Angkor Wat’s Muslims: The key to Cambodia’s halal tourism?

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Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia. (Photographs by: Tharik Hussain)
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Angkor Wat is located about six kilometers north of Siem Reap.
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A halal beef dish found in the nearby "Muslim Village."
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A fish curry perfect for Muslim travelers.
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Muslim families go about their daily lives.
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Nasir Mahmud's Siem Reap Backpackers Halal Restaurant.
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A mosque ready to take in Muslim travelers who wish to perform prayers.
Updated 14 January 2018
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Angkor Wat’s Muslims: The key to Cambodia’s halal tourism?

SIEM REAP, Cambodia: If you close your eyes and listen carefully at sunset in Siem Reap’s old town, between the rhythmic chants and tinkling bells emanating from the local Buddhist temples, you will hear the faint, melodious sound of the Muslim call to prayer.
The muezzin issues his call from the Masjid Al-Neakma in the heart of Siem Reap’s “Muslim Village.”
The gateway to Cambodia’s UNESCO World Heritage temple city, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap is also home to a sizeable Muslim community.
It is exactly a year since Cambodia first turned to neighboring Thailand and Malaysia for help in developing its own halal industries, not to satisfy the nation’s Muslims, but to take its first steps into the lucrative halal food and travel industry.
Tourism numbers for Cambodia show that between 2015 and 2016, travelers from Muslim majority countries increased by 4.4 percent, a figure that is expected to continue rising.
Like everyone else that comes to Cambodia, all Muslim travelers will visit Angkor Wat, the country’s premier tourist attraction, with its famous “Tomb Raider” set of mammoth trees wrapped around 12th century temples.
Yet very few of them are aware of the local Muslim community in Siem Reap.
“Before I came to Cambodia, I had no idea there were even Cambodian Muslims and I was expecting a tough time trying to find food outlets and prayer facilities suitable for me and my family,” said Harun Rashid, a Muslim tourist from the UK who visited Siem Reap’s famous temple city with his family in September this year.
“But then I spoke to a Muslim friend who had recently visited and he told me about the ‘Muslim Village.’ I was like, ‘really? There’s a Muslim village near Angkor Wat?
“As soon as I heard this, I began looking for accommodation near the place he had described.”
“We have a halal slaughterhouse run by Muslims in the village. This is where we all get our meat for our homes and to use in the restaurants. I don’t serve alcohol in my one because I am a Muslim. This makes life easier for Muslim travelers to Siem Reap, who can also pray at our mosque which is always open for them,” says Nasir Mahmud, owner of the Siem Reap Backpackers Halal Restaurant.
Finding the Muslims of Angkor Wat meant Rashid and his family now had access to halal food and the local mosque, where they could pray with the local Muslims.
“I suddenly didn’t have to ask if the broth in my chicken soup was made with pork stock, or look around to find a place where I could pray. It doesn’t sound like much, but having people who understand your needs makes a huge difference when you are travelling, especially with family,” he said.
The Muslim village of Siem Reap is in Phum Steung May, west of the Siem Reap River and the town’s main tourist market, Psar Chas.
The community is centered around the newly built mosque, next to which is a religious school and the village cemetery.
The Muslim homes here are indistinguishable from their Buddhist neighbors, both communities live side by side.
“Here, Muslims and Buddhists all live together as friends and neighbors. We all get along,” says Mahmud.
The 48-year-old father-of-five, who also drives a local tuk tuk taxi, opened his restaurant two years ago, after seeing a hike in independent Muslim travelers.
“Travellers come from lots of Muslim countries, especially Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and many of them are backpackers.
“Siem Reap is not cheap for travelers. At my restaurant people get a free drink on arrival and the best-value halal food in town.”
In time, Mahmud hopes to develop his restaurant into a hub for Muslim travelers.
He already offers a personalized tourism service, arranging local accommodation, transport and tour packages to visit all the country’s major sites.
Mahmud’s restaurant sits a few doors from the mosque along the main strip of businesses owned by local Muslims in Phum Steung May.
His community are all ethnic Cham people, whose ancestors once lived in the ancient Champa region along the central and southern coast of modern day Vietnam.
Originally a Hindu people, many Chams began converting to Islam around the 15th century.
When their settlements were extinguished by the Vietnamese polities in the early 19th century, Muslim Chams migrated to different parts of Indochina, including Cambodia.
The Cham Muslims are a tiny minority in a country with a strong Buddhist image and this can often make Muslim travelers worried about access to halal services on the road.
“I remember, before the trip to Cambodia, thinking I’m going to have to survive on fish and vegetarian dishes and, even then, find a way to make sure no animal products are used in the traditional foods here. The thought of doing this with a family in tow felt quite challenging,” Rashid said.
Experts feel more should be done by tourism boards to tap into communities like the one at Phum Steung May and their potential to make Muslim travelers like Rashid feel more comfortable.
“Muslims are everywhere and all that is needed is to create a platform where they stand out. If the tourism boards of non-Muslim countries were to start promoting Muslim restaurants or mosques, they would be making their destination more attractive to the Muslim traveler,” says Irfan Ahmed, CEO of Irhal, one of the world’s leading Muslim travel apps.
So, perhaps Cambodia does not need to turn to its neighbors to realize its halal travel ambitions after all.
With resourceful locals like Mahmud in Phum Steung May, Cambodia might already possess the keys to unlock the Muslim travel market.


Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

The Finnish Capital, Helsinki, shot from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 19 November 2018
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Hello Helsinki: 48 hours in the Finnish capital

  • The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air
  • The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki

DUBAI: Access to Helsinki has just become easier for Gulf travelers thanks to the introduction of a new route from the UAE to the Finnish capital. Last month, budget carrier flydubai launched its Dubai-to-Helsinki flights, offering the best connection from Saudi Arabia as well.
Our first port of call after the six-hour trip was the utterly enchanting Hotel Kämp, arguably the best-known hotel in Helsinki — after all, it has been around for over 130 years. The classy, comfortable five-star property is known as a place to see and be seen.
While there, do check out Kämp Spa, where saunas are, of course, available. (There are almost as many saunas as there are people in Finland.) Kämp Spa offers two options: the eucalyptus-fragrance grotto steam sauna and a traditional Finnish one.
The best way to explore the city center is on foot, walking around beautiful, clean streets and taking in the fresh air. The best-known landmark is Senate Square and its surroundings, which make up the oldest part of central Helsinki. You can take in the glorious architecture of Helsinki Cathedral, while also viewing the Government Palace, the main building of Helsinki University, and Sederholm House, Helsinki’s oldest building, dating back to 1757.

For shoppers, Helsinki is home to one of the world’s most exciting and influential design scenes, and a treasure trove for unique pieces. Try TRE, which stocks over 300 brands of well-known classics as well as mostly homegrown products — including fashion, jewelry and furniture — from new designers.
Be warned, though: Helsinki is expensive. Very expensive. So you’re probably better off investing in a cool design piece for the home rather than the usual gifts and gadgets. You’ll leave with something memorable that’s high-quality and, of course, unique.
For something on the quirkier (and cheaper) side, second-hand clothes store UFF has chains across the city, where you’ll find some gems that are as good as new.
Dining out in the city also doesn’t come cheap, but it is an experience to savor. For casual snacking, The Old Market Hall sells cheese, beautifully fresh fish (we’d recommend the salmon), fruit and veg, and has cute little cafés.

For dinner, it’s worth treating yourself. Garden by Olo is an official ‘spin-off’ of the Michelin starred Olo and serves Nordic ingredients fused with Asian elements.
One of the newer eateries on the block is Restaurant Andrea at the newly opened Hotel St. George. Here, Nordic and Anatolian kitchens come together to offer a variety of sharing plates, inspired by both cuisines.
If you fancy taking in some of Finland’s stunning scenery, head to one of the national forests close to Helsinki. Nuuksio National Park — forests and lakes spread over Espoo, Kirkkonummi and Vihti — is easy to get to by public transport, and features eight marked trails for hiking in the freshest of air.

If you are visiting for more than a couple of days, then it is well worth exploring Lapland, the official home of Santa Claus. You’ll need to take a one-hour flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi.
If time is tight, try a reindeer sleigh and husky sled experience, where you can interact with the animals on farms and enjoy rides through the snowy forests.
There’s so much more to see and do than is mentioned here, of course. We’re sure we’ll return to Finland one day, it’s definitely a trip worth making. Just don’t forget to pack your thermals.