Siem Reap Diary: Much to learn from the Mekong region

By Dev Nadkarni

Whatever it is that inspired the ancient Hindu and Buddhist kings to build the amazing temples of Angkor Wat and surrounds – now deemed wonders of the world, protected and in various stages of restoration – creating a thriving tourism industry a millennium later couldn’t have been a motivation.

As I’m driven around the surprisingly wide and clean main avenues of Siem Reap on the ubiquitous tuk-tuk I wonder what Cambodia would have been like without these incredibly supersized ancient monuments that are a magnet for some 3 million tourists from all over the world spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the impoverished southeast Asian nation every year.

Or for that matter what it would have been like if the country would not have been able to put the horrible Khmer Rouge episode in its recent history behind itself so quickly, in less than a generation, despite the loss of nearly 3 million people in the surreal madness of the putsch (almost everyone you speak to in Cambodia has lost a dear one or a friend).

You can’t help but notice how Cambodia – especially Siem Reap, the city closest to the biggest concentration of ancient temples – is so finely tuned to the tourism industry. The efficiency with which every tourist activity is conducted is commendable. The tour operators are punctual, courteous and extremely professional; the government-approved guides are well informed enough to contextualise information to the tourists’ own backgrounds and cultures and are proficient communicators; the local transportation options available are clean, efficient and affordable.

There is much that the Pacific Islands tourism sector can learn from the efficient way the tourism industry is managed in Cambodia or for that matter collectively in the entire Mekong region. The relative ease with which you can travel to various destinations around the Mekong region is a bonus for multi-destination tourists – something that’s inherently difficult in the islands region because of its geography and lack of direct and affordable point-to-point air links.

Rising above the limitations

Every tourist destination has its own physical limitations. For instance, at first glance there appears to be little in Siem Reap beyond the ancient monuments. Similarly, in the Pacific Islands context, there seems little else other than sunshine, sand and sea. In fact, one of the criticisms of Pacific Island destinations has been the lack of avenues to spend time and money outside the precincts of a resort.

Though that is slowly changing in some countries like Fiji and Vanuatu, where entrepreneurs and tourism promotion agencies are beginning to offer variety by adding the likes of adventure and cultural tourism to the mix, for most destinations around the region there is little life beyond the resort – something which appeals to a certain kind of tourist but pretty much shuts out the large number that is after a more variegated holiday experience.

Siem Reap has overcome the ‘there’s little beyond the monuments’ perception quite impressively. There is much to do in the small but distinctive ‘downtown’ area after you’ve spent a hard day trekking up and down the forests around Siem Reap admiring and marveling at millennium old temples.

The sheer number of restaurants and variety of cuisines is so huge that you won’t have to visit a place twice even if you were to stay in Siem Reap for several months. Menu choices range from authentically ethnic to creative fusion blending several cuisines. The choice and range of watering holes combined with rock bottom pricing for tipples – a mug of beer on tap is just 50US cents – adds immensely to the allure.

The choices invite you to be adventurous with your palate. If you haven’t found your nirvana trudging through all those temples during the day, the gourmand in you can surely find salvation in Siem Reap’s food precinct around its famed Pub Street, which comes alive after dusk and buzzes on into the wee hours. It doesn’t get as raucous as Bali or Bangkok, thanks in part to the government’s efficient tourist police who make their presence felt tactfully – without being intrusive or intimidating – at all of Siem Reap’s busy night spots (there’s no sleaze in public areas and all post bar hopping activity seems discreet).

Other attractions are souk like markets, albeit enclosed, selling exotic Khmer artifacts alongside the usual Chinese made tourist tat. Shopping can be exciting: salesmanship is glib and bargaining is rife – it’s up to you to strike a good deal, of which there’s plenty to be had.

This is something that Pacific Islands tourist markets sadly lack, despite being great attractions for day tourists like those visiting on cruise ships. Cruise tourism is tipped for impressive growth this year as well as in coming years despite recent scares like the Costa Concordia. But nowhere in the islands is there a distinctive space for shopping or eating and drinking. It could contribute greatly not just to the holiday experience of tourists but also to tourist dollars earned in the destinations.

Opportunities for side trips around Siem Reap such as the unusual ‘floating village’ on the Tonle Sap Lake/river system offer a completely different experience from the mainstream ancient temples routine, adding variety to the holiday sight seeing experience.

Convenience, cost and connectivity

A large part of the growth in tourist numbers turning up in the Mekong region and particularly in Cambodia is because of budget airlines. Low cost carriers like the Malaysia headquartered Air Asia, voted the best low cost carrier in the world for the third consecutive year, have worked hard with tourist operators across the region to carve out incredibly low priced deals.

These comprehensive deals including travel, stay, ground transportation, local tour itineraries, tickets to destinations can all be bought in a pizza-topping style menu on a single website with an extremely user-friendly interface. The confirmations are instant and changes required are easily and inexpensively made. The packages offer a huge choice and price range and the mix and match options for activities and their scheduling all in one place on the web make it extremely easy and convenient to plan trips. This is especially useful for complex, multi-destination itineraries.

Unlike in most Pacific Island destinations, almost all the accommodation segments in Cambodia offer free internet connectivity for their guests. In fact, free internet connectivity is a draw card and is advertised as a top amenity, particularly in the low cost accommodation category. Every eatery offers you free wi-fi just as almost every hotel does. It’s easier accessing wifi networks in Siem Reap than it is in even in Auckland or Sydney, let alone the islands region.

Clearly, the success of the Mekong region’s tourism industry is because of a range of factors that have been made to work in unison with the tourism bodies of several countries working in close cooperation with the private sector comprising the airlines, the hospitality industry and local authorities to deliver a rich, variegated experience targeted at a range of tourist budgets.

First appeared in Islands Business, February 2012