Couchfish: A Cambodian interlude

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I’ve written before about how a silver lining to Covid19 is for destinations to rethink how they “do” tourism. When you think back to 2019’s travel headlines, there isn’t much better a candidate than Cambodia.

It didn’t matter if it was the crowds at Angkor Wat or the madness of Sihanoukville, you didn’t need to look too far for the bad news. Thanks to the kleptocracy that runs the place, the bad news hasn’t stopped, but there’s been one bright note. Vaccinations. Mostly off the back of Sinovac and Sinopharm, 64% of its eligible population are fully vaccinated and 76% are on the way. The country is second only to Singapore in the region. Who would have thought?

Before Angkor there was Sambor Prei Kuk. Video: Hanuman Films.

While you’d think this would have it at the front of the queue for a reopening, it isn’t quite there yet. Cambodia, as it has been for years, lacks a wide network of long-haul inbound flights. Many once visited via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or a raft of ports in China. Today, only Singapore, with daily flights to the capital, remains operating daily. There’s also a less than appealing two-week quarantine. Not ideal.

So, business for the Cambodian tourism industry and its tens of thousands of employees has been glacial. That isn’t to say though that people are resting on their laurels. Some are keeping busy, busy thinking about what Cambodian tourism could be when this is all over.

This morning, I was procrastinating online when I saw a film related to Preah Vihear in Cambodia. Produced by Hanuman Films, it is one of a series they have produced through the pandemic.

Enjoy sunrise at Preah Vihear. Video: Hanuman Films.

I loved it for its simplicity. There’s no grating host talking about themselves, instead, the site is left to appeal on its own merits—of which it has aplenty. I’ve known Nick Ray at Hanuman for years, and I gave him a call this morning to chat about what they’re trying to do with the films.

When I asked if the simplicity of the film, of leaving the site to “sell itself” was intentional, Ray laughed and said he was happy to take credit for anything positive I said. More seriously though, there was an interesting reason for how it is presented. In Cambodia, there is a real shift to try and appeal to domestic travellers. Keeping things simple (the video has a brief Khmer voiceover and English text, presented at different moments in the film) helped them appeal across different markets.

When you watch the video, of sunrise over Preah Vihear, it is hard not to think you’d like to go there. The thing is, Preah Vihear, while easier to reach than say a decade ago, is far from an easy spot to get to. Other videos cover equally remote sights—Preah Khan Kompong Svay and Koh Ker are both easier to approach, but they remain remote. And for many, with just Angkor on the radar, out of mind.

The Lost Temple of Preah Khan Kampong Svay. Video: Hanuman Films.

These videos help address this. Ray noted how historically there has been an overreliance on Angkor Wat in Cambodia’s tourism promotion, these videos, in their own small way, might help to change that. Get people thinking about new places and maybe they’ll travel farther—and stay longer.

Another video looks at BeTreed—an ecolodge in Preah Vihear province. Ray explains this one, which, as with a few of the films, was supported by USAID, was the first Airbnb online experience in the country. USAID has a programme centred on the Prey Leng Forest area, working to create alternatives opportunities for local people in an area rife with environmental challenges.

Producing the films has had a positive effect without anyone even acting on them. Talking of the production, Ray explains “each project has created jobs and opportunities for tour guides and drivers at a time when tourism has been in a state of suspended animation”.

Meet BeTreed. Video: Hanuman Films.

Another series looks at the food of the country. This time with the support of the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism and French development agency AFD. Again the focus is varied—yes the capital and Siem Reap are covered, but two others, one to the south coast and the other on the northeast, are great examples of driving people farther. The crab at Kep—delivery, please.

With the country well-positioned to leave its suspended animation sooner than later, people are concerned that, as has often been the case in the past, the country will be the bridesmaid to neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand. For now, Cambodia remains well ahead of them on the vaccination front, but they’re both gaining.

“This is the moment when Cambodia can define itself as a destination in its own right,” says Ray.

Mmmmm crab …Culinary Adventures on the South Coast. Video: Hanuman FIlms.

While bubble-talk pervades some governmental talking heads, there is a feeling that the country is the best positioned in the region to re-open with a nationwide bubble.

“Vaccinated visitors and vaccinated hosts equal a winning ticket,” says Ray.

The governmental concern is not invalid though—especially with the circuses in Thailand and the on- and off-again bubbles in Vietnam and Indonesia. Unlike these countries though, Cambodia is well-positioned to re-open in its entirety, in one hit.

The fear though, is if it waits too long, yet again it will be left to the side as the far better-financed tourism boards in Thailand and Vietnam come on stream. Look no further than the media circuses around Phuket, Samui and Phu Quoc for evidence of this.

One of the early films Hanuman did feature a deserted Angkor Wat. Of it says Ray:

“It felt like a historic moment, Angkor being like that—I didn’t realise that it was going to be like that for so long.”


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