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Temple of the Gods and of the Tourists

Anthropologist studies Thai town grappling with its future.


The temple tower rises high above the townscape of Phimai in northeast Thailand, pointing skyward like a gigantic, stone arrowhead. As you enter this ancient Buddhist temple from the south, you pass several enormous, lion-like, stone creatures that guard the symbolic “naga bridge,” which links the world of people to the world of gods.

The irony is that this temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Thailand, may soon become a bridge to an entirely different world—the international community. And this link may bring a dramatic increase in tourists, a possibility that stirs concerns among the people of Phimai, the small town that has grown up around the temple over the past 1,000 years.

Thailand has put the temple on its tentative list of sites they are seeking to get on UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage List. When Thailand formally submits the ancient temple to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, approval could dramatically transform this town of 10,000 forever, says Helaine Silverman, an LAS anthropology professor studying the site.

At one point, there was real fear that the Thai government was going to force virtually all of the residents to relocate so the temple grounds could be expanded and made more appealing for tourists. Although Silverman says it now appears that the government is going to expropriate fewer than 50 homes and businesses, the town could undergo dramatic changes. When a landmark is added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the resulting influx of tourists can disrupt the way of life, changing the character of a place dramatically.

Silverman spent last summer in Phimai talking to residents and taking an inventory of the town, going house by house to record the kind of businesses and homes presently there. She wants to get a complete picture of the town before its temple is added to the World Heritage List; then, she will return to get an “after listing” picture. The result will be the first study of a town before, during, and after inscription on the World Heritage List.

“Many scholars recognize the positive and negative impacts of being on the World Heritage List, but nobody has ever looked at how a town changes throughout the entire World Heritage process,” she says. “Right now is the ideal moment to study Phimai.”


Silverman is also director of CHAMP—the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy on campus—and she has done work at other World Heritage sites. For instance, she did research in Cuzco, Peru, once the capital of the Inca Empire. It has been a major tourist destination for decades and has undergone dramatic transformations.

“Its beautiful central plaza has changed from a centuries-old public space to an exclusively tourist space of commercial activity, where most local people cannot afford to eat in the restaurants or shop in the stores,” she says.

“It’s a known fact that when a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List, tourism increases significantly,” she adds. She cites the historic town of Lijiang, China, which has seen a twentyfold increase in tourism over the past 20 years. “Lijiang had 150,000 visitors in 1991, and after being inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997, the number rose to 2.8 million,” she says. “Today, it receives almost 5 million tourists.”

Silverman recognizes the potential economic benefits, but she argues that a dramatic increase in tourism “can introduce new pressures into ordinary social life, altering property values, forcing out residents, generating environmental problems, and diverting government money from other necessary investments.” In the case of Lijiang, China, rising property values forced out 90 percent of its residents.

If Phimai is placed on the World Heritage List, what happens next depends on many factors. Will there be tourism service taxes, and how much revenue will go to the town? Will large, multinational hotel chains drive out small guesthouses? Will tourism increase the cost of living in the town? And what changes will the Thai government make if it pours money into refurbishing the town, as is often done at World Heritage sites?

Silverman describes Phimai as “charmingly chaotic.” Merchandise from shops spills out onto the narrow sidewalks, and the electrical wiring is “very creative,” with wires hanging from posts like vines. Other than the magnificent temple, there is little to see in Phimai.

Although Phimai is located in the poorest region of Thailand, and there are significant income disparities in town, Silverman learned that it is economically viable with strong employment. Businesses range from small family stores to large agriculture and building supply enterprises that provision the surrounding area and several factories on the town outskirts.

Therefore, she asks, “What will an increase in tourism actually do for Phimai?”

Most importantly, she says the people are remarkably content and proud of their town. Residents often refer to themselves as Phimai, rather than Thai, because ties to their community are so strong.

“I love my town. It is peaceful and everything I need is here,” said a high school senior who spent a year in Seattle as an exchange student and wants to be a doctor. “There is no pressure, and you can just be yourself. When I finish at the university, I will return here to live.”

Silverman’s team has been collecting tourism data, and right now she says the town would not be prepared for the massive influx of tourists who want to stay overnight. The infrastructure does not exist.

The general feeling among residents is that tourists are welcome, she says, but they don’t want their way of life disrupted—a difficult combination. However, they may not have much say in the matter because the town lies within the ancient walls that once marked the temple’s surrounding settlement. That means it is within the archaeological site, so its fate falls under the jurisdiction of the Thai government, which she says has strong incentives to get the temple onto the World Heritage List because of the prestige and “imagined benefit of development.”

What makes the process difficult for local people, Silverman says, is that the residents of Phimai have been poorly informed about the government’s plans to put their temple on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

“Local people are not being told much, and rumor is rampant,” she explains. “Right now, all businesses and homes in Phimai are owned by Phimai people. But people wonder: What will happen in the future? They just want to live their lives, but everything is up in the air.”

By Doug Peterson
Summer 2012