January 29. An angry mob lay siege to the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh, setting it afire and looting it thoroughly. Through the course of the night the mob continued to roam the city, trashing whatever lay in its path, and especially anything that bore Thai script. Several Thai businesses, including three hotels, and the Phnom Penh offices of the Shinawatra telecommunications company and Samart, were seriously damaged by rioters. In Siem Reap there were reports of sporadic vandalism against Thai-owned businesses but nothing on the scale seen in Phnom Penh. The Thai government has estimated damages at approximately one billion Thai baht (23.6 million US dollars).
Because a rumor started that Thai actress Suwanan "Kob" Kongying hated Cambodians, had accused Cambodia of stealing Angkor Wat and that she would never set foot in the country until Cambodia returned the temple to Thailand. The actress denied ever making these statements and no interview tape could be found that supported the allegation. Even the Khmer newspaper, the Koh Santepheap Daily admitted that there was no evidence to back up the rumor. Ultimately, it was revealed that the words she spoke came from a character she portrayed in a television series two years ago!!!!!
How did the rumor get started?
First of all, the actress is known in Cambodia because many Thai serials are dubbed in Khmer and shown on Cambodia television. She is (was) apparently quite popular with many young Khmers and her portrait adorns many homes in Cambodia (or did, anyway).
It was reported in the Koh Santepheap Daily on January 27 that the actress had made the comments on a recent television interview with Thai TV Channel 7. They, and other newspapers, published this report based on information received from three "sources". No attempt was made to verify the statements. They were simply published based on the tips received.
The following day, January 28, PM Hun Sen and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara both called for a ban of Thai television in Cambodia. Hun Sen went further, calling the actress, known to Khmers as "Morning Star", "Thief Star". Hun Sen was quoted in the Koh Santepheap Daily as saying, “Thief Star’s life is not even equal to a patch of grass around Angkor Wat." Hun Sen was also quoted as saying, "Some houses don't even have portraits of Cambodian king, queen or even their own parents. But they hang that girl's picture."
However, on the same day, the local Cambodia news was now reporting that there was nothing to substantiate the quotes attributed to Suwanan Kongying and that it really was all hearsay.
But it was too late. People were stirred up and on the 29th a crowd of protestors gathered in front of the Royal Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and in short order all hell broke loose when it was reported (falsely) that Thais had damaged the Cambodia Embassy in Bangkok.
Thais did protest outside the Cambodia Embassy in Bangkok but it was on the 30th, after the violence in Phnom Penh, and no violence or damage of any significance took place. And for the first time in a decade, His Majesty the King stepped into a fray, issuing a letter to the protestors urging calm and reason and not to replicate the actions of their Cambodian neighbors. The crowd responded by peacefully dispersing after singing the National and King's Anthems.
The ensuing rampage through Phnom Penh was nothing short of pathetic and the actions of those 1,000 rioters is going to have some serious repercussions for the 12,000,000 Cambodians who did not go on a riot through the streets of the capital. Thailand is seriously and justifiably pissed. Diplomatic relations are at an all-time low. Diplomatic ties have been downgraded to charge d'affaires. The Thai ambassador to Cambodia is back in Bangkok and the Cambodia ambassador to Thailand has been sent home. Trade has been suspended. The land borders are closed to all Thais and Cambodians. Thai pledges of assistance on vital infrastructure projects have been withdrawn.
All because 1,000 idiots went on a nationalistic spree of violence based on an unsubstantiated rumor.
It's an election year in Cambodia and the shit is hitting the fan already. As of today, January 31, it is appearing more and more that this was all a political game. As is being reported in the press locally and internationally, all indications point to political maneuvering, most likely originating from those in opposition to the ruling CPP. Anything that ultimately reflects negatively on a country, and believe me, this reflects very negatively on Cambodia, will reflect negatively on the government in power. Usually it's Vietnam that is dragged into this mess, but now it's Thailand. And Thailand is not going to tolerate being included in Cambodian political squabbling.
