- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 16, 2004

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Dozens of multistory hotels — many under construction — pack the road leading from the bustling international airport to Cambodia’s increasingly blemished cultural gem.

Site of ninth- through 14th-century Buddhist and Hindu temples, Siem Reap has become the cornerstone of Cambodia’s growing tourism industry, earning millions of dollars annually for the cash-strapped government.

But many observers fear that the building blitz and seemingly unregulated development of the once-sleepy village could damage the temples, built by a line of kings who ruled an empire covering much of Southeast Asia for 500 years.

“I regret a lot when I see the wonders of the temples and the wonders of traditional Cambodian habitat … Even at Disneyland, there isn’t construction like this — as ugly, as aggressive,” said Matthieu Ravaux, a longtime Siem Reap resident and owner of a restaurant in front of Angkor Wat, one of the world’s largest religious monuments.

Siem Reap has changed significantly since artillery and small-arms fire echoed through the temples during a bloody 1997 coup that sent thousands of tourists fleeing.

Last year, the city offered more than 5,000 hotel and guesthouse rooms — double the number available in 2000. The Tourism Ministry says the number is expected to soar to 10,000 next year.

Planes from Bangkok; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Singapore; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Hong Kong now land at the international airport, which is undergoing a $24 million expansion.

The Tourism Ministry says Siem Reap might generate $240 million in tourism dollars in 2006, when 1 million visitors are expected, and $600 million in 2010, when the visitor number is predicted to jump to about 2.5 million.

Most residents are benefiting from the increased tourism, said Vann Sareoun, a bank manager.

“Even the people who sell fish paste at the market” are doing better.

In a study in May by the Tourism Ministry, 80 percent of Siem Reap residents said their main income came from tourism-related work.

Seng Muy Teang, 22, moved with her family from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap a year ago to open a guesthouse.

“My uncle and my family were thinking that Siem Reap most likely will have more opportunities in the future,” she said.

Foreign aid has streamed in to help build roads, treat water and provide electricity throughout the city, although these projects don’t appear to be keeping pace with the rapid growth.

Japan, Cambodia’s largest donor, gave $13 million in May to build a supply system to provide clean drinking water and boost the city’s electricity generation. The Asian Development Bank will provide $3.5 million to improve wastewater management.

But things aren’t going as the Apsara Authority, in charge of Angkor’s development, had planned.

The authority drafted a master plan in the 1990s with a French government agency, but most recommendations have been ignored. A zone set aside for farming and several planned access routes, for example, are clogged with private homes, said Seung Kong, the authority’s assistant general manager.

Many Cambodian investors don’t respect construction regulations, building where and how they please.

But probably the biggest problem is water.

Construction has cut off or reduced the size of canals streaming from Angkor — a situation that threatens flooding of the monuments, Seung Kong said. Moreover, the city has a shortage of clean water, intensified by the demands of hotels and swimming pools and by people dumping garbage in the river, which is filthy.

“We have Angkor, which is a cultural wealth left by our ancestors, and what should we do?” Seung Kong asked. “We have to take measures so that we can welcome the tourists … and can preserve our heritage.”

Some officials, such as Veng Sereyvuth, a senior minister in Cambodia’s government, appear pleased with Siem Reap’s boom.

“Development — it does not happen in a perfect synchronized, integrated manner,” he said. “What do we do? You can’t sit and wait — you’ve got to move, you’ve got to develop.”

Tourism is an important sector in the economy of Cambodia, which is recovering from three decades of conflict. Increases in the numbers of foreign visitors this year will have a positive effect on the economy’s growth, the independent Economic Institute of Cambodia said in a recent newsletter.

Veng Sereyvuth said more development is in store for Siem Reap: Several golf courses are planned for next year, and there may be sport fishing and tours on the Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s biggest freshwater lake.

One of the latest tourist attractions to open in Siem Reap was a $14 million cultural village, showcasing the lives of Cambodians in different regions of the country.

“We need to keep people here longer,” Veng Sereyvuth said. “The way to do it is to provide more choices, to entertain them.”

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