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Angkor, lost city or inhabited site? Understanding the building process of tourist imaginaries

Juliette Augerot
Cet article est une traduction de :
Angkor, cité perdue ou site habité ? Comprendre le processus de construction des imaginaires touristiques [fr]

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Taking the case of Angkor in Cambodia, inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1992, this paper explores the coexistence of shifted representations of heritage between two social groups ; the visitors and the local population. After having exposed their representations of Angkor through interviews and mental maps realized in situ, this article tackles the process of building tourist imaginaries. This approach shows how interactions between images and tourist imaginaries draw Angkor as a lost city denying its living character.

  • 1 UNESCO,

1Visitors to Angkor in Cambodia show a lack of awareness of the living character of the heritage. However, although Angkor is a remarkable archaeological site, it is also a space lived and used by more than 120,000 inhabitants in 112 villages (UNESCO1). While the imagery of Angkor suggests a "vacant" territory (Bachimon, 2013), the inhabitants use the territory on a daily basis and continue to maintain a strong link with the temples of Angkor. Even when a temple ceases being frequented, the monasteries built around the temples ensure the spiritual continuity of the place (Groslier, 1956).

  • 2 UNESCO (2003), Convention pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine culturel immatériel
  • 3 UNESCO,

2"Intangible cultural heritage" as designated in UNESCO Convention in 20032 is, among other criteria, "traditional, contemporary and living simultaneously" (UNESCO, 2008). UNESCO, which inscribed Angkor as a World Heritage Site in 1992, declared from 1996 that its inhabitants, with their ancestral customs and know-how, constitute a living heritage that concedes to the Angkor temples an additional value: " (...) In general, Siem Reap’s rural populations are known to be particularly conservative with respect to ancestral traditions, and a great number of archaic cultural practices that have disappeared elsewhere continue to be performed in its villages… » (UNESCO3).

Figure 1. Angkor in Cambodia and in South-east Asia

Figure 1. Angkor in Cambodia and in South-east Asia


3While the inhabitants of Angkor and their roles in the process of patrimonialization of the site are officially recognized by UNESCO, visitors show a partial knowledge of the heritage by limiting their gaze to its tangible character. Visitors seem to be out of step with the meaning of Angkor which includes not only temples but also the territory in terms of geo-social space.

4A survey carried out in Angkor in 2014 provides the representations of visitors and inhabitants about the site, and how tourist imaginaries are constructed. To identify the components of the visitors’ imaginary, we used a qualitative method and conducted semi-directed interviews in situ. To cover the multiplicity of tourist imaginaries, we opted for a diversity respondents. Thus, eleven nationalities are represented among the twenty interviewees. The in-depth interviews were conducted in the heart of the most famous temples like Angkor Wat, and areas further from the central zone like Bantei Srei. We also held interviews with residents to grasp the ties that bind them to the temples. To undertand the role of geographical proximity in the appropriation of temples and its relation to tourism, we questioned inhabitants living in villages more or less close to the temples. Thus, through the help of an interpreter, we conducted fifteen interviews in five villages with informants from different social classes including merchants, police officers, temple guards, and farmers. The interviews took place in their homes or at their workplace.

5Among the visitors’ responses, one profile is widely represented: visitors didn’t imagine the site so large, they evoked the incredible aspect and the ancient character of the temples, they are particularly surprised by the sculptures and the way the temples have been built without the technology we have today. The majority of the interviewees ignore the active character of the site and the presence of numerous dwellings around the temples.

"You told me that it is still a place of worship, honestly, I can’t feel the sacred side of the place’’ (Interviewe # 6)
"We did not know, we have misunderstood" (Interviewe # 5)
"It’s like a museum" (Interviewe # 8)
"I didn’t know, it’s cool" (Interviewe # 19)

6This misunderstanding, even indifference, towards the intangible aspect is also visible through the use of mental maps. The « Mind Map » is an exercise in which the participant is invited to draw a space. It provides an expressive medium of the mental representation of space (Gueben-Venière, 2011). We offered the respondents a blank sheet and asked them to draw a representative element of Angkor.

Figure 2. Mind maps of visitors

Figure 2. Mind maps of visitors

7The selected illustrations convey the themes of the set of mental maps collected: architecture, low-relief, camera, visitors. The mental maps made by the visitors are in perfect correspondence with the interview responses, since the heritage representations highlighted do not show new components their tourist imaginaries and once again exclude the living and sacred character of Angkor.

8Beyond a partial understanding of the meaning of Angkor, we observe their mistrust towards the inhabitants and cultural markers:

"I thought it was for folklore ... Even if we see that there is incense burning right to left, that there are some offerings at the feet of most statues, naturally I felt more like it was more for folklore than for worship" (Interviewee # 5)
"I saw it as a tourist trap" (Interview # 2)
"It’s a little commercial" (Interview # 8)
"I saw monks and I thought they just wanted money, I was thinking of a tourist attraction (...) I thought they used religion to have money ... I mean they really need money" (Interviewee # 10)

9Apparently, different tourist attractions and practices really exist in the territory of Angkor. For instance, passers-by can be invited to burn incense in exchange for a dollar or to attend one of the many traditional Apsara dance performances. However, the visitors cannot distinguish which among the practices are part of their real culture and the parts controlled by commercial imperatives.

