the toa Blog
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The toa blog - August 30, 2006
Another in my now occasional ramblings on insignificant matters that fill space and eat bandwidth.
So the big story, particularly for folks back in the States who watch Fox News, was the arrest of some nutter, John Mark Karr, based on a flimsy confession, as the man behind the over-publicized Christmas Day 1996 murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Nutcase gets a free lift back to the States, business class no less, DNA test fails. Walk free. Given what a cost of a Bangkok - US plane ticket is these days, who can blame him?
In any event, the news media is wiping egg off their faces, not only for convicting this man but for their sweeping indictments on western men residing in Thailand and Southeast Asia as a whole.
I'm not in denial. People come to Southeast Asia for sex and for the same reason a dog licks his nuts. There are also a lot of pedophiles here (probably back in the States too, but there's no story unless you're traveling to exotic tropical destinations or are a priest). If you were to watch Fox News you might get the impression that there are thousands of middle age western men walking the streets of Bangkok arm-in-arm with an eleven-year old. Why else would they be here?
I know a lot of people who have slept with prostitutes. Not sure any of them would knowingly touch someone under the age of 18. But as if prostitution and pedophilia were one in the same, hey, why not lump them all together? It sells. Sex always sells. Blood, too.
Well, we're kind of used to that over here. Blood sells just as many newspapers over here, but for whatever reason, sex is out. At least on TV.
So after enduring a lot of unfavorable publicity, can we hope anything good will come out of this mess, other than some nutcase getting a free business class lift back to the States?
Well, for one, Thailand says it will more thoroughly check the backgrounds of individuals who apply for English teaching jobs as these require government issued work permits (Karr was briefly an English teacher in Bangkok) which would be a good start seeing as the main pre-requisite is that you have white skin, regardless of what language you actually speak. Of course this says nothing for the Thai teachers, which at the same time this Karr nonsense was going down there were a couple of Thai men, at least one was a school teacher, also arrested on child molestation charges. Fortunately for them, Karr's arrest, which publicity surrounding it completely caught the Thai authorities off guard, succeeded in wiping their predicament under the carpet.
But wiping things under the carpet and/or sticking your head in the sand until the problem goes away has always been the favored regional approach to problems. So in a society built on status, where respect is given not earned and position takes precedence over performance, "oh, he could never molest a child... he is a monk," corruption in law enforcement is rife, and poverty remains a problem for so many... yeah, the formula for tolerance of evil is certainly in place.
There's always the hope for stricter more transparent law enforcement, but unfortunately the push for said enforcement inevitably comes from NGOs which depend on their participation in arrests and convictions for funding and don't always get it right... ask Clint Betteridge or Graham Cleghorn.
Things have improved from say, five years ago when, at least in Phnom Penh, EVERYBODY knew exactly where they could get a BJ from an 8-year-old and the solicitations were made with little regard for any possible legal consequence. Today, everybody still pretty much knows where to go, you just have to be a little more careful and some of the kids have found they can make a lot of money by setting somebody up, which is fine if the person was really intent on having sex with a kid, not fine if they weren't.
I once commented that the problem was worse in Asia then in the west, stating that if I were so inclined I knew exactly where to go, but back in the States I wouldn't know where to begin. "That's because you're not a pedophile," was the answer. Probably true, I would have figured out where to go. Apparently to Southeast Asia.
I've also heard people say it's better to err on the side of caution if it saves a kid from molestation. But the flipside is what happens to the kids and family of the man who is falsely accused, or worse, convicted?
Not sure I've really made a point other than to say yeah, Karr is a nutter and those of us living in Asia are well aware of how we are sometimes perceived in the west. And with the sensationalism surrounding this Karr fiasco what's the surprise?
Oh, did I mention that Karr was living in the same neighborhood we''ve maintained a residence in for six of the last eight years or so? I swear... I never saw him.
Did you hear the one about the assassination plot against Thai kinda sorta PM Thaksin Shinawatra? Well they tried. Tried to build a convincing story that someone was going to detonate a bomb in front of his home. It didn't work. The story that is, not the plot. There never was a plot to blow up the PM.
