Heritage scholars around the world have observed that inscription on UNESCO’s World Heritage List increases tourism to these sites (archaeological, historical, vernacular), while having the potential to negatively impact their preservation. Occasionally, the privileging of the past by some countries’ national agencies of archaeological heritage management has had dire consequences for these sites’ most immediate stakeholders – the communities residing among and near them – as when the bureaucracy charged with their care relegates these sites to the past, sometimes without consideration of the intangible attachments to them held by living populations. Local communities, too, may conceptually and effectively consign sites to the ruinscape in benign as well as assertive rejection of the appreciation in which they are held by their official caretakers and the global tourism industry. Thus, perception of ancient sites as “ruins” can have multiple consequences: social, economic, political, cultural, religious, land use, policy design, etc.
Prasat Hin Phimai is a glorious late 11th-early 13thcentury Khmer temple located in the middle of the bustling town of Phimai, northeastern Thailand. The temple attracts some 300,000 tourists annually. But after an hour’s tour of the site and purchase of a trinket or soft drink at one of the paltry souvenir kiosks alongside the site’s eastern wall, tourists depart, either returning to Bangkok or staying overnight in the provincial capital of Khorat, a city of almost a quarter-million inhabitants with a full complement of tourism services. Phimai’s quotidian authenticity does not generate interest among the domestic tourists who comprise the vast majority of visitors, and rarely among foreigners.
In turn, Phimai’s approximately 10,000 residents have little interest in the tourists and little in the monument, because they are not ethnically Khmer. Their cultural identity is based on deep affection for the town and pride in the local cuisine and dialect (these views were frequently expressed to me during fieldwork in Summer 2011) as well as the practice of living Buddhism in daily life and at the six wats in town. Townfolk do not seek archaeological tourism as a motor of development, because Phimai has a strong economy as a “central place” in the region.
This situation of benign, mutual disinterest between town and tourist is threatened, however, by Thailand’s Fine Arts Department (FAD), which administers national cultural patrimony. Prasat Hin Phimai is a National Park, and has been on Thailand’s Tentative List since 2004. In anticipation of presenting the temple to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee for consideration, FAD has undertaken elaboration of a site management plan in compliance with a UNESCO requirement for the World Heritage List dossier. FAD consultation with the local population about the plan has been minimal, and is complicated by the fact that today’s urban center evolved over centuries within the standing old city walls that defined the ancient settlement surrounding the Khmer temple.
Local people recognize that the UNESCO inscription so coveted at the national level holds the potential to significantly alter the built environment with and within which they construct meaningful social and economic lives. Rumors of property expropriations so as to enable tourism enhancement of the site are rife, notwithstanding that the monument is not at any risk from the town that surrounds it and that the site is already superbly managed by the local FAD office. Indeed, the isolating walls that protect the temple contribute to the apathy felt by residents toward Prasat Hin Phimai.
Phimai townfolk profess contentment with their lives, and have been given no evidence that achievement of World Heritage List status for the ancient temple and its predictable increase in tourism will benefit them. Phimai is one of several cases, notably in Asia, in which a local population opposes the powerful forces of national and global cultural governance and its associated international tourism regime. Phimai residents want to develop and claim the future on their own terms, not in accordance with criteria and directions imposed from outside. It remains to be seen how they will negotiate their own locally defined heritage worth, economy, and daily life in the new archaeological tourism landscape whose implementation is only a matter of time. Is Phimai facing “ruination”?
Helaine Silverman is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois.
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