“Hundreds of foreign tourists have cancelled trips to Cambodia in recent months… Visitors who have accepted the risk and travelled to Siem Reap in recent weeks report that they had the temples almost all to themselves”. Not a report from the last few months, although it easily could be if only that “hundreds” read “thousands”, or “millions”, but instead comes from the New York Times, February 1993.
The report followed the fall-out from a Khmer Rouge raid on Siem Reap — which will still be remembered by many people you may know who were living in the town then. In the attack, a Portuguese tourist was grazed by a bullet that hit the window of his room at the Grand Hotel d’Angkor, then still a dark and dismal place yet to be renovated by the Raffles Group. Three Cambodians were killed.
It is symbolic of the unrest that persisted through much of the 1990s, long after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1991, an unrest that nonetheless held a magnetic charm for many road-hardened travellers of the region who came to Cambodia for the “cheap living, cheap grass and the chance to flirt with a dangerous part of the world”.
In the process they turned small pockets of Cambodia into an “outpost of late beatnik progress”. The difference between then and now could not be starker, even if the first two ambitions might still be considered relatively reasonable for some (though cannabis can no longer be bought for $1 a kilo at the local markets). But the foreigners today are less beatnik than bourgeois, and they’re more likely to be wielding a perfectly made espresso martini than a sloppy doobie.
In the 90s, some came because they quite liked the idea of hearing the sound of gun shots (presumably momentary and in the distance) as the backing track to their adventure. It was not an unfounded wish, though one which others, who probably had no such desire, came much too close to realising.
The Peace Accords had not brought peace. Pol Pot had refused to participate in the UN-sponsored elections in 1993, and the Khmer Rouge, with or without him, continued to wage sporadic guerrilla warfare against the government until their final collapse and mass-defection in 1998.
As part of their fundraising strategies they took up kidnapping, ransoming their victims for anything from a few bags to a few tonnes of rice, and the hope of money. Among their targets, Jean Michel Braquet, Mark Slater and David Wilson, who had met in Phnom Penh in July 1994, hopped on to a train bound for Kampot just days after the remains of another trio of kidnap victims (Dominic Chappell, Kellie Wilkinson and Tina Dominy) were found.
One journalist who had been in Phnom Penh at the time spoke of the agony of the following, and preceding, months as everyone waited for news of the hostages’ release. It did not come. These six were not the only victims.
However, the country had strong ambitions for developing its tourism sector. In 1991, tourists usually came to see Angkor Wat on one-day trips by plane from Bangkok. Hard to picture today, but Siem Reap as yet had no accommodations suitable for foreign tourists.
By 1999, tourist buses in Phnom Penh were still considered a rarity, but the country was still tied to one major tourist attraction and not enough were prepared to take the risk of the unknown in order to see it. But the industry was growing, and tourism accounted for one-third of foreign direct investment.
Various efforts were made to add other attractions, including Mekong Island, a 25-acre cultural park that featured traditional dance and handicrafts, elephant rides and an animal park with panthers, monkeys, bears and snakes.
But notwithstanding the guerrillas and gunshots and strong advice not to stray off the beaten path in a land that still held one landmine for every member of the population, the number of people willing to take the risk in order to “experience one of the most distinctive and beguiling cultures in Southeast Asia” continued to grow, and grow.
Cambodia has faced catastrophe before. It will rise again.