Amsterdam and Phnom Penh compared
A few months back, following a weekend in Singapore, a city significantly different from Phnom Penh, I drew a few comparisons between the two (see the March 2002 column). This seemed appropriate as the present Phnom Penh regime is making quite an effort to, at the very least, make the city look well and prosperous (whether it actually is well and prosperous is of no consequence, this is Asia, appearance is the only thing that counts). I suggested, given that Singapore, sanitized appearances aside, really is a prosperous place, why then doesnít Phnom Penh, the prosperous-wanna-bes they are, borrow a few ideas from how things are done down there?
I suggested that Phnom Penh Municipality plant trees not cut them down, paint public buildings in colorful schemes rather than the ugly piss yellow everyone was ordered to use last year, and see if one canít perhaps notice a correlation between Singaporeís prosperity and its status as one of the least corrupt and most transparent countries on the planet and Cambodiaís lack of prosperity and its status as one of the most corrupt and least transparent countries on the planet.
But one aspect of Singapore I would not suggest Cambodia borrow from, but they seem to be borrowing from anyway, is Singaporeís social engineering.
Very recently I spent a few days in Amsterdam. I had just concluded my annual three-week visit to the folks back in the States and Singapore Air, for all of about $50 extra on the airfare, lets you break the journey in Amsterdam on the return flight if you so choose, so I so did. And having never been to Amsterdam (actually, Iíve hardly been to Europe at all, just a week in England and a week in France nearly ten years ago) it seemed like a good idea.
Now, Phnom Penh, a city plagued by evil vices (or so they would have us believe), delights in shutting down bars, karaoke joints, brothels, and so on. And how many of us remember the good old days of walking into the Russian Market and being offered big bags of dope for pennies?
Holland, on the other hand, must be one of the most enlightened places on the planet when it comes to addressing social problems and I am eminently impressed with the Dutch approach to these matters.
A clarification. I donít smoke dope. Really, I donít. It makes me stupid and lazy and anyone who knows me knows I need no additional chemical help in making myself useless. Last year, twelve years since my last puff, I smoked a bit one time and was reminded in short order that after all these years THC and I still donít agree. I tell you this so youíll know I have no personal self-interest in the legalization of cannabis here or anywhere else. For myself, I couldnít care less. Beer Lao please. But the Dutch policy of separating hard and soft drugs is one that should be adopted here and everywhere else. But I think most of you knew that already. Or I hope so, anyway.
Itíll never happen of course, not so long as countries like the United States connect aid money with drug interdiction.
Then there's the prostitution issue. In Cambodia there was talk of legalizing it a year or two back when more enlightened souls managed to get the issue into the mainstream press and ultimately in the hands of the National Assembly, but nothing ever came of it.
Holland got this one figured out as well. Legalize it. Tax it. Control it. Sure, itís expensive as anything, one tart quoted something outrageous like 50 euros for twenty minutes, but seeing as my hotel room was about 95 euros a night for what you get in Cambodia for $15, why should I be surprised at a price like that? But the important thing is that itís legal and as safe as this sort of business could ever be.
Sure, prostitution in Cambodia has a lot of problems. Three big ones off the top of my head - sex slavery, kids, and an outrageously high HIV rate, (hmm, youíre still not bare-backing, are you?). So, whatís the governmentís plan in coping with these undesirable facets of the Cambodia sex trade? Shut down the brothels (usually the ones where the girls are not indentured slaves - the slavery bit occurs in the cheap Khmer places and they the ones that should be burned to the ground), shut down the karaoke joints, shut everything down and the whole thing will go away. Is that how it works, guys? What you see doesnít happen, right? Get a clue.
I have in front of me a Yellow Pages Visitors Guide to Amsterdam 2002. Included are several pages on the Red Light District written by the Amsterdam Police which includes the following:
If you visit one of the women, we would like to remind you, they are not always women. Donít take pictures of the women, it might get you in trouble. Outside on the streets, donít shout or use bad language towards these women. Show some respect. In case you have any problem with a girl or a pimp, donít hesitate to ask a policeman/woman, we know why youíre here and you can hardly surprise us anymore.
