2003 was quite a year and one we won't soon forget, though ironically much of what made 2003 remarkable were events most of us would rather erase from our collective memories.
It was supposed to be Visit Cambodia Year 2003 with the Cambodian government, having come to the conclusion that Cambodia is well and truly a proper tourist destination now (and I do believe it is), prepared to launch a yearlong international tourism promotion. A sound enough idea, though many of us expats scratched our heads at the wisdom of sponsoring such a publicity campaign in a national election year. Ah well, we thought, let's see what happens.
That was back in January 2003... and who could have known?
The year gets off to a promising start with the January 15 opening of Preah Vihear temple. This long-contested landmark (ownership contested between Thailand and Cambodia) had for years been only accessible on the Thailand side, and more recently accessible from neither side. With then Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara leading the project, a road was finally put through from Tbeng Meanchey to the temple on the Cambodian side. The opening celebration is attended by approximately 10,000 people of which maybe ten are foreigners and I am one of those ten. The celebration, which lasts until dawn, is a positive display of national pride and an encouraging first step to Visit Cambodia Year 2003.
However, in a display of umm, planning and a mentality of which words fail to describe, this party with its 10,000 attendees is served by only three toilets and no garbage receptacles. Several temporary toilets (holes in the ground surrounded by tarps) are built, curiously behind ropes delineating the limits of land mine clearance. This would soon become a moot point as many visitors take home the land mine warning signs as souvenirs thus making it difficult to know which areas have and have not been cleared. Miraculously there are no injuries at the event.
In late January the ASEAN conference on tourism takes place in Phnom Penh and Visit Cambodia Year 2003 is officially launched. As it turns out Visit Cambodia Year 2003 becomes Visit Cambodia Day 2003 as the following night...
On the night of January 29 a group of rioters goes on a rampage causing some fifty million dollars of destruction as they set fire to the Thai Embassy and trash numerous Thai-owned businesses all because a Thai actress doesn't say Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand.
I'm not going to rehash all the gory details of this nonsense. But interested readers may wish to read (or reread as the case may be) my columns of February 2003 and March 2003 as well as an editorial of March 9 and an editorial of March 14.
Eleven months later the unintended consequence of these riots is a greater dependence on Thailand as Cambodia is forced to make concessions to Thai corporate and national interests in reparation for the damage caused by the rioting. Looking around various Cambodia discussion forums visited by Cambodians, mostly of the overseas variety, many of whom have very little firsthand experience with their homeland, I'm still appalled that there is still this, "yeah, we showed the Thais" mentality. Yes, you certainly have showed something to the Thais but it's not hardly what you think it is.
While relations on a state level are more or less normalized now, there is still a lot of animosity on both sides from the general populace. Thai tourist numbers are still way down and Cambodians are quick to express their own dislike for the Thai people. Great way to be neighbors, keep up the good work guys. May I make a suggestion? Thais - stop looking down on your neighbors and go visit Cambodia and find out like most Thais who visit, even now, that the country is not nearly as bad as you have been led to believe. I have met many Thais who have visited Cambodia in the last year and all have come back more impressed and with a better opinion of their neighbor. And to the Cambodians - stop being so afraid. Fear is your worst enemy. Thailand does not want Cambodia, they want to make money in Cambodia, just as do the Chinese, the French, the Americans, the Brits, the Malaysians, and any of the dozens of nationalities represented by the large expatriate community in Cambodia which you have chosen not to riot against.
Following the riots, millions of dollars in revenue are lost when the border crossings between Thailand and Cambodia are closed. Several factors further exasperate the situation. First, the news media fails to accurately report that the borders are only closed to commerce and locals, but the borders are otherwise open and staffed and that foreigners are able to pass through as they always have. Second, many travel agents and guesthouses on Bangkok's Khao San Road erroneously and in most cases, intentionally, tell would be travelers to Cambodia that the border is closed, the county unsafe, some even going so far as to say that Cambodia may have another war. Third, the so-called intrepid backpackers on Khao San Road readily believe this misinformation without further investigating its accuracy. Curiously, when external events curtail tourism, it is usually at the midrange level that the absence of tourists is most strongly felt, but during the aftermath of the riots, it's the backpackers who are most readily absent from Cambodia. I'm not a tourist, I'm a traveler my a**.
