choam khsan district, Preah Vihear province – Tourism officials predict that by 2010, Preah Vihear temple could attract about 600,000 foreign visitors annually—a dramatic increase from the 10,000 to 30,000 tourists it receives today.
However, it is still unclear how those tourists will get there.
The nation’s major bus companies say they have no plans to offer transportation to the historic site and a one-way private taxi ride costs up to $200 to traverse the unpaved roads leading to Preah Vihear temple from Phnom Penh.
For the 3 million tourists projected to visit Cambodia annually by 2010, Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan said Preah Vihear temple will be a desirable side trip from Siem Reap.
“We plan to get the Ministry of Tourism and everyone to make Preah Vihear a visited site,” Phay Siphan said by telephone April 30.
Ho Vandy, who co-chairs the Tourism Working Group, said of those 3 million tourists “we wish to see 15 to 20 percent going to Preah Vihear temple.”
However, a paved-road trip to Preah Vihear temple may be at least four years away, as a portion of the route is not contracted to be completed until 2012, while other sections are not even contracted yet.
Until the road is paved, officials from Capitol, GST, Phnom Penh Sorya Transport, Mekong Express and Angkor Express all said they will not offer bus services to the stunning temple.
“It will not happen until the government fixes the roads,” said Chran Kruy of GST, which operates the nation’s sole bus route into Preah Vihear province.
Travel will be especially hard now with the onslaught of the rainy season, said Moeung Sonn, president of the National Association of Tourism Enterprises, who visited the temple last weekend to evaluate the difficulties of the tourist trek.
“I don’t recommend people go there for now because the road is too dangerous,” Moeung Sonn said. “The roads are very, very bad,” he said.
“If you would like to promote the mountain for tourists, you must develop the road,” he added.
For now, the closest public transportation gets to Preah Vihear temple is still 116 km away on GST’s sole daily bus to the provincial capital, Tbeng Meanchey.
In the year since GST began this route, the company twice changed its route due to flooding and dilapidated roads.
GST first traversed Routes 209 and 214 until the roads flooded, Chran Kruy said, so GST switched to Route 62, which is about 100 km shorter but still takes about eight hours.
By December, Route 62’s potholes and bumps were causing extensive damage to the buses, Chran Kruy said, so GST switched back to the original, more roundabout route.
GST charges $11.25 to Tbeng Meanchey, share taxis near Central Market charge $12.50, and private taxi drivers said the ride, which requires 40 liters of gasoline, costs $80 to Tbeng Meanchey or $200 one-way to Preah Vihear temple.
Today, Preah Vihear temple is a far cry from the four-hour, $5 bus ride to Siem Reap town, but is similar to what visitors went through to see Angkor Wat temple a decade ago, bus officials said.
“Before, many people wanted to go [to Angkor Wat] but could not because the road was very bad. If the government wants to develop [the temple site], develop the road first,” said Chhem Chomnan, a marketing official for Phnom Penh Sorya Transport Co.
Prem Sarith, marketing leader for Mekong Express, said he expects the temple to become the nation’s second greatest tourist attraction after Angkor Wat, though he isn’t holding his breath.
“I know the government is developing the infrastructure. We will consider it after the roads are paved,” he said.
On April 5, Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a $57.8 million project to pave 116 km of Route 62 from Tbeng Meanchey to Preah Vihear temple and 34 km of Route 210 from Tbeng Meanchey to Koh Ker, the site of another temple, said Phan Sam An, director of the provincial department of public works and transportation.
Financed in part by an interest-free loan from the Chinese government, the project will be completed by 2012, Phan Sam An said recently by telephone.
While the Preah Vihear provincial department of public works and transportation recently smoothed the dirt-covered Route 62 from Kompong Thom town to Tbeng Meanchey, which had been damaged by last year’s rains, it is unknown when the route will be paved, Phan Sam An said.
Kong Sopheareak, director of the Tourism Ministry’s Statistics and Information Tourism Department, said 142,561 people visited the temple in 2007 from Thailand and about 30,000 visited from Cambodia, although the Ministry of Tourism does not officially track the latter number.
However, according to Khong Vibol, director of the provincial tourism department, the approximate number of tourists visiting the temple, although increasing, is far less than 30,000.
With improved roads, the number of temple visitors from Cambodia has grown by 18 percent in the first quarter of this year to about 2,500, Khong Vibol said.
In addition to paving roads, the government-private sector Tourism Working Group is considering ways to develop hospitalities around Preah Vihear temple, said Ho Vandy, who co-chairs the group with the Minister of Tourism.
Ho Vandy said the Tourism Working Group gathered March 16 in Siem Reap to brainstorm ways to develop tourism in Preah Vihear, including improving safety, starting restaurants and guesthouses, increasing cooperation with the local authority and boosting the electricity supply beyond the current gas-powered generators.
“At the moment, as you see, the development is little,” Ho Vandy said by telephone Monday, adding that the working group has not yet set benchmarks to achieve these goals but will meet again in June.
For Phann So Pheap, owner and general manager of Capital with a fleet of more than 100 buses, the benchmarks are simple.
When the roads to Preah Vihear temple are paved, the buses and hospital services will follow, he said.