You can visit a coffeeshop to buy a small amount of soft drugs for your own personal use. If you are under 18 years old, you are not allowed to enter a coffeeshop or buy anything. When you feel sick after smoking or eating space cake, drink lots of water with sugar, something sweet will put you right again. Donít use soft drugs in regular bars and other places, not everybody likes the smell of a joint. Be careful mixing alcohol and soft drugs, or any other drugs.
Thatís enlightenment. Coming soon to a Cambodia visitorís guide near you? Yeah, right. And theyíll plant new trees, paint the buildings in colorful paint schemes, and clean up corruption as well.
Using touts to your advantage
As I complain regularly about all the touts in Poipet, I recently decided that rather than continuing to stress myself out trying to ignore them, why not use one to my advantage? It's a tactic that in my last two passages from Thailand to Cambodia via the Poipet border crossing has worked marvelously well and cost me all of 50 baht ($1.25) extra.
What I'm doing is simply grabbing a likeable English-speaking tout and telling him what I want and what I will pay for it and that rather than going through all the commission and negotiation hassles, I further add that I will pay you, the tout, 50 baht for getting me the vehicle I want and carrying my bag. I leave nothing open to negotiation and I dictate all terms. The touts have been more than happy to go along with this as for them it's an easy 50 baht for ten minutes worth of work and nobody gets angry or stressed about anything.
And what do I get? I get my transportation for the same price I always get it for. I get somebody to carry my bag, and best of all, because I now have an escort, all the other touts leave me alone. For more details on this tactic, head over to my Overland section and read the Bangkok - Siem Reap bit.
I can't confirm this, but no reason to think it isn't true. When taking the speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh at certain times of the year when the water levels are low it is necessary for passengers to be taken from shore to the speedboat using small boats with outboard motors and seating around eight to a dozen people. These are the same boats that are used for the tours of the floating village, Chong Khneas. This transportation is free - you paid for it when you bought your boat ticket.
Last month I heard that one of the small boat operators went about halfway, stopped, shut off the engine, and asked everybody for money. Fortunately the passengers refused, stood their ground, and eventually, perhaps under threat of drowning, the boat operator restarted the engine and took the passengers to their boat.
This appears to be an isolated incident, but if it should happen to you, do as the passengers before you have done and stand your ground. If you think you can restart the engine yourself and steer the boat properly, throwing the guy into the lake would not be unreasonable. This assumes of course you can find your own way to the main boat.
Law and order
Pedophilia has been quite a Cambodia problem for some time, but this past year there has been, or at least there has been the appearance of, some progress in this area. First, in the Sway Pak brothel area, several houses were closed for having underage (considerably underage) kids working there. Then in July, two cases involving foreigners accused of underage sex, in both cases with boys, and in both cases for money, came to trial.
The first case involved in Italian, Alain Berruti, who was convicted in Phnom Penh municipal court of debauchery on July 16 and sentenced to ten years in prison. According to the report which appeared in the Phnom Penh Post (July 19 - August 1, 2002) he admitted to having sex with the boys and paying them, but if the quotes attributed to him are correct, it seems more than obvious that this guy feels he committed no crime. He said, "...these boys are the same as before. They come from the streets - they are prostitutes. I had the [sex] experience with them for a small amount of money." He added, "In other countries I can't find any available boys, though Cambodia is a poor country, I want to live here. Every day I can see the sun and the coconut trees."
Well, Alain, you got your wish, it looks like you'll be living here for the next ten years, and if you're lucky the prison grounds will have a few coconut trees to look at. And yes, Alain, the boys are prostituting themselves, but poor street kids or not, they are still kids. Have a nice life.
The second case concerned a French citizen and Sihanoukville resident, Pierre Guynot. He was also accused of having sex with underage boys. To the dismay of many, his case was dismissed July 26 on the grounds of insufficient evidence. When the news came that the case was dismissed, the talk around the Siem Reap watering holes was as to how much this dismissal cost. We can only speculate, and thus probably shouldn't, but justice has funny ways of working here. Though he may be free, he also may now be broke. Things aren't always what they appear.
A third case, involving another Italian, Luigi Falchi, will be heard in Poipet on August 1.
