Apsara Authority Cambodia

The Apsara Authority is a government sponsored agency in Cambodia responsible for management and protection of Angkor Archaeological Park. That sounds like a fair and noble cause and to some point it is, however being part of the most corrupt government in the world, it comes as no surprise that Apsara Authority would be as corrupt and twisted as the people who created it.

On their website autoriteapsara.org, the Apsara Authority describes its purpose and agenda as follows:

The government has created APSARA, the Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap, in charge of research, protection and conservation of cultural heritage, as well as urban and tourist development. This legislative and institutional framework marks the beginning of a new active role Cambodia will take, responding to the call of her own people in the voice of her King, as well as to that of the international community, in managing Angkor as a national and world heritage for the generations to come.

On the History and Organization page, the text on the website states that Apsara Authority is responsible for:

  • Protecting, maintaining, conserving and improving the value of the archaeological park, the culture, the environment and the history of the Angkor region as defined on the World Heritage List.
  • Refining and applying the master plan on tourist development according to the five zones, defined in 1994 in the Royal Decree on the protection and management of Siemreap-Angkor and taking action against deforestation, illegal territory occupation as well as anarchy activities in Siemreap-Angkor.
  • Finding financial sources and investments.
  • Participating in the policy of cutting down poverty of the Royal Government in Siemreap-Angkor.
  • Cooperating with the Cambodian Development Council on the investments of all the projects that are involved with APSARA Authority‚Äôs mission.
  • Cooperating with ministries, institutions, funds, national and international communities as well as international governmental institutions and non-governmental organization on all projects related to APSARA Authority.

There are some truly dubious statements in the description of their responsibilities and by looking at past actions of Apsara Authority throughout the Siem Reap area one can come to conclusions what they likely mean.

Photo: Apsara Authority Inspector at an Entrance to One of Angkor Temples
Photo: Apsara Authority Inspector at an Entrance to One of Angkor Temples

The first alarming statement can be seen in the introductory sentence where it is mentioned that Apsara Authority was created “for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap” – and the region of Siem Reap? Why does Apsara Authority want to spread their jurisdiction outside of the Angkor Archaeological Park? If their purpose is to preserve and protect the ancient temples of Angkor, than why stick fingers in villages outside of Angkor?

Another even more dubious statement is one you have certainly already noticed – anarchy activities. What in the name of Buddha are anarchy activities? Has this phrase purposefully been forced into the list of Apsarta Authority responsibilities so they have their asses covered no matter what they do? Past actions of the agency show us that it truly could be so.

Photo: Apsara Authority Logo on an Information Panel at Banteay Kdei Temple
Photo: Apsara Authority Logo on an Information Panel at Banteay Kdei Temple

From the reports of people living in touristy areas as well as from articles published in the Phnom Penh Post it is evident that large groups of Apsara Authority officials have been going around villages in the Siem Reap province, threatening the villagers at gunpoint that if they modernize their houses or build something new on their land, they will be evicted without recourse. If any of the villagers voices against unlawful eviction, they are simply told that their actions are perceived as “anarchy activities” and are henceforth removed from the land that their predecessors lived on for centuries. They are subsequently moved to a tiny piece of land that was assigned to them in lieu of their coveted location. Their new land is in the middle of nowhere, in the district where they have no friends or family to rely on. That is what Apsara Authority refers to when they say “anarchy activities”.

Apparently, for as long as the villagers keep their original, “traditional” houses – aka wooden, thatched barns on stilts – and don’t try to modernize them, they should be fine. I have my own theory why they insist on people living in prehistoric houses that are falling apart:

It has everything to do with foreign donations coming in massive chunks to Cambodia. In order for the financial support from abroad to continuously grow, foreigner must be exposed to villagers who look poor, live in atrocious conditions with houses falling apart around them. If there were any signs of improvement of conditions in which regular folk live, foreign donations could diminish. Given lack of transparency throughout Cambodia along with the most corrupt government in the world, any money coming to Cambodia, regardless of who it is intended for, eventually ends up in the hands of the ruling elite while impoverished, underprivileged citizens get nothing. However they are a good bait for foreign donations so it is absolutely essential for the government to ensure that people remain poor and look poor. At least those who live in the areas where foreigners go.

Angkor Entrance Guards and Scam by the Sokimex Group Cambodia

At last I got through the hoards of tireless hustlers who will do and say anything and everything just to get you open your wallet and spend money, and there I was stepping up the stone steps leading to a causeway that follows across the entire Angkor Wat. There was however one more local I thought was also a tout I had to go through at the beginning of the causeway. Armed to ignore all locals who approach me asking for something, I ignored this guy too but soon came to realize that he’s one and only exception to the crowds of peddlers who are solely after my money. This was an entrance guard stationed at Angkor Wat to ensure everyone who enters the temple itself has a valid pass.

