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.


Delightful Delhi: a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping

Delightful Delhi:a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 January 2019
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Delightful Delhi: a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping

  • New Delhi is where India’s rich, complex history collides with its post-modern ambitions
  • The best way to discover this great city is through its food, temples and shopping streets

DUBAI: Mirza Ghalib once poetically quoted his own soul as saying: “The world is the body and Delhi is its heart.”

Lofty as the claim is, there are probably few better ways to describe this chaotic, colorful city, where India’s rich, complex history collides with its post-modern ambitions, where the country’s power players live minutes from abject poverty, where many different cultures, cuisines and faiths seamlessly coexist. For such extreme contrasts to find a rhythmic harmony, heart needs to be a big part of the equation.

While there are guidebooks aplenty to show you around the many historical sights, the incredible architecture, and the museums and art of Delhi, the best way to discover the heart (and soul) of this great city is through its food, temples and shopping streets.

Delhi’s finest food can arguably be found at Indian Accent. Regularly ranked as India’s best restaurant in various awards, this upscale eatery is one of the pioneers of modern Indian dining, offering an inventive take on traditional Indian flavors, and combining them with European-style finesse. There are many others doing similar things in India now, but under the stewardship of celebrated executive chef Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent continues to maintain its podium finish status.

The contemporary, intimate venue oozes understated sophistication — with not a hint of Indian kitsch in sight — providing the perfect setting for the seasonal menus. An amuse-bouche could include delicate carrot shorba (soup), aloo tikki (potato croquettes) and mini dhoklas (steamed fermented rice cakes), while a must-try dish is the restaurant’s refined take on that quintessential street food phuchka (‘potato spheres’ stuffed with spicy mashed potato and doused in flavored waters — served here as shooters in five different flavors). Best to place your trust in the chefs however, and try the degustation menu (which should include their signature dessert, daulat ki chaat, an Old Delhi classic of chilled mousse-like cream; but if it doesn’t, ask for it).

Elsewhere, Lavash by Saby — a classic example of Delhi’s multi-faceted dining scene — specializes in the delicious micro-cuisine of Bengal Armenians. This trendy venue is located in the chic precinct of Mehrauli.

Delhi is home some of India’s largest Hindu temples and mosques, but the non-denominational Bah’ai Lotus House is my top recommendation for those seeking some spirituality. Acclaimed for its unique lotus design — not dissimilar to the Sydney Opera House — the white marble temple is worth visiting as much for its award-winning architecture as for the tranquility that suffuses its atmosphere. Bah’ai temples welcome everyone, without discrimination, and this is a true oasis, offering a welcome respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.

For more wonderful architecture, visit the “spiritual-cultural campus” of Akshardham. It’s a relatively modern structure among the thousands of ancient temples across India, but what it may lack in historic value, it more than makes up for in the beauty of its buildings and their surroundings. The impressive architecture incorporates a variety of traditional styles, and Akshardham provides a diversity of attractions for visitors, from exhibitions to its stunning gardens.

If you’re looking for retail — rather than spiritual — therapy, Delhi runs the gamut of options, from designer boutiques to street-side stalls. To shop like a local, head to Mehar Chand Market, the city’s latest retail district. A (relatively) recently gentrified precinct, this neighborhood market has replaced its groceries and tailoring shops with chic stores, all with a distinct skew toward the indie and artisanal. Amidst the quirky street art, the stylishly updated heritage shophouses are now home to handspun garments in Ekmatra, unique homeware in Nicobar, eclectic designs in The Shop, plus boutiques by a new brigade of Indian designers including Masaba. The enclave is also emerging as a dining hub, with venues such as Altitude Café (a healthy eatery offering locally-inspired gourmet goodies) punctuating the stores.

Also popular among Delhi’s trendsetters is Hauz Khas Village — a historic complex in which the medieval-era buildings now house an achingly hip selection of designer boutiques, galleries and cafés.

Even if you’ve only got a few days to spare, a trip to this thriving city should satisfy any visitor, regardless of their aims. Delhi really does have something for everyone, and fully justifies Ghalib’s lofty claims on its behalf.