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Silly season is upon us. Every year in mid-April as sweltering heat envelopes the region, several countries shut down for a week or so and celebrate the traditional new year. Historically, the new year, Chaul Chnam in Cambodia, Songkran in Thailand, Bun Pi Mai in Laos, Thingyan in Myanmar, and I don't know what they call it in southern Yunnan, China, is a three-day celebration where people visit pagodas, clean their homes, bathe Buddha images, spend time with their families, play games, and in a display of good will, sprinkle some water on their elders for good luck. That's the tradition, anyway.
A modern development to this celebration takes the traditional sprinkling of water on elders to a greater extreme... throw as much water as possible on as many people as you can. And this can, under the right conditions, be fun. With regional temperatures around 36 to 40 degrees (97 to 104 for the Yanks) any chance to stay cool is welcome and most people, if a prepared and willing participant, enjoy a good old-fashioned water fight.
But there's an ugly side to this tradition which, due to a certain local adaptation, is played out in particular earnest in western Cambodia. Here, it is the hurling of plastic bags filled with water at any passing vehicle. While a car or truck can withstand most any kind of blast of water, a motorcycle cannot, especially when it comes in the form of a plastic bag flung at full strength by an overly-enthusiastic teenager.
The tossing of waterbags along the highways of western Cambodia is most prevalent from Sisophon to Poipet and down to Battambang and over to Pailin. And for three days in April, the local provincial hospitals receive a steady stream of accident victims. Some of those victims will not leave the hospital alive. All for what? So some frustrated teenager can release his tensions without fear of legal reprisal?
I'm all for fun. A pair of trucks filled with people tossing buckets of water on each other is fine. Throwing waterbags at motorbikes is not. This dangerous and I would argue sadistic practice leads to hundreds of injuries and a few dozen deaths every year.
In 1999 I made the ill-advised decision to ride in the back of a pick-up truck from Siem Reap to Poipet on the final day of the holiday. By and large it was a dry trip until we reached Sisophon, but from there to Poipet all hell broke loose. Moving along at about 50 kph, I got hit in the face by one of these waterbags. I surmised that I now had a general idea what it would be like to be punched by Mike Tyson, only no one was paying me a million dollars for the experience. Next to me lay a young baby with its mother. The baby was hit squarely in the head. It screamed in pain for half an hour. In 2001 on a motorcycle near Battambang I was hit in the head by a waterbag. Fortunately I was wearing a helmet to absorb the impact but it did not stop from jerking my head back. Had I not been wearing a helmet I would probably not be sitting here writing this piece today.
Throwing water at any person on a motorbike resulting in death is nothing short of manslaughter and should be treated by all regional countries as such. Given the sheer number of accidents and fatalities experienced in these countries, just the simple act of throwing water at a moving motorbike ought to bring a charge of attempted manslaughter.
While Cambodia bans water throwing in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and around the Angkor temples, they have yet to make any provisions for banning water throwing on the highways. Beginning this year, neighboring Thailand, whose annual death toll from this holiday has exceeded 500 people, has officially banned water throwing on all highways. At least the authorities are starting to wake up to this problem. Still, I think for Cambodia, with its sensationalist news media, perhaps a few front page stories of teenagers being handed down five to ten year sentences for manslaughter might go a long way to stopping this sick ritual.
Speaking of manslaughter... We dubbed them the Coconut Gang. Last October there was a late night traffic accident in Phnom Penh in which a vehicle carrying a group of young men that included PM Hun Sen's nephew, Nhim Sophea, collided with a truck unloading coconuts. Arguments ensued and someone from the vehicle produced an AK-47, subsequently spraying bullets that killed three people and injured four more. Two coconut vendors were among the fatalities.
This same group, which once frequented Phnom Penh's Manhattan Disco, had recently taken up residence at the Heart of Darkness. There were a number of violent incidents there, some of which involved innocent western bystanders, so many in fact, that embassies as well as a number of publications, print and virtual, including this website, offered warnings suggesting that people avoid the Heart of Darkness due to these security concerns.
One member of the gang, Nhim Sophea, was recently handed down a three-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for his role in the shooting and another Coconut boy, Sam Doeun, who has since disappeared, was sentenced in absentia for ten years. There is various degrees of speculation as to how the word "absentia" should be applied here as the more cycnical in Phnom Penh are suggesting that there is no such person.
This brings up two points. One, what does this say for the state of the Cambodian justice system and two, is it safe to go back to the Heart of Darkness?
