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Land mines imperil Siem Reap tourism boom

Land mines imperil Siem Reap tourism boom

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Marker posts spell danger along a widely used rural road.

As increasing numbers of tourists visiting Siem Reap head off on motorbikes to explore

the surrounding countryside, concerns are growing about their risk of death or injuries

from land mines and unexploded ordinance (UXO).

The threat of such incidents has been heightened by the relatively new accessibility

of areas until quite recently sealed off to foreign visitors due to the Khmer Rouge

threat

While dirt bike riding tourists have so far been either lucky or prudent, real dangers

lie ahead, warns Colonel Billault, Director of Siem Reap's Cambodian Mine Action

Center (CMAC) operation in Siem Reap.

Those dangers are compounded by the perception of Cambodia by many young travelers

as a "final frontier" of SE Asian adventure travel.

"It's great to get out there, where no other tourists go and see the real Cambodia,"

explained Stuart, a backpacker from Australia.

The recent surge in the publication of guide books dedicated to adventure tourism

and the increasing number of businesses offering off-road bikes for rent or guided

dirt bike tours means the next twelve months or so will see a boom in a tourism market

offering easy routes off the beaten track.

And agencies responsible for ensuring that those tracks are mine and UXO free are

already taxed to the limit by military road rehabilitation programs vital to the

development of rural communities.

"We are struggling to keep up," HALO Trust Programme Director Matthew Hovell

told the Post. "There are minefields as little as three meters from the road

on routes now just a few hours ride from Siem Reap."

In addition to remote temple hunting, another new attraction that is a source of

serious concern for Hovell is Pol Pot's grave near the Thai border. Previously several

grueling days ride from Siem Reap, the site will soon be accessible in just a few

hours.

"As tourists pass through Anlong Veng district they reach Trapeang Prasat town,

an area heavily mined with both anti-tank and anti-personnel mines," Hovell

said. "It's not only nearby mined temples and villages, even the roads off to

Tomnob Dach, just 15 kilometers north of Trapeang Prasat, represent a real danger."

Amongst other concerns looming on the horizon for HALO Trust is the proposed road

renovation programs from Trapeang Prasat and Chom Khsan up to Preah Vihear Temple,

a region of great interest to tourists, yet still littered with mines and UXO.

One temple site much closer to Siem Reap which has already become a popular day trip

from Siem Reap for bikers is that of Beng Mealea. While the temple

site has been declared safely free of mines, CMAC has yet to fully survey the areas

beyond the outer enclosure.

Despite the huge problems of predicting which regions are mined and which are safe,

both CMAC and HALO Trust agree that a ban on rural tourism would stop whatever economic

benefit tourism brings to outlying regions.

That sentiment is echoed by Theam Kong Borom, spokesman for the Siem Reap Provincial

Government.

"We don't yet know how to deal with this problem," Kong Borom admitted,

adding that any sort of clampdown on businesses offering bikes or bike tours is currently

considered unnecessary.

He instead urges that such businesses take responsibility for educating their clients,

something that they are almost universally failing to do.

Of three bike rental shops visited by the Post last week, not one was able to provide

any written or verbal information concerning the dangers of land mines or UXO.

Zeman McCreadie, who has been organizing dirt bike tours to remote areas of Cambodia

for three years as Tour Co-ordinator for Angkor Dirt Bike Tours in the Extreme, is

also concerned about the dangers that inexperienced and unprepared dirt biking tourists

pose to themselves Cambodia's international image.

"A lot people renting motorcycles and going to remote areas expect Cambodia

to be like Thailand, with roads that are easy and facilities at hand," McCreadie

said. "It's not so much land mines that are a problem, it's people we see going

to remote areas with no helmets, no tools, and no drinking water."

McCreadie predicts it's just a matter of time before he is asked by a bike rental

shop about the whereabouts of "...some guy who rented a bike two months before

and has not been seen since".

Those tourists who are unlucky enough to be injured while biking in the countryside

will have their problems compounded by health facilities that are either non-existent

or unable to properly treat such injuries.

"Outside of Siem Reap it is a big problem. There is no procedure to deal with

emergencies in the countryside whether they be monkey bites, malaria or accidents,"

commented Dr. Garen of Siem Reap's Naga Clinic.

Having had this problem brought to his attention by the Post, Theam Kong Borom has

now put in place plans for a workshop he hopes will bring together demining agencies,

ministry representatives, as well as local tourist operators.

That measure is already being applauded by some sectors of the Siem Reap tourism

industry.

"It's crucial that tourism in the outlying areas of Cambodia is safe in order

to protect both our clients and the future development of the country's tourism industry,"

said adventure tourism entrepreneur Craig Hodges.

Hodges and other concerned parties emphasize that maintaining Cambodia's still fragile

image as a "safe and stable" tourist destination needs to be balanced with

the economic gains, however small, that tourism can bring to the Kingdom's rural

areas.

Collective responsibility in raising awareness of the very real dangers involved

in reckless travel in remote rural areas, they say, is urgently needed to prevent

adventure tourism calamities that might smear Cambodia's tourist image for years

to come.

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