August 4 Update:
In other news, a 69-year-old Brit was arrested and charged with debauchery with an eleven-year-old girl. However, the defendant claims no crime occurred, that the girl simply entered the room on her own free will and was followed minutes later by the police who arrested the man. Prosecutor Ngeth Sarath lays credence to this claim as he was quoted in the Post, "I am concerned that the arrest might have been arranged." Knowing what I know about Cambodia, this could very well have been a set-up, thus I am not going to publish the defendant's name unless he is convicted of the debauchery charge.
I applaud the efforts of the Cambodian authorities to crack-down on pedophilia, but if this case is in fact a set-up, then this, too, becomes a problem to be addressed and hopefully stopped.
And one more...
Two Siem Reap expats were arrested and jailed on the afternoon of August 3 for allegedly having sex with underage girls. The exact ages and charges are not yet confirmed at this time. Details as they come.
The debut edition of the Rough Guide Cambodia book has been published but hasn't yet made it to Southeast Asia. I'm sure there's a very good reason why a guidebook about Southeast Asia isn't yet available in Southeast Asia but is available in England. Perhaps when they publish a guidebook on England they'll release it first in Southeast Asia. When I can get my hands on a copy I'll review it.
Speaking of reviews, I'm working up a new book review section that will concentrate on guidebooks. This will not be limited to Cambodia, but will also include Thailand and China as I'm familiar enough with both countries to satisfactorily critique the information that appears in books about these countries.
I may also discuss other books relevant to Asia which I've read recently. I know better than to pin myself down to a time that it will appear on this site as I'm inevitably late with these things, but something will appear on this subject as a couple of reviews are already written.
A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file on Cambodia that should answer a majority of 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.
The Siem Reap to Poipet road continues to turn to wreckage. My latest journey, July 25, revealed a rougher road than ever and furthermore, the bridges are really falling apart. If you travel this road and you wear dentures...
On the Phnom Penh to Koh Kong road I'm getting reports that describe a road better than that which I covered in June. I would attribute this to the minimal rains that have fallen on Cambodia this year. When I traveled in June there had been quite a bit of rain recently, but since then we have had an unusually dry year.
Therefore, much more so than the flat Poipet - Siem Reap road, the ability to travel on this road will be very dependent on the weather. For the time being, I'm hearing favorable reports.
"The Magic of Cambodia"
Going to be in England on the 17th of August? Andy Brouwer is sponsoring the following:
'The Magic of
Cambodia' - Saturday, 17 August 2002
'The Magic of Cambodia'
- Saturday 17 August - will be a day to celebrate all that is positive
about this wonderful country.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
As I'm spending quite a bit of time in Bangkok these days, I've decided to expand the scope of this column a bit and start including a few observations on the Land of Smiles.
What's in an advertisement?
I recently spent a few weeks visiting family back in the States. I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and it's in those suburbs that my folks still live. Just before my arrival in mid-June, one of the local free weeklies, The City Paper, ran an advertisement from a local nightclub that included a likeness of Thailand's ruling monarch, His Majesty Bhumiphol Adulyadej.
The likeness was taken from a young photo of His Majesty, circa the 1940s. However, certain alterations were made to his hair, glasses, and clothing. To the people of Thailand this was nothing short of criminal. Actually, it is criminal because the country has lese majeste laws that forbid any kind of criticism or disrespect of the royal family.
The Thai community in the States and especially in Philadelphia were rightly outraged. And with good reason.
On the American side there were two schools of thought. On the one hand, there were those who could respect the feelings of the Thai people and see how the advertisement was thoroughly disrespectful and on the other hand, there were those with obvious minimal comprehension of the world outside their own backyard who stuck to the freedom of speech argument.
To the latter, all I can say is what an example of cultural differences and lack of understanding of these differences this is.
Regrettably, most Americans' understanding of royal families is that of the British royal family. To many of us, the British royals are seen almost as comic book figures and this image is all the more perpetuated by the fact that the British royals are openly criticized and even ridiculed in the local press.
Given that precedent, it's understandable then, why many Americans would have trouble realizing that there are cultures who do not see their royal families in this manner. Thailand is such a culture.
I don't need a less majeste law to tell me what I can and can't say about the Thai royal family. I've lived in Bangkok off and on for five years and I can tell you that the adoration and respect the Thais have for His Majesty is well-deserved and isn't because the law tells them to respect him.