What will transpire in the next week, month? Who knows? This is one more episode in a thousand years of neighboring hostilities that ultimately will have to be worked out by the two countries.
I don't care to jump in the middle of what really is not my direct concern, but as one with one foot firmly planted in each of the two countries, I can't help but to at least offer a few observations that might aid in understanding why this happened.
Khmers are very sensitive to a number of issues, most notably the demarcation of their border and real or perceived border encroachment, both by the Thais and by the Vietnamese. There is also a feeling of exploitation by Thailand, who is a much larger, wealthier neighbor. Much of the illegal logging has been for the benefit of Thailand, and Khmers are understandably angered at the continued presence of Angkorian statuary appearing for sale in expensive art and boutique shops in Bangkok. Finally, as Thailand had at one point occupied the northwest section of Cambodia, there is the fear that they'd like to take this area back. The truth is, the Thai government makes no claim to Angkor Wat and I think most Thais feel the same. Granted, there are some Thais who do believe Angkor Wat belongs to them and I'm not shy to say that those folks have their heads firmly up their asses, but I don't believe that is a majority opinion. And I would add, then, that if Angkor belongs to Thailand than seeing as the Khmer empire had once extended into a number of Thai provinces in the Isaan region, couldn't the Cambodians just as legitimately lay claim to that territory? Same logic. But regardless, Cambodians are not secure in their border or in their ability to maintain sovereignty over what they believe is theirs, which is little more than the territory which they have today. This is why it is so easy to whip up such a firestorm as occurred on the 29th of January. But it's also important to note that Cambodians do not seek to extend their borders further. They are content with what they have, they only want to keep it intact. It doesn't matter if this fear is real or not, the fact is, the Cambodians feel it, so that makes it real.
And one last thing to think about. When a Thai complains that all their stolen cars are ending up in Cambodia, consider that it was a Thai who stole the car and a Thai that allowed it to leave the country. And when a Khmer complains about the looting of their temples and these treasures appearing in shops in Thailand, consider that it was a Khmer that broke the head off the statue and a Khmer that allowed the stones to leave the country. Both of you are in this world together as neighbors. Please sort this problem out.
Thailand - please try to understand your smaller neighbor better. While there is no justification for what happened to your embassy and your businesses, do try to see the Cambodian side. You don't have to agree with them or even like them. Just understand why they do what they do.
Cambodia - get your political house in order. What you do internally is your problem. You can squabble and backstab all you want but involving another country in a domestic political issue is reprehensible. If you want any respect as an independent country capable of maintaining legitimate standing in the world - then start acting like it.
Everyone else - this is not about one actress and what she did or didn't say. It's about one thousand years of history.
In yet another skirmish in the Thai - Cambodia rivalry, Preah Vihear temple reopened to Cambodians on January 15th. The temple, which sits atop a mountain on the Thai/Cambodia border had long been the center of a dispute, a dispute in both ownership and access. For the past year or so there had been no access to the temple, from either side, but in a cooperative effort between Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara and Preah Vihear provincial Governor Preap Tann, roads were built connecting the temple to Tbeng Meanchey in the south and Anlong Veng in the west, and most importantly, a road from the base of the mountain to the top was also constructed, though it's presently only accessible to motorbikes and 4-wheel drive vehicles.
I attended the opening ceremony and details and photos of the trip may be read here.
I also visited the most difficult to access temple of Koh Ker, which was briefly the capital of the Angkorian empire in the 10th century. Details of that trip may be read here.
It finally happened. Cambodia's newest airline, that in the spirit of the previous national carrier, Royal Air Cambodge, existed for several months as an airline with no airplane, finally put an airplane in the air. On January 28, the airline put it's sole aircraft, a Boeing 737, into the sky on a flight from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap and back. Mekong Airlines tells us it will be flying to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur, but for the time being, well, they made it to Siem Reap and back. But seriously guys, I wish you good luck and do hope this will be a successful airline as another airline, especially if it's a well-run one, can only benefit everyone.
