(Bloomberg) — It’s Christmas Day and Paul Wallimann, the owner of a popular restaurant near the famous temples of Angkor Wat, is nervous about serving a table of 16 people. Before the pandemic, his cafe was doing up to 240 people a night, but after two years without tourists, his staff is a bit rusty.
“I’m a little scared about tonight,” said Wallimann, a native of Switzerland who has run Restaurant Haven and the chef training program for underprivileged youth for more than a decade. “We haven’t had any guests for so long.”
After two grueling years with few visitors, Angkor Wat and the hotels and restaurants that once thrived from one of Southeast Asia’s top tourist attractions are slowly coming back to life. With 83% of the population fully vaccinated – the eighth best in the world according to data from Johns Hopkins University – and fewer Covid cases, Cambodia declared itself open to visitors in November. Singapore Airlines responded a few weeks later with daily flights to nearby Siem Reap, marking the first international arrivals to the city in 20 months. Restaurant bookings are on the rise, and a handful of once-empty hotels are seeing a trickle of guests.
The uptrend was slow. About 1,200 people arrived in the last two weeks of December based on the nearly half-empty flight my wife and I took in a Boeing 737-800. According to Vinci Airports, which operates Cambodia’s three major airports, more than 330,000 passengers passed through Siem Reap every month in 2019.
That signals a slow and arduous period of rebuilding for a city as dependent on tourism as they come. Of Siem Reap’s 140,000 residents, the majority are involved in some way with trade – providing food, shelter, driving or selling souvenirs to the 2.5 million people who normally trek to the majestic 12th-century temples each year.
“Everyone here relies on tourism,” says Wallimann, who often only served one table a day during the crisis. With optimism in the air, the question now is whether the badly battered tourism sector can survive long enough for global travelers to reappear in droves.
Restaurants have had it worse. Take Cuisine Wat Damnak, which in days before the pandemic was ranked as one of the top 50 restaurants in Asia, prompted months of waits for reservations. French chef Joannes Riviere was forced to close and relocate to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Among other losses of this caliber were the embassy and bistro Georges Rhumerie.
“They tried to survive as much as possible, but they didn’t make it,” says Wallimann, whose café was able to keep its head above water thanks to the support of a Swiss foundation.
The survivors had to get creative. Take Christian De Boer, managing director of Jaya House, a native of Rotterdam who has not been paid since the beginning of 2020. To save some employees’ jobs and pride, he asked them to mow the lawn with hand shears instead of a lawnmower; At least it filled their hours, he argues. Nearby Sarai Resort & Spa was less fortunate; Manager Chea Sokhon was forced to lay off his 100 employees and let them make ends meet on a government stipend of $40 a month, a third of their salary.
Chea, who sits at the local tourism office, estimates that a third of the city’s hotels will not survive next year. “Without tourists, we die,” he says.
The return of international flights, however small, and a surge in visits from local tourists from Phnom Penh bring a touch of optimism to the sector. Chea has recalled 20 employees and hopes to have everyone on board by February. Operating around 10 rooms, Jaya House offers a thoughtful service that includes fresh, cool towels after a hot, dusty day in the ruins – accompanied these days by squirts of natural, cinnamon-scented hand sanitizer.
Tour guide Son Prathna, 36, is back at the temples after being forced to take a job in waste management in his hometown outside Siem Reap.
“I didn’t have a job to support my family for two years,” Son muses as he guides us through deserted Angkor Wat, where thousands of tourists seeking sunrise photos seem to crowd around a pond overlooking the main temple – for now anyway – a thing of the past. On this day we see almost as many young monks in saffron robes as foreigners. “I am very happy to see the tourists returning,” adds Son. The $45 he makes on each tour is about a quarter of the monthly minimum wage in some regulated sectors.
The continued absence of crowds makes the trip a unique experience. According to Cambodia’s latest rules, visitors must be able to show proof of full vaccination and a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival. On arrival at the airport, another rapid test will be carried out.
Besides Angkor Wat, visitors should prioritize the ruins of Ta Prohm, made famous by a “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” scene starring Angelina Jolie, in which ancient tree roots appear to strangle centuries-old rocks. They were almost empty when I visited. Bayon, the highlight of the Angkor Thom complex with its 216 smiling stone faces believed to be portraits of King Jayavarman VII himself, was also magically tranquil.
The few of Siem Reap’s relatively upscale restaurants that are still open have not lost their touch, using Cambodia’s staple ingredients like coconut milk, lemongrass and river fish to create traditional Khmer dishes such as Amok (fish stew), Beef Loc Lac (an Indochinese). stir-fries) and a variety of curries. They’re intimate and surprisingly affordable for the quality they offer. At Haven, set in a traditional Khmer house flanked by a tropical garden, the green mango fish fillet is delicious (and only $8). The Seafood Vermicelli Salad by the Sokkhak River cannot be missed with its fine collection of Cambodian art. And Mahob serves a delicious plate of beef with red tree ants – you hardly notice the little critters.
For the richest treats of all, head to the outskirts of town at Lum Orng, an open-kitchen farm-to-table eatery helmed by chef Sothea Seng. Don’t let the dusty, off-road tuk-tuk ride fool you: Sothea is a master, serving up a $32 six-course tasting menu that includes beef carpaccio, crawfish soup, and braised river fish. On a December night we had this special place to ourselves.
Siem Reap has used the extended shutdown to brush things up. New roads are being built across the city. An improved water treatment system has reduced flooding during the rainy season. Completed in 2020 but still fresh, the Angkor Eye Ferris wheel is ready to offer a mobile view of the distant temples. With hot air balloon rides, tourists can now capture the golden sunset over Angkor Wat from the sky. And a new airport is under construction and could be ready as early as 2023.
With only 80 to 100 people arriving daily, this will be a slow walk back. As with so many destinations, one challenge will be to replenish staff. Amid the closures, thousands of Cambodians saw no other option but to return to the villages to help out on the family’s rice farm; others found work in Phnom Penh or in seaside resorts near Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand.
“It will be a big problem to get good staff quickly,” says Wallimann, adding that those interested in returning to hospitality will be rusty as they haven’t spoken a word of English for two years.
David Baron, general manager of the Nick Faldo-designed Angkor Golf Resort near the airport, reckons it will be 2023 before the city really gets back on its feet. The lush 18-hole course used to host golfers from Korea, China and Japan, and it’s unclear when such travelers will return.
“Realistically, it will take two to three years for tourist numbers to get back to where they were,” the Yorkshire, England native tells me. “So you need to adapt and review and stay positive to get through the next year.”