Causing great embarrassment to the nation of Australia, sex offender Clint Betteridge, released on bail as he awaits sentencing for his conviction, visits the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh whereby he's issued a new passport and he flees the country. Once in Australia he's taken into custody and remains there today as he awaits the two countries to sort out an extradition treaty as none had existed before.
While this case, due to the embarrassment factor for Australia, continues to maintain a high profile, if news reports are any indication, 2003 has seen a noticeable increase in the number of arrests of child sex offenders. While we can applaud this move, and I do, the fact remains that Cambodia's number one and most publicly noticeable venue for underage sex, K-11 remains open and the availability of underage children there continues. If Cambodia well and truly is serious about cleaning up its pedophile image, it can start by getting the kids out of Svay Pak. Shutting the brothels down is not the answer as it will only drive the sex workers further underground, but for chrissakes, just get the kids out of there and let the place continue as an adult playground for those who want it.
In March Kbal Spean is looted of some priceless sculpture proving that even today, the theft of Cambodia's national heritage continues. Mine clearance around temples in the Koh Ker region continues and a plan to put a road through to the historic area is announced in June. While this remote section of Preah Vihear province will get a needed economic boost from tourism, will the opening of numerous previously hidden temples, of a quantity well beyond the policing ability of the current Heritage Police force (they couldn't even protect Kbal Spean and its in the Angkor Archaeological Park!), result in the consequence that the Koh Ker temples will first host a band of looters before the bands of tourists?
Still not recovered from the riot nonsense, US-led forces invade Iraq and another wave of hysteria grips the world and travel plans are canceled as people go about their lives worried because CNN tells them to be worried. Worried about what, I know not what... a coalition invasion of Angkor Wat because a Thai actress doesn't say it belongs to Thailand? Hey, it's been that kind of a year.
Back on the riot front, in April residents of Kralanh, village motto "clean toilets", erase the Thai script off the nearly one dozen 'clean toilet' signs in the village. "That'll show them...," they must have said. Until this move it seemed a new public toilet block opened every month. Since April, however, half of them have disappeared. A connection, I wonder?
Khmer New Year is celebrated from April 14 to 16 and road carnage is as usual, part of the festivities. People, teenagers mostly, have interpreted the tradition of throwing a little water around to mean they can hurl bags of water at anything that moves. Motorcycles are a popular choice and scores of unfortunate motorcyclists crash into things, sometimes with fatal results. No one is held responsible.
The same month, Siem Reap authorities, weary of dealing with a seemingly endless string of accidents involving stupid tourists who think riding a motorbike is the same as a bicycle and the rules of the road and driving habits in England can't really be all that different in Cambodia (can they?), reinstate the complete ban on motorbike rentals to tourists as well as a ban on non resident foreigners from operating any motorbike anywhere in the province.
No sooner does the riot mess die down and there are dim hopes of possibly salvaging a Visit Cambodia Month 2003, the international news media begins a worldwide panic by announcing with the same fervor one might read off the daily football scores and stock market figures, the number of cases and deaths of some relatively minor disease that ultimately claims less lives worldwide than dozens of other illnesses and accidents which citizens of the world face every day without having CNN newscasters remind them how many people died in the past hour. The economic cost to the region is in the billions and hardly one single person with a business in southeast Asia is unscathed by the panic generated by the news media over this silliness called SARS.
In late May, the WHO declares Asia free of SARS. The following week SARS screening desks appear at the Cambodia land border crossing points. This is absolutely true!
In a true display of the values of freedom and democracy, US Senator for Cambodia Mitch McConnell offers an additional $21.5 million in US aid to Cambodia if and only if the elections are deemed free and fair and Hun Sen is not voted back in office. Once again, expats are left scratching their heads in disbelief.
July 22 - The US Embassy, for the first time in recorded history, issues a warning that actually warrants consideration. Following one more in a long line of violent incidents from the sons of influential daddies against innocent bar patrons, the embassy bars its staff from the Heart of Darkness and recommends that all US citizens stay away. This long standing Phnom Penh institution has been placed in a difficult position due to its sudden popularity with people it essentially can't or is unwilling (perhaps for obvious reasons) to do anything about. Five months later, the kiddies are still in the nightclub and problems are still occurring. Watch the fireworks from the safety of Howie's or something.
