The land of heroes
Our heroes
Our land
Cambodia Kingdom

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cruising Cambodia has never been so luxurious - Feature

Phnom Penh - Cambodia may not be the first place cruise liner passengers think of as the perfect luxury layover, but Cambodian officials are determined to change all that. With its pristine white sand beaches, some of the best diving in the region, inexpensive seafood delicacies and legalized gambling, Cambodia's main problem in the past has been that its ambitions have outstripped its infrastructure.

But all that is changing, says tourism minister Thong Khon.

"So far we have 1,000 rooms in Sihanoukville, but we are planning to have 1,000 more by 2009," he says. "The ministry, the private sector and local authorities are all working hard to improve infrastructure."

Sokha Hotel Group, owner of the 5-star Sokha Beach Resort, has just announced plans for a second 5-star resort just a few beaches away. Like its sister hotel, the resort also plans a private beach.

The developments appear to be paying off. So far this year five cruises carrying US, Asian and European tourists have docked in Sihanoukville, bringing 4,832 visitors, equal to the entire 2007 total, according to the port's general director Lou Khim Chhun.

The country's only deepwater port, Sihanoukville Autonomous Port is located about 240 kilometres from the capital and Chhun says that although the lack of infrastructure caused cruise ship visitors to dip by half last year, 2008 is already shaping up as a bumper year.

The port, touted to be one of the first companies listed on a Cambodian stock exchange planned for 2009, has already constructed a special dock dedicated to cruise liners.

Chhun admits he is rubbing its hands at the prospect of wealthy tourists entering the country by sea, taking advantage of the newly refurbished airport at Sihanoukville to fly to the ancient Angkor Wat temples, and returning to wine, dine and enjoy the several plush casinos.

"We have the capacity for four to five cruises to pass through per week, which equates to 4-5,000 visitors. I believe Sihanoukville is ready to extend its services as a cruise port. We certainly plan to host more and more," Chhun says.

Opportunities for day trips abound. The area's mushrooming dive companies speak of whale sharks, rare pink dolphins and untouched coral reefs.

Dugongs are known to inhabit areas near the municipality. Nearby Ream National Park's virgin forests teems with wildlife.

Sokha Hotel Group just announced yet another luxury resort for the former French hill station of Bokor in nearby Kampot province and with oil from offshore reserves expected to begin flowing within two years, infrastructure looks set to continue to develop rapidly.

Cambodia has won over some powerful allies. Royal Caribbean Cruises has named Sihanoukville as a prime layover for its flagship Rhapsody of the Seas and is enthusiastic about it on its website.

"Cambodia is best known as the occasional side trip to Angkor Wat ... on your way to or from Thailand. But all that is changing with the revitalization of Sihanoukville, Cambodia's one and only beach resort," the cruise giant gushes.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Asia-Pacific managing director, Rama Rebbapragada, has predicted Cambodia will also benefit as a port of call from Hong Kong's planned new cruise terminal.

As people rediscover the charm of cruise holidays, the 10-member Association of South-east Asian nations of which Cambodia is a member continues to push itself as a major player.

ASEAN Cruise Working Group chairman, Kevin Leong, estimates the sector in the Asia-Pacific is expected to grow by more than 40 per cent from 1.07 million in 2005, to 1.5 million by 2010, reaching 2 million in 2015.

Cambodia's ambitions are slightly more modest, but no less integral to its plans for its already booming tourism industry.

"This year is the first time we will attract more than 5,000 cruise visitors. It's a big step forward and we are very optimistic about our future," Thong Khon says.

Read more!

Food inflation hits Cambodia's poor, threatens hunger

Cambodian women are cutting fishes making Prahok(salt fish fermented) for the price of triple due to scarcity of fishes in this year.

CHRANG CHAMRES, Cambodia (AFP) — On the long, gently sloping bank of Cambodia's Tonle river, Doem Lao chops half a dozen large fish heads in the early morning for the one meal that her family will eat that day.

