Press Review - New York Times

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Why Is Everybody Going to Cambodia?
Gone is the Khmer Rouge. Now there are five-star hotels and helicopter tours of ancient temples.

By MATT GROSS
Published: January 22, 2006
JUST after Christmas in 1859, the French explorer Henri Mouhot left Bangkok to explore the uncharted regions of Indochina. It took him a year of hacking through brush and fending off leopards, leeches and wild elephants before he arrived at Angkor Wat, the jungle-smothered complex of temples deep inside the kingdom of Cambodia. Less than two years later, he died of malaria.
What took Mouhot a year can now be accomplished in little more than an hour, via Bangkok Airways' seven daily flights from the Thai capital to Siem Reap, home base for Angkor expeditions. Mouhot may have had to trudge three hours down a sandy path through dense forest to reach the ruins, but 21st-century visitors have the luxury of everything from tuk-tuks to Land Cruisers to an AS-350 Squirrel helicopter.
And while Mouhot lamented the temples' abandonment, today they are such popular tourist attractions that the measure of an expert Angkor guide is not his knowledge of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, nor his mastery of English, French and Japanese, but his ability to show visitors the most popular sites - the Bayon, Phnom Bakheng, Ta Prohm and Angkor Wat itself - and have them wondering, at day's end, "Where was everybody else?"
But not all guides are expert at deftly avoiding the tourist crush, and there are frequently days when it seems everybody is in Cambodia. In 2004, international arrivals topped one million for the first time, a figure reached in 2005 by the end of September, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
In almost every part of the country, you can find a conceptually and architecturally ambitious hotel: In mountainous Ratanakiri, there's the Terres Rouges Lodge, a former provincial governor's lakeside residence that has, Time Asia said last July, "the best bar in the middle of nowhere." On the Sanker River in Battambang, Cambodia's second-largest city, there's La Villa, a 1930 house that in October opened as a six-room hotel filled with Art Deco antiques. And sometime this summer, you should be able to head south to Kep and stay at La Villa de Monsieur Thomas, a 1908 oceanfront mansion that's being transformed into a French restaurant ringed with bungalows.
And then there is Angkor Wat. Foreign visitors are flooding in - 690,987 paid entrance fees last year, up from 451,046 in 2004. And while there are no official figures as to how much each spends in Siem Reap, the town's dizzying array of luxury hotels - at least 10 by my count, ranging from the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor to quirky boutiques like Hôtel de la Paix - testifies to the emergence of a new generation of high-end travelers, who not only demand round-the-clock Khmer massage but are also willing to pay $­­­­­­400 a day to hire a BMW L7 or $­­­­­­1,375 an hour for a helicopter tour.
Cambodia is not alone in its luxury revolution. Since the mid-1990's, the former French colonies of Southeast Asia have made enormous leaps in catering to tourists who prefer plunge pools to bucket showers. From the forests of Laos to the beaches of Vietnam to the ruins of Cambodia, you can find well-conceived, well-outfitted, well-run hotels that will sleep you in style for hundreds of dollars a night.
Change has come at an amazing pace. Take Luang Prabang, in Laos. This tidy hill town feels like a Hollywood set, with painted lamps glowing in French restaurants and brick walkways brightened by a yellow glow emanating from knee-high terra-cotta pots. Even the bare fluorescent tubes draped over lonely late-night streets do their part to make visitors feel as if they've arrived at the end of the world.
But it's not mere atmospherics they've found: Luang Prabang has high-end hotels to house a legion of W-worshipers, with enough bistros and boutiques to keep their credit cards on the verge of meltdown. There are spa treatments to succumb to, and Veuve Clicquot to toast with. This town of just 60,000 people is, almost all of a sudden, a luxury getaway.
Less than a decade ago, there were no hotels with infinity pools, no restaurants serving fricassee of wild boar, no silk merchants who took Visa. (Also, no paved roads.) The foreigners who climbed the 328 steps of Mount Phousi were usually backpackers who sought guidance from Lonely Planet's "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring." Today, the traveler with a Lonely Planet in one hand is likely to have a Mandarina Duck carry-on in the other.
MATT GROSS is working on a novel about 1950's Cambodia.


Creation date : 27/03/2006 @ 10:28
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