A Map Made for Adventure

When Alain Gascuel produced his first atlas in 2003, it was a matter of necessity. Cambodia’s roads had been mapped in the 1980s. Then, with the country engulfed in conflicts through the 1990s, no update had been done for years.

Landmines made it virtually impossible to venture into some parts of the country. The lack of road maintenance turned trips out of major cities into unpredictable expeditions. Many parts of the country were virtually inaccessible in rainy season. At that time, travel in the countryside usually necessitated all-terrain vehicles equipped with shovels and cables in case they got stuck in the mud. 

This photo taken in the early 2000s shows the heavy damage caused to National Road 11 in Prey Veng province during the 2000 floods that devastated the country. This 1970 jeep was Mr. Gascuel’s vehicle at the time. (Alain Gascuel)
This photo taken in the early 2000s shows the heavy damage caused to National Road 11 in Prey Veng province during the 2000 floods that devastated the country. This 1970 jeep was Mr. Gascuel’s vehicle at the time. (Alain Gascuel)

So Mr. Gascuel’s first Cambodia atlas was a basic road update. Three years later, he turned this into a more detailed overview with the help of friends and colleagues who checked areas he had not had the chance to explore in his 1970 soft-top jeep.

Since then, the French journalist has published several editions of his atlas, increasingly geared toward the weekend traveler as the country’s road network improved. Mr. Gascuel included detailed itineraries for trips to different parts of the country, with information on natural and historical sites to visit in each province and specific directions as to how to reach them.

His latest publication, released late last year, is quite simple by comparison. Mr. Gascuel has compiled a sturdy, foldable and colorful map detailing the country’s road network on one side, with maps of major cities on the other. Ten years ago, the state of roads was so unpredictable that such a map would have been useless. But with road improvements of recent years, this  comprehensive map is a wonderful tool for anyone wishing to explore the country.

“Nowadays even if some roads are bad, one can go everywhere,” Mr. Gascuel says.

Published with the support of Cambodia Airports, the map took Mr. Gascuel two years to complete as he crisscrossed the country with his wife Em Sina to check on the state of old roads and explore new ones.
“For example, there is National Road 9, which goes from Stung Treng city to Tbeng Meanchey district in Preah Vihear province,” he said. “It used to be a very bad road that no one wanted to use. But now, it’s a wide road that is nearly all paved.”

Among other new developments appearing on the map are the three dams built in the Cardamom Mountains by Chinese companies with financing from the Chinese government, and roads in Koh Kong province between Koh Kong district and  the dams.

One road linking the dams continues north to Pramoy commune in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district.
“To accommodate those three big construction projects, a good road was built,” Mr. Gascuel said. “But beyond the dams…the road towards Pramoy is very bad and, in the rainy season, problematic. But for people who love the wilderness, it’s a marvelous road—really interesting.”

Official boundaries of national parks and sanctuaries are clearly indicated on the map, whether or not they are respected on the ground, he said.

His latest map was designed to help the general public understand the present state of Cambodia’s transport network. And, as much as possible in a country in which infrastructure is of great political importance, Mr. Gascuel tried to remain topographically apolitical. For example, the area that used to be Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh appears as a white empty space. Tolls on the country’s highways are also indicated.

The border between Thailand and Cambodia, whose demarcation has recently been the crux of a case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, is only shown in general outline. “One cannot expect from this map to state where the border will be,” Mr. Gascuel said.

As in the case of his previous publications, Mr. Gascuel created the map for convenience whether people are traveling by bus, motorcycle or car. It is printed on thick, glossy paper that can sustain heavy use, and is illustrated with sharp colors and relatively large, and easily readable, text.

“Using different colors and color intensity is very important,” he said. On the city side of the map, streets are indicated in red on white. On the country-map side, paved roads are shown as thick red lines, non-paved roads as double black lines and tracks or footpaths as thin red lines. Forested areas are pale green, and bodies of water are shown in lavender.

The need to keep print size readable made it impossible to make a dual language map in English and Khmer, Mr. Gascuel said. It also restricted the number of city maps that could be included. As Mao Panharith, who designed the map, told him, cramming more information would have rendered it arduous to read. Mr. Panharit is a professional cartographer who worked at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport before his retirement.

Still, Mr. Gascuel managed to put in small symbols to indicate  points of interest, such as rubber plantations, waterfalls, zoos, archeological sites, pagodas, markets and even golf courses.

On the city-map side, he included the maps of Phnom Penh, Battambang, Kampot City, Sihanoukville, and Siem Reap. There is also a map of the main features of Angkor Archeological Park.

Mr. Gascuel, who first visited the region in the early 1970s while covering the U.S.-Vietnam war for French newspapers and magazines, moved to Cambodia in 1992. Two years later, he launched the business publication Cambodge Nouveau.

Road improvements in the country have accomplished more than just facilitating transport and travel, he said. “This has changed rural economic life. Today, people in the countryside have motos, they have mobile phones and they have roads to go to their local markets and sell their products.”

A few weeks ago, Mr. Gascuel released the last issue of Cambodge Nouveau, which he had been publishing for 20 years. He is now developing a publication on “green” tourism intended for people interested in exploring the country’s natural sites. And he is constantly gathering information to update his Cambodia maps of the future.

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