southeast Asia. For a time, Angkor was among the world’s biggest cities.
The temples are renowned for their architecture and art, with countless intricate carvings, including semi-nude spirits known as apsaras. Angkor Wat is the largest and best preserved of the structures.
The temples are much more than stone ruins for most Cambodians, said Trevor Sofield, a professor of Tourism at the University of Tasmania in Australia. They are places of Buddhist worship as well as a symbol of the Khmer heritage, he said. He added that the Apsara Authority and UNESCO should focus on educating the public about the living sacred nature of the site in addition to its historical characteristics.
Angkor is not the only world-renowned site that has had to deal with nude tourists. In 2014, officials at Peru’s Machu Picchu said they were increasing surveillance after visitors were caught taking nude photographs or running through the ancient site naked.
Amichay Rab, a 32-year-old accountant from Tel Aviv, Israel, was one of those tourists who posed in the buff. Rab documented his nude escapades while on a nine-month trip through Central and South America on his blog. Many of the photos were taken early in the morning before there were crowds, he said, and local residents often snapped the photos for him.
“I was anxious sometimes but was never afraid (of) getting in trouble as I was very discreet,” he said. “I was waiting for the right moment in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.”
Cambodian Mollyda Keo said people there recognize that different cultures and societies have differing views on the body and what is deemed acceptable. Cambodian women, for example, will only swim in a T-shirt and shorts but are used to seeing Western women in bikinis, she said.
She said posing naked at the temples crosses the line.
“I just feel they don’t respect the culture,” she said. “You come from another culture. You should respect ours.”