People & Places
Out & About
# This article on my visit to Kompong Cham appeared in the July-September quarterly edition of the Tourism Asean magazine in 2006. [You will require Adobe Reader to view the article].
# After three years of refurbishment, at a cost of $48 million, the Guimet Museum, the Asian art museum of Paris, re-opened its doors in January 2001. Amongst its 45,000 objects, are a prestigious collection of Khmer artifacts that include a naga that has been assembled and is on show for the first time since 1889 (right), when it was brought to France by an expedition led by Louis Delaporte. Other Khmer masterpieces from the Bayon, Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei help to make the collection the museum's most prized pieces. The museum, closed for three years while the improvements were completed, was originally founded in Lyon in 1878. Read about my 2004 visit to the Guimet Museum here.
# A team of researchers at Sophia University have excavated a stone pillar with numerous images of a Buddhist deity dating back to the 12th century in the temple of Banteay Kdei. The square pillar is decorated with about 1,000 small carvings of Kannon, an important deity in Buddhism, the team led by Prof. Yoshiaki Ishizawa said. Discovery of such a large number of Buddhist carvings in the Angkor ruins is very rare, and the research team said it was a precious historical finding that points to the proliferation of the religion in the region at the time. According to the researchers, the pillar is 45 centimeters across and 110 centimeters tall. It was excavated from a site about one meter underground along with 30 Buddhist statues. Though the whole of the pillar has not been dug up, the researchers confirmed finding 252 curved images of Kannon, each of which measures 3.5 by 3.5 centimeters, on one of the four sides, estimating that it has 1,008 images on all four sides. Ishizawa said, "Discovery of the stone pillar in addition to many statues proved that Buddhism had attracted many followers and been popular among the people during Jayavarman VII's reign." (August 2001). # Another precious find was made in the grounds of the city museum in Battambang in August, but details haven't yet been released. Its believed the ancient sculptures found were buried in the grounds to avoid their theft or destruction just before the Khmer Rouge took over the city in 1975. # The cost of visiting Phnom Kulen is $20, unless ..... you go to the City Angkor hotel (used to be Nokor Kok Thlok hotel), where you can buy a pass to the mountain top park for $15, as the hotel owner is the MP who built the road to to the top of Kulen. The hotel manager gives you an official stamped and signed document at a 25% discount. This helpful tip, is courtesy of Ly Hour (Siem Reap taxi-driver).
# The heads of the two Buddhist orders in Cambodia have declared that the country's 3,731 pagodas are to be turned into serene and clean places befitting their status. Abbots have been ordered to clear squatter families, fence in the property, turn the grounds into gardens and not allow private graves and monuments on their premises. At the last count, Cambodia had 50,873 practising Buddhist monks with another 20,000 novices (July 2001). # Princess Bopha Devi, the Minister of Culture & Fine Arts, has identified five major sites as priority zones and another eight more of secondary importance for the development of cultural tourism outside the Angkor complex. Her ministry has set up teams of experts to look into preserving these sites, increasing awareness and creating infrastructure to accommodate visitors. The front-line sites are Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Preah Khan, Sambor Prei Kuk and Banteay Chhmar. The secondary sites are Phnom Da & Angkor Borei, Phnom Bayang, Phnom Chisor, Tonle Bati, Han Chey, Banteay Prei Nokor, Wat Nokor and Phnom Moul, a prehistoric site (July 2001).
# Access to parts of the Angkor complex is being restricted by the APSARA Authority, responsible for maintenance of the massive site (May 2001). Along the many bas-relief galleries at Angkor Wat, visitors are kept a metre or so away by rope barriers, to inhibit touching the sculptures. Visitors to Banteay Srei are now barred from access to the central sanctuary and two libraries, which have also been roped off. I recommend you take binoculars if you wish to study the intricate lintels and pediments as the days of easy access to much of Angkor's treasures appears to be coming to an end. Work is already underway at Baphuon, Chau Sey Tevoda and the Prasat Suor Prat towers under foreign restoration projects. Access to the temple of Preah Ko at Roluos, with its fine lintels and stucco guardians, is also severely restricted. A German restoration team is working at the site and the six central towers are now off-limits. # One good piece of news is that the road, Route 6, out to Roluos is in great shape these days and the journey time is now down to twenty minutes. At a cost of $12 million, Japan has funded the reconstruction of the main highway.