Two steps forward... The mere fact that a nephew of Hun Sen could not only stand trial, but be found guilty and sentenced is indeed a pair of steps forward. A few years ago this case might very well have never made it to trial. Granted, he'll only serve eighteen months as the other eighteen months have been suspended, followed by five years probation, but something is better than nothing at all.
One step back... However, since sentencing, Nhim Sophea has hardly served a day in Prey Sar prison but has instead been laid up at Monivong Hospital in a private air-conditioned renovated room with TV, mobile phone, and visiting privileges. The ailment? According to his own words, spoken in English, "I have a stomach ache."
And how about the Heart of Darkness? It would seem the gang had their last battle there in mid-January. With one member in the hospital with "a stomach ache" and another on the run (or vaporized), the Heart may once again be safe to visit. Just follow one simple rule: If a group of young Khmers walks in acting like they own the place... leave immediately. And that's probably good advice for most any club in Cambodia.
I was quite surprised to read in the February 27 - March 12, 2004 issue of the Phnom Penh Post a story about the Phnom Penh municipal water supply and that the water is apparently okay to drink! The city has almost finished a 12-year, 110-million dollar overhaul of the water system and the water, which is chlorinated, has tested safe.
But before you go rushing to the taps there is one, err, small problem. Historically, the delivery of water in Phnom Penh was erratic so to ensure a steady supply, many businesses and residences constructed their own storage tanks, many of which do not meet standards for supplying safe drinking water, due to the use of porous materials, improper placement, and unhygienic materials.
The city's latest challenge then, is to educate people to give up on their storage tanks, connect directly to the city mains and drink away. Unfortunately, this is going to be a slow process and a visitor to Phnom Penh is not likely to know whether the water they are drinking is direct from the mains or via a storage tank, thus ensuring continued good business for the various bottled water suppliers.
A couple of years ago, Phnom Penh tried to instate a city bus network. The experimental phase saw a single route that included the main downtown boulevards of Monivong, Norodom, and Sihanouk. To no one's surprise the plan failed, seeing as Phnom Penh already has in the form of the motodop, a cheap and efficient door to door public transportation system.
The city is now planning more aggressive traffic control by completely banning cars from Phnom Penh. According to a Phnom Penh Post report in the March 26 - April 8, 2004 issue, the city plans to establish a park and ride system at several fringe points around the city and disallow all vehicles without special authorization. Exemptions will be made for residents of Phnom Penh, tourist vehicles, trade vehicles, NGOs, and service vehicles.
Some problems: How do you get authorization? The DPWT (Dept of Public Works and Transport) will sell tickets to qualified vehicles. And who will enforce this? The traffic police. Need I elaborate?
Here's another problem: Residents of Phnom Penh will only be allowed one occupant per vehicle. Huh? Run that by me again... The city is trying to control traffic congestion, yet will allow only one occupant per vehicle? Apparently the idea is to prevent private vehicles from carrying what would otherwise be paying customers on the bus services or the motodops who will be permitted to ferry people in from the outside. But really, one person per vehicle? And how are hotels going to pick people up from the airport? And how does a Phnom Penh family drive to Sihanoukville and back if they can only have one occupant per vehicle once they are in Phnom Penh?
I appreciate the need for traffic control and I'm all for public transport. It's clear that certain parts of Phnom Penh are truly congested, but this plan has very high corruption potential and I don't see how it's going to solve the traffic problems all that much because many of the vehicles clogging up the streets of Phnom Penh are vehicles already registered in Phnom Penh and if you only allow one occupant per vehicle, then what happens?
Back to the drawing board, guys.
Cambodia has made a bid to have Preah Vihear temple listed as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site and Thailand is supporting this bid. Thailand has also offered assistance to build a road from Anlong Veng to Banteay Srei temple, approximately thirty kilometers north of Siem Reap.
This is an interesting case. I've written a lot about the history of the contentious issue over ownership of Preah Vihear temple, which sits atop the Dangrek Mountain just barely on the Cambodia side of the Thai/Cambodian border. Under normal circumstances I would support any Thai bid to offer assistance to the improvement of Cambodia regardless of whether this assistance is made more for purposes of financial gain than altruism.
For the foreseeable future Thailand stands to gain more from Preah Vihear access than Cambodia does. Fine, but if Thailand is going to be involved in any project surrounding Preah Vihear temple and profit from its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site would it be asking too much that the nation, on both a state and street level, admits once and for all without any ambiguity of wording that the temple is a Cambodian temple, built by Cambodians, and sits squarely on uncontested Cambodian soil and not because of the World Court decision, but because the temple is rightfully Cambodian?