10It is important to note, that while the answers are relatively homogeneous, some Asian visitors reveal their thoughts about religious matters by using their own references:

"In Malaysia, Buddhism and Hinduism are two different things, I mean, Buddhism has its temple and Hinduism has its temple too. Here, it is like a combination of both. But we have no idea how they practice here" (Interviewe # 8)
"I think, in China there are people who have the same kind of religion (...) countries are close" (Interviewe # 17)
"These temples belong to India ... I understand the spiritual value of this place" (Interviewe # 11)

11The interview with the inhabitants quickly led us to almost uniform responses. According to them, temples occupy a central place in their lives. They represent sacred high places that should be cherished and respected:

"The temples are like the gods" (Srah Srang, Interviewe #1)
"Every night before I sleep I think of the temples" (Srah Srang, Interviewe #2)
"I go to Angkor Wat to calm my sickness, the pain" (Nokor Krau, Interview #6)
"It is very important for the Cambodians, if Angkor Wat disappears, Cambodia will disappear too" (Pradak, Interview #4)
"The people here are deep believers towards the temple, they were born beside here. The bond is very strong between the inhabitants and this temple" (Leang Dai, Interview #12)
"The temples are like my parents" (Prasat Char, Interview #10)

12Another theme common to all the inhabitants interviewed concerns the commercial dimension of the temples. About the question: "Why are temples important to you ?", spontaneously, many inhabitants evoked economic reason, tourism.

"It’s important, my children make souvenirs and sell them. Yes, we’re grateful for the tourists coming to the village, to buy things" (Srah Srang, Interviewe #2)
"They are important because there are lots of tourists and I’m thankful that I can work with them" (Pradak, Interview #4)
"Temples are important because they attract tourists" (Pradak, Interview #3)
"I want and need tourists. I want them to come more and more so that the people of this village can have a better life" (Leang Dai, Interview #13)

13Aside from the four interviewees in Prasat Char, the least accessible village, who didn’t speake about the economic aspect of tourism, the eleven other people interviewed in villages closer to the temples all stressed the positive impact of tourism for them and their community.

14Therefore, we can observe the divergences of representations of Angkor between the two groups. When the inhabitants evoke the immaterial aspects of the temples, considering them as their family, as part of themselves, visitors are interested in the tangible part of the heritage, namely architecture, nature, sculptures. Differences are also visible in the representations of the other group: inhabitants view visitors as an economic opportunity, hoping for more tourists to come, on the other hand, visitors are not well aware of inhabitants existence (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Crossover representations

Figure 3. Crossover representations

Juliette Augerot, 2016

15De tels décalages dans les représentations ne permettent pas d’entrevoir des interactions interculturelles. Seuls des échanges marchands par la vente et l’achat de souvenirs semblent être le support de rencontres entre les deux groupes. D’autres interactions peuvent cependant être possible avec les chauffeurs de tuk-tuk, les gardiens des temples ou encore les restaurateurs, mais ces autres types d’échanges sont absents du discours des visiteurs interrogés.

16Afin de tenter de comprendre les raisons du manque de connaissance des visiteurs sur le caractère immatériel d’Angkor, il s’agit à présent de se questionner sur le processus de construction des imaginaires touristiques. Les imaginaires touristiques sont en partie constitués de représentations partagées, c’est-à-dire des images fabriquées et véhiculées par les discours touristiques (Gravari-Barbas, Graburn, 2012). Les images et les imaginaires entretiennent un lien dynamique (Ibidem): le caractère performatif des imaginaires participe à définir certaines images du système touristique dans une perspective d’attractivité de la destination, quand, parallèlement, la mise en images du lieu alimentent les imaginaires. De la sorte, alors que l’EFEO (Ecole Française de l’Extrême Orient) était missionné dés 1908 pour « nettoyer » les temples d’Angkor de la végétation qui s’y était installée, le programme de restauration décida, quelques années plus tard, de laisser certains temples dans un état « abandonné » pour satisfaire l’aspect romantique du mythe d’Angkor (Pottier, 2000). De la même manière, ce sont des composantes classiques tels l’histoire et l’architecture d’Angkor qui nourrissent la rhétorique de l’industrie touristique: « les guides touristiques bombardent les visiteurs d’une quantité apparemment inépuisable de renseignements sur les rois d’Angkor, leurs dates de règne, les changements chronologiques dans le style architectural, les transitions entre les styles de sculpture et une liste ahurissante de dieux, de démons et de leurs divers avatars » (Winter, 2009, p. 9). A l’inverse, les visiteurs reçoivent très peu d’informations sur les monastères bouddhistes à proximité des temples ou sur la multitude de sanctuaires spirituels locaux. Les villages traversés par les millions de visiteurs qui rejoignent les temples ne sont pas non plus mis en valeur. S’ils sont inscrits sur les cartes touristiques mises à disposition sur place c’est à titre de repère mais en aucun cas pour être mis en valeur et inciter à la visite. La désignation d’Angkor comme un patrimoine mondial isolé a contribué à créer une rupture spatiale (Winter, 2004) et ne favorise pas la prise de conscience du caractère immatériel par les visiteurs (Lloyd, 2013a). Les esprits locaux, les cérémonies annuelles, et les lieux spirituels, si importants pour la population locale demeurent inconnus pour les visiteurs (Lloyd, 2013b).

