Copyright 2004

[ July 5th 2004 ]

In the beginning was Angelina. Then came Minnie, Ashley, Jackie, Rupert, Roger and Cliff. After decades of war and the genocide of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, Cambodia is back on the tourist map and Hollywood is jumping on the plane - not to mention the bandwagon. With a well-founded reputation for eastern mystique and a less well-founded one for danger, as well as a litany of social woes from desperate poverty to the highest Aids infection rate in Asia, it has become a top destination for celebrities seeking heart-warming headlines.

Angelina Jolie became the unwitting torch-bearer for the Hollywood throng after falling in love with the jungle-clad southeast Asian nation while shooting Lara Croft: Tomb Raider at the 800-year-old Angkor Wat temples. Besides funding aid projects for disabled former Khmer Rouge soldiers, the Oscar-winning actress adopted a Cambodian boy, Maddox, after meeting him in an orphanage in 2001. Since then, barely a month has gone by without one Hollywood name or another stepping off the plane in Phnom Penh to be seen to be doing their bit for charity.

On Tuesday, editors will be in something of a quandary: whether to go for Ashley Judd with child prostitutes or Rupert Everett with adult ones? If you were kicking around the dusty wastes of Prey Veng province near the Vietnam border in February, you might have come across British actress Minnie Driver in a mud hut, highlighting the plight of garment factory workers on behalf of Oxfam.

In April, Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan kicked off his role as a United Nations Aids ambassador with a trip to Cambodia to see child victims of Aids and landmines, a legacy of a decades-long civil war which finally ended in 1998. James Bond star Roger Moore has also been spotted deep in ex-Khmer Rouge country promoting iodised salt for the UN while squeaky clean British singer Cliff Richard visited Aids patients in Phnom Penh in January for aid agency Tearfund.

The stream of celebs is bemusing many locals, including Michael Hayes, proprietor of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper, who himself had a brief brush with stardom, type-cast as a jaded and cynical expat in Matt Dillon's Cambodian movie City of Ghosts. "As one movie star to another, I welcome all my fellow actors to Cambodia and look forward to meeting them - the more the merrier, whoever they are," said Hayes, who might be accused of being out of touch with the latest gossip from Los Angeles. "Ashley Judd? Who's she? Is she famous? Please, just send Angelina back. We like her."

With other war-torn countries such as Afghanistan still too hot for all but the hardiest souls, Cambodia looks likely to remain a favourite meeting place for charities keen for cash and stars keen to get into the papers for all the right reasons. Alas, there is one celebrity Cambodians say they could do without. Shamed British glam rocker Gary Glitter, who spent four months in jail in 1999 for child pornography offences, has put down roots in Phnom Penh. Despite efforts by Women's Affairs Minister Mu Sochua to kick him out, he too looks set to stay.

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