While I have never heard a Thai say "Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand," I have heard Thais say "Phra Viharn belongs to Thailand." And that is simply wrong. I've pointed fingers at both sides over their failures to get along and while I appreciate this extension of neighborly cooperation on Preah Vihear I still have to point a finger at Thailand. They got their access to Preah Vihear restored as part of the payback for the January 29, 2003 riots and now they stand to profit from its status as a World Heritage Site. Its time then, in exchange for these privileges, that Thailand makes a concession to Cambodia and admits publicly whose temple it really is and ensures that this information makes it into the history books as well.
The latest Poipet border scam requires tourists to change as much as $100 US into riels at rates as bad as 3400 riels to the dollar. The riel presently exchanges at 3950 to 4000 riel to the dollar resulting in a loss of about $15 to the tourist. The scam is predominantly, though not exclusively, targeted at the folks using the Khao San Road to Siem Reap tourist buses.
What to do about it? First of all, why does anyone use a Khao San Road tourist bus to go anywhere? Well, we know the answer why, but that's a topic for another column. Regardless, seeing as a few individual travelers have had this scam attempted on them, the best advice I can offer is to stand your ground and refuse. This scam really is ludicrous and I can't possibly see it lasting very long.
I'm not sure which is more dramatic, seeing newly arrived tourists paying their bar tabs with stacks of riels or seeing their reaction when they find out they were scammed.
Some very good news here. Although it's the usual temporary fix, the 70 kilometers of mess that sometimes passes for a road between west of Siem Reap and Sisophon has been sorted out well this year. On March 28th I set a personal all-time record making it from Siem Reap to the border in two hours and twelve minutes in a Toyota Camry taxi, breaking my old record by eight minutes. As the construction was done later than usual this year there's a better chance that the road will hold together through the rainy season. This was the scenario in 2001 when they waited until April to fix the road, thus ensuring that there wouldn't be as much of a chance for the heavy trucks and dry winds to blow the top layer of road into the surrounding rice fields.
The Phnom Penh to Siem Reap road is coming along nicely. The worst part of road, the bit just south of Kompong Thom is now being sorted out. I'd like to be more specific but when I was in the taxi on March 24, I nodded off on what is historically the worst part of road, so that in itself would indicate that things are improving. As is typical, construction in Siem Reap province lags behind all other areas. It took the taxi four hours and forty minutes to cover the 314-kilometer distance, another personal record.
I saw on the internet a few weeks ago that someone asked about diving opportunities around Angkor. Interesting way to stay cool I suppose but I can’t imagine seeing very much in the Angkor Wat moat or the murky depths of the Tonle Sap, which according to the local expert here, aren’t exactly depths as the lake is presently between 1.5 and 1.7 meters deep. Any takers on how long it would take to walk across the lake? Hmm... anyone see a charity event opportunity here?
On Siem Reap's so-called “Pub Street” (nine bars and counting), one French-owned place seems intent to alienate a sizable chunk of the Siem Reap expat population as the owner was overheard telling one of his staff not to speak English to the punters but to speak only French. I wonder if that French-only requirement would be extended to the Khmer customers as well? Needless to say in a small town like Siem Reap, within 24 hours this news had hit the ears of almost every English-speaking expat in town. Well, it was a cozy place.
In one of the more surprising crimes, a Phnom Penh expat was arrested for stealing a television from O'Russei Market. Normally in Cambodia, suspected thieves are chased with shouts of "jao, jao!" (it means 'thief') and crowds seize the criminals and beat them to death. But I think in this case the Khmers were probably too astonished at the sight of a foreigner running off with a television that giving chase and killing him were a distant second to laughing. According to the report in the Phnom Penh Post Police Blotter, "The police said (Jamie) McGowan, a former English teacher, had a mental problem and they released him after educating him." The word on the streets is the police beat the crap out of him. I'd say he got off easy.
Just a quick reminder... with the Khmer New Year approaching you can expect the usual increase in robberies that precede all major holidays in Cambodia. Keep your bags and unnecessary items in your hotel room at night and during the day if riding on a moto or in a cyclo, do keep your possessions secure.
Beng Mealea costs $5 to visit now. The Apsara Authority handed over the ticket concession to the Kham Someth Construction company as part of the arrangement that had the company build the road from there to Koh Ker. The entry price will be increased to $10 come August 1. Once the road to Koh Ker is fully in place a ticket concession should be awarded to the company for that complex as well. All of this makes sense of course, as Kham Someth didn't build the road out of charity, they built it to make money and if this road leads to substantial economic development in the Koh Ker region, well, more power to Kham Someth for bringing it in.
