Holiday in Cambodia no longer a joke

Cambodia has come a long way since the days of the Khmer Rouge and the Dead Kennedys. A recent visit to Phnom Penh showed several sides of Cambodia’s renaissance.

I made the trip to see NagaWorld, the casino resort in Phnom Penh. The hotel features five-star rooms for US$60 a night, an epic breakfast buffet, and a variety of casino designs ranging from a Chinese garden to Dave & Buster’s inspired NagaRock. The whole package comes wrapped in Khmer hospitality with the kind of service you expect in Asia but is increasingly hard to find. NagaWorld recorded a net profit of US$92 million last year, and welcomed 490,000 visitors in the first quarter of this year.

NagaWorld has boosted Cambodia’s national rebuilding efforts. The company provides 3,600 jobs, nine out of ten to Cambodians. Parent NagaCorp became the first Cambodian company to list publicly when it raised US$95 million on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2006. That listing and NagaWorld’s success have helped encourage fast growing tourism and foreign investment. A meeting with one due diligence consultant yielded a roll call of visiting New York money managers.

Cambodia’s main attraction for overseas visitors remains the ancient Angkor Wat complex, 188 miles (314 kilometers) from Phnom Penh. However, more than half of overseas visitors to Cambodia included the capital in their itineraries for the first time last year. Phnom Penh has plenty of charms. The Royal Palace and National Museum provide reminders of the country’s grand past, with many stunning pieces from Angkor. Opposite the palace begins a wide promenade along the Mekong River that visitors and residents enjoy. The city’s burgeoning nightlife district runs off the promenade, and there are still reminders of the French colonial past, from ochre mansions to baguettes.

Phnom Penh also has two key memorials to Khmer Rouge genocide under Pol Pot that killed up to 2 million people in late 1970s. Tuol Sleng, the prison known as S-21, and Cheoung Ek, the so-called Killing Fields, are deeply moving, no matter how cynical and heartless you may think you are. They also serve as reminders that similar madness can strike anywhere, even absent the race and religion multipliers, even in countries where the people seem as gentle and kind as they are in Cambodia. It’s a great place to visit that gives you a lot to think about.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at