Monday, 19 October 2009

Villagers carve out a niche with traditional set of skills

Photo by: ROTH MEAS
Coppersmith Pin Vuthy at work creating Khmer ceremonial swords in his Chinese Island village.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:02 ROTH MEAS

Koh Chen’s villagers have been hammering out a living for generations, and its younger artisans see no reason why their source of income should change

As you enter the village of Koh Chen (Chinese Island) on the Tonle Sap you hear the dull thud, thud of metal being hammered into shape.

This is the sound of the villagers practising their craft. For inhabitants of Koh Chen, on the opposite side of the river to Oudong on National Highway 5, copper smithing has long been a way of life.

The Kandal province artisans make pots, bowls, plates, ornamental swords, bracelets, and other souvenir items from flattened copper. Their work not only exemplifies Cambodia’s reputation for craftsmanship, but offers generations of villagers a reliable income.

Hammer in hand, coppersmith Pin Vuthy, 24, says he and other young people in the village learned their craft from their parents and elders.

“Making artistic copper pots, bowls, plates or bracelets is our traditional job in Koh Chen village,” he says.

And Pin Vuthy says he wants to see these skills passed on, so future generations can enjoy this guaranteed livelihood.

Their traditional work is in such high demand that Koh Chen villagers rarely need to market their products directly, with Phnom Penh’s dealers beating a path to their door.

“Generally we make copper products based on orders from dealers at the market,” Pin Vuthy says.

All eight people in Vuthy’s family are skilled in fashioning copper into craft items, involved in every stage of the production process.

Pin Vuthy cuts and carves flattened copper into decorative swords, popular among Cambodians for weddings. His two sisters carve them with traditional Khmer motifs. In one day they can produce up to six wedding swords.

Pin Vuthy emphasises the fact that his is a highly skilled trade in which attention to detail is essential to a quality product. “Carving is not an easy job, and I pay a lot of attention to it,” Pin Vuthy says. “I have to use both physical and mental power to do the work carefully by hand.”

He says he is proud of the traditional skill set of his family and his community, considering his craft to be a part of his ancestral heritage.

He says his job offers him a good income, and he doesn’t have to leave his village for work – although he occasionally goes to Phnom Penh to buy copper.

Jeng Chanthou, one of the dealers who frequent Koh Chen village, has sold its products for the past 14 years.

She has some of the copper items silver-plated, selling the work at Russian Market, Central Market and small shops in the city.

“Mostly foreigners and high-class people buy the artistic pieces from us,” Jeng Chanthou says. “But we also place orders for bracelets, copper jewellery and swords for traditional Cambodian weddings.”

She says plates with carvings of Angkor Wat or Preah Vihear temple always fetch a good price.

Local importer breaks out the champagne


(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:02 LOUISE WHITE

Gilles Duffaut, Billecart-Salmon General Manager Alexandre Bader and Food and Beverage Director Raffles Hotel Le Royal Tristan de La Porte du Theil sample Reserve Brut and Rosé at an exclusive tasting session at the Raffles last Friday. One of the world’s finest champagnes, Billecart-Salmon is now available to high-end restaurants and hotels in Cambodia, with Fine Star Ltd importing a range of the wines. The Champagne is still made by direct descendants of the couple who founded the famous winery in 1818.

Eagles complete perfect year

Photo by: Sovan Philong
The Siem Reap Globe Eagles (left, blue) and the Kampong Spey Global Giving Scorpions compete during the 2009 Cellcard National Volleyball League grand final Friday.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:02 Dan Riley

Siem Reap Globe Eagles claim the Cellcard National Volleyball League title, beating the Kampong Speu Global Giving Scorpions 3-0 in Saturday’s final

The 2009 Cellcard National Volleyball League grand final drew large crowds of devout volleyball fans of all ages to Olympic Stadium on Friday, with many more watching the action live from their armchairs on CTN.

Siem Reap Globe Eagles swooped to a 3-0 victory over Kompong Speu Global Giving Scorpions to become the Cellcard league champions for the first time in their history. The superior fitness and discipline of the Eagles saw top athletes Cheam Chhandy, Chhoum Kong and Preap Thet flying high and fast to neutralise the Scorpions’ sting and maintain their perfect record for the entire season.

After a strong start saw them lose the first set 28-26, the Scorpions maintained their morale and discipline but were simply no match for an Eagles team that has utterly dominated their opposition this year. The Eagles front line smashed home point after point, picking holes in the Scorpions defence with ease in the second set, and taking it comfortably 25-14.

Veteran Eagles setter Sorn Sokorn could easily have qualified for man of the match with his command of the centre court, providing impeccable service for Preap Thet and Chhoum Kong to pick out their spots.

Scorpions coach Pin Sarath enhanced his reputation as one of the nation’s best by keeping his team’s hopes alive in the third set, clawing back an early nine-point deficit with soaring hook spikes that left Eagles defenders Chek Than and Tes Vichet sprawling in despair. Chhorn Bunthorn and youngster Ing Phiream combined well under the steely resolve of Scorpions setter Phat Yoy, whose brusque commands kept discipline under pressure.

With the scores all level halfway through the set, the Scorpions were still in with a shout before veteran Eagles coach Chat Samouen called a time out from the sidelines and gave his team a stern talking to. Striding back on court, the Eagles looked the more confident, with the visibly exhausted Scorpions flagging at the edges. Tiredness led to unforced errors, and though the Scorpions managed to keep close, it was the Eagles’ evening, taking the third set 25-21 to clinch the title.

Jubilations erupted on court as the Eagles soaked up the support of the crowd and took calls from family watching back in Siem Reap province. Cellcard CEO Kay Lot presented the unique Armed Art trophy to the team, congratulating them on their richly deserved victory.

Dragons take revenge on Koupreys
Earlier Friday, the Phnom Penh ANZ Royal Dragons overcame 2008 National Champions Kompong Speu CTN Koupreys 3-1 in the third-place playoff to avenge their loss in the same fixture at last year’s grand final. After suffering unheard-of defeats to Kampong Speu Global Giving Scopions and Battambang MOSVY Tigers in the third round, six-time champions Dragons had their pride to protect against one of the most consistent teams in the league.

Dragons coach Chem Kim Horn gave one of the best performances of his career, leading his team by example with acrobatic defence, sure-handed sets and thundering spikes to win the first set comfortably 25-16. Cambodian sports legend Chheam Panh dominated the centre of the court for the Dragons, keeping every ball alive for young stars Ni Lida and Thea Vanna to spike home against a Koupreys team slow on its defensive feet to take the second set 25-19.

