Cambodia sheds ‘backpacker’s haven’ status, embraces luxury travel

Luxury hotels are more popular than ever in Cambodia. Source: Park Hyatt Siem Reap

HAD you asked any traveler a decade ago about traveling to Cambodia, the unanimous response would have touched on backpacking.

With its sidewalk-less streets and modest selection of guesthouses, the country was far from being a luxury vacation spot.

This was largely attributed to the kingdom’s ongoing recovery from the bloody genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge regime, which decimated the country in the late 1970s and saw its population reduced by at least two million.

The Khmer Rouge saw to it that all forms of art and education were destroyed and all intellectuals killed. The result – Cambodia became a desolate country starved of an identity after the regime was overthrown in 1979.

Today, while still healing from the loss at the hands of Pol Pot, the country is spurring great developments. Museums were built to remind people of the torment while other monuments were polished to show the world Cambodia is more than its genocide.

This has helped spur a growing tourism sector, with many coming for Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province and then choosing to stay and explore the rest of Cambodia.

One such development is the rising trend of luxury travel in the country, which remains a quirky juxtaposition to the vastly poor population in the capital city of Phnom Penh and the surrounding provinces.

SEE ALSO: Beyond Angkor Wat: Cambodia’s less-traveled sites for art, culture and nature

The World Bank’s latest data shows while the country exited the low-income bracket in 2015, it did so only marginally, resulting in almost half of its population remaining in the “near poor” category.

Yet, the luxury tourism industry is thriving.

Old luxury hotels like Raffles Hotel Le Royal, first opened in 1929, are more popular than ever while new ones, like Rosewood’s latest addition in the capital city, can be seen popping up nationwide.

“The hotel industry in Cambodia is growing significantly and we see a tremendous opportunity in the country. The entry of a few upscale hotel chains can change the sector for the better,” Rosewood Phnom Penh managing director Daniel Grau was quoted as saying in an interview with local daily Khmer Times in February.

Emirates will soon fly to Phnom Penh, opening up business class options for luxury travelers. Source: Shutterstock/Dr Ajay Kumar Singh

Similar high-end hotels have also appeared in the coastal city of Sihanoukville and in the historical Siem Reap town, the Independent reported in September.

Travelers also now have more options when traveling into or around Cambodia with more direct flights as well as more options in ground transportation.

Dubai-based Emirates Airlines in February announced it would start operating daily flights to Phnom Penh, with a stopover in Yangon.

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The route, set to be operational by July 1, will open up Cambodia to all of Europe as well as the affluent segment of tourists hailing from the Middle East, which will only further boost tourism given the government’s focus in expanding the halal industry.

Following this, China’s largest budget airline Spring Airlines announced direct flights between Shanghai and Phnom Penh, local daily Khmer Times reported.

Once in Phnom Penh, tourists now have the option of taking the scenic route if they are heading southwest to tourist spots Kampot and Sihanoukville following the recently-revived Royal Railway service.

Having laid dormant for 14 years, the government last December began running the fully air-conditioned – a rarity on transportation of any kind in Cambodia – passenger trains which operate on weekends and on designated holidays, catered specifically for domestic and foreign tourists.

SEE ALSO: For a hint of Europe in Cambodia, follow the pepper trail to Kampot

From frequent visits by Michelin-starred chefs to the opening of new casinos and high-end malls with increased frequency, luxury tourism in the once-humble Cambodia is set to be a fixture.

The stark financial disparity between hubs like Phnom Penh or Siem Reap with the rest of the near-poor country has not stopped the government, tour companies and travelers alike from making Cambodia a go-to spot for the rich.