AboutAsia Gets You to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat Without Crowd
Just before sunset, Andrew Booth is sipping a gin and tonic aboard a boat carved like a golden phoenix in the moat surrounding Angkor Thom. One of several capitals of the Khmer empire (802 to 1431), Angkor Thom is part of Angkor Archaeological Park, a 400-square-kilometer Unesco World Heritage Site whose most famous attraction, Angkor Wat, draws some 2 million visitors a year.
Thousands of them start the afternoon slog up the staircases at Angkor Thom’s Bayon temple to catch the sunset -- a feat akin to navigating New York’s Times Square on matinee day, Bloomberg Pursuits magazine will report in its Spring issue. Booth and I are alone save for a single oarsman and two chest-deep fishermen casting nets in the sky-mirroring water. A few hundred meters past a giant Buddha-headed gate, we disembark and climb an embankment to take in the view of an alluvial plain, where the sun silhouettes sugar palm trees intertwined by pale-pink mists.
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Booth, who retired in 2002 after a 15-year investment-banking career in London, promises “Angkor without crowds” through his nonprofit tour company, AboutAsia. While guidebooks offer tips such as rising before dawn to beat the crush, AboutAsia uses surveys of pedestrian traffic patterns, tools such as Google Earth and Booth’s own experience during a decade spent traveling and living in Cambodia to help clients outwit the tourist hordes.
“There’s actually no need to get up two hours earlier than everybody else,” says Booth, adding that his staff has also discovered seldom-trafficked routes accessible by bicycle, foot and tuk-tuk, or motorized rickshaw.
This analytic, off-the-beaten-path approach has made AboutAsia the company of choice for travelers who think nothing of dropping six figures during a three-week tour of Asia. However, the bulk of its business comes from a mostly Western clientele that desires exclusivity but doesn’t require presidential suites or helicopter flights between temples.
A five-day, privately guided program (excluding airfare) starts at just $525 per person, including accommodation at a four-star hotel; the fee rises to $3,600 per person for a suite in a top-of-the-line resort. Booth’s goal isn’t profit but philanthropy. After paying his 34 employees, the 48-year-old former financier -- who doesn’t take a salary himself -- pours all profits into supporting 100 Cambodian schools benefiting some 53,000 students.
“Because of the years of Khmer Rouge rule and the lag in development, Cambodia has some of Southeast Asia’s last remaining wilderness and rarest species, so the country’s tourism potential far exceeds temple visits,” Booth says. “My goal is to expand to the point where we can support a quarter of a million students.”
Booth, who, with his sandy-blond hair and bright blue eyes, resembles Dutch actor Rutger Hauer in his “Blade Runner” days, knows firsthand the power of education. One of the few students from his rural Gloucestershire school to attend the University of Oxford, Booth headed to London in 1986 after earning an undergraduate honors degree in atomic and solid-state physics. He moved into a flat near a rowing club on the Thames, determined to build on his collegiate athletic career racing lightweight sculls.
To support his rowing, Booth took a series of temporary jobs, including clerking in London for the venerable Scottish stockbroker Wood Mackenzie Ltd., which in turn led to a full-time position at the larger Hoare Govett Ltd., where he developed an expertise in risk arbitrage, a trading strategy that exploits price differences among related securities triggered by discrete events.
At his peak, Booth earned a salary of 2 million pounds ($3.5 million) -- plus bonus -- as founding head of the special situations trading unit of ABN Amro Bank NV. In 2002, Booth lost his job at ABN Amro during a managerial shake-up.
“I was 37 and tired of the relentless pace,” he recalls. “For 15 years, I worked 7 a.m. to midnight, and I can’t remember ever taking a day off or trying to have a balanced life.”
Ten days after leaving the bank, he embarked with his Italian wife and 2-year-old son on an around-the-world trip using Star Alliance frequent-flier miles. The trio flew to the U.S. and then on to New Zealand and Australia before visiting Siem Reap at the suggestion of their London baby sitter.
Promise of Tourism
Booth, who grew up on his parents’ small sheep farm, warmed to the friendliness of rural Cambodians. He was struck by the contrast between the poverty of the local people and the promise of tourism.
