February 14, 2009


Cambodia is, in many ways, an amazing country. Its centuries-old heritage may be its fortune, but its focus is very much on the future. Specifically on making the country as accessible as possible to the rather better-heeled tourist - if the preponderance of recently constructed five star hotels lining the road from Siem Reap airport is anything to go by. Certainly there are few guest houses of the type available everywhere in Thailand. Clearly, it’s the high net worth individuals of the world whom the government are keen to attract - though arguably a risky strategy in the midst of a world-wide credit crunch affecting even Russian gazillionaires.

We drive off in a people-carrier, from the airport, past virtually empty hotels, past more building sites and then down a road which leads to a rather ritzy plaza, and a few minutes later, one of the city’s afore-mentioned grand hotels. We pass through a graceful arched entrance, down a driveway flanked with palm-trees beyond which there are landscaped lawns fringed with fluorescent bougainvillea and hibiscus, and arrive at an ostentatious marble and glass doorway where doormen and porters are already jumping to attention. But not for us. Rather for that insufferably smug, immaculately dressed and coiffed couple who had emerged ahead of us from the plane - from First.

After dropping them off, together with their exquisite matching Louis Vuitton luggage, the people carrier eventually presses on to our hotel. After weaving our way through more building sites, we finally come to a stop at a low-rise building bordered by tropical shrubs.

But wait. What’s going on over there in the flower beds? On closer inspection, it turns out to be a man with what looks like a rocket launcher - he has an engine on his back and a large tubular canon in his hand - spraying what look like neat carcinogens into the air.

It's insecticide, I assume, for the malaria-bearing mosquitoes prevalent throughout the country, but the huge clouds of smoke give the impression that the hotel has come under attack from al-Qaeda (which, given Cambodia’s own bloody Pol Pot past, is a slightly unnerving first encounter). And when the fumes finally clear, it's not immediately obvious whether it might be better if they hadn't. But more on that in the next post.

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