Commune elections on February 3
Cambodia is divided into provinces.
Okay, okay, you get the point. On the 3rd of February, Cambodia is having its first commune elections in decades. To be commune chief is to enjoy a position that yields enormous local power. In the more rural areas, some of these communes exist as their own autonomous little fiefdoms. The present commune chiefs were appointed to their positions some twenty years ago.
If you expect to be in country on the 3rd I wouldn't sweat it too much. Yes, there's been violence, I don't have an exact count, but at least ten candidates for commune chief around the country have wound up dead in recent months. At first, most were Sam Rainsy or Funcinpec party candidates, but recently a few CPP candidates have also come to an untimely end. But following the conclusion of these elections there isn't likely to be mass street demonstrations as there were following the 1998 national elections. Unless you plan to stand around a polling place campaigning for an opposition party candidate, you shouldn't have a safety problem.
In face to face conversation, tourists often ask me about Cambodian politics and especially the ruling party - CPP (Cambodian People's Party) and Prime Minister Hun Sen. But also about Funcinpec - the royalist party headed by Prince Ranariddh, a son of King Sihanouk, and leader of the National Assembly, and the leading opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party headed by a former finance minister Sam Rainsy.
In general, if you talk to an NGO worker, some journalists, or someone employed by an agency receiving income generated outside of the country, you'll likely hear a lot of negative comments about the CPP, its human rights record, the level of corruption, etc. If you talk to someone in the business community whose income is generated inside Cambodia, you're far more likely to hear a more favorable opinion on Hun Sen and the CPP. Tremendous strides have been made in the stability of the country, and in that ever important image category. Whether it's a window show or a true clean-up of real problems, it's the image of the country that ultimately determines whether tourists will visit and investors will invest.
So then, what is the CPP? Is it a corrupt government that disregards human rights while serving its own self interests? Or is it a stable force in a once unstable country headed by a savvy leader who fought and clawed his way to the top, acting in the best interests of his country and his people. The answer? It all depends on where you're coming from...
And Funcinpec? Couldn't organize an orgy in a brothel. And Sam Rainsy? A mouth.
And just how politically aware are the Cambodians? A recent Cambodia Daily piece on the elections reported that a candidate for a commune chief position in Ratanakiri province could not remember who he voted for in the 1998 national election except to say it was the party that gave him the most money.
Logging the Cardamoms
In mid-January I traveled through the Cardamom Mountains by motorbike. Beautiful, pristine, sure - all appropriate adjectives, but for how long? Almost without exception, every time we stopped and shut off our bikes, did we hear the sounds of birds? No. Monkeys? No. The roar of a tiger, the snort of a rhinoceros? No. We heard buzzing. No, not the buzzing of bees but the buzzing of chain saws.
To read a short travelogue on this trip, connect here.
After arriving in and spending the night in Koh Kong on the aforementioned Cardamom trip, the next leg was to get to Phnom Penh. Midway is the village of Sre Ambel. It used to be that to motorbike the 145 kilometers between the two towns would take two long hard days. Now you can do it in three hours.
The Thai Army is constructing a highway - a real highway - that will connect Phnom Penh to Thailand on a southern route (Trat province in Thailand, Koh Kong in Cambodia). As of mid-January nearly 60% of the road is almost finished except for the paving. There's one stretch of thirty kilometers that has only been surveyed and packed and widened enough to facilitate getting trucks through, and there's one eighteen-kilometer stretch they haven't touched at all, but the progress has otherwise been tremendous.
Still, four major bridges will have to be constructed - for now, one must use a ferry, okay a canoe, to get your motorbike across these large rivers and the eighteen-kilometer stretch they haven't started yet can only be covered by motorbike - no four-wheel vehicle can do it.
But with only two hours maximum presently needed to cover the 147 kilometers from Sre Ambel to Phnom Penh and only three more hours needed between Koh Kong and Sre Ambel, one can already get a feel for the future. When this highway is finished it's going to be a major boon to the economy of southwest Cambodia and to the ease of transport between Phnom Penh and Thailand.