The driver of the vehicle was identified as Lt. Thawatchai Klinchana, who is in the employ of General Pallop Pinmanee, deputy director of the Internal Security Operations Command. Pallop was fired from his post. Apparently Pallop was quite insulted to be accused of such an idiotic plot gone awry, "It's impossible that I would assassinate the prime minister. If had wanted to do it, I would have done it more subtly. If I had wanted to kill him, the prime minister would not have escaped."
Here's what they wanted us to believe: That Thai athorities had been investigating a bomb plot for months. That one day a car was driving up and down the street near the PMs house, well, in the neighborhood, anyway. They stopped the car. There was a bomb inside. Instant assassination attempt.
There's supposed to be an election on October 15.
A poll the other day showed that half of Bangkok believe there was never a bomb. 60% believe that bomb or no bomb, the government was behind it. But up in Isaan they're probably eating it up, their hero, a victim again.
Blame shadowy figures with hidden agendas.
Actually we're talking about the same nutcase as #2 only on another issue. The new airport. Doomsday is fast approaching. 29 days and counting for the big train wreck that's called Suvarnabhumi Airport.
I've lost track of the fiascos surrounding this but here's a few recent ones:
Not entirely PM Thaksin Shinawatra is sticking to his demanded September 28 opening date, though most airlines will not be ready. Further to this it was announced that on September 15 the airport would be operational for domestic flights. A wonderful idea if you're flying into Don Muang from afar and have a connecting flight onward to Phuket. Instead of 500 meters from one terminal to another, now its 30 kilometers from one airport to another - in Bangkok traffic. Fortunately, the Thai Airways labor union had the balls to block this hair-brained plan... here's a good editorial about it in The Nation newspaper.
Thai government announces plan to build a new city around the airport (story here). Hmm... a megacity for megalomaniacs? I thought the idea of airports was to keep them away from major population and commercial centers, not to build around them?
Want a taxi from the airport? Guess what, you'll have to take a shuttle bus 3 km to a remote taxi stand. That'll be great coming off a 16-hour New York to Bangkok flight with 70 kg of luggage and an infant... but the airport limos... yeah, they'll be parked right outside the front door. I have a hunch that after a few weeks of dealing with irate tourists all day long, they'll bring the taxi rank back to the front of the arrivals terminal. How many other major international airports put the taxis three kilometers away?
After a huge corruption scandal surrounding the purchase of baggage scanners, guess what? The scanners are too slow. Need some new ones...
Remember the news story about cracks in the runway? The one that the Bangkok Post had to retract or face a multi-gaziliion baht lawsuit? Why do I still believe that story?
The real problem is of course politics. No one, other than the I'm only a temporary PM Thaksin and his buddies, cares if this thing opens in November, next January, or in 2008. All anybody wants is an airport that works. Which Bangkok already has in Don Muang. It's not pretty, but it works. And it may be a little small, but it's not going to cause an infrastructure crisis in the next year, so why the rush?
The national election is scheduled for October 15 and the TRT party wants to be the one to take the credit for getting this 40-year fiasco open. But if the opening is not a national pride as they claim it would be, but a national embarrassment as it's more likely going to be, what credit can they take?
Who uses Bangkok International Airport? Foreigners and rich, educated Thais and neither group gives Thaksin much support. So what does he care? It's off to Isaan to brag about opening a new airport to a group of rice farmers who will never get closer to an airplane than watching the daily Bangkok-Ubon flight pass overhead.
Let's hope the only problems are lost baggage, flight delays, and remote taxi stands and there are no serious safety or security incidents that could cost someone's life. Still, someone up top is taking a mighty big gamble for the sake of his own ego and a few votes.
The Siem Reap commission rackets
Siem Reap is hardly unique in that numerous hotels and guesthouses, particularly in the glutted $15 to $25 per night market, pay out significant commissions to taxi drivers (or to anyone for that matter) who brings in a customer. However, as the market has grown to the point where much of the year supply well exceeds demand, so too has grown the amount of commission some establishments are willing to pay. Whereas we once winced to hear of 35% commissions, now we hear of some hotels handing over as much as 60% of a customer's room charge to a taxi driver. And that's not 60% of one night, but of every night!
