I was quite surprised by the fuss this week over the announcement that a full-scale replica of the world-famous temple of Angkor Wat is to built thousands of miles away on the banks of the Ganges in India.
The trust behind the $18m project says the new temple, some 25 miles outside the Bihar state capital of Patna, in east India, will take 10 years to build, be even bigger than the original, and standing at 222ft will result in the world’s tallest Hindu temple.
Cambodian officials – clearly worried it might divert confused holidaymakers from the country’s big money-spinner near Siem Reap – came out in force to slam the venture. They branded it a “fake” and said it was an outrage that the temple would be even bigger than the real thing.
Many Khmers I spoke to were equally cross, saying the replica was plagiarism of the worst kind, and by stealing Cambodia’s national symbol it showed no respect for the Kingdom. Others questioned whether India needed an official licence from the Cambodian government to carry out the work – even though the 900-year-old design is clearly long out of copyright.
As I say, I found this passion, patriotism and pride quite surprising. But it’s strange it isn’t expressed so readily when it comes to erosions of national identity within Cambodia itself. Because the way things are going, you’re soon going to need a Chinese visa to visit Cambodia with all the huge tracts of land being sold off to Asia’s ever-voracious powerhouse.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the huge “Angkor Wat On Sea” casino being planned at Botum Sakor National Park, a now near treeless landscape in Koh Kong province that is being turned into a massive $4bn holiday resort for Chinese gamblers.
Locals say Botum Sakor resort – an area almost half the size of Singapore being developed by north China’s Tianjin Union Development Group – will be called either “Hong Kong II” or the “Seven-headed Dragon” when it’s finished.
The city-sized gambling hub, carved out of the national park and its virgin forests, will be a place for “extravagant feasting and revelry,” according to the real estate firm’s website.
When Reuters journalists visited the site this week, they were left with no confusion over the amount of Chinese colonisation going on there. They were quickly stopped from entering the area, housing Chinese engineers and guarded by Cambodian troops.
“This is China,” a ranger told them firmly before threatening to call military police for back-up.
Some activists warn that the way things are going, most of Cambodia’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries could soon be flogged off to Chinese investors.
They point out how China is a favourite with the Cambodian government because it’s the country’s biggest investor and source of foreign aid, and is less demanding than Western nations when it comes to trifling matters like human rights and villagers being kicked out of their homes.
Last year, the Cambodian government granted a record number of economic land concessions covering 7,631 sq km of land (an area the size of the Canary Islands) for companies to develop, according to research by the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Organisation (ADHOC). Most of it was in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries – and represents a staggering six-fold increase from the previous year.
It begs the question of just how much anti-Chinese sentiment there may soon be in the country, especially as displaced Cambodians are becoming more vocal in their protests.
Reuters found a surprising amount among locals in the coastal village of Poy Jopon. They are being moved 10km inland to make way for Union Group’s gambling complex, robbing them of their main livelihood of fishing.
One resident described the new area as: “No work, no water, no school, no temple. Just malaria. ”
Another man in the nearby fishing village of Kom Saoi said: “We were told it was Chinese land and we couldn’t cut down a single tree.
Some people refused to leave. Their land was taken and now they have nothing.
“Even though we hate the Chinese, what can we do?”
It also makes you wonder just how big China’s geopolitical footprint will become.
China’s investments in Cambodia are mainly in hydro-power dams, gold and other mineral resources, the garment industry, banking and finance, and agriculture. But with their sights also clearly set on tourism, where will they stop?
Who’ll give me 20 billion dollars for Cambodia’s iconic 12th century holy site, Angkor Wat? Don’t worry about the one being recreated on the Ganges – that’s just a fake. Comes with all the original UNESCO World Heritage site paperwork…
Twenty bid, now 30, now 30, who’ll give me 30? Sold to the man in the black suit…
Alex’s new book, ‘Down and Out in London and Padstow’ is now available in paperback via Amazon