Scandal! UNTAC soldier seen with taxi girl! A decade ago this would certainly not have been a scandal and the UN didn't seem to get too upset about it then, either. Now a decade later the Cambodian Cultural Village, Siem Reap's latest tourist attraction has run afoul of the UN for placing in their wax museum the figures you see in the image to the left.
The Cambodian Cultural Village is sort of a theme park approach to the history and culture of Cambodia primarily aimed at the domestic market. This is kind of a good thing when someone, in this case the owner of the Canadia Bank ("that's Hun Sen's bank - so it must be good," is what everybody tells me), has enough confidence in the domestic tourism market to sink a few million dollars into a project with the obvious expectation of turning a profit from it.
The complex, though still not completed, is a clean, spread out, well-landscaped affair offering a museum as well as reproductions of a number of famous Cambodian landmarks and miniature versions of different ethnic villages. Scheduled live performances provide the opportunity to observe a variety of rites and ceremonies of Khmer culture.
The museum has two sections. Facing the building from the parking lot, the room on the left houses stuffed versions of the different types of wildlife found (or once found) in the jungles of Cambodia as well as on plates in a few restaurants in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, and certainly Anlong Veng. Also in this room lies an assortment of tools and implements and ancient jewelry. Several wall murals, including a scene of Angkor Wat as it might have looked shortly before its completion, frame the room.
Across the hall is the wax museum which includes the controversial (well, controversial to anyone with no sense of humor or grasp of reality) UNTAC soldier figure. The museum shows figures throughout the history of civilization in Cambodia, both real and representative. It begins with an Apsara dancer, a woman from 2000 years ago, a depiction of Jayavarman VII (seen right), and an Angkorian era army general. The next room brings in figures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Turn right and we see modern history with depictions of ethnic hilltribes, entertainers from the 60s and the 90s, an ideal modern family, and of course the UNTAC soldier shown with his arm around a taxi girl.
The Cambodian Cultural Village has English-speaking guides, who, to the
credit of the facility, do indeed speak excellent English, so I had a
chat with a couple of them about the UNTAC figure and learned that not
only does the UN not have a sense of humor, they have also failed to understand
what the aims are of the Cambodian Cultural Village.
With all apologies to the UN, I think the Cambodians have every right to tell their version of history any way they see fit. And if boiling down the UNTAC operation to a soldier with a taxi girl is what they want, then so be it. Truth sometimes hurts, huh?
UNTAC soldiers aside, if I could voice one criticism of the wax museum it was the lack of any signs that would indicate who some of the figures were (other than their names), why they are depicted as they are and what their respective places are in Cambodian history as I think a majority of foreigners would not know any of this. A short paragraph at each exhibit would be most helpful - and also allow the facility to explain, as if they have to, why UNTAC is portrayed as it is.
After the museum, one can take a walk around a reproduction of Udong (the off and on capital in the years between the fall of the Angkor empire and the permanent relocation of the capital to Phnom Penh); all the hills and temples there are recreated here. There are also miniature versions of Phnom Penh's Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda, National Museum, Central Market (seen left), and Wat Phnom.
Village reproductions include an ethnic Kroeung village, a typical countryside Khmer village, a floating village, a Chinese village, a Cham village, a Kola village (from the Pailin area), and a traditional millionaire house. Several additional villages, including an Overseas Khmer community in the USA, are still under construction as well as are workshops. Overall, the reproductions are accurate, if not a bit idealized.
I didn't have the opportunity to see any of the performances, but the schedule lists among others, Apsara dancing, fishing, weddings, games, and more.
The Cambodian Cultural Village is near the airport on Airport Road. Admission is $5 for foreigners and $1 for Khmers. On the day I visited I saw only two other foreigners but several hundred Khmers and the Village is apparently quite popular with them.
Last month I wrote that the plan to license all motodop, and as it turns out all taxi drivers, bus drivers, etc who transport tourists around the Angkor Archaeological Park, had been almost instated. I can confirm now that the plan is fully in place and the drivers are indeed wearing their vests.
Hence, my reminder then to would-be tourists is that now that the plan has been implemented you take full advantage of it. All drivers' vests bear a unique ID number and they carry a photo ID card affixed to these vests that will, in theory anyway, bear the same number as the vest. And there is a telephone number you can call if you have a problem or you can visit the tourist police office in person.
