If someone were to tell me that a temple, perhaps a minor structure of the Koh Ker complex buried deep in the jungle of Preah Vihear province, had been looted recently I would not be surprised. But if it were a temple within the Angkor World Heritage Site and under the control of the Apsara Authority, well yes, I would be surprised.
Consider me shocked and awed. In mid-March a Vishnu statue was hacked off one of the rocks at Kbal Spean (the River of One Thousand Lingas). This is an area about 45 kilometers north of the main temple complex that in recent years has seen a significant increase in tourists and is well under the control of the Apsara Authority.
According to an expert in these things (stones and statuary, not looting and vandalism!) it was a very sloppy job and it is doubtful the piece was removed intact. This makes it all the more tragic as it means the piece is not only gone, but had been likely destroyed in the process of its removal.
In the past few years there has been a significant increase in the number of police guarding the temples but this is still obviously not enough security. This raises the issue once again of where all the money is going that is supposed to protect these monuments. Everybody wants more money. The Apsara Authority, the government agency set up to protect the monuments wants more. Sokimex, the company that runs the ticket concession and whose job it is to see that everybody that visits a temple has a proper ticket, they want more, too. And we can assume the police officers who guard these temples want, and probably deserve more, as well.
To know more about the Angkor temple operations, I suggest reading this story for details on the arrangement Sokimex has for the ticket concession and this interview with Ang Choulean, Director of the Department of Culture and Monuments of the Apsara Authority to get their side of the story and also information on some of the restoration projects going on. Both the story and the interview are from October 2000 but I don't think too much has changed since then and as exemplified by this shameful act of destruction at Kbal Spean, perhaps it's time there was a little more change.
Borders open. Borders shut. Thais can't cross. Khmers can cross. Khmers can't cross. Trade can continue. Trade can't continue. Trade can occur on days beginning with the letter "T", Khmers can cross if their mother's name begins with the letter "B", borders will be open on the fifth day following the third festival in honor of the garden spirit "Buny" but will close when the Buny statue located in the south traffic circle of Pursat turns green All this border nonsense was a confusing headache for all and made a right mess of tourism here. The strange thing is really, for all of us non-Khmers and non-Thais there should have been no confusion whatsoever, the borders were always open. I know, I crossed through Poipet three times during all this silliness. Still, needless lies, unnecessary confusion, and gross misrepresentations of the riot and border situation have done a fabulous job of hurting the livelihoods of everyone who relies on tourism, Khmer and expat.
The Khmers filed another salvo at Thailand in early-March. No, I'm not discussing the barring of Khmer nationals from crossing the border, I'm talking about the concerted action of the good people of Kralanh (Village motto: "Clean Toilet") who ceremoniously erased the Thai script off all the 'Toilet' signs (approximately ten now) in the village.
Other than this apparent refusal to allow the Thai people to relieve themselves, things have otherwise been improving in the Thai-Cambodia relations front.
During the month of March, the Cambodian government first shut their border to their own people only to reopen it again several weeks later. This followed the March 17 payment of 252 million baht ($5.9 million US) to cover the damage to the Thai embassy from the riots of January 29. Rather interesting is who paid the 5.9 million USD embassy bill. It wasn't the Cambodian government that paid but two Poipet and Koh Kong casino owners, Kok Ahn and Pad Supapa! With the borders closed to Thais and Khmers the casinos were losing millions of dollars. Hmm... well the plan worked as it got the borders reopened to locals and it's time to Viva Poipet! once again.
The much larger bill for the damage to the Thai-owned businesses has not yet been paid. PM Hun Sen insists Cambodia will make good on this debt as it is a matter of national honor. Prince Norodom Ranariddh still claims the 50 million US dollars in damage to these businesses is more than Cambodia can afford. Hun Sen is the Prime Minister. Ranariddh is the head of the National Assembly and the head of the fledgling royalist Funcinpec party.
In a related development, King Sihanouk has stated that he will pardon any convicted rioters, saying they are not the true guilty ones. Hun Sen disagrees both with the pardons and the assertion that they are not guilty.
But perhaps of greatest importance was the resumption of Thai television programming in Cambodia this month. Now everyone has their favorite soaps back. Pass me the tissues.
