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Cambodian revolution

TIME : 2016/2/26 17:41:13

A once-struggling nation is starting to rival its better-known neighbours, writes Louise Southerden.

Thirty years ago, Cambodia, then known as Democratic Kampuchea, was pulling itself together after the Khmer Rouge's bloody reign (1975-1979). Then came 10 years of Vietnamese occupation, then four years under a United Nations transitional government until, in the late 1990s, Cambodia finally stood on its own feet again and opened its doors to curious outsiders.

Since then, the trickle of tourists (118,183 in 1993) has become a deluge. Cambodia's ministry of tourism reports international visitor numbers have increased by 456 per cent since 2000 to 2.13 million last year – mostly from Korea, Vietnam, Japan, the US and China.

Tourism slumped this year due to the global recession but annual visitation is expected to reach 2.8 million or even 3 million next year, generating close to $US2 billion ($2.15 billion) in much-needed revenue for the impoverished nation. More Australians are visiting Cambodia than ever before, too: 84,000 last year, an increase of almost 20 per cent since 2007. However, Marion Bunnik, the general manager of Adelaide-based travel agency, which started in April, says Cambodia is still underestimated by Australian travellers and overshadowed by its neighbours.

"Cambodia has always been a fantastic extension for people wanting to go to Vietnam, Thailand [or] Laos but as a destination in its own right it has not been so attractive," Bunnik says. "I think that's because it's a small country, very little is known about it apart from Angkor Wat and because of the very sad history of the Pol Pot era."

Cambodia is gaining in appeal for adventurous travellers, she says. "A lot of people have 'been there, done that' and they're looking for a different experience, which can be found in Cambodia," she says. "There are fantastic beaches and places like Battambang that are very traditional, very Cambodian, so you get a different culture as well." There are also events such as the inaugural MaD Tuk-Tuk Challenge, taking place in January , where teams will race across Cambodia to raise money for local charities.

Access is also improving. In July, Cambodia Angkor Air, a joint venture between the Cambodian Government and Vietnam Airlines, was launched to help fast-track tourism. It's the first time Cambodia has had a national airline since Royal Air Cambodge went bankrupt in 2001.

A new international airport in Sihanoukville, on Cambodia's south coast, is due to open this month, which will give Cambodia a third entry-point, in addition to Phnom Penh (the capital) and Siem Reap (gateway to Angkor).

Less than an hour's flight from Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville has been hailed as "the next Phuket or Koh Samui". It's still possible to book a room in a beachside bungalow for less than $US10 a night but there are also more pricey options now.

A night in the presidential suite at the newly restored Independence Hotel will set you back $US450; the royal sokha suite at the Sokha Beach Resort , Cambodia's first five-star beach resort when it opened in 2005, costs $US2000 a night. Sokha Beach Resort is adding 70 more luxury chalets and Sokha Hotels is building two resorts nearby: Bokor Mountain Resort & Casino and the O'Chheuteal Beach Resort & Casino..

Sihanoukville will also get its first eco resort next year, Song Saa Island Resort , which will have 20 sustainably built, overwater bungalows, a five-star restaurant, a yoga and meditation centre and Cambodia's first privately funded marine protected area, covering 1 million square metres around the resort's two islands. The resort's owners have employed a full-time marine biologist to monitor reef health and educate locals about sustainable fishing.

"Imagine Thailand 40 years ago and you get an idea of the potential of Cambodia's islands," the Australian founder of Song Saa Island Resort, Rory Hunter, says. "But we can learn from the Thai experience and ensure this region never loses its incredible appeal through irresponsible development. Our goal is to set a high precedent, challenging future developments to meet our conservation standards."

In Phnom Penh, many riverfront French colonial buildings have been transformed into boutique hotels, such as the Boddhi Tree Aram ; the Scandinavia Hotel

; and Blue Lime , an "urban accommodation" hotel near the National Museum.

The iconic Foreign Correspondents' Club has a new 16-room hotel called The Quay , which claims to be Phnom Penh's first "carbon neutral and environmentally sound hotel".

Other developments in the capital include: metered taxis (a first for Cambodia); air-conditioned malls such as the 40,000-square-metre Shopping Center Sorya; and a new museum at the Killing Fields, Phnom Penh's main attraction.

In northern Cambodia, Siem Reap's international airport was upgraded in 2006, to the tune of $US23 million. Tourism to Siem Reap increased by 1600 per cent between 2000 and last year, according to the Cambodia tourism ministry. And, in just over a decade, the number of hotels has gone from two – Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor , which opened in 1932 and was fully restored in 1997; and Hotel de la Paix , which opened in 1956 and was completely rebuilt in 2003 – to 200.

The road between the airport and Siem Reap is now lined with resorts such as the five-star Angkor Palace Resort & Spa , which has villas for up to $US1500 a night. There's a Le Meridien, a Sofitel, a Marriott, and, coming soon, a Club Med and an Intercontinental.

Golf tourism is booming, too. One of Siem Reap's three courses, Angkor Golf Resort , which opened last year and was designed by legendary British golfer Sir Nick Faldo, in June was rated one of the best three new courses in Asia (by Asian Golf Monthly).

There are changes at Angkor itself as well. Three-day passes are now valid for one week, seven-day passes for a month – instead of having to be used on consecutive days – so tourists don't get "templed out" on their first day or two and can experience Siem Reap's other new attractions such as balloon rides, the Angkor National Museum and dirt-bike tours.

In December last year, Angkor Wat temple complex hosted its first rock concert, featuring artists such as Placebo and Kate Miller-Heidke, and a new nightly sound and light show will be on again from next month until February. In Cambodia, even an 800-year-old, World Heritage-listed temple has to think outside the tourism square.

The writer was a guest of Vietnam Airlines.


Vietnam Airlines, in association with new airline Cambodian Angkor Air, flies from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City four times a week and on to Phnom Penh (three flights daily) and Siem Reap (six flights daily). See


See Cambodia's Ministry of Tourism, Australians require a visa for Cambodia, which costs $US20 ($21.50) and can be obtained on arrival or at Departure tax costs $US25 for international flights, $US6 for domestic flights.