While we're in the air, an Angkor money-making idea finally bore fruit. No, not a sound and light show, not an escalator up Phnom Bakheng, but a balloon. For $10 ($5 if you're a Cambodian), you can get a ten-minute tethered balloon ride that will take you 200 meters in the air affording fabulous views of Angkor Wat. The balloon rides originate from the road between Angkor Wat and the airport and at no time does the balloon ever come near a temple. No damage. No noise. No light. No pollution. I like this one.
Southeast of the Angkor temple complex, the Apsara Authority has set up a special hotel zone. The idea is to concentrate hotel development in one area minimizing the impact on the Angkor temples and surrounding region. Well, that's the idea, anyway. Problem is, the zone isn't really near anything and nobody wants to build there, preferring instead to continue developing along Highway 6, especially in the area nearing the airport. The whole idea could become moot if, after the July elections, Hun Sen can either take control of Apsara or at least reduce their power. The Prime Minister has been critical of this government body, saying they have too much control over development in Siem Reap.
Speaking of the Apsara Authority, the various temples and related attractions outside of the main Angkor Park grounds are further coming under control of Apsara and the ticket concessionaire, Sokimex, operating as Sokha Hotel Co., Ltd. Kbal Spean, the River of a Thousand Lingas, famous as a short jungle trek leading to a series of riverbed carvings had for a number of years been a free attraction. Now, the site, some forty-five kilometers north of Siem Reap, requires the visitor to hold a valid temple pass. More area sites are said to be coming under the same control.
For some time, it had been an almost impossible procedure to bring a car into Cambodia from a neighboring country. It was an ordeal which required first that you obtained the permission and signature of the chief of customs in Phnom Penh before you could even begin to deal with the process which, in itself, was still quite complicated.
However, Cambodia is a member of ASEAN and one of the agreements designed to remove barriers to international overland travel between member nations calls for any vehicle registered in an ASEAN country to be permitted open access to any other ASEAN country. PM Hun Sen recently issued a directive to that effect. However, I have still not yet heard any reports of someone successfully bringing in a vehicle from a neighboring country. So in theory, you should be able to do it now, but in practice... who knows? And with the recent Thai/Cambodia troubles, all bets are off.
The Guide Total des Routes du Cambodge 2003 is the first road atlas of Cambodia I've seen. Published by Alain Gascuel/Cambodge Nouveau, the book, sponsored by Total (a local oil company with service stations, repair shops, etc) and retailing for $10, features detailed maps of all the major highways of Cambodia and a number of their feeder roads.
Overall, I like this book and hope there's a 2004 version that improves on this first edition. The most positive aspect of this book is the detailed descriptions (in both French and English, though the latter appears to have been written by a French person) of the roads. This is a highly ambitious undertaking given the rapid rate of change which affects Cambodia's roads. Each highway is broken down by mile markers with a listing of the secondary roads, where they go, and what condition they were in when the author visited.
If I could voice one complaint it's that the book does not cover the entire country, leaving out the far southwest (western Cardamoms) and the central north (Preah Vihear province). Also, a few of the secondary road descriptions leave me confused, i.e., the roads in the Koh Ker region, which descriptions I'm not sure of.
Still, if you're looking for something more than just a map, pick up one of these books.
If visiting Siem Reap, one will usually find in short time, one or both of the two free guides published on the region, covering the temples, hotels, restaurants, services, etc, and distributed practically everywhere. There is the Canby Publications' Siem Reap Visitors' Guide and the FACG Editing, The Angkor Guide. The former is headed by an American, the latter by French. For some time I've been exclusively promoting the Canby book as, to be quite honest, I wasn't all that impressed with The Angkor Guide. Well, the FACG folks have completely redesigned and upgraded their book and it's quite an improvement. Furthermore, they plan to become more aggressive in their distribution extending their range to Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Now, we have two decent free guidebooks, published by folks who are going to do everything they can to put these books into as many hands as possible. So use both hands and grab one of each. Compare and contrast. Remember... they are FREE.