Life as a motodop
I'm not the kindest gentleman in the world when it comes to talking about motodops - the motorbike taxi drivers ubiquitous throughout Cambodia. To be fair, most are decent guys just trying to earn a buck, but there's the minority that follow and harass tourists who only want to take a stroll down the street, ones that can't take 'no' for an answer, and ones more concerned with how many scams and commissions they can pull rather than just taking the tourists where they want to go. Still, they aren't as aggressive as say, a Saigon cyclo driver, but there are enough bad apples out there and I've had enough annoying encounters with them that I tend sometimes to judge too negatively their breed.
So I'm going to try to see their lot from the other side.
What a miserable way to make a living.
Most motodops are motodops because there simply isn't another job to do. When you can't find a job, what do you do? You put on a baseball cap and ride your Honda Cub around town looking for somebody to transport. And look. And look. And look. In Phnom Penh the poor guy all too often has to worry about whether his next fare is going to stick a gun in his face and steal his bike. The guys in Siem Reap, while getting $6-8 a day to take tourists around Angkor, may only find customers a couple of days a month in the low season. The rest of the time? He's sitting on his bike waiting for that customer. All day. Sitting around waiting for business that isn't there. Outside the bars in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh drivers will congregate waiting for customers to depart, hoping one will need a ride. And they will wait for hours and hours, sitting around ever hopeful they can get one last fare home. And their reward? 2000 riels (50 cents US) to take that last customer home at 1:00 in the morning. A customer he might have waited three hours for.
I like some motodops, really I do. I'm quite friendly with the group that used to sit across the street from the Capitol Guesthouse in Phnom Penh, though most, to their credit, have now moved on to better things and are more likely to be sitting at Sada's Guesthouse when they have nothing better to do. And I get along real well with the guys that sit outside Sharky Bar every night - but those guys are lucky - they actually do a pretty good business there, but still, riding around late at night does carry a bit of risk, so I give these guys a little credit for their efforts.
A FAQ of sorts
Seeing as news is a little lean this month and as I'm asked a lot of questions, both by e-mail and in person about Cambodia, here are some answers to some questions I've been asked more than a few times.
Q: I would like to bring some gifts for the children, what would be best?
A: Nothing. Bring nothing. Give nothing. Oh, that's a harsh answer, I know, but... This country is already on the dole. With huge amounts of international aid pouring in there's already too much of a 'why invest our own money and energy when some foreign government or NGO will do it for us?'. This trickles all the way down to the little kids who, if the recipient of small presents from foreigners, will only come to see foreigners as a source of free handouts.
There's nothing wrong with bringing a basket of fruit if making a home visit, or helping out an individual or two who demonstrates an effort to help themselves in the process, but to turn up somewhere with a bag of candy or pens or whatever and start tossing them out to expectant little hands... Please... don't. Santa Claus isn't real.
Q: How safe is it to travel around the rural areas? Some foreign embassy reports (i.e. Canada) and some guidebooks still advise against it for security reasons.
A: Nonsense. The last reported incident of highway banditry occurred in 1999. Any roadblock you encounter is a legitimate toll. What? Are you expecting a third world country like Cambodia to have modern toll booths? Here, a tollbooth is a bamboo gate and an old guy in a uniform will move that gate when you give him the money. He'll even give you a receipt if you want.
I have traveled throughout Cambodia and have encountered almost nothing but friendly curious locals. Embassy reports that advise against overland travel are written by people that quite frankly, have never been outside of an office in Phnom Penh if they've even been in Cambodia at all.
One of the most inaccurate reports comes from Canada - a country which doesn't even have an embassy in Cambodia! Reports, like the Canadian report, that advise against overland travel in Cambodia, do a tremendous disservice to both tourists and locals alike. A disservice to the tourist by potentially scaring somebody away from what might otherwise be a memorable travel experience, and to the locals by denying them needed tourist revenues.
Q: Are land mines a problem for tourists?
A: No. Half a million tourists alone walked around Cambodia in 2001 and nobody stepped on a land mine (though a few probably stepped in human excrement outside Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh). To this day, there have been no reported incidents of any foreign visitor stepping on a mine in Cambodia. The major tourist areas are absolutely mine-free. While the guidebooks still suggest being careful, even around Angkor Wat, the question you need to ask yourself is - do you plan to go bushwhacking through the trees, treading upon land no human as walked upon in years? I think the answer is 'no'. Even if you step into the bushes to answer nature's call, you're almost certainly going to walk along a well-worn path. So relax.
