Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cambodia at peace

This travel article from the UK press gives The Times' Travel Editor's view of the changing face of Cambodia and mentions my new company, Hanuman Tourism. Read on.

Exciting, exotic, romantic – even if the restaurants now offer cutlery – by Cath Urquhart, Travel Editor [May 19, 2007]

Perhaps a travel editor shouldn’t admit to having favourites, but, if pressed, I must say that South-East Asia always comes top of my places I love. I spent several happy and exciting months exploring the exotic destinations of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the early Nineties.
Those were the days before the region hit mainstream travel brochures, and it felt largely unexplored. In Laos, grass grew down the main streets of the capital, Vientiane, and you needed permits to travel everywhere (although the fine for being caught without a permit cost less than the permit).
In Vietnam we had to register at the police station in every town we visited – or pay someone to queue up and do it for us. And in Cambodia – which was still recovering from the brutal Khmer Rouge period – tourists were so scarce that whenever you met another Westerner, you would fall on each other like long-lost friends. Needless to say, this meant I hooked up with some wildly inappropriate travel companions, several of whom still write to me from prison. (Mum: just kidding.)
So, on a return visit to Cambodia this spring, I wondered how I’d feel about other tourists visiting my special places. I soon realised that I was going to have to guard against an outbreak of Travel Snobbishness, and its companion offence, Boring the Pants off Everyone about How it Was in the Old Days.
Yes, I had some exciting times in the early nineties, but do I miss restaurants with no cutlery? Flying on Wing and a Prayer airlines? Not a bit. Tourists are visiting this region in ever greater numbers, because now it’s safe to travel, and locals are making good money from tourism businesses: this is terrific news for a region that has suffered much in recent decades. Take Sotho Kulikar, for example, Kulikar (surnames are given first in Cambodia) and her mother set up Hanuman Tourism, a Phnom Penh-based travel agency, 16 years ago in their back room. They now have 154 staff and offices in Siem Reap and Laos. Kulikar’s father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. That her family has not only survived but flourished shows how far the country has come, and how much tourism is playing a part in that recovery.

To read Cath Urquhart’s travel article on her visit to Cambodia, click here. She travelled with one of Hanuman's top partners in the UK, Audley Travel.

1 comment:

Andy said...

I've reprinted the article in case the link doesn't work.
From The Times May 19, 2007

Cambodia at peace
After a 12-year gap, travel editor Cath Urquhart returns to Cambodia to find a country at peace with itself

The lunch was delicious: shrimps cooked with stalks of crunchy Kampot peppercorns, sweet enough to eat whole, served with a glass of cold chablis. I was dining with Stephane Arrii at the beach-side hotel he runs in Kep, once a vibrant French colonial resort on Cambodia’s coast. Knai Bang Chatt has 11 rooms in three villas built in a 20th-century style influenced by Le Corbusier. With its minimalist styling and large infinity pool, the hotel will doubtless soon feature in coffee table guides.

Change is just around the corner, Arrii told me. Kep is dotted with crumbling colonial buildings; the jungle is reclaiming them, giving the town a slightly creepy feel. But soon mains electricity will arrive, and the nearby border with Vietnam should open, encouraging more tourists to this pretty, quiet backwater.

Like most of Cambodia’s beach visitors, I was staying two hours’ drive west at Sihanoukville (also known as Kompong Som), which is rapidly becoming a Thai-style resort, its jolly beach bars offering everything from noodles and Angkor beers to manicures and MP3 downloads.

Finding such a relaxed, friendly vibe around town was a pleasant surprise compared with my previous visits to the country, where I spent several months in the early 1990s. I never saw the beaches because it was too dangerous to travel south of the capital, Phnom Penh. In 1994 two Britons, Dominic Chappell and Tina Dominy, with Australian Kellie Wilkinson, were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge on the road to Sihanoukville and executed. Shortly afterwards, three other Westerners were kidnapped and killed in the north when their train was ambushed by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Despite this, I found Cambodia thrilling and mysterious. One moment I’d be rubbing shoulders with legendary Vietnam war reporters such as Jon Swain and Tim Page, reporting on the UNsponsored 1993 elections. Next I’d be in a helicopter to Battambang to write about demining projects, or at a tasteless pool party at the legendary Le Royal hotel in Phnom Penh, where there’d be a live crocodile chained to the bar. Who cared that the hotels were run down, the food inedible or laced with hash, and the cities lawless after dark, when there was so much excitement?

Now older and wiser, I hoped that in the 12 years since my last visit, Cambodia had also grown up.

