Impossible Norwegian dream in Siem Reap

Siem Reap is truly the most unlikely place on earth to find a Norwegian managed guesthouse. But when you walk in the front door at Earthwalkers’ in the northern Cambodian town near the thousand year-old Angkor ruins and see the two home made Norwegian flags on the board and Bruno or Martin greet you in straight Norwegian it feels in a weird way like the most natural thing on earth.
      The story behind Earthwalkers’ is as interesting as its location. It started with a traveling adventure of a group of young Norwegians studying International Tourism and Hotel Management back in 1998. Some of the members of the group began dreaming about creating a unique range of hotels and tour operations throughout Asia, but initially the dream remained just a fancy idea.
      However, the following year two new groups of students came along and new countries such as Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia were visited. The culture and the atmosphere, the friendly people, the climate, the incredible Angkor ruins and the experience of just being there, did something to everyone and the idea was again brought up.
      Eventually, some of the founders of Earthwalkers’ took the first concrete step to realize the dream: In an Internet café in a back alley in Fiji they registered an e-mail address and started contacted previous students and other likeminded people, they knew. And in February 2000, they all got together at a meeting back in Norway to form the company, Earthwalkers’ and later the same year they established and registered a subsidiary company in Cambodia as well.
      That was the easy part.
      The hard part was actually building the guesthouse and start operating it. Following ancient Khmer traditions, Buddhist monks were consulted to find the best day to start the building process and the first turf were cut in May 2001.
      After months of hard work and many experiences richer, the idea has now become reality. In April 2002 – on the Khmer New Year’s Day – Earthwalkers’ celebrated its Grand Opening.
      The current Managing Director of Earthwalkers’ in Siem Reap is Gard Scharer – who mostly uses his middle name Bruno when abroad.
      “Most people here find ‘Gard’ too difficult to catch, so I use my other name Bruno instead. It’s my father’s name – I like it,” he adds.
      Bruno has taken the long road to his current position. Despite his youthful looks, he is in fact 30 years old. He grew up in Grimseid in the Fana suburb of Bergen. After high school he worked different jobs, took a course in TV production but never used it, then finally embarked on an education as a Chef. The practical training Bruno got – as a staff! – in the National Penitentiary in Bergen for long term prisoners sentenced to two years and up.
      Having graduated as a chef, he worked in a few other places until one day in 1999 a friend mentioned that he knew some other friend, who had studied Tourism and Hotel Management in Australia and that should have been quite good…
      “After a few phone calls, I was on line with the guy who was the agent for the College in Norway and three months later I started as a student there,” he recalls.
      Following the two-year schedule of the programme, Bruno should actually have graduated in 2001.
      “But then there was this Norwegian girl…” he goes.
      “We had been at a concert and afterwards we went to a pub. My girlfriend got up, and I went over to the bar to get another beer when I suddenly heard my name called out on the loudspeakers. When I turned, she was on the stage, had taken the microphone and there she was down on her knees proposing to me to marry her. What can you do? I said yes!”
      So Bruno and his fiancée went back to Norway together, but in spite of the stormy love, it didn’t work out. Partly because Bruno also had to do his traineeship in Salzburg in Austria before going back to complete the Diploma Programme in Sydney.
      In September 2001 he was back a the college where one of his new classmates was a fellow Norwegian, Martin Orevik, who is today 22 and his Assistant Manager at Earthwalkers’ in Siem Reap.
      Like Bruno, Martin also came from Bergen, but he grew up in Sotra on the opposite side of the city and they didn’t know each other back then. He had chosen the vocational line in high school and studied Hotel Management during the first year and Industrial Food Production during his second year. To be able to study further at a higher education, he then took some additional subjects.
      Martin first heard of the Tourism and Hotel Management College in Sydney when he read in a local newspaper about the Managing Director of the college conducting a Recruitment Day for new students. He decided to apply and as he was accepted he moved to Sydney to start studying at the school in 2000, going for the two-year Diploma Programme.
      The Norwegian government encourages young Norwegians to study abroad and supports them financially so the cost was never a consideration.
      It was during his second year, having completed his traineeship in Dubai, when Martin came back to Sydney, that he ended up in the same class as Bruno. A third Norwegian student in their class was a girl named Kristin Holdo Hansen. She was the little sister of Thomas Holdo Hansen, who in 1999 together with some friends had taken the initiative to build a guesthouse in Siem Reap Cambodia.
      “Kristin sometimes talked about it, but we never though much of it,” Martin and Bruno says.
      It was not until a few months after having graduated in May 2002, that Kristine called up Bruno and asked him, if he would consider taking up the position as Managing Director of the newly completed Earthwalkers’ guesthouse in Siem Reap.
      “I thought about it, – but not for long. It would surely be an interesting challenge. And if worst comes to worst, at least it will look good in my CV that I have been appointed an MD so short after my graduation,” Bruno laughs.
      Bruno arrived Siem Reap on 5 December 2002 to take over the management of the guesthouse after Arnfin Oiness who had been supervising the guesthouse up till its completion and grand opening on 14 April 2002.
      Arnfinn Oiness had succeeded the main force behind establishing the guesthouse, the keen Norwegian backpacker Thomas Holdo Hansen who came to Cambodia in January 2001 to establish the legal foundation for the operation, and Arna Kristín Johansen, who arrived in July the same year.
      “I got my first culture shock already the next morning after my arrival. I had gone out to the market to buy fresh food for the kitchen and there I was standing in front of the butcher’s stall where fresh meat had just been piled up smack on a wooden board – not exactly the hygienic standards I had been taught back in Norwegian. I remember asking myself “What have I done? What am I doing here?” Bruno recalls.