So by all accounts things are returning to normal. But I need to reiterate one final time for the benefit of anyone who's stumbling into this website for the first time that what problems do still exist are entirely a Cambodian-Thai thing and have no bearing on any would-be travel plans. The borders are open to us, they have always been open to us, so, please get on with your trip. The riots were bad enough but with all the other nonsense going on in the world (war, SARS - see below for more on both) the Cambodians could use your business now more than ever.
To read more analysis from me on the riots you can read any or all of the following:
No matter how hard I try to be positive I still can't fathom what sort of genius in the Cambodian government came up with the idea of launching an all-out yearlong tourism promotion in a national election year!
About 18 months ago when Siem Reap temporarily barred foreign tourists (as a distinct entity from expats) from renting and operating motorbikes (read the October 2001 column for the full story) it was announced that this would soon be followed by licensing of all motodops who transported tourists around the Angkor temples. In Cambodia soon is a vague word that refers to no particular time frame of any quantifiable duration. This past month, eighteen months from the inception of the idea, came the implementation of the next phase of the plan - the "official announcement", which said that motodrivers will be required to wear a special vest which they purchase for $6 and will be required to display a photo ID license for which they pay 2000 riels (about fifty cents) and is valid for a year. Still, announcing a plan and putting it into action are two entirely different processes and we can only assume at this juncture that the implementation will occur soon. I asked my motodop on the street Mr. Marom (the Cuban Mafia Don) when he thought the new regulations would go into effect. He looked at me and laughed. "Soon," he said.
Visa fees at the border crossings continue their illegal increase. For some time, officials at the border posts at Poipet and Koh Kong had been charging tourists 1000 baht instead of the proper and legal $20 for a 30-day tourist visa, pocketing the three extra dollars or so they got on the exchange. However, in recent months they have been asking 1100, 1200, even 1300 baht if they think they can get it.
My guess is that this is one more of those election (Visit Cambodia!) year schemes. Immigration is controlled by the Funcinpec party which will likely be in control of very little after the July elections and the guys at the border are trying to grab as much cash as they can while they still can.
If you have a trip to Cambodia planned soon, when you reach the border you can and should bargain for your visa and if they insist on more than $20 (as they will), ask for a receipt. Or get your visa in advance at the embassy in Bangkok. Sure, you'll spend a little time and money getting your visa in Bangkok, but you can, in your own small way, put a dent in corruption.
For a laugh, post this information on the Lonely Planet Thorntree and see how long it takes for someone to put up a response along the lines of, "Well, it's such a convenience for us, we should pay more for it, and those border guys, they must be so poor, Cambodia and all!" Don't be a wanker. The law is the law and the law says a tourist visa is $20 regardless of where you buy it. It's not an ambiguous law. There are times to be charitable and times not to be charitable. Save your charity for people who deserve it, you'll meet plenty before your time is up here.
This next item is directed at tourists in Phnom Penh planning to take the speedboat up to Siem Reap. Be wary of anything that is free. When you get to Siem Reap you will be besieged by moto and taxi drivers many of whom will offer you a free lift to town. Think! Why is it free? I'll tell you why, it's free only if the ride is to the guesthouse of his choice, not yours.
Free ride take #2. Perhaps upon checking out of your Phnom Penh guesthouse the helpful managers offer to arrange a free pickup service for you when you get to Siem Reap. Again, this ride is free only if you go to the guesthouse the driver wants you to go to. Choose another destination, especially a non-commission paying one, and you will be hassled for money. Realize, not only is the driver bringing you in for nothing, but if this is arranged by your Phnom Penh guesthouse and the driver is at the Siem Reap boat docks holding a sign with your name on it you can bet he paid a few dollars for the privilege of holding that sign.
It was successful last year, so they're doing it again this year. If you plan to be in England on June 21, 2003 read on:
Magic of Cambodia 2003
The Magic of Cambodia 2003 day will be held in Banbury on Saturday 21 June 2003 at the Terence Mortimer Postgraduate Centre of the Horton General Hospital. The event will be along similar lines to the successful day in Oxford last August though with a fresh set of guest speakers and a purpose-built location to give it a new impetus. The organizers hope you can join them and make it another special event to celebrate and promote the positive aspects of Cambodia.
Admission to the event will cost £10 per person and all profits will go to two charities, The Cambodia Trust and The Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation.
The organizers are currently finalizing their timetable of events and will update their webpage (http://cambodia.e-files.dk/magic2003.html) as soon as they know the lineup for the day. The aim is to have up to eight guest speakers on topics as diverse as the Temples of Angkor, Khmer dance, culture, religion and the environment, and lots more besides.