Koupreys’ 60-year-old coach Cha Hok rallied his troops in the third set, and sterling performances from spikers Yem Buntheon and Phoune Run helped win it 25-23, to pull one back.

Tensions mounted in the fourth set, as unforced errors reflected tired legs on both sides after four solid months of matches. With both teams neck and neck, the Dragons eventually slammed home the winning spike to take the set 26-24 and bank the US$1,000 prize for third place.

Bringing home the importance of tourism to the overall economy

Photo by: Ttracey Shelton
Many foreign investors and business owners have sold their stakes in order to profit from greener pastures abroad.

Tourist arrivals might not be the best indicator of actual spending that is taking place in the tourism sector in cambodia.

International visitor arrivals to Cambodia

2009 change(%) 2009*/08
Q1 622,288 -3.40%
January 218,691 -2.19%
February 200,789 -6.57%
March 202,808 -1.42%

Q2 464,230 2.25%
April 177,955 2.33%
May 145,564 -2.49%
June 140,711 7.53%

Q3 335,485
July 163,817 10.35%
August 171,668 9.97%

Q4 Not available
Total: 1,422,003 1.37%

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:01 Nathan Green

The changing makeup of foreign arrivals shows how country of origin is crucial to the big picture

As Cambodia moves into what is traditionally a peak time for tourist arrivals, the collapse of Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008 continues to cast a long shadow over the sector.

While some operators are seeing evidence that bookings are firming up, others are looking ahead to a high season of empty rooms, as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pointed out last month as it issued a stark reminder that the impact of the global economic crisis on Cambodia is far from over.

The IMF said the tourism sector was one of three key engines of Cambodian economic growth sputtering out this year as it predicted a 2.75 percent contraction for the entire economy over 2009 following a fact-finding mission to the country.

According to David Cowen, the deputy division chief in the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, there has been “quite a sharp reduction” in hotel occupancy rates in Cambodia this year and the immediate future was far from bright.

“We expect that there will be some signs of recovery as we go into the main tourism season towards the end of the year, but I should caution that in speaking to the tourism sector they still did not have a lot of visibility in terms of their forward bookings, so we don’t have a lot of reason to be optimistic with regard to near-term performance in this sector,” he said.

The tourism centres have been particularly hard-hit, with an oversupply of hotels in Siem Reap contributing to the empty rooms there now.

The number of foreigners visiting Siem Reap was down 8 percent over the first nine months of the year to just over 700,000, while visitors to the southern resort town of Sihanoukville fell 12.43 percent to 94,102, figures from the respective provincial tourism departments show.

A major factor in the decline has been a falloff in arrivals from East Asia. Ministry of Tourism figures released this month show visitors from South Korea, which used to be the top source of arrivals in the Kingdom, have fallen 31.23 percent in the first eight months of the year to 123,729. Japanese visitors fell 14.05 percent over the same period to 77,305, as arrivals from China fell 10.24 percent to 70,135.

However, Chheuy Chhorn, the administrative director of Siem Reap’s tourism department, said the province appeared to be turning the corner with arrivals up 2 percent in the third quarter compared with the previous three months. “I hope, it will be better again for the last quarter because it is the holiday period for foreigners,” he told the Post last week.

A sharp increase in Vietnamese tourists had also offset some of the losses from Korea, Japan and China, he said, with nearly 200,000 Vietnamese visiting the home of Angkor Wat over the first nine months of the year, the majority travelling overland by bus via the Bavet-Moc Bai border crossing in Svay Rieng province.

The increase was mirrored by national tourism arrivals data, which showed a 43.66 percent rise in arrivals from Vietnam to 172,171 and a 126.29 percent rise to 61,462 in arrivals from Laos for the year up to the end of August, according to tourism ministry figures.

The increase in visitors from Cambodia’s neighbours boosted overall visitor numbers 1.37 percent to 1.42 million over the period as a result.

However, Cowan warned that all tourists are not equal when it comes to their contribution to the tourism sector, with day-trippers from Vietnam being a poor substitute for tourists from East Asia and long-haul arrivals from North America and Western Europe.

“There is a tendency here in Cambodia to look at tourist arrivals, but tourist arrivals might not be the best indicator of actual spending that is taking place in the sector,” Cowan said. “On the one hand, tourist arrivals are slightly up for the year, but those are being driven by regional tourists and in particular those coming from Vietnam, where the waiver of visa fees has made this a more attractive destination. However we are seeing some very sharp falls in arrivals from places outside the region, in particular the North American market, the East Asian market and also Western Europe.”

The ministry’s latest figures showed a 13 percent slide in air arrivals in the first eight months of 2009 year on year, whereas land arrivals were up 20.54 percent.” Air arrivals are down and air arrivals are typically going to bring your higher spending tourists,” Cowan said.

The importance of the tourism industry to Cambodia’s economic well-being cannot be overstated. According to the UN Development Programme, tourist spending accounts for just under 10 percent of the economy, although related activities swell that to closer to 20 percent. It has also been a major source of foreign direct investment, attracting a third of all inward investment since the mid-1990s. Foreign arrivals have increased from a very low number in the mid-1990s to about 2.1 million arrivals last year, before the global crisis hit.

The downturn is not just affecting hotels and restaurants. Oum Yorn, the owner of Chiso Silk Weaving, a small enterprise in Takeo province, has seen his sales of traditional Khmer silk products halve from mid-2008 as fewer foreigners came to visit the nearby Phnom Chiso temple. “This year, fewer tourists have come here, and if the tourists do not come, we cannot sell our products,” he told the Post recently.

Anthony Alderson has seen the rapid rise and sudden fall of the tourism sector in Cambodia at first hand since he arrived in 1992, initially as a pioneer in the restaurant sector and more recently as operations director at the FCC group, which owns hotels, bars and restaurants, and cafes in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. He has recently sold his stake in the FCC in order to invest in greener pastures in Myanmar, but he says the sector is already beginning to recover, led by independent travellers.

“One can already see when you look at the rooms that the FCC is involved in that the bookings have been strong and the market seems to be coming back towards the end of the year,” he said.

However, he acknowledged that hotels that rely on group bookings could struggle for a while longer. “If you look at the group side of things, that’s been very hard-hit because they are the lowest demographic of income earner, and they are the ones more likely to have lost jobs in the downturn,” he said. “You see a much bigger downturn in group bookings, but individual bookings are coming back strongly.”