The following is a list of just some of the complaints that would be
considered legitimate and the police would like to know about:
Here's one that's got us all scratching our heads in befuddlement. For eternity, anyone who wanted to spend an hour or two touring the floating village at Chong Khneas (that would be the Vietnamese floating village near Siem Reap) need only drive to the boat docks, sort out a boat with any one of a number of boat operators, usually for about $8, and off you went. Now the government has decided for some unknown reason, we assume it's money, to take control of the operation. The tourist police, and when I visited there was also a representative of the Ministry of Tourism on hand, have set themselves up near Phnom Krom, and every vehicle coming through is stopped and forced to pay money to them for the boat tickets. Those arriving for other purposes need not pay.
[photo: new checkpoint near Chong Khneas for purchasing tickets to tour the floating village near Siem Reap.]
The new pricing system is a bit silly. Any individual will pay $8 for their own boat. Two people will pay $12, and it's then six bucks a head for every additional person. So, in theory, a group of ten will pay $60 for a boat! But if a tour group turns up in the accompaniment of a licensed guide or from a licensed agency the price is only $8 total!... and that's for up to ten people! In 2004 they plan to change the group rate to 1-3 people at $8 for a boat, 4-10 people at $10 for a boat, and an additional one dollar for each additional person.
So let's get this straight. If I come with four of my own friends it's going to be $30 but if we go through a tour agency the price is only going to be $8 (or $10 next year)? Hmm.
And as for the actual implementation of this system, I know one foreigner who went down there with a group and was asked for $50. A little haggling in Khmer brought the price down to $10. Another friend of mine went with his parents and was asked for $20 to which he said no, he wasn't interested. He then went to the boat docks to try and sort out his own boat for less. A few of the boat operators wouldn't take them on a tour in the absence of whatever document the police issue, but eventually one agreed to do it for $10. Now you know.
1.) Hun Sen or the Vietnamese own Angkor Wat.
I've written about this before, but if there's any topic that needs constant attention, it's this one. The temples are the property of the Cambodian people (though some might say they don't feel as if they own them).
Restoration, preservation, and maintenance of the temples and the Angkor Park grounds is the responsibility of a Cambodian government organization called the Apsara Authority. Almost all of the restoration work is undertaken with foreign assistance, financial and technical.
The ticket concession is under contract to a private Cambodian corporation called Sokimex. Contrary to false information spread by members of the political opposition as well as impressionable and ill-informed moto and taxi drivers, Sokimex is very much a Cambodian corporation and the brothers Sok (a rather common Cambodian surname) who own the company would be most insulted if you insinuated they were not Cambodian. Sokimex owns not one single stone of Angkor. They collect the money and issue and inspect the tickets. That's it. That's all they do. They presently get to keep about 35% of the revenue with the aforementioned Apsara Authority receiving about 65%. For more information about the division of funds and the contract that governs this arrangement, read a story I did in October 2000 about this very topic. If you'd like some more information about restoration projects and management of the park, you might like to read an interview I did with Ang Choulean, Department of Culture and Monuments of the Apsara Authority, also in October 2000.
2.) Tourists need to worry about land mines.
Tourists need to be aware of land mines, but they don't need to worry about them. Cambodia does indeed have millions of mines but they are found predominantly along the Thai border, hours away from where most tourists ever go. For 99.9% of tourists, no land mine lies within two hours of anywhere you are likely to be. The nearest land mine to Angkor Wat would probably be found along the backside of Phnom Kulen which is quite a trip through the jungle to reach and few people, other than the HALO Trust workers removing these mines, go anywhere near them. Preah Vihear temple is probably the one place where tourists are likely to visit where one needs to exercise an ounce of caution and a pound of common sense. HALO Trust is up there now working and where they haven't cleared, the areas are clearly marked.
Other areas where a handful of tourists might venture where a little land mine awareness would be in order would be the Koh Ker temple complex (CMAC is clearing now), the Cardamom Mountains, Anlong Veng, and any overland trips made near the Thai border. But these are out of the way places that only a few tourists reach and those that do should have already been made aware of any dangers that may exist. So while land mines are still a big problem for a lot of Cambodians, for nearly all tourists, they are only something to know about and not something to worry about.
3.) There are land mines right along Highway 6 between Siem Reap and Sisophon, the signs are everywhere.
