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Election worries for tourists

Tourists take snapshots outside of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Tourists take snapshots outside of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. VIREK MAI

Election worries for tourists

Chris Leyland had forgotten about Cambodia’s national elections when he made plans to travel into Phnom Penh from Vietnam with Jess Jackson, 34, and her two children.

Had Leyland, a 41-year-old from Oxford, UK, remembered that it wasn’t going to be a normal weekend in Cambodia, he would have rescheduled the Phnom Penh trip as a precaution, because “you never know what could happen”.

Jackson said they had “heard rumours of incidents but haven’t seen anything”, and despite the concern, were curious about the results and its implications.

Referring to the Cambodian People’s Party banner showing Senate president Chea Sim, Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly president Heng Samrin, one of Jackson’s kids asked: “Is that the one with the three men?”

Tourists like Leyland and Jackson found themselves bearing witness to a significant moment in Cambodian history this weekend. After weeks of exciting rallies and campaigns, preliminary election results on Sunday showed that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party nearly doubled its seats in the National Assembly.

Bouts of Election Day violence were reported in the city, and the US embassy reissued a travel warning online to “avoid areas prone to gatherings, and immediately vacate any area where crowds are gathering”.

Despite tension, though, many tourists are facing the election with interest rather than fear, and government and private sector representatives have attributed any drop in arrivals to the low season, not mounting election anxiety.

Operations at Phnom Penh International Airport ran as usual on Sunday, with no implication on air traffic

Sam Basford, who has been in Phnom Penh since the beginning of July, said it was “really nice to see the freedom of expression in the rally and young Cambodians caring about the [political] system”.

The 46-year-old from East Sussex in the UK said she doesn’t feel unsafe because “tourists are not the target”.

Her monthlong trip to visit a friend working in Phnom Penh seems to have opened up a window for her into Cambodian politics.

“The results show there needs to be changes,” she said.

Graham Parker, 50, from England, said he isn’t concerned about safety in the city during their 12-day trip in Cambodia.

Parker and his family of five landed in Phnom Penh at midnight, hours after results were announced. He said he was aware that elections were taking place but knew little in the way of detailed information.

Not everyone is going about their vacation unconcerned.

Steven Mam, 45, a Cambodian-American from California, said the US embassy has been vague on what will happen should riots and protests break out, and he was walking from Wat Phnom yesterday afternoon on his way to the embassy to find out.

“Safety is OK [now], but it’s not going to stay safe,” said Mam, who will be in Phnom Penh for one more week.

As a tourist, the American embassy can protect him, but he said he is worried about the safety of his Cambodian friends and family.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ANNE RENZENBRINK

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