As the July 27 national elections near, would be tourists, at least going by the messages posted on internet travel boards, find another reason to express reservations about visiting Cambodia during Visit Cambodia Year 2003. Despite continuous reminders that elections are dangerous only for political candidates, folks cancel travel plans. The fears are of course unfounded and the elections are held in a largely peaceful manner much to the annoyance of the international news media which had been chomping on the bit for a "story". To nobody's surprise, exit polls show Hun Sen and the CPP as winners and Sam Rainsy begins complaining about anything and everything to do with the election. The news media listens while expats scratch their heads wondering if he'd complain just the same if he were the winner.
July 30 - Hun Sen announces he will form a coalition with whoever "is honest". Five months later, Hun Sen is home scratching his head as the search still continues.
August 4 - The defeated parties, FUNCINPEC and the Sam Rainsy Party, form a coalition of their own, the Alliance of Democrats, which receives enormous publicity in the English-language almost daily news. The news organizations offer detailed reports of the Alliance's intention to develop a comprehensive plan on the formation of the next government failing to consider that the Alliance is comprised of the defeated and the formation of the new government is not their decision to make.
August 8 - Election results are officially announced. Hun Sen and the CPP are declared the winners. More complaints from the opposition and NGOs.
A point to ponder... what is the difference:
1.) A Cambodian politician enters a village and gives every villager,
who are mostly uneducated and even illiterate, a bag of rice, a mosquito
net, and 10,000 riels. He gets their votes. The voters say he's a good
man who's looking out for them.
In each case the politician has provided the people with something appropriate and to their benefit. Neither the Cambodians nor the Americans feel bought. They feel the politician is looking out for their best interests and their votes reflect it.
Cambodian politics are not as backward as people make them out to be and American politics are not as forward as people make them out to be.
That said, more than five months later Cambodia still doesn't have a new government. But then again how long did it take the United States to sort out a president after the 2000 election? Not five months granted, but at least in Cambodia we know who the winner is. Hmm... seems to be a lot of pots talking at a lot of kettles.
In August it is discovered that Hambali, believed to be the link between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian based terror group, had spent some time recently in Phnom Penh at of all places, a guesthouse at Boeung Kak Lake. The staff describes him as a rude man who never tipped and made the women working at the place uneasy, really no different from any other person staying in the lake area.
In September as the political stalemate continues and the lack of news generated leaves the news media wanting, Siem Reap comes to the rescue in the form of the Great Siem Reap Tin Awning Incident. The Siem Reap governor orders all businesses in the Psah Chas area to remove their tin awnings, which leads to the formation of a Psah Chas merchant's association, several news stories in a number of publications, and endless conversation for Siem Reap based expats. Phnom Penh-based expats are left scratching their heads. Sihanoukville-based expats fail to notice.
In October, Siem Reap, still trying to stay at the forefront of national news, bans all commercial activity from midnight until six a.m. as officials cite concerns for tourists' safety because, "Nowadays, gangs and homeless young people who choose not go home often cause troubles and anarchy to the society and affect the public order," says Ong Oeurn in the name of Siem Reap's authority. And "We do want Siem Reap to become a cultural tourist resort not as a place for sex," says Nuon Sopal, police brigade general based in Siem Reap. The curfew lasts for one night and is forgotten. Homeless young people still roam the streets, expats and tourists get drunk, and sexual activity is restored to normal.
In November the Cambodian Cultural Village runs afoul of the UN by placing in a museum, wax figures of an UNTAC soldier and a taxi girl. An employee is quoted, "We want to show that UNTAC came here to bring peace, bring elections, worked hard through the day, and then enjoyed themselves at night. We wanted to show their enjoyment." Numerous expat residents cheer the decision. NGOs scratch their heads.
Cambodia continues to buck international trends when the riel weakens against the dollar surpassing the 4000 to the one dollar mark for the first time. Expat economists scratch their heads.
Officials at the Poipet border crossing finally remove the SARS screening desk and replace it with an outlet to sell bus tickets to Siem Reap at three times the going rate. SARS screening continues, however, at the Koh Kong entry point with certification as SARS-free given on payment of a 50-baht fee.
As the year winds down, Cambodia still finds itself without a new government. Honest coalition partners must be in short supply.
Well, I've told you all that went down in 2003, but what do I think for 2004? Here's a few bold predictions. And I'll be curious to see how many of these come true.