# Sokimex, the private company in charge of the Angkor concession, have now introduced laminated ID cards for multiple-day passes to the 300-square km temple complex . Photos are now required for the $40 3-day and $60 week-long passes in an attempt to prevent guides from re-selling used tickets. # Severe flooding across much of Cambodia caused some 347 deaths, most of whom were children, temporarily displaced 400,000 people and destroyed thousands of acres of crops (Oct 2000). The earlier-than-normal arrival of the flooding, severely affecting 18 of Cambodia's 24 provinces, saw the Mekong River rise to its highest level in 40 years. # Flooding in 2001 has again hit the provinces adjacent to the Mekong River, causing over 50 deaths and destruction of homes, crops, roads and bridges, whilst other areas of Cambodia are perversely experiencing a drought (September 2001).
# 97 artefacts, including a bust of Jayavarman VII, were returned (March 2000) to the National Museum in Phnom Penh after a military raid foiled attempts to smuggle the antiques into Thailand. During the raid three of the suspected smugglers were killed. The artefacts are believed to have been looted from the remote Preah Khan temple at Kompong Svay. In addition, the National Museum staged their first show since 1975 and featured 34 carvings of the Hindu god Ganesa from the 7th-11th centuries. Some of the restored sculptures were on public display for the very first time. # Concerns about the fragile state of much of the Angkor complex are very real. A number of restoration projects are currently underway at many of the temples including Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Baphuon. The 12th century temple of Chau Sey Tevoda is also enjoying the attentions of a foreign restoration program. The Chinese have been entrusted with the task of preserving and renovating the temple, at a cost of $1.2 million and over a five year time-frame. Another area requiring urgent attention is the landing stage leading onto the lake of Srah Srang. A portion of the western staircase collapsed into the lake on 15 December 1999 and the APSARA Authority responsible for the upkeep of the complex took emergency measures to avoid further damage. # In September 1999, Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk unveiled the restored roofless northern library at the Bayon temple, after a four-year restoration project by a team from JSA, the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor. A grant of $1 million by the Japanese government covered the cost of the rescue package.
# Seven armed robbers relieved 90 passengers of their valuables and cash on the Phnom Penh-Siem Reap express boat, just 30 kms north of the capital in March 2000. It was the first hijacking of this kind and amongst the robbery victims were 44 foreign nationals, including the former Israeli Ambassador to Singapore and his wife. The robbers, masquerading as passengers, were armed with AK-47s, pistols and knives but no-one was hurt in the incident. Four of the robbers were subsequently apprehended and given jail terms ranging from five to ten years. # At the time of my visit in March 1998, Cambodia was experiencing its first census for 36 years. The results have been made public and make interesting reading. The total population was confirmed at 11.4 million, of which 52% are female. Nearly 43% of the population is under 15 years of age and the average Cambodia household has 5.2 people in residence. 84% of the populace live in rural areas, just 29% of homes have access to safe drinking water, 14% have toilet facilities and only 15% of homes have electricity. The census also found out that a third of all adults are illiterate. # Watch out for 300 eight-seater electric cars at Angkor sometime in the future!! A South Korean firm are planning to invest $10 million in a fleet of battery-powered cars to ferry tourists around at the expense of buses, private cars and motocycles, which may be banned. The plan caused a storm of protest amongst the 1,000 people who make their living as taxi drivers and guides at the complex and was subsequently shelved.