We still don't have one. We almost thought we had one, but we don't. The latest deal on the table is a two and a half party coalition where some of the positions that would be given to Funcinpec in a two-party coalition are given over to the Sam Rainsy Party. But it hasn't happened yet. Life goes on. Sort of.
I got my hands on a copy of the Ministry of Tourism's Tourism Statistical Report Yearbook 2003. Here are a few facts:
After experiencing on average 25-30% annual growth in arrivals since 1997, arrivals in 2003 fell to 701,014 from 2002's all-time high of 786,524. Reason? SARS primarily, but also riots, war, terrorism panic, etc. By contrast, in 1998 there were only 286,524 international arrivals.
269,674 people arrived at the Phnom Penh airport. 186,298 arrived at the Siem Reap airport. In contrast there were only 10,423 arrivals to the Siem Reap airport in 1998. In Siem Reap there was an almost even number of visitors flying in from Bangkok (83,618) as from Saigon (85,335) and this marked the first time that there were more arrivals from Vietnam. The anti-Thai riots obviously played a part in this.
There were 245,042 arrivals by land or boat (Kaam Samnor/Chau Doc). Of the land arrivals 167,574 arrived at Poipet, 35,837 at Bavet (Moc Bai in Vietnam), 17,238 arrived at Kaam Samnor (Chau Doc in Vietnam), and 17,111 arrived at Cham Yeam (Koh Kong in Thailand).
There were 30,485 arrivals in May 2003 which was the lowest figure for any month since September 1999 when only 27,302 arrivals were recorded.
In 2003 Japan provided the most visitors with 88,401. Second was the USA at 66,123, followed by South Korea at 62,271, U.K. at 50,266, and France at 45,396. Rounding out the top ten were China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Australia (which just barely beat out Malaysia for the tenth spot). Overall, Asian visitors accounted for nearly 52% of all visitors to Cambodia in 2003. Had there not been the anti-Thai riots in January, Thailand might have ranked around fifth place instead of eighth.
Historically, the highest number of visitors are in December followed by November, with January, February, and March picking up the next three spots in different orders each year. The fewest arrivals come either in May or June with September usually taking the third spot.
In 2003, 60,323 Cambodians traveled overseas, up from 45,334 in 2002, and 36,577 in 2001.
Future forecasts are for 1 million visitors in 2004, 1.5 million in 2006, 2.2. million in 2008 and 3.1 million for 2010. For reasons not explained, the prediction is for future arrivals to be more evenly spread across the year though the traditional high and low months will continue under the same trend. Brace yourselves.
In other statistics, there are 126 hotels in Phnom Penh offering 6,394 rooms and another 123 guesthouses offering 1,813 rooms. Siem Reap has 62 hotels with 3,691 rooms and 138 guesthouses with 1,634 rooms. Nationwide, in 1998 there were 216 hotels with 8,247 rooms and in 2003 there were 292 hotels with 13,169 rooms. In 1998 there were 147 guesthouses with 1,510 rooms and in 2003 there were 551 guesthouses with 6,538 rooms.
Any guesses as to what that Orient Thai Airlines Airbus was doing parked on the tarmac of Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport? Well, I think it was an Airbus, but whatever it was, it was bigger than any other jet I've seen in Siem Reap. Anyway, was it a charter flight or are we possibly one small step closer to finally seeing an easing of Bangkok Airways choke hold on the Bangkok-Siem Reap route?
The 2004 Magic of Cambodia Day has been scheduled for Saturday
18 September at The Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England.
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
I had a laugh with Sihanoukville last month and I get this, which is reproduced as written except for some odd formatting that would have wasted some space - and by the way, I do not write the Sihanoukville section of this website!:
Angkor Wat and Banteay Srei miniatures:
Cambodia and Thailand:
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 now five of them.
I've also begun a Readers' Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country and on most any topic. Visit the section for more information.
The offerings have changed and I've created a new page devoted exclusively to business and employment opportunities. Here it is.
Some say I'll live to regret it, but talesofasia offers a discussion forum now. Do register and join the discussion. Intelligence is a highly sought after commodity right now.
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 newly redesigned Photography section for more details.
I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 138 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. Four sections were updated this past week.
Siem Reap Guide
The latest version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up on March 26. The section will be updated more or less on a monthly basis as it's proven quite popular even if Google still hasn't quite found it. Have a look.
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