“I could see right away that a foreign hotel investor would do well in Cambodia, but right down the road, if you were a Cambodian, tourism passed you by,” he says. “I remember people with no discernible material wealth offering fried crickets to my 2-year-old because they wanted to be kind and that’s all they had.”
Booth also observed unsavory aspects of the local tourism industry: travel agents sending clients on formulaic itineraries, bored government-certified guides with no time or incentive to be creative and a profusion of tour buses geared toward the increasing number of short-term visitors.
For many, the temples that the 19th-century explorer Henri Mouhot described as “grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome” amounted to items ticked off a bucket list.
“Tourists came for a long weekend to have their picture taken in front of Angkor Wat,” Booth says. “They bought package tours from foreign-owned companies and didn’t spend any real money in the country.”
The realization that he had found a place where his business skills might do some good led to a radical career change, says Booth, who prides himself on setting new challenges every 10 years so as “to live several lives in one.”
His first “wildly naive” plan was to start a tour business with the guide who had taken him around the temples during his first visit. At first, Booth thought he could manage the business remotely, communicating via Skype from his house in Padova, Italy. Two years later, at the start of the 2007 peak Christmas travel season, he discovered that his local partner had commandeered the tuk-tuk drivers and guides to launch his own company.
Cambodian lawyers advised Booth against fighting the case in the country’s notoriously corrupt courts. (Berlin-based Transparency International ranks Cambodia the 22nd worst in the world in its Corruption Perceptions Index.) Instead, he flew back to launch AboutAsia from a room at one of Siem Reap’s three-star hotels.
“I could have made a lot more money with a lot less hassle starting a factory. But I wanted to prove it was possible to get tourism here right and that I could do it better than anyone else,” reflects the ever-competitive Englishman, who, in 1994, in the midst of a high-pressure banking career, won the U.K. national lightweight men’s double sculls championship. “Some people might call it a character flaw, but when it comes to stick-with-it-ness, I am Olympic class.”
For an Angkor Wat neophyte like me, Booth recommends seeing the world’s largest religious monument in a different light -- that of the stars. At 5 a.m., a Mercedes van drops senior guide Chem Bunchay and me near the temple’s little-used east gate, which we approach on a dirt path illuminated by Chem’s flashlight.
Instead of the rising sun, I see the five mountain-mimicking towers silhouetted by the Milky Way, whose creation forms part of the mythical scenes portrayed within a mile-long rectangular enclosure. The most fascinating and remarkably preserved panel depicts demons and soldiers churning an ocean of milk by tugging a thrashing serpent coiled around a giant seamount. At the center, the multiarmed Lord Vishnu stands atop a turtle around which the seamount pivots, creating a whirlpool toward which crocodiles, fish and mythical creatures, all broken into bits by the chaos, are sucked.
“The milky ocean is the Milky Way,” Chem explains, “and the panels portray how the constellations that rotate above us were created and how the personal struggle to rise above chaos is ongoing.”
While we’re inside, alone in circling the bas-relief panels, tourists (and macaque monkeys anticipating handouts) gather at the main west gate, bringing tablets, tripods and cameras to catch the first flash of sunrise behind the towers.
“How can you have a nice photo with so many people in it?” wonders Chem, who’s using his AboutAsia earnings to pay his way through law school.
Instead, he takes me around a corner to meet Emeline Decker, the 31-year-old assistant director of a German geological team preserving Angkor Wat’s nearly 2,000 carved apsaras and devatas -- Hindu nymphs and goddesses worshipped by Angkor’s 12th-century builder, Suryavarman II.
We climb wobbly aluminum ladders onto the project scaffolding to examine up close the sandstone figures, each with a unique face, hairstyle, posture and outfit.
“Every rainy season, water seeps into the sandstone and salt crystals migrate to the surface, causing carvings to flake,” Decker tells us.
The team’s seemingly Sisyphean task is to comb every square centimeter of the reliefs, using dental instruments, syringes and toothbrushes to secure them. At the 9 a.m. conclusion of my private visit, I walk down the main temple boulevard toward buses disgorging tour groups. As the wave washes in, I am on my way out.
Creating bespoke itineraries and helping visitors avoid the hordes “is not rocket science -- and I should know, because I studied that stuff,” Booth quips.