#A flurry of successful operations by the Thai authorities in 1999 again highlighted the rampant trade in Khmer antiquities that is threatening to rape Cambodia of her cultural heritage. Following hot on the heels of the recovery of the Banteay Chhmar friezes, the Thai police seized tonnes of priceless artefacts in raids in and around Bangkok. They impounded 110 pieces in a swoop on a shopping mall and another 400 objects were recovered from the home of a stone sculptor in Ayutthaya province. Customs officials also seized eight tonnes of artefacts smuggled into the Thai capital from Singapore. 43 objects, packed into 29 cases, included stone sculptures that had been part of a stairway from an unidentified Cambodian temple. # Sokimex, the fuel retail company awarded an annual $1 million concession to sell entry tickets to the Angkor temple complex, are planning to develop hotel and restaurant facilities inside the temple grounds to avoid tourists having to traipse several kilometres back to Siem Reap for refreshments. They plan to build a $10 million, 150-room hotel complex, beginning next year (it never happened). There are currently 2,000 rooms for visitors in the town but that number is expected to double in the next couple of years. # Cambodia is looking to the UN to help with plans to upgrade tourist facilities and preserve the cliff-top 11th century Angkorean temple of Preah Vihear, on their northern border with Thailand. The hope is that the upgrading of the road, currently a dry-season logging track, will allow access to the temple from the Cambodian side. Other ideas include a hotel, restaurants and a cable car up to the temple! At the present time, main access is from the Thai side of the border, but it's hoped that UNESCO will become involved in its restoration and preservation. (June 2000) - a contract has now been agreed to provide a road from Siem Reap to Preah Vihear, with work costing US$90 million over four years, due to start in November. The same company have also been awarded the contract to resurface the Poipet - Siem Reap road. Not before time I hear you say!
Hollywood in Cambodia
The Hollywood train rolled out of Cambodia and Angkor in December 2000, when 10 days of filming for the blockbuster movie Tomb Raider ended with the star of the film, Angelina Jolie (left), gushing in her praise for the country. Filming at Angkor included the building of a controversial village in front of Angkor Wat, while other scenes were shot at Ta Prohm, Phnom Bakheng and on Phnom Kulen. The film immediately topped the American box office on its release in June 2001. The following month saw Jolie fly out to Cambodia for a week and spend two nights apiece in Anglong Veng and Samlot as the guest of UNHCR. Click here to read her journal from the trip. Another Hollywood production began filming in early February 2001 in Phnom Penh and Kampot, when Matt Dillon brought his cast, including James Caan, Gerard Depardieu and crew to Cambodia to shoot his new movie, Beneath the Banyan Tree. Scenes were also shot on Bokor Mountain (they paid $10,000 to upgade the road to the top of the mountain), Phnom Chisor and in Kep for the crime thriller, which will be the first major motion picture to be filmed primarily in Cambodia since Lord Jim, over 40 years ago, and is Dillon's debut as a Director (the film name may be changed to City of Ghosts upon release in early 2002). For those with long memories, Lord Jim was filmed in and around Angkor in 1965 and was a swashbuckling adventure starring Peter O'Toole. There was also a smaller budget film called Butterfly Men shot in Phnom Penh in late February. The film Two Brothers, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, telling the story of two tiger cubs, was filmed in a few of Cambodia's ancient temples, particularly Beng Mealea, and was released in 2004.
1,200 Ancient Temples
That's the approximate number of ancient Angkorean temples believed to be spread around the Cambodian countryside. Etienne Aymonier began the job of piecing together a complete picture of the former empire in the last century before Etienne-Edmond Lunet de Lajonquiere, working for the EFEO, produced his famous 'Inventory' in 1911, listing a total of 910 separate temples. His work remains an essential and irreplaceable working document, added to later by Henri Parmentier, now that a number of the sites it describes have disappeared or become overgrown and long forgotten.