I am not Thai and will never be Thai. I could live in Bangkok for my entire life and I will never be able to fully share in the love the Thai people have for His Majesty. And this is solely because I am not Thai and therefore am not included in that special bond between His Majesty and his people.
However, while I will never be able to share directly in that relationship, I can and do appreciate where these feelings originate from, and as a part-time resident of Thailand, I do see the importance of the royal family in the lives of the Thai people and I fully comprehend where their outrage lies in the insensitive portrayal of the likeness of His Majesty that appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper. For when I saw the advertisement, even I, a non-Thai, felt a slight kick in the gut. Imagine how that kick would feel if I was Thai?
Freedom of speech carries responsibilities. The person who created the aforementioned advertisement failed in their responsibilities to the right of free speech. It's not just about expressing whatever you want, it's also about knowing when not to express whatever you want.
One thing that many of us westerners living in Asia have discovered is that when it comes to customer service from the local businesses we deal with, the level of that service can fall at either of the two extremes of good or bad. This story is of one such extreme.
While I was in the States, my four-year-old laptop computer, an NEC, finally up and died. A cracked motherboard was the cause of death and a local Philly repair shop informed me that as my computer, at four years of age, was a product of antiquity, there was no replacement part. Best thing to do was buy a new computer and get my data transferred from one computer to the next. The NEC wasn't totally dead yet, it still worked sometimes, though it frequently shut itself up, locked up, or otherwise became unusable, sometimes every several minutes, sometimes if I was lucky, only once or twice an hour, but it was getting worse every day.
I waited until I returned to Bangkok and wasted no time (hours after arriving in town, actually) running down to Panthip Plaza (that's a huge computer goods mall located on Phetchburi Road about a ten, fifteen if it's really hot, minute walk from my apartment) and buying a new laptop, this time buying a Thai-made Compaq Presario 700.
I also bought a USB cable (cost about $50 US) to connect the two laptops and do a data transfer. Should be easy, right? Wrong. Two problems. One, the instruction manual for the cable was written in Japanese, and far as I, with my limited computer knowledge, could tell, my ailing NEC was not cooperating either.
The USB cable was made by a company called PCi (Planex Communications, Inc.) and distributed in Thailand by another Japanese company called Optimus (Thailand) Co., Ltd. In looking at the company's website it is evident that PCi is a major computer hardware manufacturer and in all likelihood, a USB cable is probably one of the cheapest things they make and getting any kind of technical assistance for such a trivial thing as a cable was not something I had much optimism for, especially given that the source of the problem was probably my old NEC and not the cable.
Nonetheless, seeing as Optimus had a local phone number I gave them a call and was given a technician, a Khun Wut, who spoke excellent English. He subsequently spent nearly 90 minutes on the telephone with me talking me through the installation and set-up steps necessary to properly create a network between the two computers. After all this time, it was apparent that there was indeed a problem with the old NEC (no surprise there!) that was not going to be solved over the telephone.
Khun Wut asked me where I lived. I informed him I lived in Patumwan, and he informed that his office was in Din Daeng (a relatively nearby district) and he passed through Patumwan on his way home to Pinklao (a district not so close and located on the other side of the Chao Phraya River). Would I still be up around 10 p.m.? Yes, I would.
Right on time, Khun Wut arrived and in about thirty minutes sorted out the problem and got the two computers talking. But he agreed to wait and make sure that the data transfer process went smoothly. At 11:30 p.m., about an hour and a half after he arrived, everything important was satisfactorily transferred and Khun Wut went home.
90 minutes on the telephone.
90 minutes at my apartment.
The charge for this service?
All I bought was a stupid USB cable. Not tens of thousands of dollars of hardware, but a stupid little USB cable that didn't even cost $50 US.
And I got 90 minutes on the telephone. I got a house call that lasted 90 minutes. And it was free. Absolutely free.
To Khun Wut, Optimus, and PCi, you are the best. Thanks.
I have a lengthy piece here. This is an edited version of the Cambodia portion of one person's second trip to Southeast Asia. The full story appears on Stickman's website, http://stickmanbangkok.com and it's a good read so give it a look. Go to the Reader's Submissions section and look for "Second Tour of Duty". The excerpts reprinted here are with the original author's and Stick's permission. Thanks to both.