The Wonderland in waiting

The phrase ‘‘Kingdom of Wonder’’ gives the impression of exploration and discovery, perfect for tourists seeking new experiences. ‘‘Wonder’’ is a reference to Angkor being nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Owners of Cambodia’s hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations have embraced the campaign.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:01 Colin Meyn

Cambodia is branding itself as a natural wonder. As the PR campaign approaches its second year, the government is now expanding on the message – at home and abroad

Millions of viewers of CNN International may now identify Cambodia as the “Kingdom of Wonder”, but the tagline has yet to do wonders for the country’s tourism industry. Despite an international branding campaign launched in November 2008, the tourism sector in Cambodia has seen a decline in arrivals from developed countries.

Recent reports from the Ministry of Tourism showed a 9.98 percent increase in overall visitors to the country due to a 43.66 percent rise in arrivals from Vietnam and a 126.29 percent spike in visitors from Laos. However, arrivals from critical markets in China, South Korea and Japan have dropped.

Visitors from South Korea, which used to be the leading contributor of visitors to the Kingdom, have fallen 31.23 percent in the first eight months of the year to 123,729, Ministry of Tourism figures released last month show. Japanese visitors fell 14.05 percent over the same period to 77,305, as arrivals from China fell 10.24 percent to 70,135.

Translating the Wonder
With hopes of milking the economic recession for what it is worth, Cambodia’s Government-Private Sector Forum (GPSF) aims to turn Cambodia into a tourism boom and reel in regional travellers from developed Asian countries.

The GPSF tourism working group has proposed expansion of the “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign to countries such as China and South Korea.

“It would be very useful,” said Ho Vandy, co-chair of the group, about plans with the government to locate specific native-language TV stations in China and South Korea to broadcast translated versions of the “Kingdom of Wonder” spot. “We spend less money and the information goes directly to the places where we need it to go,” adding that the group has sent a request to the ministry for a recommendation of where they should begin to focus their creative effort, but have yet to receive a reply.

The ministry footed the bill for production of the promotional ads and the cost of airing them on CNN International, but the “Kingdom of Wonder” brand was born out of a branding campaign jointly produced by the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank, and the German Technical Co-Operation (GTZ). Sue Kennedy, a sustainable tourism professional, worked with an advertising agency to conceptualise the national branding campaign for Cambodia.

The GPSF is also tasked with developing policies and strategies regarding tourism that are sent to the Tourism Ministry to review and act upon. However, its most recent proposal has stalled while the government pursues other strategies.

The ministry wouldn’t give a target date for extending the campaign to local markets and said that it is pleased with its current television contracts. “CNN International reaches all of the places we want to reach,” said Secretary of State So Mara, adding that the ministry is trying to get journalists and news stations in foreign locations to report more on Cambodia.

The brand begins
In July, the government spent US$340,000 on a deal to show its ads on CNN International, an English-language channel that reaches more than 200 million households and hotel rooms throughout the world, at a 75 percent discount from the American-based company.

Although CNN is the only international outlet for the “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign, owners of Cambodia’s hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations have embraced the branding initiative at their own establishments.

Luu Meng, president of the Hotels Association of Cambodia and owner of the Almond Hotel in Phnom Penh, said that the ministry provided CDs along with a brand book containing seven logos as part of the entire “Kingdom of Wonder” branding campaign so that private companies can integrate it into their own promotional materials.

“Now the government has a nice slogan and a nice marketing tool,” he said. “It benefits all of us to participate in this campaign,” Luu Meng said.

The ministry has also produced a 10-minute “Kingdom of Wonder” DVD and magazines to hand out at tourism fairs around the world. On recent trips, the government has sent 30-40 Cambodian actors to Shanghai and Ho Chi Minh City with financial assistance from companies such as NagaWorld, Sokimex and Canadia Bank.

Living the wonder
The other side of the “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign, which is overseen by an inter-ministerial “Kingdom of Wonder” committee as well as a Ministry of Tourism sub-committee on campaign promotion, is an internal effort to make people conscious of their contribution to the country’s environmental and aesthetic appeal.

The “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign is aimed at promoting “clean resorts, clean cities and good service”, but places such as Phnom Penh may not fulfill such expectations. In an effort to change people’s methods of disposing trash, the Ministry has produced Khmer-language public-service announcements to be aired on all national television stations.

The public-service spots, directed by Sok Somart, who was also creative director of the “Kingdom of Wonder” campaign, promote throwing away trash and cutting down on pollution. These public-service spots are aired by Cambodian TV stations four or five times a day at no cost to the ministry.

“Internationally, we are attracting people to come here,” said So Mara. “But we must also prepare ourselves to welcome them.”

Adventure from urban jungle to tropical jungle

Photo by: Tracey Shelton
The Kingdom's rural areas can be even more photogenic than the well-trodden paths of its cities.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:01 Bennett Murray

As more remote corners of Cambodia open to tourists, travellers have a variety of choices

Forget temples, pub crawls and weekends at Serendipity Beach. Jungle treks and mountain-biking are taking off as popular ways to get off the well-trodden asphalt path to explore Mother Nature. From leisurely afternoon walks through the forest to weeklong treks, there’s something for everyone regardless of your level of fitness and enthusiasm.

Kirirom National Park is ideal for Phnom Penh residents looking for a taste of the outdoors without getting too dirty. Located on the eastern edge of the Cardamom Mountain range, local and foreign tourists alike come to the park to enjoy its cooler climate and having a go at spotting wildlife. Only two hours from Phnom Penh on the road to Sihanoukville, day trips from the capital are possible.

However, the prized cornerstone of ecotourism lies further away from the city, and it pays to invest a few days’ time to get a rewarding trip for your buck. Ratanakkiri province, tucked away in the northeast next to Vietnam and Laos, is recommended as an ideal outdoor getaway, with its jungle-clad mountains, secluded waterfalls and isolated beauty spots.

As it lies about 600km from Phnom Penh, prepare to spend the better part of the day on the bus or taxi getting to the provincial capital, Banlung, where it’s easy to arrange treks at the guesthouses in town (you can also go on an organised tour, but these are best arranged in advance).

Overnight stays in the forest, which provide opportunities to mingle with the indigenous population, are particularly popular.

On the opposite end of the country in Koh Kong province is Chi Phat commune, where ecotourism is encouraged as a means to protect the environment. The NGO Wildlife Alliance has been working in the southern Cardamom Mountains since 2003, pioneering “community-based ecotourism” (CBET), which aims to offer alternative livelihoods to poachers and illegal loggers. Trekking and mountain-biking guides are widely available in Chi Phat, and the commune can be reached by boarding the Koh Kong-bound bus from Phnom Penh and asking for a drop-off at Andoung Touek village along Highway 48.