High on that list is the former tenth century capital of Koh Ker (also known as Chok Gargyar - 'Island of Glory'), located in barren hill country some 85 kilometres (53 miles) northeast of Angkor, in the province of Preah Vihear. It was home to Jayavarman IV, who ascended the throne in 928, and in only a few years, he'd built many colossal temples dedicated to Shiva, ruling over large numbers of people and in considerable splendour for twenty years until succeeded by his son Harshavarman I. The capital was moved back to Angkor in 944. The chief monument at Koh Ker was the magnificent temple of Prasat Thom, which has since been severely damaged. A seven-tiered sandstone pyramid some forty metres high, over 40 inscriptions, dating from 932 to 1010 have been found at the site. Nearby, a famous sandstone hand was discovered in the imposing structure known as Prasat Kraham (the red temple), while two giant wrestling apes were found at Prasat Chen. The picture above is of one of the temples, known as Prasat Neang Khmau. The unique style of the Koh Ker period shows Khmer architecture and sculpture on a monumental scale. The many monuments at the Koh Ker site have yielded large numbers of gigantic sculptures, both human and animal, most of which are on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who has a keen interest in ancient Khmer architecture, visited the site at Koh Ker, with a heavily armed police escort before moving onto visit Sambor Prei Kuk, midway through 1999.
Another major temple site that has recently emerged from the Cambodian forest is Preah Khan at Kompong Svay. With a history still shrouded in mystery and a location, in the southwest corner of Preah Vihear province, inaccessible for many years, visitors to the site have been sparse. One group who recently made the trek were the Japanese Government Team for Safeguarding Angkor, currently restoring one of the libraries at Angkor Wat and responsible for major repairs at the Bayon. What they found should encourage other adventurous souls to follow in their footsteps. However, access is poor and travel in anything other than a 4WD landcruiser or by trail-bike isn't advisable. In addition to the vast and imposing sandstone temple of Preah Khan with its halls, terraces, reliefs, laterite walls and pools, there's the pyramidal Preah Damrei, a laterite temple guarded by massive elephants, Preah Ko, Preah Thkol and Preah Stung, an impressive structure with three towers and Bayon-like faces. Most of the temples were built in the 12th century when Preah Khan was home to both King Suryavarman II and later, the future King Jayavarman VII, before the latter defeated the invading Chams, claimed the throne and moved his capital back to Angkor in 1181. The story of his victories are celebrated in bas-relief carvings on the walls of the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar. Located 100 kilometres east of Angkor, the site was studied in the 1870s by Louis Delaporte, who returned to France with a number of substantial carvings that are now housed in the Guimet Museum in Paris. One masterpiece that remains in the National Museum in Phnom Penh is the finely sculpted head, believed to be of Jayavarman VII, pictured above. A millennium celebration at Preah Khan attracted hundreds of locals and vegetation was cleared from the site for the occasion, but it remains a complex very much in its natural state, inundated with trees, scrubs, bushes and dense foliage throughout. # Click on the highlighted text to view articles on these temples.
Has anyone been to Prasat Neak Buos?
Originally built in the early 8th century by Jayavarman I, Prasat Neak Buos was one of the oldest religious centers in Cambodia, nestled on the lower slopes of a projecting cliff of the Dangrek Mountains, a few kilometres from the town of Choam Khsan in the northern reaches of Preah Vihear province. Inscriptions at the time called the location Canandagiri and the plain rectangular edifice of laterite and brick erected at the spot was also known as Sivapadapurva. In later years, particularly under the guidance of King Jayavarman V and Suryavarman I, additional monuments were built at the same site, including two brick temples facing east, whereas the original temple faced westwards. In the eleventh century, a new group of buildings were erected, with the central sanctuary right up against the foot of the steep cliff and other smaller edifices amidst the rocky outcrops and boulders. Located just nine kilometres east of Choam Khsan town, Prasat Neak Buos was one of a number of temples shown on Lajonquiere's inventory. West of Neak Buos were Prasats Khchau Kombor, Thnal Svay, Kamping Puoi, A-Ban, Cho Teal Tua, Thmom Peang, Sema, Trapeang Prsat, Sneng Krabei and Khla Deng. Clustered south of Neak Buos were the largely brick-built Prasats Kang Het, Ta Ros, Trapeang Thnal Chhuk, Kantop, Chenh, Trapeang Thnal, Trapeang Ko and Prasat Khna.
