Banteay Srei Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Should Selfie Sticks Be Banned at Angkor Wat?

Should selfie sticks be banned from Angkor Wat? What do you think? We think they should be banned in precious heritage sites and there’s never been a greater urgency to ban them at Angkor Wat and the other Angkor Archaeological Park temples. Or has there?

Should selfie sticks be banned from Angkor Wat?

Every time we take visitors or our tour and retreat participants to Angkor Wat and the other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park here near Siem Reap in Northern Cambodia, we spend half the time dodging wayward selfie sticks. To state that it’s out of control is an understatement.

Not only do selfie sticks pose a threat to people’s health – we’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve dodged one that was swinging towards our heads – but they also obstruct people’s views and spoil their experience, especially during sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Worse still, selfie sticks – along with big backpacks and umbrellas – are causing damage to the centuries old temples and their art works, due to distracted tourists, too focused on their shots, bumping into carvings, leaning on pillars, and sitting on statues. Every archaeologist we’ve discussed the issue with has strongly advocated a ban of all three things, but especially selfie sticks, from Angkor Archaeological Park, but especially the selfie stick.

Selfie sticks have been banned from some of the world’s most popular attractions, including Beijing’s Forbidden City, Rome’s Colosseum, the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, New York’s Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Sydney Opera House; religious monuments, such as Mecca in Saudi Arabia; concerts and music festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, and even Disney theme parks. So why shouldn’t selfie sticks be banned at Angkor Wat?

I’m of the opinion that selfie sticks should be banned from Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples. Despite the fact that they made my work a whole lot easier…

In the good old days before the vanity stick, I used to always get asked by tourists to take their photos, particularly in places like Venice or Rome. The reason they asked me was because I always had two cameras slung around my neck and looked like I could take a photo. I guess that’s better than the people who told me that my cameras must take great images…

Things were so crazy in Venice one year when I was on assignment shooting guidebooks that there seemed to be people taking photos of eachother or asking strangers to take photos of them absolutely everywhere – especially on bridges over canals.

Walking across the Rialto Bridge with a local one afternoon I noted that he refused to wait for tourists to finish taking their photos and just charged right through their shot. He was a man on a mission to get home for lunch. His wife was making his favourite pasta. He said to me, with a little distain. “It doesn’t matter, it’s all digital these days. They can just take it again.”

I vowed never to go back to Venice again during summer, not just because of the crowds, but the behaviour of the crowds, and the fact that I was interrupted every few minutes by some group of tourists asking me to take their photo. I said to Lara: “I wouldn’t go back to Venice in summer if you paid me”. Then a publishing company offered to pay me to shoot another book and I changed my mind. What photographer turns down a gig in Venice?

It was only a couple of years after that visit that things changed. Selfie sticks were suddenly everywhere and I no longer had to learn how to use a strange camera that had been thrust into my hand by a sunburnt tourists. The selfie stick actually made my life as a photographer easier – despite the vanity of people reaching an embarrassing height.

However, a couple of weeks ago out at the temples I witnessed vanity at an even higher level than I’d seen before. Two girls in flowing sun dresses with huge sunglasses and ridiculously large floppy hats had hired an official Angkor guide to take them around the ruins.

Instead of listening to him and learning about the stories behind the beautiful bas reliefs, the two girls would go stand in front of the bas reliefs and the guide would take photos of them posing — one photo for each of the girl’s iPhones. He would then pass them to the girls and they would assess the photos before moving on to the next photo opportunity. The poor guide earned his fee that day!

I’m not sure whether to interpret this as a warning that extinction-level vanity has been achieved or two girls realising that a 20 foot-long selfie stick is a little impractical or that the super wide angle lens intended to get the whole temple in the background actually made them look fat.

If they do ban selfie sticks at Angkor Archaeological Park, will we see a whole new genre of tour guides who have photography skills? Will they need to have a portfolio of photos of clients draping themselves over the temples to get gigs? And will I start to get people tapping me on the shoulder again midway through a shot to take photos of their group?

But for me, the bigger question is: did all these people have pre-existing narcissism and social media just offered them a means to put it on display to the world? Or is social media driving this self-obsession and creating a new generation with narcissistic personality disorder? Generation NPD?

What do you think? Should selfie sticks be banned from Angkor Wat and Angkor Archaeological Park?

For more on the preservation of heritage, read this interview with Elizabeth Becker, author of Overbooked: the Global Business of Travel and Tourism. Although it didn’t make the final cut, Lara said that in her interview with Becker she was an advocate of banning selfie sticks and backpacks from the temples, along with limiting numbers to the temples. It’s an interesting read.



There are 4 comments

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  1. Stuart Forster

    I’m no fan of selfie sticks but if you ban them where will controls stop? If people are negligent to the point of being dangerous then they need talking to and possibly should be punished. Ultimately it is the person holding the stick that is the problem.

  2. Lara Dunston

    Hi Stuart – I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to control the behaviour of tourists at a UNESCO World Heritage site, do you? On my last visit to Angkor Wat I saw a young Chinese couple bash their selfie pole into a many centuries-old inscription. I see that kind of thing all the time. Some of the foreign guides are just as careless with their umbrellas. But how do you police that? Apsara guards can’t be in every vestibule, corridor, courtyard etc all the time. I don’t think requiring people to leave their selfie sticks/umbrellas at the hotel in order to protect such precious remnants of history is such a big ask, do you?


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