The Terence Mortimer Centre is a large Edwardian house with its own car park, adjacent to the Horton General Hospital. It has a large lecture hall with tiered seating, seminar rooms and catering facilities.
If you wish to book your ticket now, or ask any questions, e-mail:
An expat was recently relating an incident involving two
of his Khmer employees who had been in a motorbike wreck. The expat had
asked the two how fast they had been going. The driver of the bike said
they were going about 40 kilometers per hour when they crashed.
It's April. That means it's time for the Khmer New Year (April 14-16) when everybody, well, mostly teenagers, lose what little sense they may have had to begin with and commit acts of willful negligence occasionally but tragically leading to involuntary manslaughter. Once again I make my annual plea, PLEASE!!! An immediate ban to the throwing of water-filled plastic bags at motor vehicles (cars, trucks, and especially motorbikes) as well as the use of any high-powered water gun on said vehicles. Look, the Khmers can throw water on each other all they want, I don't care. But filling up little plastic bags with water and flinging them at motorcycles results in several fatalities and numerous injuries every year. The Cambodian government has done a successful job in banning all water throwing activities in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Why not extend this to the nation's roads? This is not about banning fun it's about saving lives.
After having nothing new to look at for several years, the Bayon Pearnik, Cambodia's free one thing or another monthly magazine has a website again. It's not finished of course - what do you expect? They're raising beer money not launching a new dot.com - but all the back issues are up and we can assume the present ones will be put up each month on-time as well (the March issue was). So if you're outside the country and want to start reading the Pearnik again, you can, the URL is: http://bayonpearnik.com. Adam, you owe me a beer.
If you haven't heard of SARS than don't worry about it. If you have heard of it, stop worrying about it. It's not in Cambodia. SARS - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is a strange mystery flu/pneumonia that has caused a few dozen fatalities from the over 1600 reported cases, mostly in Hong Kong and mainland China. There have also been fatalities in Singapore, Vietnam, Canada, and Thailand. As I write this, there has yet to be any reported cases in Cambodia. Given that the fatality rate is about 3.5%, which is roughly the same as for dengue fever - a disease which most Cambodia-based expats have contracted (including myself) and have all lived through, I certainly don't see this as cause to cancel a trip. 1600 cases out of an East Asian/Southeast Asian population of a couple of billion, with most cases in Hong Kong and Southern China and 58 fatalities from that 1600 - really now - what are the odds? Like most things tourists worry about the odds are far less than any of a number of situations one encounters every day in their homeland.
They did it. They invaded. The big monkey and his coterie of baboons have, against all popular opinion, launched an invasion of Iraq.
Where do I go with this? Okay, first of all, this column is about Cambodia so let's throw in the Cambodia perspective. There is no perspective. Nobody cares. Americans, and okay, let's put Brits in, too, have nothing to worry about here. No one seems interested in talking about it, let alone launching a wave of anti-Americanism. It's a non-issue. Yes, Cambodia has a Muslim minority, the Chams, but they are a peaceful, friendly lot and have yet to organize even a protest let alone go after Americans (actually, since this mess started I haven't heard any cases of anyone going directly after an American citizen anywhere except in Iraq). Okay, that's the Cambodia perspective.
Now, the second thing. This is my website. I have an audience. I can say anything I want. It's my soapbox (though I'm always happy to share it within anyone who bothers writing me about something). And of utmost importance - I'm an American citizen.
I don't live in America. I haven't lived there since 1997 and I can't possibly imagine if and when I will ever live there again. Still, it's who I am. I carry the passport. The American environment which I grew up in has much to do with making me the person I am today.
And I am embarrassed and disgusted by the actions of that stupid, arrogant and dangerous man who dares call himself the president of the united states (lower case intended).
Numerous antiwar, anti-Bush editorials have been written and I expect by now readers have heard all sides and don't need another 1000-word diatribe of how stupid the war is and I don't see what I can add to the collective body of knowledge, anyway. But given that nearly half of the readers of this website are not in the United States and thus likely not American, I would only like to remind people that now more than ever do watch yourself when you voice anti-American sentiment. Ridicule the government, protest the war, please do so. But do not equate the actions of the government as following the will of the American people.
Of course, the US government seeks to undermine this effort by claiming that they are trying to make the world a safer place (for Americans, anyway), yet clearly doing the opposite. And regrettably, the propaganda machines are working at full strength.
