Talks focus on linking World Heritage sites

CHIANG RAI, 12 February 2019: If talk could fuel flights today we would have a choice of daily direct flights linking Siem Reap in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar, two major heritage towns in Southeast Asia.

Last week, the possibility of opening a direct route between Siem Reap, home of the UNESCO World Heritage Angkor Wat and Bagan, famous for its ancient pagodas, came a little closer as bilateral talks between the two countries resumed.

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Prak Sokhonn and U Kyaw Tin, Myanmar’s Union Minister for International Cooperation, co-chaired the 2nd Meeting of the Cambodia-Myanmar Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation in Myanmar’s political capital Nay Pyi Taw.

Discussions focused on establishing direct flights connecting Siem Reap and Bagan that would link the two famous heritage towns.

Officials attending the talks said they focused on strengthening tourism cooperation between the two countries, with Myanmar apparently agreeing to promote an ‘Angkor-Bagan Two Ancient Towns” campaign, according to a press statement released by Cambodia’s foreign ministry.

Linking the Mekong Region’s heritage towns, many of them designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, has been on and off the table for decades.

Bangkok Airways attempted in the 1990s to establish a World Heritage loop with a circular fare that followed a heritage trail in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

It was supposed to start in Sukhothai in central Thailand, a UNESCO World Heritage site where the airline operates a small private airport tracing a practical circular route through Laos and Vietnam and ending in Bagan. It didn’t take off, possibly due to a lack of tour operator support and a failure to convince Myanmar’s military rulers to turn Bagan’s modest Nyaung-U airport into an aviation gateway. 

Today, circular routes designed to eliminate backtracks are not considered commercial solutions in the era of low-cost airlines, but there remains potential for the more manageable direct route between Siem Reap and Bagan.

It would immediately tap into the more than 1 million international visitors who visit Siem Reap’s Angkor Historical Park, the country’s must-see tourist attraction.

The six-country grouping known as the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) has a standing policy to promote multiple-country tours within the region. The GMS is made up of Cambodia, China (Yunnan, Guang Xi provinces) Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

A Siem Reap-Bagan direct flight would open the possibility for travellers to embark on a fascinating trip to explore two ancient heritage sites without it costing the earth in airline fares.

Bagan awaits approval of its application to UNESCO for a World Heritage listing that could be announced later this year. Once that occurs, Bagan’s popularity would soar and airlines that established services would ready to board a gravy train.

But it will take more talks first to open up the way for Bagan to be designated an aviation gateway with immigration and custom checkpoints, a step Myanmar’s authorities have been reluctant to take. Until the airport’s status is changed, international travellers need to fly via Yangon, Myanmar commercial capital or Mandalay, the countries second largest city.

There are also concerns that opening Bagan to direct international flights from Siem Reap could damage the business of Myanmar’s domestic airlines that rely on the Yangon-Bagan domestic flights, packed with foreign travellers, to keep airlines from the brink of insolvency.

Despite ASEAN’s open skies policy countries still fall back on bilateral talks and agreements and a core element would be how a direct route from Siem Reap to Bangkok could be managed to benefit Myanmar’s struggling domestic airlines.

Bets are on Cambodia’s airlines making the first move to establish a flight if a bilateral agreement on the route reaches a positive conclusion. More talks are planned. In the meantime travellers will need to fly a roundabout route to explore these two magnificent heritage destinations of the Mekong Region.