17Par ailleurs, l’aspect matériel d’un lieu peut être perçu comme le point de départ logique de toute motivation touristique, le patrimoine vivant ne pouvant seul motiver le touriste à se déplacer (Morisset et Noppen, 2005). Selon les auteurs, les visiteurs se déplacent pour découvrir un lieu qui diffère de leur cadre habituel et ce lieu se reconnait d’abord à sa configuration matérielle. Notre approche par les cartes mentales a d’ailleurs montré que la matérialité des temples marque fortement l’imaginaire des visiteurs et ceux-ci ont peu témoigné de curiosité lorsque nous leur apprenions la présence de 120 000 habitants parmi ces temples. De ce fait, les visiteurs qui n’ont pas connaissance du caractère vivant d’Angkor pourraient ne pas être non plus intéressés par cet aspect du patrimoine (Lloyd, 2013b), préférant garder à l’esprit l’idée d’une cité abandonnée. Ainsi, dans la perspective de répondre aux désirs des visiteurs, l’industrie du tourisme ne semble pas avoir besoin de diversifier l’offre touristique, démontrant ainsi le caractère performatif des imaginaires touristiques.

18Ainsi, cité perdue ou site habité ? Angkor présente cette situation de juxtaposer deux lieux existant indépendamment l’un de l’autre sans apparemment vouloir (ou pouvoir) se rencontrer.

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Bachimon P., 2013, Vacance des lieux, Belin, coll. Mappemonde, Paris, 255 p.

Gravari Barbas M., Graburn N., 2012, « Les imaginaires touristiques », Via@ [En ligne], n° 1, consulté le 1er juillet 2016, URL:

Groslier B-P., 1956, Angkor hommes et pierres, 207 p.

Gueben-Venière S., 2011, « En quoi les cartes mentales, appliquées à l’environnement littoral, aident-elles au recueil et à l’analyse des représentations spatiales ? », EchoGéo [En ligne], consulté le 06 octobre, 2015. URL:; DOI: 10.4000/echogeo.12573

Lloyd G., 2013a. “Cambodian Experiences of the manifestation and management dynamics of intangible heritage and tourism at a World Heritage Site”, dans Russell Staif, Robyn Bushell and Steve Watson (eds), Heritage and Tourism: Place, Encounter, Engagement, Routledge, 228-251 pp. 

Lloyd G., 2013b, "Interpreting the intangible at Angkor", Papier présenté à 3ème Conférence Internationale sur le Patrimoine Immatériel, Aveiro, Portugal

Morisset L.K., Noppen L., 2005, « Le patrimoine immatériel: une arme à tranchants multiples », Téoros [En ligne], consulté le 19 août 2015, URL:

Pottier C., 2000, “The Contribution of the Ecole Francaise d’Extrême-Orient with Respect to the Cultural Heritage of Angkor during the Past 100 years”, Journal of Sophia Asian Studies, n° 18, pp. 253-262.

UNESCO, 2008, Orientations devant guider la mise en œuvre de la Convention du patrimoine mondial, [En ligne], consulté le 22 juin 2016, URL:

UNESCO, 1996, Angkor, passé, présent, futur, (dans le cadre du projet ZEMP Zoning and environmental management plan), Phnom Penh

Winter T., 2009, "The modernities of heritage and tourism: interpretations of an Asian future", Journal of Heritage Tourism, vol. 4, n° 2, pp. 105-115

Winter T., 2004, « Cultural Heritage and Tourism in Angkor, Cambodia: Developing a Theoretical Dialogue », Historical environment, vol. 17, n° 3: pp 3-8

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2 UNESCO (2003), Convention pour la sauvegarde du patrimoine culturel immatériel


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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Angkor in Cambodia and in South-east Asia
Crédits IRASEC
Fichier image/png, 341k
Titre Figure 2. Mind maps of visitors
Fichier image/png, 394k
Titre Figure 3. Crossover representations
Crédits Juliette Augerot, 2016
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
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Juliette Augerot, « Angkor, lost city or inhabited site? Understanding the building process of tourist imaginaries », Via [En ligne], 10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 28 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Juliette Augerot

PhD student in Urban Studies at the University of Quebec in Montreal under the supervision of Lucie Morisset and her research focuses on imaginary of heritage.

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