I was shocked and awed to see a report in the Bangkok
Post, 30 March, courtesy the AFP (Agence France-Presse) which I had
always thought to be a reputable news source, that claimed that 74% of
Americans supported the war.
I was in a Siem Reap bar (hey, gee, that's a surprise) one night a few days after the war started and I dare made a pro-US statement - not pro-US government, but pro-US people. A Brit sitting nearby jumped on the chance to launch into a rather juvenile anti-Yank diatribe which was nothing I haven't heard a hundred times before and frankly, don't care to hear anymore, though I'm sure that I will. The bartender diffused the situation well before I could crack a beer mug over the guy's head which is just as well.
I know my country. I know Yankee foibles and there is no shortage of joke fodder which I will laugh as long and hard at as the next person. I have been outside my country for five and a half years which gives me the unique perspective of being an American and understanding what it means to be one, while at the same time, seeing my country from the outside and having the ability to see America as most of the world sees America. And I, like most American expats do have a clue as to where and how America really fits in the world scheme of things and I am always happy to engage in intelligent discussions about American culture, politics, etc and I am not bothered by constructive criticism, objective observations, or any non-malicious comments directed at my country. And jokes, properly framed, are fine. There are many things America and its people can be the horse's ass about.
But there are things which some Yanks rightfully find not to be funny and one of those is any attempt at lumping us together as being of a single mindset. We are anything but. Individualism is a fundamental part of the American tradition and this war and the actions of the Bush administration will in time, prove this point. A dozen years ago, Bush Senior was tossed out on his ass with a resounding, "it's the economy, stupid". In less than two years time the same thing is going to happen to Junior, only this time the catch phrase will be, "it's the war, stupid". And then things will get back to normal and we can all resume making funny American jokes.
In the meantime, if you were a tourist in Cambodia and a Khmer walked up to you and said I'm proud of my country, my people, my culture. How would you react? I'm guessing you'd probably think that's a nice thing. Well, if an American said the same thing would you react any differently? If so, then you are a hypocrite. We are all nationals of somewhere and have the right to take pride in what makes us who we are. Every country has its faults. No place is perfect. Every country screws up and yes, given the colossal size of the USA its mistakes do tend to be more costly and there is no denying that the United States has left countries in tatters requiring decades for recovery. Cambodia is one of those countries. The future of Afghanistan and Iraq may not be all that much brighter. But at the same time, there are many accomplishments on the part of the American people that have been extraordinarily beneficial to the world. Objective analysis takes both sides into account. The only debate is which way the scales lean and to settle that, the world will never agree, precisely because we are all individuals.
Today, I am ashamed and embarrassed by the actions of my government. But I will never be ashamed or embarrassed to be an American and I will not take kindly to anyone that dares try to make me feel otherwise.
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
Yes. It is no accident that there is no identifiable photo of me on this site and there isn't going to be one. There was when I first started the site (it was me, I almost said squatting, okay, kneeling next to Pol Pot's last toilet from the wreckage of his final hut on Dangrek Mountain in Anlong Veng taken in July 2000). But if you're curious, I'm white, in my late 30s, with fairly short hair that's a bit thin on top, I don't shave very often but never quite grow a beard, I'm 5'8" and thin except for an emerging beer gut and I'm often, but not always, found wearing a knockoff Ralph Lauren polo dress shirt (not a pull over) that can be red, green, purple, or white and pink stripes, I own, umm, a few. Less often I wear a t-shirt or a pullover polo-style shirt. Perhaps I'll put up a photo of me in sunglasses and a hat or something. Or maybe not.
Re: My editorials on the riots and the Cambodia/Thai situation (see the links at the top of this page):
A lot to answer, but I'll try. As for the first part about Thais, it's hard to say, really. I've spoken with two Thai small business owners in Cambodia. One's response was to smile, shrug his shoulders and say "no problem" in a very vague way that could mean there really is no problem so why talk about it or could just as easily mean there are big problems with my business but I don't want to talk about them or trouble you with the details. The second person made the comment that things weren't going so well at the moment though implying that he didn't seem to think it would be a permanent situation.
Face. Books have been written about face. The closest western equivalent is to cause public embarrassment brought about by being wrong, making a mistake, or being forced to back down. In Asia, when encountering someone's mistake it is best not to call any more attention to it then necessary (and the amount of attention necessary is far less than in the west) or better yet, don't call any attention to it all!
