Cultivating the Kingdom of Cambodia’s majesty with sustainable tourism


This is my fourth and hopefully not my last post for Florens 2012.

Florens 2012 Cultural and Environmental Heritage Week is a biennial event in Florence, Italy in November. The 9-day event will explore numerous thought-provoking topics such as how culture can stimulate and sustain the economy.

You may follow and even join the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #Florens2012.


After years of hell on earth, the Kingdom of Cambodia is rebuilding itself and forging a bright future based on the splendor of its rich cultural heritage and its mythical temples.

The once-peaceful nation of Cambodia plummeted into despair, and the world tragically turned a blind eye on the small Southeast Asian nation after the marxist-style communists of Khmer Rouge led by its leader Pol Pot killed nearly 2 million people in the mid-1970s.

In an attempt to “restore” Cambodia’s former grandeur as an agricultural utopia, Pol Pot and his regime forced all city dwellers to move to the countryside to become farmers.

From 1988 to 1990, I was a volunteer outreach service worker who helped many refugees from Southeast Asia fleeing the terror of their former homelands.

I heard stories after heart-wrenching stories from many Cambodian — known as Khmer — families who resettled in California’s Central Valley and throughout Houston, Tex.

The families recounted their collective nightmare when they had to toil in vain in back-breaking work, digging the parched landscape for canals that would carry water to rice fields. I remember a woman — who looked twice her age — telling me about how her husband was executed because he didn’t shovel the hardened clay dirt fast enough.

With tears welling up, she said her husband couldn’t muster enough energy because he was too exhausted and too hungry.

After 10 years of living in a refugee camp where her four young children were born, she was relieved to finally find peace in America albeit one in a filthy one-bedroom apartment in a “transitional” downtown neighborhood in Stockton, Calif.

As she recalled her terror in Cambodia and expressed her gratitude of America taking her young family in, the young children with their beaming eyes clung to their mother’s sarong.  I can’t forget the moment when one of her sons used the bright silk cloth to wipe her mother’s tears.

Among the hundreds of newly arrived Cambodian families I met in my two years, there was not one who did not lose at lease one immediate family member to the Cambodian genocide. The odds were against them with so many people who died in Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

After more than three decades of rebuilding their lives in their adopted homelands in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia or even in Cambodia, the rise of the Khmer people parallels the revival of their ancient kingdom.

Nora Chhay is among the nearly 300,000 who have resettled in the United States.

In the mid-1970s, she was barely 7 and walked hundreds of miles with her family to escape the nightmare. Her family eventually made it Southern California where she graduated with an accounting degree and now works at Orange County’s transportation agency.

It was with tremendous pride that she took her own children back to visit her ancestral homeland. As Chhay caught  sight of one of the tallest towers from a distance, she could feel her heart beating faster and faster until she once again saw Cambodia’s national symbol — Angkor Wat.

King Suryavarman II built the majestic Hindu temple complex in the early 12th century and dedicated to the deity Vishnu. It’s now a Buddhist temple and remains the world’s largest continuous religious site.

Angkor Wat has become one of the world’s top artistic heritage sites.

Not only is the image of Angkor on the Cambodian flag, it is without question the symbolic banner of Cambodian pride, fueling tourism to help provide economic development for the poverty-stricken nation of 15 million.

To me, Cambodia is a nation of jarring juxtapositions. I’ve travelled the country and can attest to its intoxicating beauty and her people’s gentleness and charm. It also remains one of the poorest in the world with malnutrition, HIV and a host of other problems that plague Cambodia’s potential.

Fortunately, tourism is helping the nation heal from its horrible past and cultivating a renewal of the Khmer spirit.

Here are some of my favorite spots in the Kingdom of Cambodia via Touropia:

Siem Reap

Siem Reap is a charming town that has quickly become the hub of tourism thanks to its fortuitous proximity to Angkor and dozens of other temple complexes.  The fastest-growing city in Cambodia owes its growth to hundreds of thousands of tourists that flock weekly to its hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, night clubs and other places of respite after a full day of temple gazing in the heat and humidity.

Preah Vihear

Preah Vihear is a Khmer temple gracefully sitting on top of 1,700-foot cliff in the Dângrêk Mountains but precariously situation next to the border with rival Thailand where in 2009 soldiers clashed with each other in death.  The tensions have eased moderately.

The wonderful archeological gem also graces one of the most arresting vistas of all the Khmer temples. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god of Vishnu and took two centuries to construct during the rule of the Khmer kings of Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II during the 11th and 12 centuries.


Sihanoukville is also known as Kampong Som. The beach resort on the Gulf of Thailand draws tourists for its warm waters and clean white-sand beaches. If you tire of soaking up the solitude, there are  several pristine tropical islands you can explore. Sihanoukville is becoming a model for how to plan and develop sustainable tourism economy.

Tonle Sap

Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia but it also is long considered Cambodia’s rice basket and major source of protein — fish. The lake rises and falls with the changing seasons.  During the country’s dry season from November to May, the Tonlé Sap flows into the Mekong River at the capital Phnom Penh.

