One of the most popular destinations around Angkor Wat is the Ta Prom temple. It is better known to movie goers around the world as the backdrop to "Tomb Raider", the adventure born in the virtual world of video games, then brought to life in the shape of Angelina Jolie. Tourists of all nationalities flock to have their picture taken where Laura Croft defeated her brutal opponents.
What the local guides have correctly figured out is that the throngs of visitors are often more interested in the Hollywood connection than in the centuries of history and meaning of these beautiful grounds. Ignoring the ancient legends told on the fading murals, everyone wants to see where the movie action took place. Pictures of Angelina Jolie next to local shopkeepers are in fact seen throughout the town to help sell goods to tourists.
Furthermore, our guide informed us that the tall trees, with their picturesque giant roots weaving in and out of the crevasses of the temples' walls and foundations, are protected by law because they are such a tourists magnet. It matters little that these trees actually damage what remains of the temples in the long run, since when they die they leave the whole edifice unstable, without structural support.
In the preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity Feuerbach states:
But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases , so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.
His words are directly related to the situation that is evolving in Angkor Wat along with the rest of the world. Just like tourists at Disney World or Las Vegas take pictures of replicas of cities or monuments, this picture taking and sharing has often become the primary end of what used to be journeys of discovery and enjoyment of a moment or an experience. A photograph is no longer just a way to share or save a memory, it is in fact more important in and of itself than the actual event. If you can't show it to the world online, then there is no point in living it. The significance of a place is secondary to its symbolic representation.
In a way this mirrors our spectacle-driven culture, with the omnipresence of Paris Hilton and the likes built on no accomplishment whatsoever other than being famous for being famous. Devoid of any actual talent, their celebrity is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, and the reflection of a society that more and more values appearance over essence.