...(Koh Kong) We had met an American woman who had backpacked the world and she joined us as we crossed the border into Cambodia without any problems, well almost. A smooth talking operator who called himself "Sam the Man" convinced us to use his taxi . We were later to call him "Sam the Sham" because he had scarcely dropped us off at our guest house when he began making moves on the US lady. This was to be my first impression of Khmer men and I still think of them as lizards, crawling out from the rocks to see what was in it for them! The Cambodian women and children are however fantastic and the general friendliness and use of English put them leagues ahead of the Thais. When Sam openly asked Miss US for sex and was promptly rejected, things began to turn nasty. At dinner that night he made a pest of himself and then demanded 600 baht for a 10 minute taxi trip earlier that evening. His rationale was that he had to repair his car and that besides westerners had plenty of money to throw away. We smilingly told him to get fucked and paid what we considered a fair price plus a smoothing over tip. This was still not good enough for Sham and we were introduced to his "friend" who worked at the local clinic and who made a few veiled threats about not wanting to see us at the out patient section of the clinic. We stuck to our guns (literally), paid the bill and walked (fast) back to the hotel.
...(Phnom Penh) When asking around about nightlife one invariably gets the same answer..Martini's. If there's one place that won't be seeing me soon, if ever again, its here. Situated on MV Mao Tse Toung if I remember correctly, Martini's is actually a mixture of an open air beer garden with an undercover bar and dancing area, an outdoor cinema and a food market. One is scarcely through the door when the hordes of attacking barracuda strike! If one thing in life pisses me off, its when a person is being constantly harassed when all you want to do is get a cold beer, find a good place to sit, check out the scene and if one feels like it make your choice of who you want to "talk" to. Here one is not given that choice! The first hostess to you thinks that she has already put in her peg and staked her claim. It took me an hour of removing her hands on my crotch and simply ignoring her before she eventually left. There were some very attractive girls but the whole "hard sell" attitude coupled with expensive drinks made me want to get the fuck out. Another annoying thing which I found throughout Cambodia is that the lizards always seem to accompany their working girlfriends into the clubs and you always feel their beady eyes on you. They will also drink themselves comatose and the pretty lady from the night before will turn up to work the next day with a blue eye or swollen lip. Real Bastards!! Sharky's bar was totally different, reminding me of Gulliver's bar in Khao Sarn road in Bk. A good relaxed ambience, reasonable drink prices, attractive but not pushy ladies and generally a nice place to relax and enjoy the evening. I made it my watering hole for the duration of my stay in PP.
Reap) There is a nightlife of sorts in Siem Reap, but this is limited
to some pubs and good streetside restaurants. One pub, the well named
Angkor What? holds special memories for me in that it was here that I
was witness to the ultimate in arguments... A 2 hour heated debate on
RICE! This took place between 2 expats and was so stupid as to be hilarious.
It started with one innocently stating that he did not enjoy eating rice
and ended with all listening well educated on the history and various
forms and cultures of rice. Whenever the argument started flagging, one
of us spectators would "accidentally" mention something to do
with rice and things would flare up again. This was people watching at
its best! [Gordon here: Unbeknownst to the original author, I was in
the Angkor What? on this particular night and am friends with one of the
guys involved in the infamous Great Rice Debate. This was indeed one of
the most surreal conversations I have ever heard and it was a source of
jokes for a good week to follow for all who where present that evening
- myself, the guy who manages the Ivy Bar, and the then-bartender at the
Angkor What?. The author is by no means being trivial by including this
tale in his travelogue!]
It's been a year since I started this column. In August 2001 I produced the first of these monthlies with only four topics in that column. I discussed the state of dengue fever in Siem Reap, made a few editorial comments directed at Phnom Penh's scheme to paint all the buildings yellow, discussed the policy of commissions in Cambodia, and finally, made my first foray into detailing overland travel between Bangkok and Siem Reap - something that would ultimately grow into a huge section of its own and even take over the top spot as the number one read feature on this website - which probably goes to show that a number of people were coming to this column not to read what I had to say, but to obtain the overland information. Still, a few thousand of you check in to this column every month and to whatever extent (a quick skim or thorough digestion of my every word) you stay, you at least are coming back. Thanks for that.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
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