His management style mingles trading-floor intensity with the intellectual generosity of an Oxford don: In addition to paying guides to explore the region without clients one day a week, Booth has turned a room upstairs from his office into a movie theater and lecture hall, where he sponsors staff seminars led by experts on subjects as varied as archeology, astronomy, ornithology and photography, so that guides can offer clients more than a recitation of dates and royal genealogies.
An avid cyclist, he joins staffers on four-hour rides -- advance work for clients for whom a spin around the temples isn’t nearly challenging enough.
“If we’re not working, we’re playing,” Booth tells me over a meal of fried shrimp cakes and fish amok -- Cambodia’s national dish of curried coconut soufflé -- at Sugar Palm, one of his favorite hangouts. “If I recommend a restaurant to clients, it’s because I ate there last week and thought it was good.”
His local social network provides more resources for travelers. Friends include archeologists using motorcycles and satellite remote sensing to rediscover Angkor temples lost to the jungle, a British zoologist developing expeditions to see Bengal floricans and other endangered species, and a New Zealand helicopter pilot who divides his time between flying tourists over Angkor Wat at sunrise, ferrying oil company workers to potential new fields off the coast and searching for Americans declared missing in action in Cambodia during the Vietnam War.
AboutAsia’s services go beyond hot-air ballooning, kayaking Tonle Sap (Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake) and picnics of croissants and dragon fruit in empty jungle temples -- although it does all those things. At the other end of the spectrum, the company assists would-be English teachers from all over the world, including gap-year students, midlife career changers and retirees who wish to contribute to and immerse themselves in local life.
Volunteers work as classroom assistants, providing students and local teachers alike with the opportunity to benefit from the presence of a native English speaker. Unlike travel companies that charge unvetted foreigners the price of a luxury holiday for token volunteer programs, AboutAsia requires its participants to supply character references and put up a $200 bond, which is refunded only when their minimum 30-day program is completed.
“Children find it disrupting and intimidating to constantly encounter new faces, which is why I appreciate AboutAsia’s 30-day requirement,” says San Aly, the 33-year-old director of the Smiling Hearts Association for Children, a private English-language school with 160 students that AboutAsia supports. San, who grew up on the outskirts of Siem Reap, says the government pays teachers so little that they often don’t write lessons on classroom blackboards, instead making photocopies to sell to students.
“When I was a child, I couldn’t pay the bribes my teachers demanded for good grades,” she says. “I sold vegetables in the night market to make a little money, and my own mother demanded a cut. I want parents to stop seeing their kids as a business and to see education as an asset.”
Investing in Education
Cambodia’s national tourism revenues approach $2 billion a year; however, the Ministry of Education spends less than $3 per student annually, and many rural schools lack basics such as textbooks and toilets. To help fill the gap, AboutAsia refurbishes classrooms and supplies books, computers and other materials.
Booth’s latest athletic challenge is to train for the annual Angkor Wat 100-kilometer (62-mile) bicycle race -- three circuits around the outer temple enclosure. Booth rides a Cervelo P3 carbon-frame bike with the same setup as Tour de France speed-trial champion Dave Zabriskie. On a 6 a.m., 36-kilometer loop along the newly paved Siem Reap-Vietnam highway, my tuk-tuk driver sets a pace of 40 kilometers per hour, which has Booth pedaling past motorbikes ferrying giant hogs to market. Everyone he passes startles and then smiles at his futuristic ride and Lycra get-up.
Back at the office, Booth puts some final touches on a guidebook he has commissioned from a team of archeologists and graphic designers, another potential source of revenue. E-mails await from a worldwide network of clients and travel agents who have him working hours that nearly match his old banking career.
“One day, I’m going to start the Siem Reap Rowing Club on the Western Baray,” Booth sighs, referring to the 8-kilometer-long artificial lake that 11th-century hydrologists created to irrigate the Khmer empire’s rice crop and a popular picnic spot for locals. Once AboutAsia can reliably support a quarter of a million students, it will be time to consider another career transformation.
For now, pecking away at his laptop, Booth imagines his own “Angkor without crowds” moment: a single scull pulling away from a shoreline where Cambodian families play cards and ladies sell cold beer and fried crickets.
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