With offers this generous it’s little surprise that we’re also getting an increase in the incidents of taxi drivers quite literally ejecting their airport customers out in the middle of the street if they refuse to go to the driver’s favorite commission-paying hotel.
Huh? Yup, see, when you pay $5 at the airport taxi stand the money is not given to the driver but remains in the hands of the Tourist Transport Association, which controls the drivers. And the drivers, to be a member have to purchase their spot in the organization. These spots once cost $1000. I'm now hearing reports of slots selling for as much as $2000. That's right. The taxi driver at the airport paid up to $2000 for the privilege of having you in his car and he doesn't get the $5 you paid at the counter.
It's no wonder then that his intent is not to take you to the destination of your choice, but rather to the destination of his choice as well as putting himself in your employ for their entire Siem Reap visit. Should he fail at both of these endeavors he's now getting nothing from you and it's slam on the brakes and out on the street you will go. Well, they don't all do that. But it happens.
So beat them at their own game:
1.) Book in advance. Most non-commission paying establishments will be happy, no delighted, to pick you up at the airport and many will do so for free. Not only does booking in advance and securing an airport pick-up cut out the taxi hassle, you also may get a better deal on the room as no one is giving up 40, 50, even 60% of the bill to the driver.
2.) If a taxi driver ejects you from his vehicle, be sure to take down the ID number on his door – it’s displayed in large figures, you can’t miss it – and waste no time reporting him to the tourist police.
The Boat Still Sucks
Well, that’s kinda blunt, but it’s true.
Old Cambodia hands felt a twinge of excitement when rumor spread that the speedboat service between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh had finally gone down the gurgler and for good. But aw shucks it was only a rumor. They’re back in service gleefully ripping off tourists every day. So let’s say it again: the Phnom Penh/Siem Reap speedboat sucks.
Long ago romanticized as a “cool” way to travel, say back in the 1990s when road travel in Cambodia truly was an adventure, what with motocross tracks for highways, military checkpoints, and early, early departures. Yeah, back then the boat was “cool”. Now it just sucks. Cambodia has good roads, at least between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, buses are modern, about one-third the price, and as fast or faster. Oh, but the views from the boat? “Oh, look dear, look at all the brown water!” And the ride? Sit inside with freezing A/C, blaring karaoke, and puking locals, or sit on the roof and fry, unless it rains… Fun stuff. There are better ways to see the lake.
As one who dispenses information on Cambodia, I’ve received a couple of e-mails from whatever outfit (I could dig out one of the e-mails and tell you exactly who they are, but I really can’t be bothered) has been contracted to run Cambodia’s new E-Visa service, asking me to tell the world about this great new offer.
Okay, I looked it up seeing as I just got another one of their e-mails, it's directly from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Anyway, well it’s a new service but I don’t think it’s all that great. It's sorta of okay, maybe, but hardly worth a Stop Press! Press release. It costs five dollars more than a visa on arrival and is ONLY valid for entry at either one of the two international airports. I suppose there could be a time-saving element involved, which if you are the last person off the last of three airplanes landing at the same time, it might be important, but visa-on-arrival lines can move fairly rapidly. And… you have to give your credit card details to the Cambodian government. And… it goes through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs… which has been the source of many a dodgy visa extension… I wrote about it a year or more ago, but basically the MFA has only been responsible for NGO "B" visas, while the Ministry of the Interior is responsible for tourist "T" and standard business "E" visas yet some travel agents were scamming people requesting "E" visa extensions by giving them "B" extensions but at or close to the "E" price (the "B" visas are much cheaper). Sometimes the visas worked, oftentimes they did not and then you were stuck...
So there you are … get your visa on arrival, book in advance, and take a bus or taxi to Phnom Penh.
Further to the piece below about American observances... has anyone notices that Chinese take-away restaurants throughout America all have the same menus? It's like there's some outfit in Brooklyn selling "Instant Chinese restaurant in a box." And all the propreitors come from Fujian province.
Recent Updates on toa
August 18: Updated the Safety and Money sections of the Cambodia FAQ