The verdicts are in. I reported in September on the August 3 arrest of two Siem Reap expats, Clint Betteridge, 35, and Bart Lauwaert, 36, both Australian citizens. Betteridge was sentenced to 10 years in prison while Lauwaert received a 20-year sentence. Betteridge had been released several weeks prior to the sentencing, however, the authorities held his passport. Still... when the verdicts were read he was nowhere to be found. Lauwaert on the other hand, is in for twenty years. Probably the best place for him.
The charges were debauchery (sex with girls aged 11 to 15), sexual harassment, using illegal narcotics, and running a brothel.
Finally. Cambodia has a real diving operation. Looking to take a dive in Sihanoukville? Then check out Scuba Nation, the first PADI dive center in Cambodia. Website: http://www.cambodiadivers.com/.
Seems everyone wants to tell Dave Manson, owner of Phnom Penh's Sharky Bar, how to run his business. Recently, Sharky Bar began offering Anchor Beer on tap, while continuing to offer competing Angkor Beer, which they've had on tap for years. Anchor is brewed by the same folks who brew Tiger beer.
The local Tiger representative turned up at Sharky Bar one day and much to his dismay, found that Dave had the audacity to sell Anchor and Angkor at the same price. "Oh, no," he said, "you must sell Anchor for less than you sell Angkor." Dave's response was simple, "Don't tell me how to sell my beer, if you don't like it, take both your Tiger and Anchor taps and get them out of my bar." Last I heard Tiger and Anchor were still on tap and Anchor was selling for the same price as Angkor... but... that was the last anyone heard...
A few days after the Tiger representative decided to appoint himself manager of Sharky Bar, the real managers and Dave, had a bigger hassle to contend with.
Let's face it, when it comes to serving drinks, the staff at Sharky Bar is, with a few exceptions, bordering on useless. Generally more interested in flirting with customers (and more), serving a simple drink and doing it correctly is to some of the girls there, a true cerebral challenge. Aware of this, several new policies were instituted at Sharky, including a ban on the use of mobile phones and a requirement that the girls had to carry a pen and paper with them at all times. Any waitress that failed to do this would receive two warnings. The third offense would result in termination. Sounds fair to me.
One night in mid to late January, one girl had her third violation and was told by one of the western managers, Al, (there are three, not counting Dave) to hit the road. Two of her friends working in the same section protested telling Al that if she goes, well, we go, too. Al did what most any manager would do, especially in dealing with truly expendable help, and told the three of them to get lost.
The following day the three returned with the entire staff of 21 waitresses in support. They made quite a protest outside the bar which brought a whole slew of police officers. No doubt, experiencing intense peer pressure from their co-workers, all 21 girls signed a petition stating that if Dave didn't fire the three western managers, they would all quit. Dave did what I think all of us would do in the same situation. He looked at the petition. He looked at the 21 angry girls. He looked at his managers. He looked back at the petition and then again back at the girls. "Bye-bye," he said.
Sharky closed for "renovations" and hopefully by the time you read this, will have reopened fully renovated. Other than two girls behind the bar, Srey Nin in particular, and one, maybe two girls on the floor, I couldn't care less about the complete turnover in staff. This can't help but be anything but an improvement.
I expect I'll be in Phnom Penh sometime later in February and will report on the new staff. I'd certainly like to see Srey Nin's face still in there (she's about the only one who never screwed up any of my orders), but alas... if not... Que sera sera.
More accidents. Fortunately, no one I know has died lately, but several more expats have crashed their motorbikes resulting in injury. One unfortunate victim is in fact a technical advisor on roads and bridges who had the misfortunate of falling into a crater near Siem Reap's Angkor Hospital for Children. A skull fracture and a week in a Bangkok hospital was his reward.
Again folks, if you're visiting Cambodia, please think long and hard before you rent a bike and drive yourself around. The danger in Cambodia isn't land mines, it isn't bandits, it isn't armed robbers on the streets of Phnom Penh, it's THE ROADS!!!