Photo by: Tracey Shelton
Looking for ways out of the city can be a rewarding pastime.

From there, you can hire a boat to take you the rest of the way to Chi Phat.

By definition, ecotourists must tread through fragile eco-systems, so there are pointers to keep in mind. Practice leave-no-trace trekking by packing out all of your rubbish, and easing up on the use of non-biodegradable toiletries (particularly if you plan on spending the night outdoors). In addition to caring for the environment, remember that the people in these remote parts of the country are not always accustomed to the tourist trade. Consequently, the impressions you leave can be enduring. Try not to enter villages in large groups, and always ask permission before taking a photograph.

Furthermore, do not bring gifts such as candy, even if your guide suggests otherwise.

For more information:
Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network/ CCBEN Address: 10A, Street 468, Sangkat Tuol Tumpong I, Phnom Penh Phone: +855 (0)23 355 272 Email:  Online:

Stairway to heaven

Spectacular and grand, Phnom Kulen’s stairway symbolises the vast and varied Kingdom.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:01 Lily Partland

Discover wild forests, stunning views, a thundering waterfall and religious artefacts on an easy daytrip to Siem Reap Province’s sacred Phnom Kulen, a pleasant site for anyone’s pilgrimmage

It’s 7:30am, and I’m snoozing in the back of a minibus, the chatter of my friend and our driver washing over me as we head out of Siem Reap town. After one-and-a-half hours of bumping along we reach the base of Cambodia’s most sacred mountain.

The mountain is surrounded by a deep mystique, and thousands of Cambodians make pilgrimages here every year, particularly during religious festivals. An archaeologist with the Phnom Kulen Archaeological Programme, Jean Baptiste Chevance, thinks the mountain’s sacredness grew from its topography and importance as a water source.

“It’s important because it’s the only mountain in the Angkor region and also because all the main rivers come from there. It’s also supposed to have been the capital of the empire at one stage, before Angkor.”

Chevance says the mountain has been sacred since “at least the end of the eighth century”.

After paying for a ticket, US$20 for foreigners, 2,000 riel for Khmers, we begin the half-hour ascent. The winding narrow dirt road is almost engulfed by majestic trees with vines winding their way up the trunks. One is overwhelmed by all the green and can’t help grinning. Massive boulders appear beside the road that has only enough space for one vehicle, so before noon it’s all uphill and after, all downhill traffic.

We arrive in a small village, one of seven on the mountain, where locals ply jewellery, ivory products and curious local medicines such as dried-out goats’ heads. We’re quickly picked up by a young girl who guides us up a wide staircase guarded by statuary to where the famous reclining Buddha spends his time. Guides only speak Khmer, so it’s handy to have a bilingual friend on hand to translate.

The staircase is lined by children and older people begging, so it’s a good idea to take lots of smaller riel notes. They are very humble and accept each small offering with a smile, thank you and sometimes a blessing.

Up the staircase and we reach a courtyard where an old man is filling a soft-drink bottle with holy water provided by the linga fountain. We ascend a tall set of stairs that I dub “the Stairway to Heaven” for obvious reasons. The views of the forest below are spectacular, and the golden Buddha, casually reclining under a large roof, impressive. Mostly Khmer visitors file past, take photos and say prayers. Back out on the landing I’m asked by a monk to pose for a photo with him. Apparently I’m as much a curiosity to them as they are to me.

Our little guide regales us with superstitious and increasingly far-fetched myths about various sites on the mountain, which served as a Khmer Rouge stronghold until the end of the war, as we wander among the towering moss- and root-covered boulders and trees. We pay our guide (a dollar) and grab some breakfast, delicious coconut waffles, a whopping 500 riels each. We hop back in the minibus and head to the river, beneath which a thousand carved stone lingas are hidden. We can see one, but the water is too deep for a good view. Dry season would be the best time to see them. Back in the bus, next stop is a thundering waterfall.

Thanks to Typhoon Ketsana the amount of water pounding over the 20 metre fall has risen significantly. Some brave Khmers jump and play in the water at the top, but the current is incredibly powerful, and the edge guarded by nothing but a rope. We venture down the wooden steps to the base of the fall. I pay 1,000 riels to pose in a swing decorated by flowers with a garland on my head. I feel like a fairy queen.

We battle through the churning water to a second swing where some friendly monks and girls enthusiastically encourage me to sit and pose for photos with them. I stand and watch the waterfall, and although I haven’t been swimming, the mist that fills the air ensures I’m soon completely drenched. My new friends and I splash around, grinning and laughing. We say goodbye and head back up the stairs. Women dressed in traditional clothing pose with tourists. A woman sells sticky rice with banana and beans wrapped in banana leaves – they really fill a hole (500 riels each). If you’re still hungry, there’s a restaurant that sells mains starting from $2.75.

We change out of our sopping clothes (remember to take a spare set) and climb wearily into the minibus to head home. It costs $60 to hire a minibus from Siem Reap town seating around seven. It’s an easy daytrip that gives you a taste of the wild side of Cambodia.

Charity seeks funds on mad adventure

Photo by: Phillip Starling
The 10-day journey won’t involve any easy riding, and with potholed roads may be less comfortable but more adventurous.

Not for the faint-hearted but an event that attracts those in search of an adrenaline rush.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:01 Nora Lindstrom

Volunteerism is taken to a novel level of adventure with the Kingdom’s first cross-country tuk-tuk rally

Donating to charities by volunteering, such as working with the disabled and under-privileged while on holiday, is an increasing trend among travelers, as is eating at restaurants run by former street kids, or buying products made by the less fortunate or disabled. As the recession takes its toll on NGOs, some organisations are taking to less conventional means of attracting the tourist buck.

Topping the list of random fundraising initiatives is MaD Adventures, which in August launched the MaD Tuk Tuk Challenge, a 10-day January event in which participating teams will travel by tuk-tuk from northern Cambodia to the Vietnamese border. Not an entirely novel idea as similar rickshaw rallies have been organised in India for some time, yet MaD Adventures’ director, Phillip Starling, says he’s never heard of anything like it on Cambodian soil. According to Starling, Cambodian tuk-tuks are unique as they differ in size, design and structure from the ones found in India and China. “This makes the course very different and much more difficult. The MaD Tuk Tuk Challenge is about doing projects en route and focused on raising funds for charity.”

“We’ve been working on ideas to help raise awareness and funds for our cause, and given that tuk-tuks are part of our daily life in Cambodia, it made sense,” Starling said, clarifying that MaD Adventures Limited is the fundraising arm for MaD – Making a Difference for Good!, a Siem Reap-based NGO managed by Palynath Ham.