My question is whether any of these ancient monuments are still standing and in reasonable condition? Located in the rugged north of the country and controlled for much of the last thirty years by Khmer Rouge forces, the area isn't exactly on the tourist trail as yet, although the nearby town is starting to be used as a stopping off point for adventurous souls making their way to the Preah Vihear temple from the Cambodian side. Without first-hand experience, I can guess that landmines and illegal loggers may present a problem in that area, which is about twenty kilometres from the locally-used border crossing of An Seh/An Mah. If anyone has any news of the ancient temples in the region, please drop me a line. Read all about my own January 2003 visit to Prasat Preah Neak Buos here.
Seman Ting - any news?
Has anyone any information on a temple known as Seman Ting, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) northwest of the main temple complex at Angkor? Re-discovered by researchers using NASA radar images in December 1996, the temple complex, covered in tropical forest, was off-limits due to the presence of Khmer Rouge troops in the area at the time. The radar pictures showed a temple about 15 metres high and 100 metres long with two libraries and a small baray. The name, Seman Ting, referring to one of about 200 types of Cambodian rice, was confirmed by the headman from a village close by. I visited the temple in January 2003, read more here. It's located on an ancient royal road running directly northwest from Angkor to Phimai (in present-day Thailand), about 225 kms in length. Other royal roads fanning out from Angkor ran to Beng Mealea and onto Preah Khan in Kompong Svay (to the east), to the ancient capital of Koh Ker (northeast), and to Kompong Thom and Sambor Prei Kuk (southeast). # Another temple, Banteay Thom, ten kilometres northwest of the city of Angkor Thom, was also 're-discovered' in mid-1997 by the Conservation d'Angkor team. Built in the 13th century by Jayavarman VII, I've visited this temple and can recommend you make the effort to see it. However, you'll need to seek directions from the locals as its some way off the main route and has suffered at the hands of temple thieves in recent years.
The attractions of Kompong Cham
Kompong Cham may be one of Cambodia's largest cities, sitting astride the Mekong river, but like much of the country outside the Phnom Penh-Siem Reap-Sihanoukville triangle, it is only just starting to see an influx of foreign travellers in search of new experiences. Awaiting those with a desire to see more of Cambodia, Kompong Cham is surrounded by a handful of notable historic sites, not least Banteay Prei Nokor, the late eighth century Chenla capital of King Jayavarman II (known as Indrapura). However, for those considering a visit be prepared to allocate a full day for the trip across the Mekong and a bumpy 50 kilometre moto ride through vast rubber plantations, beautiful scenery and picturesque villages. Two red brick sanctuary towers, crumbling and lacking any serious decoration, are surrounded by frangipani flowers and make a very pleasant setting after the long drive (see photo on right). Another tower, leaning unsteadily and the broken remains of a few others, are in rice fields about a kilometre away. Another former Chenla capital, dated a century earlier, is Preah Theat Preah Srei, located 40 kilometres south of the city and across the Mekong. Accessible only by boat through swamps in the rainy season, this forested temple site is a very pleasant ride when its dry but with very little to see apart from laterite foundations. A little way north of the city, on the banks of the Mekong, is the hillside site of Han Chey, in the courtyard of a modern pagoda.
Closer to Kompong Cham, Wat Nokor lies just a couple of kilometres from the city centre on the main road to Phnom Penh. Known locally as Wat Angkor, the main shrine of sandstone and laterite was first built in the 8th century and added to throughout the Angkor period and later. It has alcoves with Buddha images (see photo on left, from my recent visit), while paintings within the inner sanctuary are kept in good condition by monks belonging to the modern pagoda attached to the temple. Northwest of the city are the two-humped ridges known as Phnom Pros and Phnom Tet Srei (the Man and Woman hills). The subject of a popular Khmer legend, both hills have modern pagodas with impressive mural paintings on the sites of older temples, while Phnom Pros has a troop of monkeys in residence and its neighbour has an exhausting 386 steps to climb. # Click on the highlighted numbers to read about my recent travels to Kompong Cham: 1, 2.
