The real problem with taking naked photos at Angkor

Apparently there has been yet another incident of tourists taking nude photos at Angkor. The first was a photo of an “Asian female” that was posted on Facebook. The second involved a group of Frenchman who were deported. The third got two American sisters kicked out of Cambodia. And most recently a German tourist’s nudes were discovered on Facebook, after the fact.*

One might be amazed that there are still quiet corners of the Angkor park, which are not crawling with hordes of tourists, where one can disrobe undisturbed. At certain sites, if you play your cards right, you can often find yourself alone with only your thoughts.**

The Cambodian government and the APSARA Authority are understandably upset, noting that this is disrespectful to Cambodian culture, and their sense of morality and virtue.

I think the other problem with these photos is the underlying assumption by these tourists that Angkor is some kind of amusement park and not a living heritage site that is important to many Cambodians. These tourists are only using the temples as a backdrop to their “cool” photos. They show a willful ignorance of the cultural context of the temples, of Cambodia’s ancient and modern history, and the sacredness of these sites to the Cambodian population today.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is a place of great pride for Cambodian people. Relatively recently, insults to the memory of Angkor have caused death and destruction of property. Many Cambodians who live in Cambodia, including many students studying archaeology in Phnom Penh, have never been to see Angkor, but are proud of this part of their heritage and consider it to be an important part of their national identity. Taking nude photos is like taking a photo of someone flipping the bird at Arlington National Cemetery, or taking nude photos at the 9/11 Memorial, or Notre Dame Cathedral.

To take nude photos at Angkor means that you do not understand or care to learn about the history and culture of Cambodia, or choose to ignore this for your own amusement. It is disrespectful, but I do not think that any of the tourists meant any disrespect. I think they thought they were being cute, or artsy, or funny and they took those photos because their foreign identities and financial means gave them a certain amount of (perceived) impunity.

It is a special kind of privilege to be able to visit Cambodia and not give a crap about the place you’re visiting.

Please don’t be that person.

*Before that were these classy folks riding naked on a motorbike.

**The website of the German tourist shows one nude photo taken at the Bayon (although all the photos are mislabeled as being at Angkor Wat, because see above re: not caring). I have no idea how that photo was taken without being seen by anyone.

5 responses to “The real problem with taking naked photos at Angkor

  1. Karsten Brabaender

    Dear Alison,
    yes, not caring is the one thing. But I think it goes deeper. It is related to our Western, especially European “sophistocation”. We Europeans feel so sophisticated with our tolerance, with our Enlightenment and abandoning of religion. You know, we Europeans consider even you Americans as barbaric, because you have the bible, creatonism and so on…In Europe it is fancy to do anti-religious things. An artist made a performance some weeks ago, by pissing in public on crucifixes That is how 80% of Europeans see religion. Most Europeans are so into tolerance, that they actually become intolerant against others again. We do not want molested by religious things, but in this way, we do not understand that WE are actually intolerant. Most Europeans consider churches today as something to overcome. I must confess, a church is for me only a nice architectural object, maybe of some historic importance; something I study. Not caring is not the only reason. Most people are so outside the religious world today, that they cannot even think someone could be offended by this.

    One other thing: I have been living now 7 years in Southeast Asia. I often feel ashamed how my fellow Germans (but also other nations) behave here. How tourists dress. How
    they go into temples, how they eat. How they deal with the people here. It seems, that they consider Southeast as a “free-to-behave” zone….no rules, you can do what you want. No one will know.
    And if the people might be offended, do not care – pay some money, all is fine. I have worked in My Son – the holy ground of Cham people. You would not believe, how tourists behave there…

    • Hi Karsten- I absolutely think that this is a factor too. But remember that 2 of those deported were Americans, and the first (I’ve heard) was Chinese, so the Europeans can’t be blamed entirely! I think you are right that SEA in general is seen by many as a place to act irresponsibly without consequences.

  2. Pingback: Reflections on naked temple shoots | SEAArch - The Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog

  3. We recently have had the privilege of visiting Angkor Wat and read the above comments. I wonder how many of the incidents were by those visiting on “other peoples money” parents, grants etc. contrasted with those who earned the fare? lp

  4. I was surprised with how little security were at the temples. I love have accessible they are, for now, but definitely saw tourists taking advantage. Someone could have used a sharpie to write on them, and nobody would have seen.

    If interested, I just posted about my experiences with a captioned photo driven post here –