The rest of the project – driving a pimped-out tuk-tuk across the country on potholed roads – may be less attractive and comfortable, but certainly appeals to those with an adventurous streak. “The aim is threefold: to raise awareness of our cause and what it is really like in Cambodia; to do development work in the communities we visit, stay or pass through; and lastly raise much-needed funding for MaD projects to allow us to be self-sufficient,” Starling explained.

He says he hopes teams from all over the world will participate in the rally, which is set to start January 20. He adds that he looks forward to the teams bringing a variety of skills to the convoy, which should prove useful during the many challenges participants will face en route. Though Starling remains secretive as to what the challenges are, one thing is certain – the 10-day journey won’t involve any easy riding.

“We will have our outriders cover the following day’s track the afternoon before so we will have at least an idea of track conditions, but apart from that it is about testing the teams’ endurance, their ability to deal with the unknown and unexpected, and to work together to get through the day,” Starling said. “Breakdowns, accidents, bumps, bruises, blisters and more will be guaranteed,” he added.

Not for the faint-hearted then, but undoubtedly an event that will attract those in search for an adrenaline rush. Participation doesn’t come cheap, however – minimum registration and starting cost is US$3,300, with extra for tricking out the tuk-tuk, plus food, fuel and other costs. MaD also hopes to raise funds from sponsorships and advertising and through the sale of television rights.

Despite the cost, Starling hopes to see not only international but local talent enter the rally, too. Starling aims to secure further sponsorship from overseas companies wanting to send a team and hopes to have more international support from corporations, schools and NGOs.

For more information, see

Pedal-powered visits to the countryside keep it green, lean

Photo by: JUDE MAK
Enjoying the gentle pleasures of Cambodia’s rural daily life and picturesque environment.

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:01 Jude Mak

Bicycling to the beach lets you soak in the views – and your shirt – for an eco-friendly road trip

Having been in Cambodia for one month, I was curious to explore the countryside. For me, the best way to see a country is by bicycle as it is eco-friendly and good for the body.

I chose an itinerary offered by Grasshopper Adventures as they offered the best value. Grasshopper Adventures is part of Vicious Cycles, a business co-op on Street 130 that includes a cafe, bike-repair shop, and laundry service. I chose a 320-kilometre tour that explored the south coast. Costs covered bike rental, guide, accommodation and most meals.

Day 1 – Phnom Penh to Takeo (82 km)
I was greeted at the shop by my guide, Sokhom.
Although the tour starts with a stop at the Killing Fields, I opted out because I wanted to spend more time cycling.

Sokhom said, “Would you like to visit my hometown?” He was referring to Takhmau, a town 9 kilometers southeast of the capital. A highlight of this leg was seeing the vendors in different areas selling their local specialties. One group sold fried frogs that tasted like crisps. Others further south served fresh BBQ frogs – tasting like chicken.

Right before Takeo, we took a detour onto a dirt road to see rice paddies. In the middle of a lake was a house that once belonged to Khmer Rouge chief of staff Ta Mok.

Day 2 – Takeo to Kep (104 km)
We headed out at 7am and after about two hours we turned into a rural road surrounded by rice paddies and rolling hills with temples atop.
This leg provided a more “countryside” feeling as we passed through remote villages.

Pit stops were rewarded with sugar cane juice and fresh fruit. We had minced frogs and salted fish for lunch.

It started to rain as we rode into Kep in the late afternoon. We checked in at the posh Beach House. Look forward to dining on succulent, sumptuous seafood by the Meas Pov restaurant on the beach laden with dreamy hammocks and breezes.

Day 3 – Kep to Kampot (25 km)
I started the day with a ride to Kep National Park, which offered spectacular views of the coast.
We passed boat villages and towns composed of Cham Muslims. The many mosques and Chinese-style graves made me appreciative of Cambodia’s diversity.

As we arrived in Kampot, heavy rain appeared. Covered in mud, we checked in at Sen Monorom Guesthouse. I wanted to see a rehearsal session at the Kampot Traditional Music School, but the school was closed on Saturdays. I did get a massage at Seeing Hands Massage 5, where blind masseurs/masseuses can give you a shiatsu treatment for $4 per hour.

Day 4 – Kampot to Sihanoukville (108 km)
The final leg of our journey was all rain and big hills. Riding with a poncho is as cumbersome as riding with a parachute so I didn’t mind being drenched. Knowing that our final destination was awaiting us motivated us to complete the leg faster than anticipated.

Day 5 – Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh (bus)
Normally, customers choose to stay longer in Sihanoukville, but I had to return back to Phnom Penh for work.

In my final day, I woke up at sunrise and strolled along the beach and watched fishermen cast their nets. I got back to the guesthouse for a Western-style breakfast before browsing the assorted stores in the town. After enjoying some ice cream at Gelato Italiano, I visited dive shops on Seredipity Beach for tour information.

The tour was enjoyable, providing lots of cycling time while allowing me my own pace.

My guide allowed me to stop for photos as much as I liked. So next time you wish to see Cambodia instead of driving or taking the bus, do consider cycling.

For more information, visit Grasshopper Adventures/Vicious Cycle, 29 Street 130 opposite the Indochine 2 Hotel, 016 337 363,

An eco-lodge in the Cardamoms

Photo by: Kim Philley
Witness breathtaking greenery amid exotic species of flora and fauna and on of the last remaining free-flowing Mekong tributaries

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:00 Kim Philley

Extreme measures have aimed at protecting the mountain ranges from poachers and illegal settlers; now one of the region’s first eco-lodges confronts a different type of intruder in the protected reserve

The name, translated from Khmer, meant simply “New Village”.

“The men were waiting for us with machetes,” says my dinner companion – a French ex-paratrooper who now patrols the Cardamom Mountains for the conservation group Wildlife Alliance.

We are talking over a meal of chicken kebabs with spicy peanut marinade in the open-air dining room of Koh Kong province’s Rainbow Lodge. Birds trill in the jungle backdrop, part of the South Cardamom Mountains protected area; beyond the rooftops of seven guest bungalows, the Tatai River flows by at the speed of soup.

Until recently, the Cardamoms were a fly-over kind of place. The Khmer Rouge retreated into the range in 1979, leaving a trail of land mines; isolation and guerrilla-warfare discouraged visitors for two more decades. When then-King Norodom Sihanouk decreed two wildlife sanctuaries in the Cardamoms in 1993 – Mt Samkos in the western part of the range and Mt Aural in the east – he did so solely on the basis of aerial photography.