In Phnom Penh, I joined locals for the regular Sunday evening promenade along Sisowath Quay, by the Tonle Sap River. Families picnicked on the grass outside the Royal Palace, worshippers bought incense and lotus flowers at a small riverside temple, and young men and women made eyes at each other over snacks of sliced mango and dim sum bought from mobile stalls.

I hailed a toothless ancient pedalling his cycle rickshaw to take me back to my hotel – the reborn Le Royal, now taken in hand by the posh group Raffles (no more chained crocs). In 1993 we’d have made this journey through a dark, silent city. This time, we wove perilously through Bangkok-style traffic, past neon hoardings and snarling tuk-tuks.

My biggest shock came at the Capitol Hotel, the US$3-a-night flophouse where I and other journalists, aid workers and backpackers set up HQ in 1993. The Capitol’s open-sided café was at the heart of a grim soap opera: we witnessed road accidents, domestic rows, a grenade attack on a shop and two killings in broad daylight. One night a drunk UN soldier drove into the café, scattering us and the furniture, before three prostitutes fell out of his car and ran off. Ah, happy times.

There are still US$3 rooms, said the owner, Phann So Pheap, who charmingly said he remembered me, as we chatted over Cokes in the café. But much has changed. The road is now paved (and traffic-snarled); the hotel has grown from ten to 150 rooms, many with air con and TV, and even has an ATM. And So Pheap runs one of the biggest tour operations in the country, with 75 coaches taking passengers across Cambodia and into Vietnam. The peace dividend has enabled So Pheap and his family, like many Cambodians, to build a successful business.

But it is the Angkor temples of northern Cambodia that are the country’s biggest draw. I had fond memories of being the only tourist at Angkor Wat, the biggest and most spectacular temple, in 1992. Not so in 2007: my guide, Srei Omnoth (known as Ohm), collected me from my hotel at 5.30am so we could find a great spot to watch the sun rise over the temple with about 1,000 other tourists.

Stallholders were doing good business selling thick black coffee and renting plastic chairs. A mobile phone trilled behind us as the sun turned from pink to orange. Behind me, two Australian women discussed whether it was worth waiting much longer for the sunrise.

But the Angkor temples cover a vast area. Take a counter-intuitive tour and you can dodge the crowds. Another day, we started at 6am at exotic Ta Prohm, whose crumbling temples, overgrown with fig trees, were a backdrop to the film Tomb Raider. During an hour touring the complex I saw just a handful of tourists.

Likewise the southern gateway of Angkor Thom, topped with four faces, is a popular, crowded spot. But Ohm took me to the eastern gateway, just as spectacular, but deserted except for a Cambodian couple.

And now the country is safe – and the roads well paved – it’s easy to visit more remote temples. So Ohm loaded up the Jeep with tents, food and campbeds and we headed north to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea for a “temple safari”.

Both temples are spectacular, in different ways. Beng Mealea, thought to date from the 11th century, is dangerously dilapidated, and we rock-hopped across chunks of collapsed walls, finding carved apsaras (dancing girls) under the jungle thicket. Koh Ker, where we camped, was quite different: an enormous, and well preserved, seven-tiered pyramid, with a precarious steel ladder to the top, at 35m, offering views of the jungle canopy. The only other tourists were a party of Cambodian nuns on a day trip.

That night, over a delicious camp supper of baked fish with spicy mango salad, Ohm, 37, told me his story. Like so many of his countrymen, his father disappeared during the Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s, but Ohm didn’t know for sure that he’d died until he visited the Tuol Sleng prison – now a genocide museum – in Phnom Penh, where he found his father’s photograph.

Ohm was a super guide: knowledgeable and solicitous, but not overfamiliar or nosy about why I was travelling alone. Perhaps with so many dark stories in their own pasts, Cambodians are reluctant to pry about personal matters.

I left Cambodia feeling pleased to have seen a country at peace with itself. It still faces problems of poverty and crime, but for visitors the main adrenalin rush now comes not from gunfire but from trying to cross the crowded roads of the capital – which has to count as an improvement.

Need to know
Getting there: Cath Urquhart travelled with Audley Travel (01993 838160, A ten-day tailor-made itinerary, including three nights in Siem Reap, two nights in Phnom Penh and four in Sihanoukville, costs from £1,675pp. Includes return flights to Bangkok with EVA Air (, connections into Cambodia with Bangkok Airways, and B&B. Knai Bang Chatt:

Red tape: Cambodia visas are available on arrival for US$20 (more if arriving on a weekend). You will need a passport photograph.