IN Siem Reap, Cambodia, the Ta Prohm Temple in the Angkor Wat Complex is also popularly known as the Tomb Raider Temple, in honour of the part Hollywood movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider has played in popularising the ancient monument after the movie’s release in 2001.
The movie has also connected the country to one of its vocal supporters in the form of lead actress Angelina Jolie, who has gone on record for her love of Cambodia on several occasions.
Her feelings are well-reciprocated by the Cambodians, particularly those who have benefitted from the country’s growing tourism receipts. In Siem Reap, where the World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat is located, she is regarded as a folk hero of sorts.
This is no idle worship actress angelina Jolie has done much to raise cambodia’s profile, say Siem reap tour guides. – Cambodians feel connected to Jolie because she has not only been in the country as an actress, but also a benefactor through the years.
During recent floods that have inundated large parts of the country and which threaten to continue doing so, Jolie reportedly donated money to relief efforts.
This is only her latest engagement with the country that she credits for opening her eyes to the world.
She has given millions of dollars and pledged millions more through her charitable foundation to a conservation project in Sam Laut, a mountain range in Cambodia that is home to some endangered animal species.
It was in Siem Reap that she went for her photo shoot as the new face of Louis Vuitton. Say what you will about the commercial aspects of it, the campaign does draw attention.
Home sweet home
Jolie also has a home in Cambodia – a structure built on stilts, like many of the country’s traditional homes, in the jungles of Battambang, where her project is located.
But the deepest connection they have with Jolie is for her first adoption of a Cambodian boy, Maddox, in March 2002. The growing-up years of the 10year-old have been followed with great interest by Cambodians, who see in him the hope that Jolie has helped bring to the country.
According to reports then, it was her adoption of Maddox that made the smooth-sailing decision by Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni to grant Jolie with a Cambodian citizenship, in 2005.
On a recent trip to Siem Reap, I had the opportunity to sit down with a group of tour guides and hotel employees at their breakfast table and listen to their tales of Jolie’s contributions to tourism in the province.
Tour guides find it easier to connect with tourists through a common interest in Jolie – their chatter about the actress not only helps to pass the time while on bus trips between destinations, it also goes down well with tourists who are quite interested in knowing what she had been up to in Siem Reap.
Which restaurants does she eat at? Which hotel does she stay at? Which retail shops does she buy from? Which helicopter company does she use? Where does she go when she is in Siem Reap? What kind of person is she? Is she a good tipper?
If you are interested in the answers, do visit Siem Reap and find out from the tour guides – the jolly bunch I was with were at pains to tell me that I mustn’t reveal any of the answers or they wouldn’t have anything to talk about with their charges.
One indirect contribution of Jolie’s towards Cambodia’s tourism is her pure presence. A hotel sales executive said that Cambodia’s reputation as one of the poorest countries in the world after several decades of warfare, with a majority of citizens living on less than US$1 (RM3) a day, often leads to hesitation among potential tourists as they are concerned about the living conditions.
However, such concerns are often allayed by the knowledge that a pampered Hollywood celebrity like Jolie visits Cambodia regularly.
Indeed, while there are obvious signs of poverty, the poor of Siem Reap comport themselves with great pride and show more initiative than desperation. You are more likely to have someone trying to sell you a bunch of bananas than begging on the streets. There are quite a few good hotels featuring good rates and friendly staff.
The number of tourists visiting Cambodia crossed the two million mark in recent years, more than half of which head to Siem Reap for the ancient wonder of Angkor Wat. While the country has been at peace since the 1990s, making it safe for tourists, it is the publicity about a peaceful Cambodia afforded by Jolie’s frequent references that has made it easy to attract visitors.
And the more visitors there are, the better the economic situation for the people. As it is, Siem Reap has some of the best public roads in Cambodia, with streetlamps at night that put more developed nations to shame.
With tourism comes greater demand for better-educated Cambodians, and one good sign of this is that there is an increasing number of private but reasonably-priced English-language-medium schools that have sprouted to meet this demand.
Jolie’s contributions to Cambodian conservation, tourism and the ultimate well-being of the country encapsulate the power of a celebrity to do good. While there are critics who have cast doubts about her intentions, the benefits of her association are, in the minds of the tourismrelated workers I spoke to, real and tangible, and something to shout about.
Her commitment is not easy to match and the returns, as she has testified, are life-changing for the better. If only more celebrities gave back to society in this fashion. n In this column, writer Hau Boon Lai ponders the lives, loves and liberties of celebrities.