I thought buying a ticket at the ticketing booth and showing it to the guards at the beginning of the road leading to Angkor was good enough but Sokimex Group Cambodia, company that makes millions of dollars collecting entrance fees from foreigners also stations their inspectors at entrances to all main temples as a secondary line of ticket inspection just in case a foreigner somehow snuck into the Angkor Archaeological Park.

To avoid scam Angkor area was riddled with before, all authorised guards wear light blue shirts on which they have a badge with their inspector number and around their neck a lanyard with Sokimex ID bearing their name and photograph that identifies them as rightful entrance guards. They are also armed with wireless radios and frequently communicate with each other.

Photo: One of The Ticket Inspectors at Angkor Wat - Wearing Light Blue Shirt, Badge and Photo ID on a Lanyard
Photo: One of The Ticket Inspectors at Angkor Wat - Wearing Light Blue Shirt, Badge and Photo ID on a Lanyard

From what I was told, scam that consisted of anyone and everyone pretending to be an authorised guard to collect entrance fees from foreigners was virtually entirely eliminated using this approach. At least now when you pay your entrance fee, it does help the temples, not some scammer pretending to collect fees on behalf of Apsara Authority, right? Wrong!

Sokimex Group Co. LTD is a company with close ties to the CPP – Cambodian People’s Party, the ruling party of Cambodia. The CPP is well known for being one of the most corrupt governments in the world and has a very bad human rights record. Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the CPP has no problem threatening those who oppose him with use of force or military action. Ordinary Cambodians who are not part of the Cambodian elite approved by Hun Sen have no chance of real freedom.

In April 1999, Cambodian People’s Party gave Sokimex Group full control over the Angkor Archaeological Park entrance ticket concession sales. This was done without any input from the public or Cambodian opposition. Angkor, which is the cultural heritage of all Cambodians was taken away from them by their corrupt government and given to the private company to financially benefit from its worldwide popularity while ordinary people get nothing. The deal required Sokimex Group (Owners of Sokha Hotels chain) to pay the government One Million Dollars per year with all excess kept by the company.

Photo: Angkor Archaeological Park Entrance Ticket Bears Sokha Hotels Co. LTD Name To Show Who Controls the Temples
Photo: Angkor Archaeological Park Entrance Ticket Bears Sokha Hotels Co. LTD Name To Show Who Controls the Temples

Due to strong opposition, the agreement between the CPP and Sokimex was amended a bit, but Sokimex Group still remains in full control over ticket concessions at Angkor and keeps a large part of the profits. To further benefit the company that supports the government, the CPP also commissions Sokimex Group to supply uniforms, food and medicine for Cambodian military, as well as the gasoline for the governmental agencies which is run through well performing voucher scam.

Apsara Authority, governmental body responsible for preservation, maintenance and protection of Angkor Archaeological Park gets small part of the profits, however being CPP controlled, Apsara Authority is also a dubious organization with shady practices violating the poor. There have been many cases of large groups of Apsara enforcers coming to villages with guns to threaten the villagers who “dared” to modernize their “traditional homes”. Many people have been evicted and had their property repossessed by Apsara Authority with all rights removed and no voice to stand by them (all voices that oppose the practices of Cambodian People’s Party get silenced).

Welcome to real Cambodia, one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Angkor People and Corruption in Cambodia

Here I was at last – facing the entrance gate to Angkor Wat after a brief bike ride around the vast moat that surrounds it. Ready to start exploring the largest religious complex in the world, I noticed that the area around the Angkor temples is densely inhabited by Angkor People – locals living in wooden houses on stilts. Whole Angkor Archaeological Park is full of randomly scattered villages people of which take good advantage of increasing popularity of Angkor and unceasingly follow every tourist until they succeed in talking them into spending some money. Sadly, at present time, exploring Angkor Wat also means being hassled by locals on every step of your way.

I am not entirely sure what Angkor People would do if they didn’t live in the neighbourhood of famous ancient temples. Tourists are a source of easy money and Angkor People are well aware of it by taking full advantage of the fact, but what if they weren’t that lucky and haven’t had their predecessors built these phenomenal complexes that result in millions of dollars in revenue? I can imagine that at some point in the past, they were focused on growing cattle, growing rice and perhaps hand-crafting useful items that could be offered for sale at markets in Siem Reap.