But - with the safety situation so much improved throughout Cambodia, more tourists are venturing deep into the countryside and into mined areas. For the record, I have been in several heavily mined areas. On a recent motorbike trip through the Cardamom Mountains I was warned by several CMAC (Cambodian Mine Action Centre) workers that parts of the road from Veal Veng to Koh Kong were lined with mines. Was this a problem? No, we simply stayed on the road and only ventured off if there was physical evidence that others had done so already. Remember, a land mine can't jump out of the bushes and attack you.
If it's your desire to get out into the sticks, by all means, do so. There are some great experiences to be had, but you do need to exercise some common sense. If possible, seek information from either a CMAC or HALO Trust worker if there are mine clearance activities presently underway in the region you are in. If not, check with locals and most importantly, stick to areas that have signs of recent human activity.
But if you're only wandering around Angkor you have *NOTHING* to worry about.
The number of land mine casualties has been dropping considerably. In 1996 there were 3000 incidents. In 1999 that number was down to a 1000.
Q: Are the boats safe?
A: Many travelers use the speedboats to get around Cambodia. The most popular route is between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, but there are also routes between Siem Reap and Battambang, Sihanoukville and Koh Kong, Sre Ambel and Koh Kong, and up the Mekong from Phnom Penh to Kompong Cham, Kratie, and during the wet season, all the way to Stung Treng.
There are four types of boats. The largest is a huge hydrofoil that runs between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap during the wet season. The most commonly used are the 'bullet boats' which seat about 90 people and run all but the Battambang to Siem Reap and (so I'm told) the Sre Ambel to Koh Kong routes. A smaller boat designed to hold about 40 people that uses outboard engines runs (so I'm told) the Sre Ambel to Koh Kong route and the Siem Reap to Phnom Penh route when the water level drops very low. These may be used on the Battambang to Siem Reap route but the one time I did that trip it was in the final variety - a little dinghy with an outboard motor designed to hold about ten people but carrying a few more than that. I've traveled all the routes except the Sre Ambel to Koh Kong route (which is why I don't know much about it).
The boats I don't like are the 40-seater variety, as these are often dangerously overcrowded, and the little dinghys that run between Battambang and Siem Reap, piloted by a helmeted driver who thinks he's racing in Le Mans as he snakes his way down the narrow Sangker River at top speed.
The boats are a little dodgy, yes. And life preservers? Forget it. But - the boats are still definitely safer than traveling the highways where serious accidents are an all too common occurrence.
It's been well over a year since I last heard of a boat going down, which resulted in one fatality. And as for claims of hijacking, banditry, etc., there was that one incident in March 2000 on the way to Siem Reap when a boat was taken over by hijackers. An action, that by all accounts, seemed to be more politically motivated than an actual robbery. The motive: rob a tourist boat, hurt the tourist industry, hurt the CPP government, or so the logic went.
My verdict? Go ahead and take the speedboats. Hundreds of folks do so every day without incident. The boat ride is much more enjoyable sitting on the roof where you can enjoy the views and swim to safety if you have to. And it sure beats the blaring karaoke and the absolutely frigid air conditioning the boats often have on the inside. Just cover yourself liberally with sunblock. Better yet - do what I do - a long sleeve shirt, hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen for what little skin is exposed. The roofs are white and you will, in the absence of protective measures, *FRY*.
Q: I want to help Cambodia. Maybe work for an NGO or something like that, what can I do?
A: Several times I've been asked this very general question. My first response is the obvious... what do you want to do and what are your skills? If it's your desire to actually come and work for an aid organization, then find one that does something *you* are interested in doing. Do you want to teach? Do you want to work in human rights? Women's rights? Health care? Poverty? Choose what you want to do and then find an organization that's doing the same. If I was the director of an aid organization and you came to me with a very general "I want to help", I would not give you a job. Be specific and look for an organization that does what you want to do, not the reverse.
