‘The Cambodia Guide for Tourism and Investment’
Reviewed by Michael Cowden
Below a dashing photo of Angkor Wat, the cover of “The Cambodia Guide for Tourism and Investment” sports rather less stunning shots of the Sihanoukville toll booth and the Kizuna Bridge across the Mekong River near Kompong Cham town.
So, from the very start, the reader may guess that this is not your average guidebook but something far, far stranger.
Published by the (Cambodia) Guide Publishing Co on behalf of the Apsara Authority—the government agency that manages the Angkor Archeological Park—the book was meant to be distributed for free to tourists visiting Angkor.
Part tourism guide, part development jargon bonanza, the now-notorious book was used to justify the roundly criticized $3 price increase at Angkor that was—at the very last minute—postponed due to unspecified “technical difficulties.”
First, the size of the book is a bit puzzling, too large and unwieldy for a guide, it is more a heavy coffee-table book than something you would want to lug around all day on a tour of the temples.
Then the prose and content may surprise.
For example, Khmer-empire builder Jayavarman VII—who gave Angkor some of its most famous landmarks, such as the Bayon and Ta Prohm temples 800 years ago—might have taken exception to being called “the Donald Trump of ancient Cambodia”—a comparison to an erratic US business tycoon.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, “Cambodia Guide” is divided into two sections: One on tourism, the other a guide to investment in Cambodia.
In the Angkor section, the text mentions that, “Wherever you are in the temple, you are surrounded by these enigmatic faces, smiling at you all the time.” And that’s about all you get on the Bayon, which, like Angkor Thom, gets a single measly paragraph of insightful text. Most other temples get a mere sentence.
Cambodia’s golf courses, however, receive more lavish treatment.
In the investment section—which constitutes a full two-thirds of the Cambodia Guide—“the bright and firm leadership of Samdech Hun Sen,” is illustrated with a cornucopia of shots of the prime minister—consecrating a new bridge, celebrating the opening of a fishery, being embraced by a grateful populace.
Then follow an abundance of tables and figures, including rarely mentioned facts such as the buffalo population—660,493 in 2003—and 16 “potatos powder” enterprises in Cambodia worth a total of $281,846.
Tourists can also read, under the photo of a “satellite center,” about the postal service in 2004, “Sending all kinds of parcels in Domestic: total 331 parcels.” This is a mind-bogglingly low figure—or perhaps a typo—considering that 108,347 parcels were listed as sent “to International.”
The section also contains a rose-hued diagram of the government’s “Rectangular Strategy” for good governance and a flow chart on “Registration Service Procedure”—even if the font is a bit too small to be read easily with the naked eye.
The expensive glossy pages on which the Cambodia Guide is printed don’t hide the fact that some of the photographs are out of focus and could not be fixed digitally.
The guide itself aside, there could be arguments for raising entrance fees at Angkor by a few dollars. Foreigners are charged similarly exorbitant fees to visit the Taj Mahal in India and other world monuments.
But Cambodia is awash in free guidebooks that are better designed, more informative and less government-oriented in content.
If a government-produced investment guide truly was necessary, perhaps it should have been printed in several languages and distributed at business and development conferences—not as a monolingual crazy-quilt given to all comers at Angkor.
If the fee gets raised and the money must be spent on tourists, why not put in a better handrail for the treacherous stairs to the third level sanctuary of Angkor Wat? That at least would save a few ankles, if not a few lives, and would—in a very concrete way—improve the lot of tourists in Cambodia.