Politics: Unable to solve the political stalemate, the constitution is changed to allow a simple 51% majority to rule and Hun Sen and the CPP then have sole power of the Cambodian government to at least the 2008 elections. While the opposition continues their anti-Vietnamese rhetoric to a willing audience, few notice a substantial increase in Thai and Chinese investment in Cambodia. The Alliance of Democrats fades almost into oblivion, kept alive by one English-language newspaper which continues to report their doings on an almost daily basis as if they were important or something.
Royalty: A successor is finally named for King Sihanouk, whose health has been deteriorating. There is presently no established line of succession.
Tourism: SARS scares limit but not overly damage the tourism industry in Cambodia and 2004 sees numbers slightly over 2002's figures, the previous top year in Cambodia tourism. International news media organizations continue to show no restraint in their SARS coverage.
Late in 2004 Banteay Srei becomes the first temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park to limit visitations, doing so by requiring visitors to schedule their visits in advance, much as is done with popular art exhibits and the like.
The road to Koh Ker is completed bringing tourism to this remote area. In the meantime temples are looted and once again land mines and tourists become a concern as there remain many mines in this area. If a foreign visitor is ever going to step on a mine it will be in this area and possibly this year.
Thai tourists continue to trickle back in gradually increasing numbers.
Safety: Several horrendous accidents on Cambodia's highways, resulting in casualty figures in double digits, become the first indication to the average Cambodian that traffic safety might be something to begin learning about. In light of these catastrophic road accidents, local governments begin addressing the traffic safety issue with educational campaigns. Billboards appear in villages on major highways educating the locals as to the dangers of grazing your cows in the middle of the highway, playing in the street, etc. Khmer New Year is particularly deadly and someone finally notices a correlation between throwing water at passing motorcyclists and motorcyclists crashing into things and getting killed in the process. Still, nothing is done about it.
Legal: Pedophile arrests continue to increase and a high profile raid will occur at K-11 finally putting a significant dent, though not entirely removing, the problem of kids being available there.
And a few more we'd all like to see, but probably never will:
Massive gunfire erupts at the Heart of Darkness one night and by some miraculous stroke of luck, the gang of kiddies with rich daddies all manage to kill each other in one instant.
The Cambodian Cultural Village places a wax figure of a leading political opposition figure with a taxi girl. "He worked hard in losing that election. We wanted to show how he enjoyed himself after his defeat," says a CCV spokesperson.
The heads of CNN, the BBC, and several other major news organizations all come down with SARS.
Osama Bin Laden is spotted at a guesthouse on Boeung Kak Lake.
Arrangements are finally made for Clint Betteridge to return to Cambodia. He either suffers a massive mental breakdown and is tossed in a mental hospital for the next ten years or he offs himself. (This, I think, actually could happen!)
A border guard at Koh Kong allows a tourist to purchase a visa for $20 US. When confronted with this action the embarrassed man apologies profusely, "I swear, it was an accident, I don't know what came over me, I just felt for a moment there, that I was a government official sworn to uphold the law. I won't do it again, I promise."
In an equally bizarre twist, someone in the National Police Force wonders why Cambodia is one of the only countries in the world where it's illegal to operate a motorbike in the daytime with a headlight on. Despite his assertion that a headlight on is safer than not, the errant officer is reprimanded for his thinking and banned from collecting tea money at any intersection in Phnom Penh for six months.
And at last, the Cambodian government will finally begin promoting Visit Cambodia Year 2003.
Here's a cultural lesson on how to avoid conflict.
This story is of one Siem Reap-based expat whose been in the country awhile and while considered to be many things, an idiot is, with few exceptions, not usually one of those things. One night he stumbled out of a Pub Street bar having had way way way too much to drink. He made a wobbly line for his motorbike, which is your basic 250cc enduro bike that most expats have here. The bike was parked between a number of motodops' bikes, the dozen or so assembled all watching with some degree of humor the inebriated expat trying to get himself home. The expat managed to start the bike but then immediately fell over, breaking the clutch lever on his bike in the process. Muttering something about "Having a little trouble with my balance," he looked at the broken clutch lever and decided this would not be a problem, why he could just gun the engine in neutral and then bang the bike into second. The bike would jump a bit, but no mind - if he was sober, anyway. Well, he kickstarted the bike again, gunned the engine, popped the bike into second and immediately crashed into one of the motodops' bikes parked next to his. According to one of the witnesses the position his bike was in when he started it and the position it landed in was "impossible and could never be duplicated if you tried, at least not sober". The bigger issue is no longer the expat's bike or the expat, who's too drunk to notice (or care) that he's cut his shin and his forearm, but that he's plowed into a motodop's nice new Honda Dream and a dozen of the motodop's mates were watching.