Q: What's the deal with visas?
A: Very easy in Cambodia. Tourist visas are issued at Cambodian embassies worldwide or more conveniently on arrival at both international airports, Siem Reap and Pochentong (Phnom Penh). They cost $20 and you need one passport photo. If you forget your photo they'll usually make you wait until they process all the other passengers and then they'll charge you a dollar or something and let you in anyway. Do not worry if you forget a photo. Tourist visas are also issued on land crossings from Thailand only. This is at Poipet and Koh Kong. Here they charge 1000 baht instead of $20, pocketing the three extra dollars they get on the exchange. If you try to hand them $20 they'll refuse it, telling you to go change it to baht and come back with the Thailand money. Tourist visas are good for thirty days from arrival and may be extended once for an additional thirty days. They are not issued at land crossings from Vietnam or Laos.
Business visas are also issued at the same locations. At the airports they cost $25, but coming in from Thailand they demand 1500 baht - about $35. If you plan to come overland from Thailand and you want a business visa - get it at the embassy in Bangkok. Business visas may be extended indefinitely. Fees are presently $150 for a six-month multiple entry extension and $280 for a full year.
The visa application form is so simple a monkey could fill it out. The only requirement for obtaining a visa - tourist or business, is that you have a valid passport and the proper money. The same holds true for business visa extensions. There are no questions asked, no verification of employment, nothing. You pay the money - they give you the stamps. It's that easy.
Motorbike rentals in Siem Reap
Just a quick update. Confirmed. Tourists may once again rent and operate motorbikes in Siem Reap and around the Angkor Archaeological Park. Ride safe.
I noticed on my recent motorbike trip (and my last two pick-up truck rides to/from Poipet) that a lot more travelers are exploring Cambodia by bicycle. I have to hand it to you folks, riding long distance in the Cambodian heat on these rough roads is not something I'd want to do, but seeing more and more people biking across the country is a trend I hope to see continue.
Quick! Name two things Cambodia has that Thailand wants.
In Siem Reap town, roads run alongside both the east and west banks of the Siem Reap River. These roads are one-way, southbound on the west bank, northbound on the east. Due to a regular police presence at the top of the west side road, there's reasonable adherence to this law on the part of the Khmers. But the east side of the river is almost entirely ignored by the police and as such, the one-way, northbound only regulation is almost entirely ignored by the Khmers.
Recently I saw a young woman I know riding south on the northbound side of the road. So I asked her the obvious question, why do you go the wrong way on a one way street?
"Oh, it's no problem," she said, "I'm Cambodian."
In this month's electronic mail bag:
A teenager wants to make a difference. Any overseas Khmers in California want to offer him an outlet? E-mail me and I'll put you in touch.
hello. my name is (deleted). 17 yr old cambodian american boy living in california. i have been visiting your site for quite some time now as well as andy brouwer's. i'm absolutely touched!! the effort you put into bringing the light of reality to the rest of us who really does care yet cannot do much else truly does make a big impact. i, myself have sent several hundred dollars to help build schools and for charities yet my current existence forbids me to do much else. however, compassionate people like yourself really gives hopeless people like myself, hope and a sense of motivation to continue on with such efforts as little as it may be. there were times when i felt i couldn't make a difference. i mean, a juvenile in the states? what can he do? apparently, knowing such people like you exist is living proof that a single man or woman can do just about anything. yes, a cliche but when it's something that's been proven to you, it's no longer cliche, but reality. i hope you continue your efforts and that your passion grows. on behalf of my people, i thank you.believe me, i am not blowing this out of proportion at all. your good thoughts, small actions and strong sense of compassion really does make a difference. in the lives of s'kun, pheoun, etc.. i wish you the best.
My kind of reader with my kind of ideas. Methinks this guy will handle the overland BKK - Siem Reap trip just fine.
I think all scammers should be put in from of a Comando of Fuseliers in some backyard with no onlookers ,Asked by a Grand Inquisitor ( I might volunteer for the role ) just one question , is "why you hassling touriss wid scam , you scum ? " , and if they don't come up with a real good answer , on that satisfies even the Grand Inquisitor Himself , and he is not an easy one to satisfy , then just an almost unnoticeable slight movement of His Excellency by head , in direction if the Comando who would instantly understand the gesture , and one dirty lousy scambag less.
