Getting a mention in Nick Ray's guide book could be a Cambodian town's ticket out
of poverty - such is the power of the written word.
The Lonely Planet, Cambodia, is one of the best sellers for street vendors in Phnom Penh, like Sok Phel, 42, who, after surviving four years as a Khmer Rouge soldier, lost his leg to a landmine in 1997 near Thai border. He has been selling books in the capital for two years and makes $8 to $10 a day.
As the author of Lonely Planet Cambodia, Ray, a 31-year-old Briton, is a powerful
influence in the tourism industry. Where his readers go today, other tourists will
go tomorrow. Ray, who lives in Phnom Penh, will start researching soon for the fifth
edition, and did not want his photo published as he believed it could compromise
his work. But he was happy to answer a few questions.
What role do you think your readers have in developing Cambodia's tourist industry?
Backpackers do a lot to break new ground. They were the first to go to places like
Kampot and Ratanakkiri. Now the rest are following. Some people in tourism look down
on them because they spend less money. But they forget that they stay much longer
and - unlike high-end tourists - spend their money locally.
How do you choose the places you write about? I write about the places I want people
to visit. And as the country opens up, more and more areas come within reach. What
was edgy in the third edition is mainstream in the fourth. So we have to add new
places for the readers. The book has gone from 120 pages in the first editions to
350 pages in the fourth. Preah Vihear is an example: I did five pages on this province
because people up there are so poor and really need the tourists.
So is Preah Vihear a big future destination? The temples are amazing. It is a bit
like Angkor a decade ago. Another place with lots more potential is the coast. Islands
like Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samlon could be the future Koh Samui and Koh Phagnan.
Can this search for "untouched" places be harmful? Visitors need to understand
that Cambodia is a conservative country and not a Pattaya or Saigon. But some of
the younger ones don't. Without dad looking over the shoulder, no one is going to
tell them what to do or wear. Fortunately, few insensitive travellers put up with
nine-hour bus rides from hell only to end up in a malarial town far away. But in
some places, even sensitive travellers could do harm. Look at Thailand and Vietnam:
some minority villages there have the feeling of a human zoo. Luckily, the hill tribes
here don't have the colorful dresses they have, because who wants to take a photo
of a guy in a Harry Potter T-shirt?
You did your first work for Lonely Planet in 1998. Since then, tourism has grown
steadily. How has this changed Cambodia? Battambang is a good example. When I was
there in 1998, there were no tourists. Now, there are small hotels and restaurants
especially for backpackers. And most motodop drivers speak some English. Siem Reap
is the exception, though. This place has lost its innocence. The warmth of the people
that once drew visitors to Cambodia is no longer there.
For a Cambodian family running a small restaurant or guest house, getting a recommendation
in The Lonely Planet can make a big difference. What responsibility do you feel you
have? I have to be fair to the reader. If one place is better than the other, I can't
censor myself. But I need to be careful. Some business owners see a recommendation
as the end and stop working.
Have you ever been offered bribes? Not really. But some business owners ring me up
and ask how much it is to be in the guide. It is a misunderstanding; there are many
guides around where you have to advertise to get listed.
How does it feel to be offered fake versions of your own book on the street? It is
strange. Some kids selling the book in Siem Reap recognize me from the photo; they
shout 'Mr Nick! Mr Nick!' and laugh. Then some readers come up to me and complain
that the information is not up to date. The truth is that some sellers only change
the cover and stick the old edition inside. Lonely Planet actually tried to trace
down the illegal copies one time. They all turned out to come from the same Vietnamese
printing house. But it was government owned, so they dropped it.