Stephen W. Litvin, former owner of Freedom Travel in Phoenix and
general manager of USTravel/Arizona (BTI Americas), is a senior
lecturer on travel and tourism management in the business studies
department at Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore. He recently spent
five days in Cambodia. His report follows.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- American images of the desperately poor
nation of Cambodia are shaped by the movie "The Killing Fields" and
faded images of President Nixon, bombings and coups d'etat during
the period of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
But even as news from the country has been dominated by the
15-year insurgency of the Khmer Rouge and its infamous leader, Pol
Pot, the nation is working hard to grab the golden ring of
Being in Cambodia is a strange experience.
Mainstream tourists -- if someone venturing to Cambodia today
could be considered mainstream -- basically visit two areas: Phnom
Penh, the capital and port of entry, and Siem Reap, the springboard
for explorations of Angkor Wat and the numerous temples and
monuments in the area.
Arrival in Phnom Penh is smooth, and Americans can have visas
issued upon arrival.
Watching the visa issuance procedure is an interesting
introduction to the country.
Eight uniformed immigration officials sit behind a long desk.
You hand your passport to the first, who examines the document and
then seems to do little more than hand it to the second, who seems
to do nothing other than hand the document to the third, who passes
it along to the fourth, etc., until official number eight takes
your $20 and returns your passport.
Total time: about two minutes, including the "thank you."
There are a few worthwhile tourist sites in Phnom Penh. These
include the Royal Palace and adjacent Silver Pagoda, the well-kept
National Museum, the Great Market, a river trip on the Mekong and
the perfunctory cultural show.
There also are some impressive monuments and a delightful statue
of King Sihanouk on horseback, a gift from the French.
The statue, our guide insisted but no guidebook confirmed, had
been one of Napoleon, whose head was replaced by that of His
Majesty following independence.
The central city, though graced with Parisian-style
architecture, cannot boast of Parisian grace.
Other than the above sights, the major tourism attractions of
Phnom Penh are ghoulish.
In a quiet section of the city is Tuol Seng Museum, referred to
as the infamous "house of horrors."
Here, foes of the Khmer Rouge were taken for whatever degree of
torture was necessary for a confession to be coerced. The prisoners
then were taken to the killing fields for extermination.
Citing an accurate statistic for the number of Khmer Rouge
victims is impossible. The common figure that tour guides, signs at
Tuol Seng and local literature give of Cambodians murdered by the
Khmer Rouge during the "Dark Days" of 1975-1979 is 3 million.
External sources indicate that the number is actually probably
closer to half that, but does the number really matter?
Either statistic is startling, made even more so with the
realization that the population of this country is 7 million.
A school converted into a prison and torture chamber displays in
graphic terms the atrocities of the time.
From pictures of the corpses found upon "liberation" (Vietnam's
1979 virtual annexation of the country) to the blood-stained
floors, original torture devices and a breathtaking wall-sized map
of Cambodia constructed of human skulls, the place is a living
memorial to atrocity.
Victims of the Cambodian horror are found everywhere, and
everyone you meet in Cambodia tells his or her story of the dark
days -- stories of being forced into labor camps, of families being
exterminated, of escape and years living in the jungle awaiting
liberation, hoping one day to find surviving family members.
Immediately on taking power in 1975, Pol Pot ordered Phnom Penh
evacuated, ostensibly to avoid the threat of American bombers.
For four years, the capital city remained abandoned. Seeing
pictures in a museum of the dead city is strange.
About 10 miles from the city are the infamous killing fields,
where at the Choeng Ek Genocide Memorial one sees mass graves
exhumed and labeled with crudely painted signs indicating the
number of bodies found within. Pieces of clothing and bones still
rise up out of the earth.
In the middle of the site is a monument with thousands of skulls
staring out at the visitor.
Today, although there is no fighting in the city area, safety is
a significant concern in
The English-language newspaper, Cambodia Times, indicated that
there had been more than 50 assaults or thefts visited on
expatriate workers and tourists in the previous three months, many
of which were committed by men in uniform (it was unclear whether
the implication was that criminals are imitating the police or the
police are part of the problem).
Common advice offered was that although the city is safe during
the daylight hours, the nighttime is not the right time for
Westerners to be out wandering.
Cambodians go to sleep early, and the city comes alive at 4 a.m.
This means that travelers should be back in the hotel by 8 p.m.
We never saw any indication of problems -- no gunfire, no
threatening gangs -- but we also felt no inclination to challenge
the advice of having an early evening.
After seeing Phnom Penh, tourists typically move on to Siem
Reap, where Angkor Wat, one of the true ancient wonders of the
world, is the focal point.
The Siem Reap area, a 40-minute flight (about $50) from Phnom
Penh, is deep in the jungle.
Beyond the magnificence of Angkor Wat, there are hundreds of
temples, monuments and huge carved faces staring out through the
vines and trees.
Through the centuries, nature has been the primary enemy of
Angkor Wat, reducing many of the monuments and temples to a state
Besting nature's destruction, modern-day bandits and the Khmer
Rouge are responsible for hundreds of statues missing their
A concerted effort to reconstruct the major monuments are under
way, and the renewed structures are spectacular.
Major contributors, along with Unesco, are American Express and
the Pacific Asia Travel Association.
With first class hotel space in Siem Reap scarce, many tours
condense their visit to a one-day whirlwind turnaround, flying into
Siem Reap in the morning and returning to
Phnom Penh in the late afternoon, concentrating visits on a
quick viewing of guidebook highlights -- the definitive "been
there, saw it, done it" tour.
Do not do this to your cli-ents.
Realistically, a three-day visit is necessary to see and digest
most of the major sights.
There is, however, the serious question of safety in the Angkor
It is only a few miles to the Khmer Rouge-controlled portion of
the country, and through the years much fighting has been
concentrated in the Siem Reap area.
We were told that it was safe as long as we visited only the
major monuments and stayed only on well-traveled paths.
At some of the temples, armed guards follow tourists through the
The question of why we needed an escort never quite got a
Was the guard there to protect us from bandits or from Khmer
Rouge kidnappers? To keep us on the path so as to avoid land mines,
or for no necessary reason beyond the chance for an off-duty
soldier to earn "cigarette" money, which our guide indicated was
appropriate as a thank you?
One morning, we were turned back at a checkpoint and told that
the road ahead --the only decent road in the province -- was not
We wondered if, perhaps, the police were looking for a little
baksheesh and had become self-appointed toll-takers.
We were not at all disappointed that our guide turned around
without asking our opinion.