Social Media Trailblazer: Haklao's Digital Campaign to Showcase Cambodia to the World

Chheuy Haklao currently is a tour guide based in Siem Reap Province. Photo provided

SIEM REAP — Down to earth is the best way to describe Chheuy Haklao, a 27-year-old tour guide, who has fervently been using social media to spread content on Cambodian tourism destinations to the whole universe. Making his way to the United Kingdom to pursue his higher-education degree in tourism management, Haklao trusts that his knowledge and endless passion for tourism will one day bring the best for his nation's tourism development.  

At a bustling coffee shop next to the Siem Reap river, local people and foreign tourists alike were talking and sipping their coffee outside. Among them was Haklao, a friendly and energetic local tour guide with fair skin and curly hair who passionately shared details of his life and work journey.

Although Haklao had led a group of tourists from dawn to dusk, he still managed to make time for me at the end of his day. Our conversation started with his childhood and education. Haklao was born in 1996 to a farming family in Preah Neth Preah District in Banteay Meanchey province. He recalled his primary school years, where he studied with other students under a tamarind tree as no proper educational facility was available at the time.

Upon reaching secondary school, Haklao's education journey became even more challenging as the school was far away, and the road to school in the early 2000s needed to be adequately developed.

"I often skipped classes and lied to my mom, saying the class was cancelled. After telling her frequently, she stopped believing me," Haklao said, chuckling. "It wasn't that I was lazy, but riding my bike on the rice paddy dike to get to school was not easy, especially during the rainy season. This issue caused me to lose all desire to study."

"When we appreciate life, everything is easy."

Haklao faced increased difficulty after his parent's separation, as his mother was solely responsible for supporting his education.

"My mother could not afford this as a single mum, and she decided to send me to live at Chamka Knou pagoda in Serey Sophorn District so that I could continue my studies in high school," he said, continuing that life at the pagoda was entirely happiness as he learnt much about life and educated his mind.

"For others, my life may seem difficult, but I think the life I have gone through was not difficult. When we appreciate life, nothing is difficult," Laos said with a smile. "Perhaps this is because I meditated while living at the pagoda. It helped me a lot with thinking and prevented me from panicking.

"I am saying this not because I am humble,” he continued. “I am satisfied with a simple life, and I don't complain. Sometimes, if we only think everything is difficult and panic, we can't solve anything." 

Passion for Tourism Grows when Moving to Siem Reap

During high school, Haklao recalled that he had spent much time learning English and doing research by himself on the internet and using a computer. This brought him many advantages and enabled him to live and study in Siem Reap to start his new life and build his career upon completing high school in 2014.

"Back then, I realized that Siem Reap had much potential for almost everything, especially the tourism industry,” he said. “Meanwhile, a friend reminded me that I had to know English when moving to Siem Reap. That is why I tried spending between three and four hours each day learning it.”

Haklao's decision to pursue a career in tourism started when he settled in the province. While studying for his bachelor's degree in English at the University of Southeast Asia, he enrolled in a hospitality certificate program at the École d'Hôtellerie et de Tourisme Paul Dubrule, which is a vocational training school.

"Paul Dubrule was where my flame of passion in tourism was ignited and grew," he said.

Haklao's first job in tourism was as a receptionist at Angkor Paradise in 2015. Later on, he was offered work as a telephone operator at Sokha Hotel.    

"Initially, I had no intention of becoming a tour guide but wanted to work in the tourism industry, probably owning a travel agency or being a hotel manager,” he said. “However, my fondness for tourism grew stronger when I passed an exam to become a certified tour guide in 2016.”

During those years in the tour guide profession, Haklao learned many things including the fact that interpersonal communication is key to making this career successful. 

"Knowledge is important, but what is more important, as I learned in this work, is intercommunication skills," he said. "Smile, friendliness and patience are important in this career."

From a Local Tour Guide to a UK Government Scholarship Recipient

After being immersed in the tourism industry as a tour guide for three years, Haklao moved to the United Kingdom and began his higher education journey in Tourism Management at Bournemouth University. He received a scholarship under the UK government's prestigious international scholarships programme Chevening due to his exceptional leadership skills, realistic career plans, and experience as a local tour guide.

"It [getting a scholarship] was an indescribable feeling…sometimes it was like a dream," Haklao said.

Before getting the scholarship, he applied to four different universities, but only one accepted his application. "Three universities rejected me as my bachelor's degree failed to meet their minimum requirements. However, Bournemouth University selected me based on my experience, not my degree," he explained.   

While studying Tourism Management at Bournemouth University, Haklao realized that what was important was not only the degree he would get but also the network he was cultivating with students from different countries.