The protected area comprises the two sanctuaries and the link between them – the Central Cardamom Protected Forest (CCPF). Together, the sanctuaries and the CCPF form one of the last corridors of virgin rainforest in the world and one of Asia’s seven remaining elephant migration routes.

After two months holed up in Phnom Penh, I can’t say I’m not in a rush to get there: During a 7am high-speed motodop ride to the Virak Buntham bus station, my only pair of walking shoes – tied in haste to the outside of my backpack – disappears forever somewhere along Sisowath Quay.

Unlike Phnom Penh, the Rainbow Lodge is the kind of place you can go barefoot without a tetanus shot. The property, which opened its doors in 2008 – one of only a few “eco-lodges” in all of Cambodia – is situated in the waterworld of one of the last remaining free-flowing tributaries of the Mekong. As part of its “Green Policy”, the lodge relies on solar power, employs only local Cambodians, and procures foodstuffs at market in Koh Kong. I pass my pre-dinner hours kayaking the remarkably unpolluted waters of the Tatai River – perfect for swimming – and exploring nearby waterfalls. My feet rarely touch the ground.

Janet Newman oversees operations of the Rainbow Lodge. She discovered the Cardamom region during a volunteer stint in Botum Sokor National Park.

“I fell in love with Cambodia,” Newman tells me. “I decided that there was real potential for an eco-lodge that aimed to protect the animals and the habitat while benefiting the local community.”

Measures of extreme precaution have been in place to protect the Cardamoms.

In 2002, the Cambodian Forestry Administration asked Wildlife Alliance for help in protecting the Cardamoms from poachers when 32 elephants and 12 tigers were killed over 18 months. And this is where the ex-paratrooper’s story about the machetes comes in. Last year, when a squatter village of 48 new houses sprung up seemingly overnight in the protected area, my dinner companion had orders: burn it to the ground.

Janet Newman is an English lady who used to be a lawyer. Janet has a distinctive personality that can be categorised as type A. When night falls, Newman can be found at the helm of the high wooden bar in the center of the lodge’s dining room, looking out toward the Tatai River with all the vigilance of a ship’s captain.

“I was horrified,” she tells me. “They should have found this when they did the legal title searches.”

“They” are her property lawyers. “The horror” was the news she received only days after putting a deposit down on the Rainbow Lodge property. An article had caught her eye: a Chinese hydropower company had just won the rights to perform a one-year environmental impact assessment [EIA] on dams in the Cardamom protected area. One of the EIAs was slated for the Tatai River.

According to the conservation watchdog NGO International Rivers, Chinese companies are moving forward with three large hydropower projects in the Cardamom Mountains.

Construction has already begun on the 140-megawatt Stung Atay Dam. A feasibility study into the 260MW Stung Cheay Areng dam points out that the dam’s reservoir had the possibility of displacing about 1,500 people, extending into the central Cardamoms and flooding the habitat of 31 endangered species– including the world’s most critical breeding grounds for the endangered Siamese crocodile.

The 80MW Stung Tatay Dam that is studied and explored by the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation has a reservoir likely to extend into the protected areas of the Cardamoms.

The proposed site for a hydroelectric powerhouse is a rapid where Newman frequently takes guest of the Rainbow Lodge. “It is a glorious spot,” she tells me, “cascading water over huge time worn boulders, mountains, jungle, small sandy beaches and a natural formed ‘lake area’ perfect for bathing and wildlife spotting”.

“All,” she adds, “in the heart of the protected reserve.”

The rise of the responsible tourist

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:00 Nora Lindstrom

Although capitalism is usually not associated with altruistic intentions, tourism increasingly is proving to be a sector in which private gain and the public good can have a happy marriage

Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, is now a globally accepted buzzword in every industry, reworking economic trends and shifting cultural attitudes and behaviour. CSR acts as a form of self-regulation for companies, monitoring and alleviating the social, environmental and cultural effects of business activities.

Businesses want to show that they “care” amid the destruction and exploitation of Planet Earth. They are gradually recognising the benefits that responsible tourism can bring to destinations, in terms of employment and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. Preserving historic architecture and environmental conservation in the name of promoting tourism may come across as less of an issue.

According to the Economic Institute of Cambodia, it is not always easy for visitors and foreign investors hoping to contribute by raising the bar of Cambodian culture. Traditional performing arts, historic restoration, handicrafts and other local aspects are often poorly managed and neglected, with few businesses undertaking or supporting initiatives in this area. Few Cambodian products and services are available that similarly meet the needs and standards of the industry. A vast majority of food products is imported into Cambodia from Vietnam and Thailand. Hence, tourism is not boosting the economy as much as it should.

Willem Niemeijer co-founded and now manages Khiri Travels, an independent operator running responsible travel tours in Indochina. Since its conception in 1994, the company has emphasised giving something back to the community and is widely considered a leader in socially responsible tourism by many.

“The tourism sector is one of the largest employers in the world,” Niemeijer said. “Employment is the way out of poverty. So when NGOs work together with the tourism sector, good things can be achieved.”

Merging the profit-oriented, private-owned tourism with less-commercial NGO initiatives can result in practices with emerging benefits such as fair compensation and promoting employment opportunities and resources. The company has developed its own not-for-profit division, Khiri Reach. According to Willem, the aim of Khiri Reach is to provide a way for organisations and private persons to support its initiatives without overhead costs diluting donations. He added, “Khiri Travel donates the use of the network of offices, transport and communication in Cambodia and Thailand, Laos, Vietnam. Many of the staff are volunteering their time and efforts.” Projects that can be found on the itinerary and visited by Khiri travellers are mainly the ones supported.

Stay another day
Susan Kennedy, a socially responsible tourism practitioner in Cambodia, is keen on the potential of socially responsible tourism’s popularity in Cambodia. She is helping prepare the upcoming Stay Another Day booklet, a tourist-oriented publication that showcases socially responsible tourism initiatives by both the private and NGO sectors.

Kennedy observed increased interest from private sector initiatives, many of which are reported in the booklet. “In 2007, it was about 20 percent businesses. In 2008 it was 35 percent, and this year it’s 40 percent,” she says, noting that both NGO and private-sector initiatives have to be evaluated based on their social, cultural and environmental sustainability.

The booklet itself has also gone private. From having been heavily donor-backed before, it now has a private publisher. Although prices for advertising an initiative have consequently increased, the ad renewal rate nevertheless stands at 65 percent.

