Elephants sway in the steamy heat, carrying tourists along the jungle paths around the ancient stone temples, while overhead the occasional hot air balloon or helicopter goes by, taking other visitors on an aerial tour of Angkor Wat and nearby ruins. Inside the temples tourists from all corners of the world clamber over the stones, shoot video and fan themselves in the midday sun. When dusk comes the crowds climb onto their tuk tuks, bikes, and buses to make the eight kilometer trip back to the town of Siem Reap.
Not long ago a dusty village with a few dozen tour guides and guest houses, Siem Reap now hosts several thousand tourists a night in the high season as Cambodia launches itself in the mass tourism market. Ten years ago, with the country still emerging from decades of civil war and tumult, Cambodia received 217,000 visitors. "Last year we got 2.1 million," crows Tourism Minister Thong Khon. "Almost 50% of them came to the temples," he adds. By 2010, Thong Khon expects the number to reach 3 million.
Although Angkor Wat and the dozens of other temples built between the 9th and 14th centuries are the main attraction, the industry has moved astonishingly quickly to bring in the extras that will keep the tourists in town more than a day or two: spas, shopping boutiques, handicraft markets, galleries, ice cream shops. There's a special road called Pub Street lined with international cafes and trendy art bars, golf courses, upscale dining, horseback riding tours, cooking classes, convention activities, a night market, temple-side dinners for two or for dozens, and nature tours.
Rebuilding Since Khmer Rouge
The rustic guest houses where 10 years go visitors risked getting tropical fever from a mosquito bite are gone, replaced by five-star architectural gems and multi-story, mass market hotels with buffet lines and door-to-door bus tour packages. "What's fascinating to me is that the most demanding customer can find anything he wants in this little village that has boomed in only five years because of its cultural heritage," says Julia Fesenberg, marketing communications manager for Raffles, the Singapore-based chain that operates the French colonial era Grand Hotel d'Ángkor in the center of town.
The government, seeing the potential for major tourism revenues, has been working for a decade to get international development agencies and donors like Japan to rebuild roads, bridges, and airports to recreate the tourism industry that was decimated in the early 1970s during the U.S. bombing of Cambodia and then by the Khmer Rouge and their radical Maoist takeover. The strategy has worked so well that tourists now come year round, although the crowds are much smaller in the April—September low season.
In the high season, when the weather is cooler and dry, wealthy South Americans come in private jets, and rich Russians come on charter flights. Hundreds of thousands of Korean, Taiwanese, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, European, and American tourists come on direct flights from places like Singapore and Bangkok. "Everyone is happy. The government is happy, the prime minister is happy, in terms of the international arrivals," says Mohan Rao Gunti, tourism consultant for the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents.
No Longer a Dangerous Place
In the late 1990s, much of the temple area was still hazardous. There were land mines and bandits, and the five-hour boat trip up the Tonle Sap from Phnom Penh could be dangerous: Sometimes boats sank and there was occasional sniper fire. The surrounding low mountains visible from the temples were under the control of the Khmer Rouge. Now the news from the town is about new golf courses, the crackdown on littering, and the opening of Swensen's ice cream.
Raffles was the first of the world-class hotels to get back into Cambodia, when it took over the crumbling colonial-era hotels Le Royal in Phnom Penh and the Grand in Siem Reap. The Grand, which had hosted Charles De Gaulle and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the 1960s, is again the place for the elite to stay. Last year Bill Clinton stayed there. Pop star Ricky Martin visited recently.
Many of the high-end hotels that entered the market a few years ago are already expanding. Amanresorts International, the Singapore company, opened a 12-room resort inside a walled compound in 2002, and in 2006 added another 12 $700-a-night suites, each with a private pool. The rooms are new, but the property itself is historic: Aman took over the former guesthouse of retired King Norodom Sihanouk and converted it to suites. What is now the dining room used to be where the king, an art-movie director, showed films.
Keeping the City Clean
Another architectural gem in the center of town is Residence Angkor, a 55-room boutique hotel built of exotic hardwoods. Run by Orient-Express Hotels (OEH), it caters to Westerners and is expanding by adding a spa, business center, and more dining space. Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa, with 130 rooms, does promotions with a nearby golf resort. Meanwhile, on the road to the airport, dozens of four-star multi-story hotels have sprung up to cater to Asian tour groups. And even more are being built.
Although tourists are coming in big numbers, there are challenges for the town. "We must keep the city clean," says Khon, the minister. That means getting the rubbish out of the riverside area, improving the bumpy dirt road that leads out to the Tonle Sap lake tours of floating villages and the bird sanctuary, and developing sports, such as kayaking or sailing on the Western Baray, a lake area near the temples. "We want to develop this as a satellite destination. It is helpful to the hotel industry if the tourists stay longer," he says. He envisions more options for all cultures. "You know the Europeans like swimming, the Americans like to do sports. The Chinese, the Asians, like to go shopping. So we have to develop all the markets."
Developing the Rest of the Country
The government is also looking to capitalize on the popularity of Siem Reap to develop other parts of the country. For instance, it is planning more golf courses for the Sihanoukville beaches, which the government says will be Cambodia's next tourism cash cow. Several new beach resorts, including a casino resort, are also under development.
Other areas of the country are also opening for tourists. Ecotourists are making their way to the jungle areas of Mondulkiri in northern Cambodia and Koh Kong in the south. Mondulkiri is marketing elephant treks through a small project known as the Elephant Valley Project, which works with a nongovernmental organization that cares for mistreated elephants. Hill-tribe treks can now be found in the northern province of Rattanakiri, and in the south, the little-explored Cardomom Mountains have hard-core trekking. "We want quality tourists, but our policy is we welcome any kind of tourism, luxury or not," says Khon.