During the year’s heavy rains that begin in June, Tonlé Sap’s flow changes directions, forming a gigantic fertile lake. Tonlé Sap is home to many ethnic Vietnamese who live in floating villages on and around the lake.

Silver Pagoda

The Royal Palace located in Phnom Penh features the Silver Pagoda that houses many of Cambodia’s national treasures. Among the well-guarded items are  gold and jeweled Buddha statues. Two of treasures are impressive: a small 17th century baccarat crystal Buddha called the Emerald Buddha of Cambodia and a life-sized gold Maitreya Buddha decorated with nearly 10,000 diamonds.

One of the must-see attractions is actually on the outside.  Silver Pagoda’s inside all courtyard is decorated with stunning colors with an exquisitely detailed mural of the Ramayana legend that was painted by 40 Khmer artists in 1903.

Bokor Hill Station

Bokor Hill Station near Kampot served as a refreshing retreat for  French officials and others escaping the heat of the country’s interior. Built in the 1920s, the station was long abandoned — first in the 1940s when the Japanese invaded Cambodia and second in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge forces plummeted the country into fear.

Today, independent hiking tours lead adventurist tourist to spy on the ghost-town of Bokor Hill Station and its abandoned buildings. Kampot pepper trees also are making a come-back and putting Cambodia onto a culinary map for its peppers demanded by gourmet restaurants across the globe.

Koh Ker

Koh Ker briefly served as the capital of the Khmer empire from the year 928 to 944 AD. Craftspeople constructed spectacular buildings and immense sculptures during this short time. The focal point of the site is Prasat Thom, a nearly 100-foot tall temple pyramid poetically rising above the surrounding jungle.

A giant Garuda (mythical half-man, half-bird creature), carved into the stone blocks, still guard the very top, although its partially covered now. Left to the jungle for nearly a millennium, Koh Ker was one of Cambodia’s most remote and inaccessible temple destinations. This has now changed thanks to recent de-mining and the opening of a new toll road.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is officially part of the Angkor complex about 15 miles northeast of the main cluster of temples. But the numerous brilliant colored buildings and artifacts make a stand-alone attraction. Completed in 967 AD, Khmers almost exclusively used red sandstone to construct the buildings and its intricate designs.

The soft sandstone is the perfect medium for the elaborate decorative wall carvings that are still clearly visible today. Banteay Srei is the only major temple at Angkor not built for a king. The temple was dedicated to one of king Rajendravarman’s counselors, Yajnyavahara.

#1 of Tourist Attractions In Cambodia

Angkor is by far the greatest attraction in Cambodia and one of the most spectacular ancient sites on earth. Angkor is a vast temple complex featuring the remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century AD.

These include the famous Angkor Wat temple, the world’s largest single religious monument, the Bayon temple (at Angkor Thom) with its multitude of massive stone faces and Ta Prohm, a Buddhist temple ruin entwined with towering trees.

Tourism with its annual 20 percent annual increases is driving progress to modern-day Cambodia that still relies heavily on foreign aid.

Although more than half the country is forested, illegal logging  is costing  Cambodia millions of dollars of much-needed revenue.

BAL_116_subnav-welcomeAnother risk to Cambodia’s sustainability is the lack of environmental awareness and education with topsoil erosion and flooding becoming chronic problems depleting farmers’ sources of income and creating life-threatening situations that could be preventable.

Tourists who have fallen in love with the sights, sounds and scents of Cambodia not only have spent money to help the local economy, but many have come back to invest in the nation and to help her people.

This Cambodian family is credited with helping cultivate the Kampot pepper after its near destruction during the Pol Pot years.

Tom Gordon, an editor at the Orange County Register, started the Pepper Project with his wife, Cris Peterson, after several visits to Cambodia where they fell in love with the people, culture and food.

Gordon said the Pepper Project’s goal is help introduce Cambodian products such as the Kampot pepper — once only available to the finest restaurants in Europe — to the market in the U.S. at reasonable prices.

The other primary purpose of the not-for-profit enterprise is to help the region’s 118 farmers and to benefit the Daughters of Cambodia, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking.

Several studies provide insights and recommendations to help balance tourism and its benefits with the social and physical negative impacts.

Although tourism is helping stimulate the economy and benefit many Cambodians, the nation continues to grapple with many issues on how to sustain and preserve its unique culture.

The biggest challenge perhaps may be how to appropriately scale the effort and what strategic approaches should be considered so tourism benefits the greatest numbers of ordinary Cambodians.

Here are some of the questions I’d like to ask participants at Florens 2012:

  • What are some templates or best practices for  tourism to create greater public awareness about Cambodia’s heritage?
  • What is the best way or approach to prevent heritage destruction and the illegal trading of antiquities?
  • What are some effective strategies and tactics to support, highlight and market sustainable tourism
  • How can Cambodia provide alternative destinations to alleviate stress on overcrowded heritage such as Angkor Wat?
  • What are methods to bring together private-public partnerships on a national scale for unprecedented collaboration to promote the arts, culture, heritage and community development projects in Cambodia?