# Travel to Kompong Cham has been boosted by the recent opening of a newly-built highway along a 75km stretch of the road north from the capital, Phnom Penh. It was constructed with aid from Japan of $38 million and work began in December 1997. Japan is also providing the funds, $56 million, for a brand new bridge across the Mekong river at Kompong Cham, although work was halted for a time last year when two labourers lost their lives in separate accidents. In December 2000 I visited Kompong Cham and the bridge was complete but not yet open for traffic, a year ahead of schedule. With bridge-building in mind, the Angkorean laterite bridge at Kompong Kdei, known as Spean Praptos, on Highway 6 between Kompong Thom and Siem Reap, has also being rehabilitated. Built in the 13th century, 87 metres in length and topped with a naga balustrade, its one of ten Angkorean-era bridges being repaired as part of a program costing $47 million and funded by the World Bank, Japan and the Cambodian government. # Foreign companies have been bidding to upgrade the 150 kilometre (90 miles) stretch of pot-holed road between Poipet, on the Thai border and Siem Reap. The cost is expected to be around $40 million and work is now scheduled to be completed by July 2001, reducing travelling time to 3-4 hours. Prime Minister Hun Sen expects the border with Thailand at Poipet to be processing over 1,000 visitors per day in next to no time. In November 2000 work was due to start on improving the 70kms stretch of Route 5 between Sisophon and Battambang, at a cost of $23 million. And a new 135km road from the border town of O'Smach to Siem Reap is being planned, with completion set for 2004. Both this and the Poipet-Siem Reap highway are expected to become toll roads for tourists in the future, as the builders seek to recoup their costs.
The bamboo bridge shown above is an unusual sight, a couple of kilometres downstream of the new bridge over the Mekong river near Kompong Cham. The bridge runs from the mainland to Pein Island, where the locals grow fruit, vegetables and tobacco. The bridge, which can support motorbikes, cars and trucks, is dismantled in the rainy season to avoid it getting washed away. Thanks to Caroline and Youme for the photos.
Banteay Chhmar robbed of its treasures
The remote and unrestored 12th century Khmer city of Banteay Chhmar, lying in a barren corner of northwestern Cambodia, has been the target for a major theft that is believed to have involved senior Cambodian military personnel. As many as 1,200 ancient temples lie scattered across the country, many of which lie unguarded, unstudied, heavily-mined and overgrown with vegetation and jungle. Banteay Chhmar, constructed by Jayavarman VII and famed for its face-towers and intricate carvings, is one of those and has been inaccessible for decades due to Khmer Rouge activity in the area. It was only through the French antiques specialist Claude Jacques, that the latest theft was discovered. One of the few experts to have studied the site, he spotted a stone inscription on sale in a Thai antiques shop at the end of 1998. At the same time, trucks carrying 117 heavy stone pieces of a dismantled wall from the same temple, were intercepted near the Thai border. The latest looting involved the use of pneumatic drills to chop statues from their bases and heavy lifting equipment to dismantle tons of priceless stone bas-reliefs (the photo above shows the result of the looting on a bas-relief). Cambodian officials have expressed their dismay at the decimation of temples such as Banteay Chhmar. Unscrupulous antique dealers in Thailand, aided by corrupt army officers are being blamed for the unchecked plunder of Cambodia's art treasures. Whilst 500 troops are deployed around the temples of Angkor, resources cannot be spared for smaller temples that do not attract wealthy tourists. # A visit by Thai Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn to Banteay Chhmar in June 1999 helped to highlight the plight facing these remote Khmer temples and security has now been stepped up at this particular site. Both countries, in light of their improving co-operation on such matters, also agreed on the return of the stolen friezes and this was completed in April 2000. # Click on the highlighted text to view an article on this temple.
