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.


Al-Ahsa named 2019 Arab Tourism Capital

Al-Ahsa has a long history and a rich heritage dating back to the 5th millennium BC. It tells great stories as one of the most important places inhabited by human civilizations. (Photos/SPA)
Updated 15 December 2018
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Al-Ahsa named 2019 Arab Tourism Capital

  • Al-Ahsa has a long history and a rich heritage dating back to the 5th millennium BC
  • Experts believe the move will help turn the area into a region of unique beauty

JEDDAH: Officials in Al-Ahsa congratulated King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the city was named Arab Tourism Capital for 2019 by the Arab Ministerial Council for Tourism on Wednesday.
The decision confirms that Al-Ahsa fulfilled all the terms of reference set by the Arab League’s Arab Tourism Organization. Al-Ahsa officials said the decision is recognition of the city’s success in tourism, its historical and cultural value, and its archaeological sites. Al-Ahsa Mayor Adel Al-Mulhim thanked the king and crown prince for supporting efforts to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia. Al-Mulhim also thanked Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), for his attention to tourism and heritage in the Kingdom.  Al-Mulhim hailed the support given by Prince Saud bin Nayef, governor of the Eastern Province, and by Prince Badr bin Mohammed bin Jalawi, governor of Al-Ahsa, to the city’s heritage. The council’s decision will contribute to preserving and investing in tourism in Al-Ahsa, Al-Mulhim said. The city is considered a world leader in handicrafts and folk art.

Partnership
Its secretariat continues to do its utmost to develop tourism through a strong partnership with the SCTH and cooperation with relevant government agencies, Al-Mulhim added. “Al-Ahsa has a long history and a rich heritage dating back to the 5th millennium BC. It tells great stories as one of the most important places inhabited by human civilizations, and it will remain a constantly evolving cultural and civilizational painting that shares with the world a history full of authentic heritage,” he said.
Khalid bin Ahmed Al-Fereidah, general manager of the SCTH branch in Al-Ahsa, said the city would not have been named Arab Tourism Capital if not for the great support and care of King Salman’s government. “Al-Ahsa has received great care and attention from the leadership, allowing it to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site,” Al-Fereidah added.
Its designation as the Arab Tourism Capital “will boost the tourism industry in the Kingdom,” he said.

Support
Tourism to Al-Ahsa Oasis is progressing at a fast pace due to the support of the country’s leaders, he added.
Al-Fereidah congratulated the people of Al-Ahsa and Saudi Arabia on this happy occasion, saying the city houses natural, archaeological and cultural treasures that attract tourists and heritage enthusiasts. Dr. Fuad bin Ahmad Al-Asheikh Mubarak, head of the General Establishment for Irrigation in Al-Ahsa, said: “The cultural heritage and great tourism components in Al-Ahsa stretch to thousands of years.”
The city “will see the implementation of major projects and services that meet everyone’s aspirations,” he added.
The director general of the Al-Ahsa branch of the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture, Khalid bin Saad Al-Husseini, said naming the city as the Arab Tourism Capital reflects its competitiveness in Arab tourism. “Al-Ahsa is a continuously evolving oasis with beautiful nature, deep history, human culture and source of sustainability,” he added. “Al-Ahsa looks forward to further development, which we should achieve with our ideas… and by preserving it and enhancing its beauty to meet the aspirations of our leadership.”
Having Al-Ahsa chosen as the Arab Tourism Capital is a national achievement that bears many responsibilities and requires increased efforts to turn it into a city of unique beauty, Al-Husseini said.