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.


Head for heights: Jeddah teacher conquers Mount Kilimanjaro

Khulood Al-Fadhli and her brother Bader at Uhuru Peak. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 14 September 2018
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Head for heights: Jeddah teacher conquers Mount Kilimanjaro

  • Khulood Al-Fadhli tells Arab News about the physical battle she won to ascend Africa’s highest peak
  • As soon as I reached Uhuru peak, all the exhaustion went away, remembers Al-Fadhli

JEDDAH: A 36-year-old Saudi-based Green Leaves Playgroup principal went on an extreme adventure in August by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. It was the first on her seven summits list.

Khulood Al-Fadhli said she had a love for adventures ever since she was a child.

“My father instilled a love for adventure in me. I remember 10-15 years ago, when Eid vacations were extremely cold, we used to camp in Asfan for two nights and climb Al-Qamar mountain, and I enjoyed climbing that mountain. So, climbing mountains was something within me since childhood,” she told Arab News.

“Fast-forward to who I am now, I still love it. I go to that area in Asfan, and sometimes I take my kids there and tell them, ‘This was my Eid’,” she added.

She halted these activities for a while. “At the beginning of my married life, I turned away from these adventures for a while. I was only focusing on raising my kids and my career, until this happened. I found a group that organizes these trips to Kilimanjaro, then I read about Mount Kilimanjaro and the process of climbing it. Climbing up takes you five days, descending the mountain takes you two.”

Al-Fadhli said It’s not about the peak, it’s about the journey itself. “I was really amazed when I read the things that happen within the journey.”

She explained that the effects of high altitudes could strike at any moment during the climb and can be life-threatening in certain cases. “It’s not about being mentally or physically fit. There’s a chance of getting altitude sickness, and I always say this altitude has a very bad attitude! Because high altitudes can cause one to feel nauseous or have a headache and dizziness. Sometimes the extreme ones are life-threatening; water fills in your lungs, or your brain. If any of these happen, you should immediately descend because it’s very dangerous. Alhamdulillah, nothing like that happened during my trip.”

She experienced severe headaches during her adventure. “The problem I suffered was on day two: I had an extreme headache. I was the only one who had this headache.

“Then on the third day, I had the headache again, alone. I was asking the guide ‘Will I have these excessive headaches every day and will I be the only one having them?’ He said, ‘This is just the altitude.’ That comforted me. I took some painkillers and it went away.

“The fourth day the headache came. The fifth day, which is the summit day, the push of the summit, I did not experience any headache.”

Al-Fadhli admits it's not all about reaching the peak. (Supplied)

The summit day was an eight-hour climb that started at midnight.

“We woke up at 11 p.m., had our dinner then started our trek, climbing up at 12 a.m. They told us from 5 p.m. to relax and try to sleep as much as possible because at 11 you have to wake up.”

“Imagine me knowing that I am going to the summit at 11, and it was 5 p.m. and I was in my tent. I couldn’t even close my eyes, I was really excited.

“I was afraid of a headache, afraid that it would become severe at the summit. because they say it’s the altitude. The summit is around 6,000 meters high. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

“It was 11, my phone rang. It was time to start packing our backpacks. My Panadol Extra was in my pocket, ready for my severe headache. I’d just have to reach into my pocket.”

Summit 

The members of the group must proceed with extreme caution, she explained. “We started our day at midnight, but a lot of people were with us, so many different groups from so many different places, and on your way up to the summit, you don’t see anything. It’s just you, the mountain and the stars and the headband flashlights of the people you’re with.

“And you see the flashlight from the ground all the way to the summit. It was a really lovely route. You can’t see the summit because it’s dark. You don’t know if you are heading for a cliff because of the darkness, which is why you have to use your flashlight — focus on your steps and the person in front of you.”

Her group consisted of seven people, but the number decreased.

“We reached a point where one of the men in my group suddenly sat down and had to hold his head. I remember how he looked, and I was really worried about him. He wasn’t like this on day one. The guide said, ‘Well, it looks like a severe altitude sickness that affected him.’ He stayed with him and had a talk. When someone stays and delays the others, one guide stays with him. Either we all wait and stay, or we move and one guide stays with that person.

“The guide asked him if he was OK, but he felt dizzy and couldn’t continue. He said, ‘I’m going to descend.’ Then the guide informed us that the man was descending, and I was shocked. The strongest one among us pulled out.

“Two hours later, a lady felt dizzy. Her husband supported her and encouraged her to continue, and the guide also spoke to her. I was looking at them negotiating from far away. Five minutes later, they also pulled out. From the seven, three had pulled out, and only four were left.

“One of the girls got really tired. She stopped and said she wanted to take a rest for 20 minutes and didn’t want anyone to wait for her. The guide told me she wanted to relax and take baby steps and she would like to have excessive stops for 20 minutes so no one should wait for her. She could stay with a porter. Someone was with her.

“I couldn’t know anything about her, so we were only three. Me, my brother and a lady. One hour later — which was three hours away from the summit — the lady said there was something wrong with her heart. It was beating irregularly.

“Five minutes later, the guide came to me and said she had pulled out. And it was only me and my brother. And that’s when I asked, ‘Bader, do you think we can make it?’ Everyone had pulled out. It was really scary.

“Imagine, you’re a group of seven going up together, and one after another pulls out. I felt like I was in a horror movie. And above all, it was at night.”

Al-Fadhli witnessed a breathtaking view. “At 4:35 a.m., I started to see the sunrise between the huge cliffs. I saw the sunrise while I was going up, and was completely overwhelmed at the beauty of the site. I was trekking and I looked to my right and there it was, the sunrise and the mountains. The feeling was overwhelming,”

She experienced physical exhaustion, but pushed through and succeeded. “When we reached Stella point, which was one hour from the summit, there was a sign that said, ‘Congratulations, you reached Stella point.’

“Uhuru peak is the top, and Uhuru means freedom. So many people reach Stella point then become really exhausted from the seven-hour walk, ascending in the middle of the night in the cold. Most of the people, like me, hadn’t slept.

“Imagine from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and I’m still awake. I reached Stella point exhausted. I told my brother and my guide I wanted to relax at Stella point. Let me think if I can actually make it to the top because I couldn’t even bend my toes. And I was anticipating the walk I still had ahead.

“I sat down and started to fall asleep. The guide woke me up, telling me we still had one more hour. I started to break down a little. The guide was very clever. He asked us all some questions because people tend to hallucinate at this point. So he asked some questions, making sure everything was fine — that I was just exhausted and tired and wanted to sleep, which was normal for a human body awake for more than 24 hours, trekking in the middle of the night in cold weather. And on that day, I did not have any headaches.

“My brother was my support. He encouraged me when I thought I had reached my limit at Stella Point.”

When Al-Fadhli made it to the top, she and her brother raised the Yemeni and the Saudi flags.

“My motivation was to raise both flags: My Yemeni flag as I’m from Yemen, along with the Saudi flag. I’m really proud of my roots, and I’m really honored to be living in Saudi Arabia. I was born and raised here and I consider myself Saudi. I’m telling everyone I’m from both countries. I’m very happy that I’m rooted in both.”

She successfully completed her adventure in good health. “As soon as I reached Uhuru peak, all the exhaustion went away. I reached the top in full health with no pains whatsoever.”

Al-Fadhli’s goal is to climb the seven summits before she turns 40.

Al-Fadhli has her sights set on several other summits. (Supplied)