the tourism trap

‘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.


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