Beng Mealea welcomes the adventurous
Like Banteay Chhmar, the overgrown 12th century temple of Beng Mealea, built by Suryavarman II forty kilometres east of the Angkor complex, has been inaccessible for many years. Now, a handful of travellers have taken the first steps to putting the temple back on the tourist map. Don't expect anything like Suryavarman's other great temple, Angkor Wat, as Beng Mealea, despite a floor plan nearly as large, was built at ground level and is in a state of ruin, with fallen debris covered in dense vegetation (left). However, there is enough to interest the more hardy Angkor watcher with galleries, platforms, colonettes, frontons, naga balustrades and carved devatas decorating the remaining structures. Its recommended that you go by 4WD or trail-bike and take one of the following routes to the temple lying at the foot of the southern edge of Phnom Kulen. Proceed past Banteay Srei for 15 kilometres before taking a right at a hairpin fork just before the river known as Kbal Spean. Follow a good laterite road for about 45 minutes, passing an entrance to Phnom Kulen and turn left at a T junction at the end of that road. About 40 minutes later, you'll reach a village called Tuk Lich and the entrance is marked by two nagas on the left hand side, just beyond the village. The other route involves taking National Route 6 east towards Kompong Thom and turning left after about 50 minutes at a small village, where a large landmine mural marks the turn-off. A good laterite road runs about 20 kilometres north before you reach the same T junction. Carry on straight ahead and follow the above instructions. # Click on the highlighted numbers to read about my recent visits to Beng Mealea: 1, 2.
Tourist arrivals reach new heights
2000 proved to be a bumper year for tourism in Cambodia. Up by 34% on the previous year's figures, 350,000 flew into Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, compared to 263,000 in 1999 and the 1998 total of 186,333. Another 115,000 visitors officially entered the country across land and sea borders last year, substantially down on the 1999 figure of 281,500. Forecasts are predicting a further growth of around 25% for 2001. The top three countries of visitor origin were USA, China and France. One obvious sign of the improving tourist infrastructure is the ongoing construction of new hotels in the town of Siem Reap, at the gateway to the Angkor temple complex. Another, is the availability of $20 visas at the overland border crossing at Poipet and the sea crossing at Koh Kong. Siem Reap and Angkor, now the beneficiary of the government's 'open skies' policy, saw 87,000 direct arrivals by air with many more coming overland or by boat from the capital. # Latest news on visitor statistics : foreign arrivals increased by 40% in the first quarter of 2001.
...for foreigners is now a reality in Cambodia. Regarded as an unsafe pastime for travellers for the past five years, the improved security situation has made rail travel to Battambang or Sihanoukville the next adventure for a few brave souls. Trains have been running regularly, when not disrupted by the Khmer Rouge, bandits or land-mines, from Phnom Penh railway station for quite a few years. However, since the abduction and murder of three western tourists in July 1994, the passengers have been strictly local, until now. For little more than a dollar or two you can take the 6.30am part goods, part passenger train, the 274 kilometres northwest to Battambang every other day. The trip takes around 12 hours. For a similar price, Kampot, 166 kilometres southwest of the capital, can be reached in 6 hours and Sihanoukville in another six. The engines are diesel powered - steam locomotives were pensioned off just ten years ago - but are painfully slow, the passenger carriages uncomfortable and usually overcrowded. However, it is a great way to meet the locals and both trips are reportedly very scenic. If the plans to extend the Battambang line the 48 kilometres from Sisophon to Poipet on the Thai border come to fruition, then rail travel between the two countries will certainly open up lucrative tourist and trade possibilities. There's also talk of a rail link to southern Vietnam and from Sisophon to Siem Reap, if the necessary foreign investment can be found. Surprisingly, over 1.2 million passengers used the rail system in 2000, although technically, it was still illegal for a foreigner to buy a ticket at the Phnom Penh railway station. # An excellent report from Dave Inward on the train trip to Battambang is available at Itisnet. # Photos from a rail journey made by photographers Youme and Masaru Goto can be found here. # Trains to Sihanoukville have now stopped.
Please exercise caution
It is important to remember that your adventures in Cambodia are not without real hazards. Check the local conditions before you venture into the countryside, take a guide who knows the area, do not wander off the marked paths and trails and think about the serious threat of landmines and UXO, malaria and your personal safety.
This webpage has not been updated since the beginning of 2002 unless indicated.
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