As Siem Reap tourism booms, more and more folks are coming out with postcards. No problem, I can't expect to be a monopoly of high quality cards, but one issuing of postcards really pisses me off.
Numerous foreigners have jumped into the postcard business and every last one of them has produced original designs that are clearly distinct from anything else out there. There are black & whites from a French guy. There are several folks producing montages, another guy is producing photos from less-touristed areas, a British woman has small, highly artistic cards tastefully providing scenes of every day Cambodia on a white background. And finally, there are my 5 x 7s with the distinctive black border.
But not anymore. Some Khmer, actually the guy who runs Ponleau Printing House, decided he couldn't be bothered to think up his own presentation and has come out with his own set of 5 x 7-inch postcards utilizing, you guessed it! A black border. They look exactly like mine, except for one thing, most of the photos suck.
Fortunately, since these have come out, there's nothing to indicate my sales have suffered in the least, but I don't appreciate being copied in this way. As for you, the potential customer, buy whatever you like, it's your choice. But if you see a collection of black-bordered 5x7-inch postcards and wonder why some of the photos suck so much, turn one over and see whether it has my name or Ponleau Printing House and the mystery will be solved. And if it does suck and does have my name, well... umm, that's okay, too.
Oh, about a year ago, the owner of Ponleau Printing House approached me about purchasing some images to use as postcards, book covers, or whatever he wanted to do with them. And his offer? Try $10 a picture. No wonder Khmers can't make any money with creative photography when they're offered shit like that.
The new Pochentong International Airport is open and they recently gave it its inaugural coat of paint. And the thing looks hideous. A piss yellow that duplicates the same scheme that Phnom Penh Municipality tried to get everyone to follow with that silly paint the town yellow nonsense in early 2001. Let's hope the paint was cheap and thus likely to fade quickly.
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
Ratanakiri, photography, commissions:
If somebody should go to Banlung: instead of taking one of those Khmer-guides for minority-looking stuff, it could be much more interesting and even more intelligent to be part of a tour from the lake-project. Information can be found at the American Restaurant, there is a poster on the wall and the number of the Australian guy organizing the project.
Good times in Siem Reap:
I was glad I read your section "It's not a Game" about the souvenir sellers. Unfortunately, many people are hardened by the sellers in other more developed tourist areas (Bangkok, Bali etc) where prices are hiked and you are expected to haggle. I am glad I "went in" feeling happy to pay what people asked at the temple sites (except Angkor Wat where I think the transition has been made to suit the hagglers) and saw their genuine smiles when we did not argue with them.
Your explanation and interview about the set-up of the temple ticketing etc., was also very informative. Anyway, I am busy forwarding your link to all and sundry here in Singapore, who will be following in our footsteps.
A memorable first trip to Cambodia:
have been back for just over a week now and desperately missing Cambodia.
When I look back prior to my trip, all the concerns I had, I feel so silly!
Did I really think I was going to another planet?? (Or was that just my
Memories... glad I can help:
Just under two weeks have elapsed since I stumbled out of the Angkor What?, fortified myself a bit, and made my way to wander about Angkor Thom at dawn. Quite an introduction to Cambodia... Already I find myself back in San Francisco, in an as-yet stark and soulless office, recalling the colors and tastes of Asia and envisioning an office -- not to mention a life -- transformed. A few photos (and who knows how many meters of brilliant raw silk) would definitely spruce things up a bit. Maybe that lovely blue shot of Angkor Wat in the rain? We'll see... In any case, ogling the pictures on your website offered a welcome break from Westlaw research on this dreariest of afternoons. Many thanks for the diversion.
I'm continuing to receive numerous travelers' reports, mostly detailing experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are three of them.
It's a done deal. I now have a Visa merchant's account and if you want to purchase a photograph from me you may now do so on this website using your Visa card. Go to the Photography section for more details.
A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file 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.
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