In the UK, he learned a lot about tourism management, he said. Whenever he travelled, he would observe and analyze whether and how Cambodia could follow what the UK does regarding managing tourism.  

Which is why Haklao planned his final research to focus on community-based tourism development in Cambodia, through which he tried to explore the best governing plans to develop this sector by comparing that of Cambodia with that of Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

"I like to learn more about Cambodia's government planning in the tourism sector, and I always want to find out the best possible way to promote this community-based tourism," he said.

Speaking of his UK journey, Haklao recalled that it was his contacts with British people and his work as a freelance tour guide with British tour companies that inspired him to want to visit the United Kingdom.

"As a freelance tour guide, I know British travel agencies and have learned about British society and its culture,” he said. “Luckily, in 2019, I met with 24 British tourists who had come to Cambodia for a community project. I missed them when they left, which motivated me to find a way to travel to the UK and meet them.

"To be honest, I didn't know the Chevening scholarship programme back then and was unsure whether such a scholarship was open to Cambodians, but I learned when I did internet research.

"I realized it had been offered to Cambodians long ago, but we just didn't know," he said, pointing out that knowledge regarding scholarship programs remains minimal—the main factor that has limited opportunities for students in rural provinces.

Haklao may continue his academic journey at a later time. He is considering pursuing a PhD in tourism so that he could contribute to the industry in Cambodia through his knowledge and academic research. With studies for this degree, he said, “I can expand my research and contribute more to tourism management.”

Overuse of Angkor Wat: Hoping to Diversify Cambodia's Tourism Landscape

Besides being knowledgeable and passionate about tourism, Haklao has also been well-known among social media users as his channels, including TikTok and Instagram, have grown in popularity domestically and regionally.

While running a tourism agency startup, Haklao keeps producing content on tourism destinations, showcasing Cambodia's potential to the world.

"Leading a tourism agency to bounce back from COVID was not easy, but I still see great potential in social media, the initial point to promote and disseminate information about Cambodia's tourism destinations,” he said. “This is what I can give back to my country. I notice that our people like to complain but have not made use of their time wisely to give back in any way possible."  

According to Haklao, he has spent around a year creating content about Cambodia and posted it on his Instagram channel—with over 110,000 followers—as a campaign. As a result, many people worldwide can learn about Cambodia from his social media channel.  

"When I did it consistently, my content was pushed further: Some of them have more than one million views," Haklao explained, adding that with the availability of artificial intelligence and tools such as ChatGPT, Cambodia can use these tools to understand tourism trends and figure out more innovative ways of promoting tourism.

When asked what can be done to fix the Cambodian tourism industry, which has continuously faced challenges, Haklao responded that he wants to see healthy space being cultivated among relevant stakeholders, in which both the state and the private sector can provide inputs to address challenges facing the industry.  

Citing recent research, Haklao noted that the problem Cambodia must recognize is its need for destination marketing, not a lack of tourism activities. 

"We must acknowledge that we have not focused on tourism destination marketing,” he pointed out. “We need to figure out ways to promote tourism destinations as we have overused the Angkor Wat temple for now.”

A survey of more than 900 tourists has demonstrated that most tourists visit Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, Haklaos continued.

"However, they leave with a memorable experience of the local culture and people,” he said. “The experience includes the food, the people, and everything else. For instance, when visiting the countryside, tourists can sleep in a homestay to get a more immersive experience.”  Promoting eco-tourism is crucial to help local people earn incomes and to achieve more responsible and sustainable tourism, he said.

Another issue Haklao pointed out is that the government should look into the latest tourism trends, and prioritize responsible and sustainable tourism that caters to tourists' needs. In addition, he explained that it is vital to boost state capacity and expertise in using social media to promote local tourism to tourists from more countries in Asia and Europe.

"We have the human capital to do the work, but it still needs improvement when it comes to using social media to promote tourism,” Haklao said. “We can look at other countries, namely Indonesia. Its government actively runs a widespread campaign to attract foreign tourists through Instagram. This is a state initiative, but more private individuals are also joining hands to use this social media to support it. 

 "We must admit that social media has its specialty,” Haklao said. “People and especially younger Europeans who want to travel choose Instagram to check where they can visit.”

Although the tourism industry appears fragile after having been struck by the recent COVID-19 pandemic, passionate tour guides like Haklao remain highly optimistic that the sector will endure to be the backbone of Cambodia's economic growth.

"I keep encouraging young people who love participating in the tourism industry not to lose hope: although it is vulnerable, there are many opportunities and potentials in our tourism to promote and boost our economy,” he concluded.

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