In the case of the Cambodia riots, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that Cambodia screwed up big. Cambodia knew it, Thailand knew it, the international community knew it. The proper thing then, would have been to stop calling attention to the error and move on to the next phase. Once the error has been admitted (something not often done here, in part due to the face issue), and Hun Sen did admit to it, there should have been no further talk of it. Or so the thinking goes. However, as westerners we would argue that the error should be kept in the light to ensure that it doesn't happen again, but as westerners we'd be far more likely to own up to our mistake.
Asians are far less likely to own up to an error because of this whole face issue. Here, you lose face for admitting a mistake as opposed to continuing to make a mistake (if no one calls attention to it). This is why someone, say an employee at a restaurant, can continue botching up orders without being corrected because no one wants the person to lose face. This creates many complications when western business owners hire local staff, as we may think nothing of publicly scolding an employee with no regard to the face issue, for either one of us - and a public bollixing is cause to lose face. At a greater extreme is the firing of an errant employee as firings also cause a loss of face and when done publicly, the result is a truly massive face loss and the response is often not pretty, most notably for the western business owner.
I remember way back when in my English teaching days (yes, I did that job at a Bangkok college in the late 90s), I had a case of academic dishonesty (nothing unusual here) which I wasn't going to tolerate. One of the Thai teachers told me I couldn't say anything about it to the students as it would make them lose face. Fortunately, not all of the Thai staff agreed, including the woman at the top, but the mere fact that one of the teachers thought that way, and she wasn't alone, should give some inkling as to the pervasiveness of the face concept in Asia.
As for the final bit about the Khmer temples in northeast Thailand. You know, I haven't seen them yet... Probably I ought to do something about that soon.
Well, that's enough of that.
Anyway, I'm continuing to receive a few travelers' reports every month, mostly detailing experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are three of them.
It's a done deal. I now have a Visa merchant's account and if you want to purchase a photograph from me you may now do so on this website using your Visa card. Go to the Photography section for more details.
A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 127 questions and answers on a variety of Cambodia subjects that should answer a majority and then some of the questions tourists and would-be expats might have. While I welcome e-mail questions from readers and I try to answer them all promptly and properly, the answers you are looking for might be found in the FAQ file. Have a look.
And don't forget to check out the new Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
restaurants, tours and more
With all this Iraq mess and the tourism business down in Cambodia lately I really don't know where I'm going to be the rest of this month. I hinted last month about heading somewhere that could require a change of plans should the US actually invade Iraq. Well, I'll go ahead and tell you, it's been my plan to fly to Islamabad, Pakistan and then travel over the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan and spend a couple of weeks looking at this war torn nation just starting the long process of rebuilding and knowing it's a country not so unlike Cambodia in the early 1990s. Of the handful of individuals who have made it to Afghanistan as tourists in the past six months or so the reports coming back have been universally positive, especially of the Afghani people who seem delighted at the prospect of receiving tourists once again.
Am I still going? I don't know. I have nine more days to make a decision. People who have been to either country recently (one but a week ago) tell me to go, that the people in both countries are well capable of separating Americans from the American government and are still as friendly and hospitable as ever, if not just a bit angry at the US government. Likewise, journalists and military people familiar with the region also tell me to go. Friends and family tell me not to go.
Still, the possibility of stumbling into a large anti-American protest in say, Islamabad or Peshawar, a situation where sensibility and reason can sometimes go out the window, doesn't really appeal to me. And having been an American in China in 1999 when we hit their embassy in Yugoslavia I know what a hassle strong anti-American sentiment can be, even if no physical danger is involved.
I'll decide in a few days. Meanwhile, that said, I can't say for sure if a column will be on-time next month. As the regular readers recall, my April/May exodus last year to China resulted in a May column not appearing until mid-May rather than 30 April. If nothing appears on this website by 1 May you can probably assume I'm in one of those two aforementioned countries. Otherwise, I'll be on-time with one thing or another.
Finally, congratulations are in order. Many of you know him as "Stickman". I know him as a friend and thus, by another name, but I'm not allowed to tell you what it is. But the man got married this March. I had the pleasure of attending both the bachelor party at the Cactus Club on Soi Cowboy, Bangkok (whew!), and the considerably more subdued but ultimately far more important wedding party not anywhere near Soi Cowboy but at the Sukhothai Hotel. Congratulations to Stickman and Stickgirl and here's to one very happy and long life together.
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