It is the 45-year-old farmer's fourth unseasonably cold dawn in this quiet Muslim neighbourhood on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where her extended family has set up camp with others from their village in the southern province of Takeo.

Like tens of thousands of rural Cambodians, they have joined the annual migration to the river to buy enough fish to make a year's worth of prahoc, a pungent fermented paste that is the only source of protein for many in the country's impoverished rural regions.

But the rice brought they from home has nearly run out and the fish have yet to appear in the large nets strung across the river in front of their camp.

The crude bamboo and metal mesh processing stalls on the riverbank are silent -- and February is the last month of the fishing season.

A sudden drop-off in the numbers of prahoc fish has seen their price more than triple this year, up to as high as 50 US cents a kilogramme from around 12 cents, putting this most basic of Cambodian commodities out of reach for many.

While not normally a benchmark by which to measure food security, prahoc prices have highlighted the spiralling costs of staple goods that are threatening Cambodia's poorest with hunger.

"We eat prahoc every day. Last year we made so much that we could sell some or trade it for rice," Doem Lao said, sitting in a tight circle with other village women and a few young children, while their men stood further up the river bank smoking cigarettes in anticipation of another long day spent waiting.

"This year I'm not at all hopeful. Some of us have left already. We're not going to have enough prahoc. We're not even going to have enough rice," she said.

Across Asia the cost of food is rising, for a variety of reasons, from higher demand and spiking global oil prices to environmental factors like global warming which disrupt the normal agricultural cycles.

But while other regional governments have responded by cutting import tariffs or establishing national food stockpiles, Cambodia appears reluctant to step in and halt the continuing upward climb of food costs.

For poor Cambodians, this means that in addition to losing their traditional staples like prahoc, they are not able to supplement their already meagre diets with other foods, particularly meat.

"Everything now is so expensive," said another village woman, Bhum Sap, rattling off the current prices of chicken, pork and beef, which can cost as much as five dollars a kilogramme, a fortune for Cambodia's estimated 4.6 million people struggling to live on less than one dollar a day.

Cambodia, in some ways, has become a victim of its own economic success. The country has recorded economic growth averaging 11 percent over the past three years, spurred on by a galloping tourism sector and strong garment and building industries.

Growing interest by foreign investors and a real estate boom that has helped create more than a few overnight millionaires have resulted in an unprecedented explosion of wealth.

But the sudden influx of cash into the fragile economy has not come without its pitfalls.

Over the past year inflation has spiked at 10.8 percent, compared with 2.8 percent at the end of 2006, driving up the cost of food and other staple goods and pushing the most vulnerable deeper into poverty.

"About 8.5 percentage points of December's inflation rate of 10.8 percent was accounted for by food price inflation," said the International Monetary Fund's Cambodia representative John Nelms.

For as many as 2.6 million people living in extreme poverty, the situation has been worsening over the last several years, which have been marked by poor harvests brought on by natural disasters such as flood or drought.

"Too many Cambodians still suffer from hunger and malnutrition for some or most of the time," the World Food Programme (WFP) said on its website.

The unrelenting rise in food costs only adds more depth to their misery.

"WFP is very concerned about the general increase of the cost of the staples, in Cambodia as well as elsewhere," the agency's country director for Cambodia, Thomas Keusters, told AFP.

Food inflation has even affected aid efforts at a crucial time, as aid agencies anticipate the need for more handouts in rural areas facing a leaner than normal year ahead.

In January last year, the WFP paid 237 dollars per metric tonne of rice, a cost that has now risen to 367 dollars a tonne, Keusters said.

"For every dollar received from the international and local donor community, we buy 55 percent less rice. With the general increase in the cost of food, the need for food assistance will not decrease," he said.

"On the contrary. As Cambodia faces new challenges such as climate change, changes in food availability, high energy prices, globalization and many more, we all need to strategise better," he said.
Read more!