I can't say how many times I've heard a tourist, recently arrived from Bangkok via the overland route, make this comment. And it's always good for a chuckle. All along the north side of the highway, spaced every hundred meters or so, are signs that if you want to think they warn about land mines, will of course, warn you of land mines. But if you look closely you'll see that the signs show a figure with a shovel about to dig a hole in the ground and the figure is covered with the international symbol for "no": a circle with a line through it. There's a communications cable buried there and if someone were to snap it with a shovel Siem Reap and beyond would be sent back to the Stone Age until someone came along and fixed it. It always amazes me that tourists assume it's a land mine sign without considering the fact that there are children, dogs, and pigs running around the signs, families building homes, etc and how can they do all of this if there are land mines in the ground there? Of course, as many of these tourists are on the Khao San Road scam bus, which part of the scam includes scaring tourists so as to increase their dependence on the bus operators thereby increasing again, the likelihood the tourists will stay at the guesthouses they are sold to, it's no surprise that some tourists would be led to believe there are mines here. "Excuse me," asks the tourist, "are there land mines here?". "Oh, yes," says the bus assistant, "many land mines. But don't worry. We know. We'll take care of you."
4.) Phnom Penh is dangerous.
Dangerous for a motorbike, sure. But armed robbery, murder, and what not? Hey, Phnom Penh has almost a million people in it. How many western cities of one million people have a crime problem? All of them, really, and why would Phnom Penh be any different? It's a big city with dark streets, a population that gets by on at best, an average of $2 a day, and there are still a few guns around. Sometimes people are going to get robbed. As they do in New York, London, Paris, and Sydney. Phnom Penh is not anymore dangerous than any other city of one million people. There is no good reason why you shouldn't feel free to go out at night. Just don't walk when you do and exercise the same common sense you would back at home. But don't go around thinking that someone, maybe ex-Khmer Rouge (!), are lurking behind every corner waiting to plug you. They aren't.
5.) Be careful on the highways. There are road blocks and police and ex-Khmer Rouge (!) extort money from passing vehicles.
Another silly one. This was indeed a problem until about 1999, though for the most part even then, it was of no concern to foreigners unless they happened to be driving. Today, there are still a number of roadblocks on the highways, but most of these are tolls or customs inspection points. While it might be advisable to define the term "toll" loosely, regardless of who is wearing the uniform or why they are collecting the money, this is not something that any foreigner needs to think about. Whatever the amount that has to paid, it's between the driver and the person on the other end and no one's ever pointing a gun or threatening violence on anyone. These aren't shoot 'em up roadblocks. From a tourist's perspective these are nothing more than tolls and usually it's only trucks that have to pay. Don't think about them. I know the roadblock thing makes for exciting adventure travel, but if you want to do that in Cambodia you'll have to wait for the time machine to be invented and you can jump back to the mid 1990s.
6.) Siem Reap is dangerous.
This is absolutely ridiculous. Yes, there is the rare robbery and even rarer assault, but for a town that's invaded by several hundred thousand foreigners each year, the number of crime victims is minuscule. By and large, the people most likely to scare tourists into believing that Siem Reap is dangerous are a few unscrupulous guesthouse owners who'd like to see their guests stay in and eat and drink all their food and beer and the tourist bus operators who want to facilitate getting you to stay at the guesthouse they have sold you to. Visit Siem Reap and feel free to walk around the town and patronize the numerous businesses open there at any hour of the day or night. You'll find plenty of opportunities to spend your money in a variety of places and find an equal variety of people to spend it with. Do enjoy.
7.) Look at that 40-year-old western man with that 12-year-old Cambodian. What a disgusting pedophile he is!
Hmm, if you saw a 40-year-old white man with a 12-year-old white girl in your home country, what would you think? It probably wouldn't even register as something to think about. You see it every day, it's called father and daughter. So why is a double standard applied to Cambodia? Ah, yes... the reputation. Cambodia has a reputation as a pedophile haven and it's a reputation not entirely undeserved. However, whatever the pedophile problem, it's not like there are men flaunting their crimes in public. This place may be weird, but it's not that weird.
Do be careful before jumping to conclusions and you bring your own preconceived notions of what Cambodia is and you assume someone, by the company they keep, is a pedophile. There are many men here with Asian daughters, relatives, etc. and if you were to see a 40-year-old-man out in public, say shopping in the market, with a 12-year-old Asian girl, I would be 95-99% sure that she is either his daughter (natural or adopted - some children of mixed parentage will look almost entirely like the race of one parent or the other), perhaps a stepdaughter, a niece, or any other innocent scenario that probably involves family. While pedophilia is indeed a problem here and one we'd like to see go away, it is also very illegal and not something offenders are going to flaunt. Pedophiles may be many things, but stupid is not necessarily one of them. Pedophilia is not something you see, it's a behind-closed-doors crime and I do know people who have been unfairly harassed by well-meaning, albeit clueless tourists, because of their family ties and you do no one any good by jumping on that bandwagon.