But this is no longer the case. Nowadays the villagers get up early in the morning and station themselves at the gates to the nearest temple or other point of interest that attracts lots of tourists and spend their whole days following each and every one of them around basing their livelihood on their success rate to get as much out of each tourist as possible. Children as young as 3 years old are dispatched by their parents after the tourists because it’s easier for them to talk a tourist into buying worthless junk than it is for their parents. Afterall, who could say no to a child that just learned how to speak and is already reciting well tailored sentences in English that are aimed to melt your heart and… most importantly, open your wallet?

Photo: Instead of Sending Them to School Parents Equip Their Kids to Sell Junk to Tourists (Angkor Wat)
Photo: Instead of Sending Them to School Parents Equip Their Kids to Sell Junk to Tourists (Angkor Wat)

If you end up spending several days exploring the temples of Angkor, you will notice that children who should be at school spend their whole days bothering tourists, vastly undisturbed by the fact that they are not getting any education. The ability to talk as many foreigners as possible into spending the money is all they have going for the future. They can’t read or write in their mother’s tongue, but they can already speak English and possibly one or more other foreign languages. Infants who are too small to follow tourists around are trained to recognize foreigners and repeatedly scream “Hello” at them. You will get that on every step. Kids under two years old will instantly leap on their feet and start yelling “Hello” and waving at you as soon as they catch a glimpse of you. And this is the way they are brought up – believing that their purpose in life is to get after every foreigner in vicinity and don’t stop bothering them until they have lured some money out of them. And if the wallet gets pulled out, then try to get as much as possible – never settle with little amounts.

From the beginning I could not comprehend the fact that when you go to Angkor you see all those kids trying to get money from you when they should be at school, but as I started paying closer attention to the issue, I noticed that parents themselves don’t want to send the kids to school because if they spend the best part of the day there, then who’s gonna bother tourist for easy money? It’s much easier for kids to score dough than it is for adults so why waste kid’s time for schools? The older they get, the more difficult it will be for them to talk foreigners out of their money so school gets simply taken off the list of important things for their kids.

But it gets even worse. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Cambodia is one of the world’s most corrupt countries, second only to the likes of Somalia where there is no government to begin with so it’s hard to talk about corruption or well known, long established mothers of all things corrupt – Burma (Myanmar) and Haiti. The government of Cambodia is too corrupt to care about anything other than their own pockets. The fact that their people lack education is of little concern or, more likely, a preferred outcome because obviously uneducated, poor population will continue attracting foreign donations much of which will end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. They need the world to see the poor people with no access to education and health care because that’s what drives sympathy and compassion and those are the main driving force behind millions dollars that come to Cambodia from international philanthropists. And once this money is in Cambodia, people in power get to choose what is done with it. Only a small fraction makes it to where it’s needed and this is precisely the purpose.

Again, if living conditions for ordinary people improved, donations would shrink or… stop completely. In other words, if they used the money they have to fix their country and improve the economy, then there would be no more need for international organizations to continuously sending more aid. This fact is amplified even more by the fact that Angkor attracts millions of people to Cambodia every year and that generates massive revenue. It starts with a $20 – $25 visa fee, continues with a pile of expenses to cover for everyone’s stay and gets highlighted with Angkor Entrance Fee which ranges from $20 to $60 per person.

Here’s the catch – Apsara Authority, Cambodian organization responsible for protection, conservation and research at Angkor World Heritage Site sees mere 10% of all the funds accumulated by charging entrance fees to Angkor Archaeological Park. This is yet another scam played up by corrupt Cambodian government (along with the scam by Sokha Hotels chain, the Sokimex gasoline conglomerate division with close ties to CPP – Cambodia’s leading People’s Party which runs ticket concessions and gets to keep 17% of revenue generated by Angkor temples).

If majority of the monies Angkor generates was used to preserve and protect it, then foreign organizations that currently sponsor preservation, restoration and protection efforts at Angkor would no longer be necessary. Whereas right now, because Cambodian body responsible for preservation and protection of Angkor (Apsara Authority) doesn’t have enough money, they heavily rely on help from the abroad. But let’s ask again – why does Apsara Authority not have enough money in the first place? How is it possible that they can’t make ends meet if Angkor generates millions upon millions of dollars in direct foreign revenue (plus indirect revenue from Tuk Tuk fees, tour operation fees, sales of keepsakes, etc.)?

Just as foreign donations to Cambodia disappear in the black hole of the corrupt Cambodian system, so do the money generated by Angkor temples. For as long as majority of Cambodian people remain poor, uneducated and health care deprived, the donations will not stop coming. And for as long as Apsara Authority continues not getting enough money to look after the works needed to preserve Angkor themselves, foreign sponsors will continue investing their money to Angkor to ensure this magnificent site doesn’t fall into ruin.