Now, like I said, this expat is no idiot, and knew readily that there was a lot of face involved here that had to be accounted for. The motodop's bike suffered only a few scratches that would probably cost all of $2 to repair, but that wasn't the point. A drunken expat plowed into this guy's bike with all his friends' watching was the point. The expat, whose bike had now been seized by one of the bartenders and taken away with no resistance from the expat, now had to deal with the motodop. "You pay me money, yes?" asked the motodop. "Of course," said the expat, "but you take me home, okay?" The idea being that it would be better to negotiate settlement without a bunch of witnesses. The motodop with the scratched Honda Dream gave the expat a ride home whereupon the expat immediately counted out $15 much to the satisfaction of the motodop.
Now here's the lesson. Why did the expat pay $15 for what was probably $2 worth of damage? Face. The motodop had to return to the bar with a generous settlement or all his mates would have abused him and he loses face. And believe it or not, the expat actually comes out looking better for being generous and accepting without argument that he was a drunken fool.
The next afternoon the hungover expat retrieved his bike (once he remembered where it was - fortunately Siem Reap is small and it doesn't take long to survey the possible bars that might have become a temporary parking garage). He slammed it successfully into second, and got the bike fixed. And the next night, the same expat pulls up to the same bar much to many friendly 'hellos' from the various motodops assembled. Now what would have happened had the expat given the motodop a hard time about payment? And then a couple of days later the same expat runs into the same motodop (not literally), "Hi! Remember me! You hit my bike, remember? How are you" etc, etc, etc. Face all around and everyone is happy.
Seems I'm not the only one who gets passionate about the roads. One problem facing Cambodia in its effort to improve the road system is that along many roads there has been illegal construction of houses and other buildings which often lie too close to the road. And like many violations, they have been ignored until that time when it's necessary to widen and upgrade a road and someone's gate, front porch, or entire house is standing in the way.
Anyone whose driven around the country has seen how dangerously close to the road some structures are and its a problem the authorities are starting to address. I noticed recently that a number of structures along Highway 4 between Phnom Penh and Sre Ambel have been pulled down or pushed back and this will be an ongoing event throughout the country in the next few years.
In Poipet recently, structures had to be moved to make way for a road widening plan. Never mind all the structures had been built illegally, the residents decided the best way to solve this problem was to assault the Poipet Commune Chief, Sok Sovann. It'll probably end up in the courts with the decision favoring the highest bidder. But meanwhile, pay attention while you drive lest you end up in someone's living room.
This is Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk's website. He posts almost daily writings of whatever he feels like writing about as well as other communiqués that come and go from the Royal Palace. It's interesting reading but... the website is mostly in French and all that the King writes is in French. And rather than writing directly on the site into easily translatable text files, the website is actually comprised of .gif images of the actual notebook pages with which he has written on, which makes sticking it into an online translator a bit difficult. Still, the site is there and if you can handle reading handwritten notations in French, then you might want to have a look.
This just in... departure taxes at Phnom Penh International Airprt have been raised from $20 to $25 for international flights and from $5 to $6 for domestic flights. As if that $20 wasn't high enough already...
And did you know that Phnom Penh International Airport is one of the few airports that levies parking charges on all vehicles entering the facility, even ones that are only picking up or dropping off passengers in less than five minutes?!?!?!?!?
The offerings have expanded and I've created a new page devoted exclusively
to business and employment opportunities. Here
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
What I keep saying about the Battambang-Siem Reap boats:
A woman's perspective:
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 137 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
As usual, the January column is late, though later than normal on account of the fact I was on vacation from December 27 to January 4, taking a motorbike trip around northern Thailand that saw us cover 1700 kilometers in one week. Some form of a trip report will eventually appear in the Thailand section of the website.
The second version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up in mid-December and I plan to update the section on a monthly basis as it's proven quite popular even if Google still hasn't found it. Have a look.
The sixth edition of Thailand Update went up on December 15. Do check it out if you haven't done so already. The column's main item is on His Majesty the King's birthday speech. The January Thailand column should be on time and will feature a lot of small items this month.
January 6, 2004
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