      But shortly after he was invited to a Farewell Party for another expatriate who was leaving and met a lot of interesting people and things started lightening up.
      “Today I have really come to love it here,” he says.
      One of his first tasks was to find an assistant manager. His predecessor Arfinn Oiness had had a Thai girl, Khun Onphilat Sathirakunrot as his Assistant Manager but she left together with him so Bruno instead asked his fellow graduate Martin, thereby strengthening even further the Norwegian style and management of the guesthouse.
      Martin arrived in February 2003 and like Bruno quickly learned to appreciate the relaxed life style of the small Cambodian town, which would never have become a hot spot on the world tourism map if it hadn’t been for the famous Angkor complex of temples and palace ruins nearby.
      “It teaches you self-discipline to maintain your daily routines as if you were running an international hotel anywhere. It also teaches you great attention to details. If you don’t give exact instructions as to what you want to have done, it will most certainly not be done the way, you would like. And you quickly learn, that politeness is the key to having anything done at all,” they explain.
      Except for the slump in arrivals, which all hotels and guesthouses in Siem Rep suffered during the height of the SARS in April and part of May 2003, Earthwalkers’ has been doing quite well in terms of guests. Most are Norwegians and other Scandinavians who enjoy the Scandinavian atmosphere of the guesthouse and the trust, they can place in the advice they get from Bruno and Martin. If they had stayed at any other guesthouse or hotels in the Siem Reap, they would never be sure if the tour suggestions they get from the managers were not merely based on where the management would get the highest commission for recommending.
      “Another group are American backpackers. They are amazingly good in surfing the internet and finding the best deal around,” Bruno says. Also quite a few Koreans have been staying in Earthwalkers’ due to an arrangement which Bruno has entered with another nearby guesthouse who will send over their guests to Earthwalkers’ if they are fully booked – and vice versa.
      Still, both Martin and Bruno are impatient to see the guesthouse grow and prosper further.
      “Money remains a restraint. If we had more money, a lot of things could be done around here,” they say.
      Some money they would spend on improvements of the rooms. During some quiet weeks in January, where Thailand closed the border to Cambodia because of anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, they already painted the rooms and the restaurant and bar and lacquered the wooden interior. But the one single improvement, which would really kick the guest house into the top league among the competition, would be a swimming pool, they say.
      “We would be the only guesthouse in Siem Reap with a swimming pool and that would put us in a unique position. We have the space for it – our garden is big and there would be room for a big terrace around the pool,” Bruno says.
      Earthwalkers’ is, however, already a bargain as it is. The guesthouse offers twenty comfortable rooms, restaurant and bar. All rooms have their own bathroom with hot water. A double room with air conditioning costs US-dollars 15 and US-dollars 12 for a room with fan.
      The guesthouse also offers to arrange tours in the area, with a one day visit to the Angkor Temples an obvious ‘must’. If needed, certified English, French, German and Thai speaking guides can be arranged as well.
      A special tour developed by Earthwalkers’ own staff goes out to temple Baeng Maelea, situated approximately 60 kms outside Siem Reap. Here, galleries, pools, libraries and sanctuaries are still covered with enormous fig-tree roots and creepers. The trip goes through the Cambodian countryside alongside the sacred Kulen Mountain range – on 250 cc dirt-motorbikes! Other adventurous motorbike and 4WD trips take visitors to remote other temples, some with an overnight stay in a local guesthouse.
      For the wealthier tourists, a truly breathtaking view of the Angkor Temples is offered by Helicopters Cambodia Ltd. Prices for this magnificent aerial overview of the entire complex start from US-dollars 68 per person.
      Quite a different experience is a trip out on the great Tonle Sap Lake, where floating villages follow the tide of the lake. In the low season, the lake shrinks to covering ‘only’ 2,500 square kilometers, but when the monsoon rain fills the Mekong river it swells to 12,000 square kilometers and the villagers move their boathouses to follow the shore line like they have been doing for centuries.
      Bruno and Martin have found their own down-to-earth way of promoting the guesthouse.
      “We take turns to go for a week to Bangkok or Phnom Penh to hand out photocopied flyers and business cards,” Bruno explains.
      In Bangkok, a daily walk down Khao San Road gives an amazingly quick result in new guest arriving over the next few weeks, unfolding their carefully kept little flyer on the reception desk.
      Travelers coming from Phnom Penh mostly take the 30 dollars overnight boat ride across the Tonle Sap lake to arrive next morning in one of the floating villages outside Siem Reap, where they take local boats up the river to the city.
      From Thailand, most travelers arriving at Earthwalkers’ take the 15 dollars minibus ride overland through the border crossing at Aranyaprathet/Poipet and via Sisophon to Siem Reap. Others save the tiring 12 hours journey by taking the flight directly from Bangkok’s international airport to Siem Reap Airport. A return ticket costs some 285 dollars but is indeed considerably more convenient.
      Although Earthwalkers’ is located only about one kilometre from the city centre, the surroundings are green and a cool, clean wind blows through the restaurant and bar which also doubles as reception desk.
      Here, a real treasure is also to be found in an inconspicuously looking black notebook – Earthwalkers’ guest book. Unlike the traditional greetings like “Thanks for a nice stay, Brenda” the book reads more like a diary with long, detailed descriptions of the adventures of the day, written by changing guests in a range of languages, Norwegian, English, Korean, Thai.
      One entry on June 23, 2003 goes:
      “Siem Reap is truly the most unlikely place on earth to find a Norwegian managed guesthouse. But when you walk in the front door at Earthwalkers’ and see the two home made Norwegian flags on the board and Bruno or Martin greet you in straight Norwegian it feels in a weird way like the most natural thing on earth.
      …”
      I wrote that.

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