8.) Hun Sen and his government are evil because he and his cronies are ex-Khmer Rouge.
Yes, Hun Sen was ex-Khmer Rouge and never more than a mid-level commander without a lot of power and certainly not the kind of power to make the kind of decisions that land you as the focus of a Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal. And let's not lose sight of the fact that in 1977 he defected.
But the point I want to make is not to defend the CPP or Hun Sen but to criticize the automatic ex-Khmer Rouge branding of anyone with KR connections from the 1975 to 1979 years. My former landlord, who's only a couple of years older than me (I was born in 1964) could be labeled ex-Khmer Rouge. A lot of people of that era could be labeled ex-Khmer Rouge. For the average individual caught up in the insanity of the times, the label really doesn't mean anything. It was survival and people did what they had to do. In 1975 my former landlord was old enough to know how to lie and young enough to be useful. He was the sole survivor of his family. As a teenager he found himself with the unenviable choice of doing whatever he was told or being killed. He chose to live and that decision and what he had to do still keeps him awake at night. And thousands his age would tell you the same story. And if you met him today you'd find a likable, honest man, doing his best to raise his family and live a normal life.
9.) Sihanoukville is a booming seaside resort town and now would be a great time to come in and set up a business.
Yawn. Sihanoukville is a sleepy little beach town with a handful of expats who don't make much money, and little to do but lie on the beach or sit in a bar and drink beer. Sihanoukville is not Thailand and never will be. If you're eyeing a town in Cambodia to invest some cash and actually turn a profit, Siem Reap is the first place you should look.
Last year the big event was Jose Carreras performing at Angkor and it was a concert only the privileged could attend, what with tickets priced at $500 to $1500 and all. Well this year, cellist Mstislav Rostropovich will perform at Angkor on December 14. He will be backed by the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Kees Bakels, and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia will perform as well.
Tickets are priced at $2000, yes, that's right, two thousand dollars a pop. Proceeds go to charity in the form of the Nginn Karet Foundation for Cambodia, which benefits seven impoverished villages in the Banteay Srei district of Siem Reap province. While the tickets with their $2K price won't see the likes of me are any of my friends standing at the ticket outlet, it's still nice to see any kind of charity event bring some dosh to those who need it.
If you think you have $2K and want a ticket or you want to find out more about the event or the charity, e-mail to this address.
Meanwhile, us poor mortals will do our Rock at Angkor Wat thing, pay a dollar and get pissed on cheap beer, and leave the folks with the real money to see Rostropovich and drink their champagne.
Not much in this department this month. The seemingly inevitable demise of Royal Phnom Penh Airways hasn't yet happened, but President Airlines continues its ascension to the ranks of real airlines. According to a recent Bangkok Post story (and the mere fact that the news media outside of Cambodia saw fit to write a story on the company must count for something), a third jet is on the way and the company's regional destinations will include via Phnom Penh: Singapore, Bangkok, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.
We have yet another new bar on Pub Street. It's called the Banana Leaf and has the distinction of being Siem Reap's smallest bar. Basically a small opening in a store front, it's a bar at the edge of the sidewalk, okay pavement, with about four comfortable tables and chairs out front. It's on the northern end of the street and while never destined to be a raucous place for drinks, it is a relaxing place to while away the evening chatting with your mates until 4:30 in the morning - an activity which I've already field tested.
There's a new internet discussion forum for Cambodia. It's at http://www.poppalorn.com/forum/ do check it out.
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
There was that curfew thing in October that lasted for all of one night. Here's a tourist's perspective:
This is kind of advertisement but I don't care, anything that provides an alternative to the Mealy Chenda van service between Koh Kong - Sihanoukville - Phnom Penh is welcome here:
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.
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.
A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 133 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. Most sections have been updated this past month.
And don't forget to check out the Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
restaurants, tours and more
I'm supposed to be in Laos right now, but I'm not. It's about the tenth time a planned trip to Laos has had to be put-off. Maybe in May or June I'll finally get there and you can read something, other than what others have sent me, about the place.
The 'beta' version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up on the eleventh of November. There are a couple of sections not yet finished and some maps that need to be played around with, but most of the information is there. Have a look.
The fifth edition of Thailand Update went up on November 15. Do check it out if you haven't done so already. The column's two main items are on Thailand's drug crackdown and the annual Loy Krathong festival.
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