Cambodia Working to Attract Tourist and Overcome Images

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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 tourism.

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

Phnom Penh.

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 of ruin.

Besting nature's destruction, modern-day bandits and the Khmer Rouge are responsible for hundreds of statues missing their heads.

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 area.

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 grounds.

The question of why we needed an escort never quite got a definitive answer.

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 safe.

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.

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