Cornell-Nanyang Institute Students Travel to Cambodia for Week-long Master Class

By Dylan Choong, MMH ’11, and Wei Tsu Leong, MMH ’11

Each year, the Cornell-Nanyang Institute offers a master class program where graduate students taking their Masters of Management in Hospitality (MMH) participate in a week-long immersion program led by industry leaders overseas. This year, 18 students in the MMH class of 2011 and Sherri Kimes, Singapore Tourism Board Distinguished Professor of Asian Hospitality Management, attended a master class in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The order of business: to learn about Siem Reap, her tourism industry, and related sustainability issues.

Our unforgettable experience was made possible with the help of AboutAsia Travel, a Cambodian travel specialist. This is also an organization with a worthy cause— they support AboutAsia Schools, a non-profit organization that provides aid to Cambodian children and schools, particularly in the Siem Reap region.

Understandably, Siem Reap’s tourism sector is essential to improving the lives of its people, and its process must be supported by education in order to enable its people to break free from a poverty cycle. Supported by private funds and donation, AboutAsia Schools channels every donation they receive to help provide volunteer teachers and assistants to schools, as well as classroom supplies, uniforms, and facility support.

Our MMH class was so touched by the warmth and affability of the Khmer people that we have committed to launch a master class tradition of raising awareness and supporting charitable causes to support education in impoverished nations. And so this year’s master class participants are giving back to AboutAsia Schools by raising funds to help these Cambodian children receive the gift of education and opportunity to change their lives. Please support AboutAsia Schools by making an online donation via:, and join us in making a difference in these children’s lives.

What we learned before our master class
Before our master class, our image of Siem Reap was a beautifully conflicted one. We knew it was the home of UNESCO-protected archaeological sites that contained the Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Bayon Temple, yet also a Cambodian city struggling with the remnants of a past tainted by communism and genocide.

Siem Reap had once been one of Asia’s leading tourist draws in the 1950s. In fact, Cambodia was once a tourist destination with annual arrivals from 50,000 to 70,000. However, in 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge took over the country and drove the entire population of Siem Reap and other cities and towns into the countryside. With the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Siem Reap became the scene of sporadic yet violent fighting. Decades of civil war, insurgencies, isolation, and genocide nearly destroyed the once vibrant tourism industry.

Conflict resolution and international support in the early 1990s helped Cambodia restore peace and begin socio-economic reconstruction. She began to stabilize and, with a rejuvenated tourist industry and the Angkor temples serving as the main draw, Siem Reap emerged from a long slumber and took important steps toward recovery. Today, Siem Reap has emerged as the fastest growing city in Cambodia and a major tourist hub. Modern amenities combined with the preservation of a unique traditional culture have attracted more than 2 million visitors and generated receipts of US $1.56 billion.

Master class begins
28 February 2011 – a long-awaited date and very special day for so many of us who were looking forward to making our way to the city of Siem Reap and beginning master class. We departed from Singapore and two hours and five minutes later we arrived and it’s Welcome to Siem Reap! We were seen by an attentive immigration officer and then warmly welcomed by Kanya, a local Cambodian, who would be our guide (and nanny) for the next 5 days.

We headed for the beautiful Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor, where we were greeted with a blissfully refreshing signature welcome mocktail and an icy cold towel upon arrival. It was a speedy check-in and, as we entered our rooms, we found handwritten welcome cards and tropical fruit platters—a true Rafflesian welcome indeed!

We spent our first night on Pub Street, a major tourist hotspot. It was here that we got our first feel for Siem Reap’s night life. We explored the night market, surprised by the bustling sights and sounds everywhere that easily rival that of Bangkok! After hours of walking around the night market in the hot, steamy weather, most of us were only too happy to cap the night with delectable ice cream in a local ice cream parlour. It was really a sweet way to end our first night there.

Temples, temples, and more temples
Part of our itinerary included immersing ourselves into Cambodian history and culture. The first temple we visited, Ta Promh, was where Tomb Raider was filmed, and Kanya swiftly morphed into our local film set tour guide, pointing out locations where various scenes were filmed.

It was interesting to see how nature had taken over, the roots of trees weaving their way around and through the foundations of the temple.

Angkor Wat was next on our list – though many of us moaned and groaned at having to wake up at 5am to catch the sunrise there, the reflection of the temple against the lake was beautiful.

Next we saw Angkor Thom, famous for the Bayon Temple. It was interesting to see how the statues have Mona Lisa-esque smiles on their faces, creating a peaceful environment, which probably tied in with the original intention of the kings who tried to marry Buddhism and Hinduism in this particular temple.

Most of our classmates’ favourite temple (because it was the smallest, just kidding) was Banteay Srei. It had the most intricate carvings, which are believed to have been done by women only because of the great attention to detail.

The local hotel scene
As true hoteliers, how could we go to Siem Reap and not conduct any site inspections? First on our list was the Sofitel Angkor Phokeethra Golf and Spa Resort—a popular choice for group reservations. It is one of the larger hotels in Siem Reap, with 238 keys.

Next, and the clear favourite among the class, was La Residence d’Angkor. Boasting the only salt water pool in Siem Reap, the harmony between traditional architecture and modern amenities is truly apparent at this hotel which caters primarily to guests looking for a romantic getaway or top-notch spa retreat.

Last but not least was Hotel de la Paix, an award-winning boutique hotel with intriguing décor. We were greeted by a recessed lobby that was flooded with water, reflecting the hanging art pieces. We were greatly impressed with the hotel’s emphasis on corporate social responsibility as we learned that they support a sewing school and are involved in supporting and promoting local artists.

Sustainable development – of education and eco tourism
On Day 3 we boarded the bus to a local school to begin our paint-a-school challenge. We were briefed by Chris Smith, from AboutAsia Schools, about their efforts to provide manpower to teach as well as supplies, such as uniforms, equipment, and facility support. As Siem Reap has a tourism-based economy, it is important for its children to learn foreign languages so as to be able to enter the hospitality industry, as opposed to agricultural activities, and better provide for their families.

Next we headed to Kampong Kleang and saw how an entire community is supported by a lake. We saw kids bathing in the river, fishermen casting their nets, and even floating schools and markets. A poignant thought struck some of us as we realized that the majority of the boats on the river carried only one or two tourists in boats that could hold 20. This led us to consider the impact of tourism on that community. No doubt tourism brings much-needed income to the river boatmen, but what effect does it have on the fish, the ecosystem, and the community?

Geez...Has it been five days already?
1 paint-a-school challenge, 2 boat rides to the floating village, 3 hotel tours, 4 temples, and 5 days of food and drinks later, the 5-day master class came to an end. While we were nursing the effects of a 5-day, jammed-packed itinerary, each one of us had found something special and developed a fondness for Siem Reap. On the final day we caught our breath and reflected on our individual experiences over the past week.

Our guide graciously accompanied us to the airport and, being good hospitality students, we thanked him with a little token from everyone, for giving us an insider peek into the mysteries and wonders of Siem Reap, a city that so few understand. Kanya taught us all that, “a man without knowledge is like soup without fish paste” – the essence of our 5-day master class so succinctly summed up in a local Cambodian idiom.