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.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.