“Going into the private sector will make the booklet financially sustainable,” Kennedy noted. She adds that many of the ecotourism projects in Cambodia are currently unsustainable without donor support, something she hopes will change in the future. “It can take generations to build the sector,” she said, implying donor funds are unlikely to last that long. “There is a need for the private sector to back things up”.

Community focus
An initiative publicised in the Stay Another Day guide is the Chambok Community-based Ecotourism site, in Kirirom National Park in Kampong Speu province. Initiated by environmental NGO Mlup Baitong in 2001, the project was created to reduce deforestation in the Kampong Speu area. Though the organisation’s objectives are foremost to protect the environment and its natural resources, Executive Director Va Moeurn is certain of how such a narrow approach was unsustainable when implemented and not inclusive of their other needs.

Today, the site is visited annually by nearly 20,000 local and foreign tourists, bringing in more than US$20,000 in net revenue for the 700 households in the area. Tourists come to the site either by contacting Chambok directly, or via any commercial tour company the initiative has developed links with.

The income from the site is now sufficient for the community to protect the forest and earn daily wages,” Va Moeurn said. He added, however, that Mlup Baitong supports other development initiatives in the villages. “We encourage the community to participate in tourism activities, but we tell them clearly that income from tourism is only additional income,” he explained.

Connecting nonprofit with for-profit activities is seen by Va Moeurn to be simpler in tourism than in other sectors. “The private and the NGO sector have the same purpose – to gain from tourism,” he said. “It’s easier to link the two in the tourism sector than in the forestry sector where the two often have different aims – such as logging versus protection of the forest”.

Similar sentiments are echoed by Yorth Bunny, coordinator of the Cambodia Community-Based Ecotourism Network (CCBEN). However, he also noted many community-based initiatives need private sector guidance to ensure quality standards in service as well as facilities. CCBEN facilitates such learning. “Our vision is for the initiatives to be self-sustainable, but that can’t be achieved in a short time,” he said, adding that both private and NGO actors have to work closely together to effect socially responsible change.

Scenic and safe, Taiwan shines as a destination

Photo by: Roger Mitton

The narrow lanes of Chiufen are lined with charming teahouses and local snack shops.

Photo by: Roger Mitton
Dine on juicy dumplings personally rolled and stuffed by skilled chefs.

Travel between Phnom Penh and Taipei:
There are nonstop flights by China Airlines and Eva Airways for around $700 return. A better bet is to take Air Asia from Phnom Penh to Bangkok and on to Taipei for about $300 return.

Brother Hotel, 255 Nanking East Road, Taipei. Phone: 886 227 123 456. Email: . Online: Cost: $120/ night for a double. Airport pickup is $18 per person.

Hotel I-Tsun, 140 Wenchuan Road, Xinbeitou. Phone: 886 228 912 121/3. Cost: $75 double room Western style or $115 tatami style.

Din Tai Fung, 194 Xinyi Road. Phone: 886 223 218 928. For xiao long bao – steamed soup dumplings – a full meal costs around $10 per head.

Kunming Islamic Restaurant, 26 Lane 81 Fuhsing N Road, near the Brother Hotel. Phone: 01 2751 6776. Indian and Yunnan food.

Karen Teppanyaki, Floor B1, Taipei 101, Xinyi Road.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:00 Roger Mitton

Come for urban and natural wonders, stay for the steamed soup dumplings

Only a handful of people think of Taiwan as a travel destination – few until they have been there before. Then, like myself, they often return quickly. And for good reason: It is scenic, safe, efficient and friendly.

The capital, Taipei, is one of Asia’s most vibrant cities, with great restaurants, funky bars and shopping to beat the band. And its surrounding countryside offers jagged mountain ranges, inland lakes, steaming hot springs, and a majestic, unspoiled coastline.

The first thing that impresses is the wonderfully efficient airport. Don’t misunderstand: There’s nothing elaborate or stylish about the place. It’s just sheer efficiency – quite unlike the shopping-mall chaos of airports like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur.

The airport also has a fabulous information centre where you can pick up all the maps and brochures you’ll ever need before you head into town.

I always choose to stay at Taipei’s Brother Hotel, partly because it offers an efficient and affordable airport pickup and has a great central location right next to a Metro stop and lots of excellent restaurants, including one of my favourites – the Kunming Islamic Restaurant just across the road. But don’t let the culinary delights and the hotel’s treats detain you – there are sights to be savoured.

Start by going up the amazing Taipei 101, still the world’s tallest building at 439.2 metres (1,440.9 feet). It features a series of eight segments of eight floors each, because in Chinese culture the number eight signifies abundance, prosperity and good fortune.

Taipei 101 also has the world’s fastest elevator, which zips you up to the top at more than 60km/h.

After taking in the breathtaking view, check out the stylish shops, and then head down to B1, where there’s a jewel of a spot called Karen Teppanyaki that serves mouthwatering grilled steaks, ribs and seafoods.

Thus fortified, it’s time for Taiwan’s fabulous National Palace Museum, nestled in the city’s hilly northern suburbs, and easily reached via the Metro to Shilin and a bus outside the station that drops you off at the museum.

There are free guided tours in English at 10am and 3pm if you want to get into the details, or else you can just wander around the museum’s three floors at your leisure.

The collection on display beats anything in mainland China for the simple reason that when General Chiang Kaishek’s Kuomintang were facing defeat in the civil war of the late 1940s, they shipped all the best treasures over to Taiwan, leaving only the “dregs” for Beijing. Among the highlights are dazzling gems from the Qing Dynasty, and painting and calligraphy galleries.

After this dose of Taiwanese culture, indulge yourself at Din Tai Fung, which is famous for xiao long bao – steamed soup dumplings. Try the exquisite thin-skinned pork and vegetable variety, you’re sure to order seconds.

Next morning, it’s time for some fresh air and exercise, so take bus 260 from Taipei Main Station to the fabulous jagged peaks and winding trails of Yangmingshan National Park. The 40-minute ride takes you up 700 metres, where it’s much cooler and where the views are spectacular.

After your hike, head over to nearby Beitou to sample the hot springs. The steaming jade-coloured water is said to be good for arthritis, rejuvenating skin and other ailments. It is truly hot, so take your time slipping in and let your aching muscles slowly recover.

The town of Beitou, formerly a red-light district but now family-oriented, is full of hotels and restaurants. A good spot to stay is the secluded Hotel I-Tsun, tucked down a side lane, where the hot spring-fed baths are open for guests 24 hours a day.

From Beitou, it’s a short Metro ride to Danshui, where you can get the bus round to the incredible rock formations in the Yeliu Geopark. One formation is shaped like Cleopatra’s head and is reputedly more than 3,000 years old.

