Van Vannara recently started learning Korean. The 25-year-old tour guide based in Siem Reap province once thought that his knowledge of the Japanese language would be key to his career, but he now has his eye on a significantly larger market-the rapidly increasing numbers of South Korean tourists who are coming to Cambodia.
“In the future, I want to be a Korean guide,” he said, “I like the Korean language, and there are a lot of Korean people now in Cambodia.”
Van Vannara may be making a smart career move. Last year, South Korea edged out Japan to top the list of tourists coming to Cambodia with a total of 128,423 visitors compared to Japan’s 118,157, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
And the number so far this year
—147,940 Korean tourists from January to August—has already surpassed the total that came last year and comprises 16 percent of the 912,490 tourists of all nationalities that are beating a path to Cambodia, the ministry reported.
Regionally, it is only in Cambodia that the number of Korean tourists is increasing rapidly, said Choi Jang-kil, the South Korean owner of Angkor Tours Seoul Garden in Siem Reap, a restaurant, tour agency and guesthouse.
More Koreans visit Thailand than Cambodia, but their numbers there from January to March this year declined slightly, according to figures from the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The Vietnam National Authority of Tourism reported that the number of Chinese tourists was about double the number of Koreans last year.
Many in the travel industry said that the marked rise in Korean visitors is due mainly to the popularity of affordable package deals that feature guided bus tours of the temples at Angkor.
In Siem Reap, it is hard not to notice the succession of Korean tour buses that roll up near the main entrance of the Angkor park every day. They come at short intervals, interspersed with the occasional Japanese and Chinese tour bus, releasing groups of tourists armed with cameras, visors and comfortable travel gear.
“Every day, many Koreans come,” said Lim Putheara, a 26-year-old ticket counter who stands at the entrance, often greeting South Korean tourists with a hearty “Ahnyounghasaeyo,” or hello.
He said he distinguishes South Koreans from other Asian tourists by their clothing and the way that they knock on the stone bricks of the temple, as if to check if they are solid.
Just a few years ago, many Cambodians were unfamiliar with Koreans, said Van Vannara.
Before, there were a lot of Japanese and Chinese tourists, he said, adding: “Koreans, we never knew.”
Now, all of the guides at his Korean-owned tour agency are learning Korean, and their language teacher is so busy that they wish they could find another one, he added.
Many Cambodians still confuse Korean, Japanese and Chinese travelers, said Uch Monika, 23, a receptionist for Star-Royal Hotel in Phnom Penh. Star-Royal Hotel CEO Lee Jung Hak, who owns hotels both in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, said his Korean customers in the capital are mostly here on business.
The Koreans are not that different from the other Asian and Western tourists, Uch Monika said, except for the type of food that they eat. She also said that they are traditional, like Cambodians, because they bow when greeting people.
“I think they have a good habit when they see each other—they always bow.” she said.
South Koreans started coming to Cambodia in significant numbers just five years ago, when the first tourists started trickling in, and Korean companies began making significant investment in the country, said Lee Kyung-hun, a 40-year-old tour guide who has been working in Cambodia for 3 years.
What happened between then and now, Lee said, is that word began to spread about Angkor Wat, and travel agencies started introducing the package deals to Siem Reap.
“Korean people are interested in learning about ancient civilizations,” said Choi Jang-kil, a tour operator in Siem Reap who has authored a book on the Angkor temples.
It is no accident that Angkor Wat has become so famous in Korea, he said. People like himself and others have worked hard to advertise the temples by making TV and press appearances in South Korea, he added.
Tourism Minister Lay Prohas said that positive Korean press coverage, in addition to aggressive recruiting by the Korean tour operators, has played an important role in encouraging the market.
“They publish wonderful articles with wonderful pictures. And their message is positive,” he said.
But Lay Prohas also said his ministry has paid special attention to the South Korean market, sending troops of classical dancers to travel industry festivals there and relaying the message “that Cambodia is peaceful, prosperous and safe.”
And as the South Korean market has flourished, competition has increased and prices have decreased exponentially, further encouraging other vacationers in search of a good deal.
Some tour packages now cost as little as $300 total, said Choi Jang-Kil, adding that the deals include hotel, food and guide costs for the entire trip, which lasts usually for just a couple of days.
Airfares between Cambodia and South Korea have decreased significantly, said Kevin Jeong, the owner of travel agency Arirang Tour, which is a representative office to the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia in Korea.
His colleague, operations manager Andrei Kim, said many tourists are also making use of charter flights, which cost much less than fares at regular airlines, such as the new direct flight from Korea to Siem Reap that Asiana Airlines started up in April this year.
The market should continue to expand until 2008, Jeong said.
While Jeong is happy that business has gone up, as an adviser to the Tourism Ministry, he said he is concerned about the effect that such a large number of tourists is having on Cambodia’s national heritage.
“At the present time, there have not been that many benefits for the Cambodian people,” he said.
Some Cambodians, such as Siem Reap Deputy Governor Cheng Lim Sreang, have previously complained that many South Koreans only stay at Korean-owned hotels or eat at Korean-run restaurants, therefore having little impact on the local economy.
Lee Jung Hak, who owns the Star-Royal hotel in Siem Reap, said that many of his customers stay there as part of their package tours. He said that Korean customers feel more comfortable staying in a Korean-owned establishment.
“In the mornings, I can at least give them some kimchi,” he said, adding that he can also help them out with road directions and other travel information.
Earlier this year at Angkor Wat, a variety of South Korean groups stepped out of the tour buses to make their way down the long pathway to the temple-businessmen, families, middle-aged women, younger people traveling with friends.
But not every Korean comes to Cambodia in a tour group.
Chae Kyu-byung, a 24-year-old student on vacation from college, was sitting atop one of Angkor Wat’s central towers, quietly writing in a journal.
He had flown into Thailand alone two months earlier, extensively exploring that country before traveling to Siem Reap by bus. His travel itinerary for the next month included Sihanoukville, Laos and Vietnam.
“I think that it is very unique,” he said, commenting on the mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences at Angkor. “I am very interested in this region.”
Content to spend the afternoon leaning against the stone temple with pen and paper in hand, Chae drew a sharp contrast with the bustling tour groups, rushing in and out of the temples from sunrise to sunset, trying to capture the region’s magic in a few hurried days.