Another overland misadventure:
I travelled to Siem Riep overland on November 11, 2001. I had printed out your instructions on how to do the overland trip on your own and we followed it to a T until we got off the bus and needed to find a tuk tuk to the border. We were accosted by a transport agency who offered to take us to Siem Riep for 200 Baht. I told them that I had read about their scams and that we wanted to arrive before night fell. It was 11:30 am and she assured us that the trip would take only 4 hours, so depending on how long it took for us to get our visas, we should be there between 4 amd 5 pm. I didn't believe this, but my travelling companion did not want to go through the hassle of finding a pick-up, so we went with this girl. She paid for the tuk-tuk, showed us where to go at the border, and was quite helpful, actually. It took us about 30 min. to get through immigration. She told us to wait in a cafe. Here we waited, and waited, and waited. We wanted to leave, but we had already paid... (should have just seen it as sunk costs!) Finally, at 3:30, the girl had rounded up enough victims to fill a bus and we were off. The road was rough, NOT made for buses. Although it did not make any stops (save one short bathroom break), we did not arrive until 10:30 pm. We were dropped off at the Happy Guesthouse and pressured into staying. I told my fellow travellers that Siem Riep is not dangerous at night and that we could simply walk away. Although the touts from the guesthouse were very unpleasant as we staged our mass escape, we ignored them and guided nearly everyone to the main street (the touts physically prevented 2 Korean girls from going, and one Canadian guy decided he liked the rooms and decided to stay). There we found some Motodops and we went our separate ways to various pre-planned guesthouses.
And from the same writer as above, some troubles with the young de facto guides that prowl some of the Angkor temples. I've never addressed these kids before but this writer's experience is all too familiar. And that he had a markedly different experience with the souvenir sellers opposed to the de facto guides is not at all uncommon. I don't care to imagine how these kids will turn out as adults.
We didn't have any problems with souvenier sellers at the temples. However, on our last day, visiting the temple of Prah Khan, did we run into two annoying local boys who attached themselves to us. Seemingly friendly, they pointed out various thing to us and acted as de facto guides. The were quite intelligent and we knew that they would end up asking us for money. Sure enough, at the end of our "tour" they asked for a "present". We offered them 1000 riel each and they turned mean and ugly. They demanded $1 each. We refused and they followed us for ages moaning and complaining. They told us that they had to pay the policeman a fee to be there, and that our payment wouldn't cover it. We told them that if they expect a certain fee, they have to ask for it up front, instead of being so underhanded. Guess they didn't want to hear a lecture from us. Finally they gave up and left us alone. But the whole this was very unpleasant.
From an overseas Khmer:
I was born in Cambodia. I came to America in 1981as a refugee. I am now
an American citizen. In August 2000 I went back to Cambodia for the first
time in in about 20 years. Nothing has changed since the last time I left
in 1980. People are still poor. I didn't get to go to the country sides
where my relatives live because I didn't want to travel on bumby roads.
I stayed in Phnom Penh and Seim Reap and my relatives visited me in Seim
Reap. I really enjoyed my visit to Seim Reap and seeing Ankor Wat for
the very first time. It was very exciting and most memorable moment in
my life. But as I climbed to Bakeng Prasat and sat there to witness a
quiet and peaceful sun set with fifty or more tourists the jumbo airplane
flew over my head. The sound of the roaring jumbo jet was very annoying.
I was with fifty or more tourists but it was peaceful because I could
tell everyone enjoyed the veiw and nobody made noise. I wish the government
empose no fly zone above the Ankor Wat areas. The noisy jet is contradict
to the junkle and mystic of the Ankor Park.
For February I'm down to Phnom Penh for a couple of days before heading up to the northeast to explore Ratanakiri even further then I have in the past and hopefully finally get myself into Mondulkiri province - one of only two remaining provinces in Cambodia I haven't yet visited (Preah Vihear is the other). Then later in the month it's off for my regular week-long excursion to Bangkok which will be broken by a long weekend down in Singapore. See you next month.
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