Yeliu’s other attraction is the fantastic selection of seafood restaurants that draw Taiwanese from miles around. Try the steamed mussels and grilled fresh mackerel – you won’t want to leave.

But you must proceed and the next stop is the nearby historic gold-mining town of Chiufen up in the hills overlooking the rugged shoreline of Taiwan’s Pacific coast. The gold ore has long since given out, but the town’s narrow lanes are lined with traditional teahouses, souvenir shops, art galleries and temples.

Chiufen, with its fantastic views and clean mountain air, is full of guesthouses and hotels, so you’ll have no trouble finding accomodation. You can take a bus to Juifang and from there, a train for the 40-minute ride back.

This magical trip can easily be done in a week.

The picture-postcard 'Paris of the East'

by: Roger Mitton

Enjoy restaurant-quality renditions and curbside delicacies at the city’s modern eateries.

A riverine city with bright lights and bustling boulevards, elegant hotels, and a stylish Opera House.

Photo by: Roger Mitton
Revel in the city’s eclectic charms - a mix of intimate inroads and bustling boulevards.

Travel between Ho Chi Minh City and Phnom Penh:

Getting to/from HCMC:
The 40-minute flights from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to HCMC by Vietnam Airlines are criminally expensive at $294 with a return flight. Ignore them and take an express bus for $12 one-way. Use either Mekong Express, 87 Sisowath Quay at Street 102 (phone 023 427 518), or Sapaco Tourist, 309 Sihanouk Blvd at Street 274 (phone 023 210 300).

Majestic Hotel, 1 Dong Khoi St. Phone: (84 -8) 3829 5517. Fax: (84-8) 3829 5510. Email: . Online: Riverside Hotel, 18-20 Ton Duc Thang St. Phone: 3823 1117. Fax: 3825 1417. Email: . Online: Saigon Royal Hotel, 12D Cach Mang Thang Tam St. Phone: (84-8) 3829 4846. Email:

May Bon Phuong, Cu Xa Do Thanh, 132/6 Vuon Chuoi, 335/5 Dien Bien Phu. Phone: 3833 4743. Luong Son, 31 Ly Tu Trong. Phone: 3825 1330. L'Etoile, 180 bis Hai Ba Trung. Phone: 3829 7939.

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

Monday, 19 October 2009 15:00 Roger Mitton

Savouring the elegance of Ho Chi Minh City – and its exhilarating and wearying energy – is a prospect that could appeal to any traveller

ImaginE a public holiday coming up with the appealing prospect of a long weekend away beckoning. Where to go from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap that’s convenient, tantalising and affordable? Ho Chi Minh City is the spot.

The locals still call it Saigon, while old Asia hands remember it as the “Paris of the East” – a riverine city with bright lights and bustling boulevards, elegant hotels and gourmet restaurants, fine shops, a stylish opera house and pretty women. What more could you want?

And it’s easy to get there. Ignore the rip-off flights and take the limousine bus service from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City for a mere US$12. Buses depart hourly from 6am onwards. Buy a ticket in advance, reserve a seat, and at no extra cost the bus company will pick you up at your hotel and take you to the bus station.

Choose a window seat and you can watch the countryside roll by as you head towards Vietnam’s biggest and funkiest city, crossing the Mekong River by the Neak Leung ferry where hawkers jostle around the bus selling fruits, drinks, fishes and dried insects.

The driving time is only four hours, but immigration procedures at the border take an hour and there is also a one-hour lunch stop, during which you can change money into dong – the exchange rate is about 17,500 dong to the US dollar. If you take the 7am bus, you’ll step out into central Ho Chi Minh City at 1 pm.

On arrival, stroll away from the taxi touts around the bus stop and pick up a Mai Linh, Vinasun or Vina Taxi a block or so away.

The metred fare to any central hotel will not be more than 30,000 to 40,000 dong.

Ho Chi Minh City has a wide range of hotels from budget to five-star. For a treat, consider the famous French colonial Hotel Majestic beside the Saigon River at the bottom of elegant Dong Khoi Street – the former Rue Catinat is the city’s Bond Street or Fifth Avenue. At around $150 a night, it’s not cheap, but the rooms are lovely, the location incomparable and the big buffet breakfast superb.

An economic alternative is the nearby Riverside Hotel (not to be confused with the pricey Renaissance Riverside), which has the same great location and offers spacious doubles from $60 to $80.

For an ace budget spot try the friendly Saigon Royal Hotel, which is not as scenically located but makes up for that in price and service. At $35 a night for a big double, it is hard to beat.

After checking in, you’re ready to explore. First, just amble around the downtown area, starting with Dong Khoi Street. At the top end is the wonderfully ornate opera house, where shows are remarkably cheap, and the evocative Continental Hotel, frequented by Graham Greene’s Quiet American. Around the corner is historic Notre Dame Cathedral, which is always overflowing on Sunday mornings.

Head down Dong Khoi towards the river, checking out the stylish shops and be sure to take a break in one of the excellent cafes – Java is my favourite with its exquisite coffee and delectable cakes.

Then, depending on your taste and energy level, visit the city’s other attractions like Ben Thanh Market, where, even if you buy nothing – and you’ll be lucky to get away with that – the atmosphere is worth soaking up.

From Ben Thanh, pick up a local bus to Cholon, the old Chinatown, and check out the temples and Old World ambience.

The War Remnants Museum is also a fascinating and sobering experience, which sets you up for a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, a two-hour drive northwest of the city, where you can explore the subterranean maze used by the Viet Cong in the liberation war of the 1960s.

Top on my list of choice eating places is a gem called May Bon Phuong, where you can sample the exquisite barbecued chicken with five flavours or the small fish with eggs or the fish escalope. The bill for two is rarely more than 160,000 dong, or less than $10. If you take your own wine they don’t charge you to open it.

More well-known is Luong Son, an open-air barbecue-and-beer place where every dish is good and zesty, especially the deep-fried frog’s legs, the barbecued goat, and the speciality: tangy marinated beef (bo tung xeo) cooked on your own tabletop brazier.

Another great eatery that Cambodians will love is L’Etoile, which offers a three-course family dinner with French and Asian flavours for $12, or you can splurge on the four-course menu du chef for $20. This is the place to go for that special occasion.

Afterwards, consider a nightcap at one of the city’s famous rooftop bars, like those at the Hotel Majestic or the Rex Hotel where war-era journalists drank, or if you want a more vibrant scene hit the Caravelle Hotel’s Saigon Saigon Bar, where the city’s in-crowd gather.

Ho Chi Minh City has everything anyone could ask for.