After completely losing two months of tourism to that utterly illogical SARS panic, I'm happy to report that we're starting to see tourists again. Although I don't know any businesses that failed during the silliness, a lot of people, mostly Khmers, were laid off or had salaries cut. Most business owners declared April and May a complete loss and June was only a marginal improvement. Everybody lost money.
During this time, some people left for awhile as I did, while others shut down their businesses for renovation. The Zanzy Bar was one such business, absolutely laughable, though - shut for three weeks to come up with nothing more then a new coat of paint and a new sign out front when what it really needed was a major renovation of the taxi girls hanging around the bar, still the most motley assortment of dragons in the country.
After experiencing significant growth in tourism numbers for five consecutive years, it may be tough to see 2003 come out ahead of 2002. We still have national elections on July 27 and looking around the internet on travel discussion forums it's clear there are some potential tourists expressing reservations about visiting Cambodia at this time (more below). Additionally, there are also concerns that SARS is a seasonal virus and could stage a return in October - just when everybody starts gearing up for the next high season. If SARS does come back let's hope the WHO and the news media show a bit more restraint this time. I think the world can do without WHO travel advisories for countries with as little as eight imported cases and the news media broadcasting hourly updates of the number of cases and deaths. With all the lawyers in the world can't somebody sue these people?
Speaking of illnesses, one disease that is a legitimate problem in this part of the world is dengue fever. I've heard recently that dengue has made an appearance in the United States. If that's true, then that's some excellent news. Should dengue start infecting rich Americans with health insurance rather than impoverished rice farmers in rural Cambodia perhaps now someone will be more motivated to develop a vaccine for this still untreatable, but largely third world disease.
And for a little SARS hysteria perspective, neighboring Thailand has already recorded 24,000 cases of dengue fever this year. Bet you don't see that figure repeated every hour on CNN!
We're fully into the election season now. The campaigning began on June 27 and for the next month we'll be treated to daily doses of banner waving, poster hanging, marches, rallies, assassinations, trucks with 101 supporters stuffed in the back, and loud speakers blaring across the countryside the virtues of such and such a candidate.
I don't want to do a repetition of last month's piece, but I do want to reiterate that there is no reason not to visit Cambodia during this time unless it's your intention to actively campaign for the opposition. Here's a quick rundown on some of the potentially dangerous elements of the Cambodian election season:
1.) Political assassinations. A very common occurrence in the run-up to any election here. Often the assassinations are dismissed as robberies and the robbers well, forgot to take the person's wallet, motorbike etc when they filled him with bullets, or so the police tell us. The Phnom Penh Post reported in the June 6 - 19, 2003 issue that so far there have been 17 suspected political killings and 13 more attempted murders suspected as political. The police have dismissed all of them as robberies, domestic disputes, revenge attacks, etc.
These are targeted hits and therefore of no concern to a tourist. More violent means of murder, i.e. hand grenades, seem to be less common now, which is a good thing as they can and do take out innocent people. Fortunately no tourist has ever been a victim. The chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time are so remote that if you're well and truly worried about this then you probably shouldn't be traveling anywhere except maybe the local supermarket and even then you'll probably want a crash helmet to protect your head from the falling sky.
2.) Rallies. Rallies can occasionally get out of hand, especially if it's the opposition having the rally, but it's been over six years since any rally was, well quite literally, blown up. My advice: don't go to a political rally, especially an opposition one. And why would you anyway? As a tourist you would be quite out of place at a rally and probably not very welcome, either. Cambodians are eager to share with tourists their temples, their dance, their cuisine, their laid back way of life, but they are not looking to share their politics. Be nice if a certain western nation could take the same stance. Anyway... avoid rallies. They aren't for us.
3.) Post election protests. 1998 was quite ugly in this respect. After the announcement of the results hundreds of people took to the streets in protest and dozens were killed. This is a less likely occurrence in 2003 as no one is predicting anything but a landslide victory for the CPP. Still, despite the mess that took place, no foreigners were involved. If you find yourself in Phnom Penh and a group of protesters pours onto Norodom Blvd the solution is simple, drive up Monivong and stop worrying about it.
4.) Phnom Penh. Most of the political activity is limited to Phnom Penh. If your trip is centered on Siem Reap/Angkor you may hardly know there is even an election going on.
5.) Election observer and media burnout. This is probably the biggest hazard you face. As the elections near, Cambodia will be invaded by hundreds of international election observers (Motto: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) and media types (Motto: Define evil) reporting on the election. If you find yourself tiring of them droning on about freeness and fairness the best advice is to drink more beer and drone on with your own observations, no reason we should be completely left out of the fun.
Here's a bit of good news for northern Cambodia. A contract has been signed awarding the Siem Reap-based construction company, Kham Someth Construction Ltd, the right to build roads to Beng Mealea and onward to Koh Ker as well as develop the area of Koh Ker for tourism. For some background on Koh Ker I suggest reading this story of a motorbike trip I took there in January of this year.
The project calls for a road directly to the temple complex as well as constructing hotels and a golf course in the Koh Ker region. The village of Siyong will be the base for this development. The road is expected to be completed in 2004. An admission fee of $5 to $10 will be charged with Kham Someth collecting this money. The Apsara Authority will control the Koh Ker temples and receive 35% of the money.
I've always maintained that the potential for tourism development in Preah Vihear province is enormous and this is a positive first step, actually it's a second step, the first step was building a road to the Preah Vihear temple. See this story for more about that. I realize some people will gag at the thought of a golf course near the temples, but why not? It's a good earner and if you don't like golf, well, so what? The golf course won't hassle you.
As for a private company profiting off a major cultural attraction. Well again, why not? It's how things get done here. The government certainly doesn't have much money, so if a private company wants to invest $21 million on a project that carries enormous economic potential for a poor rural province and at the same time opens up a spectacular temple complex to all visitors and not just people capable of riding a dirt bike through the jungle, well, why shouldn't they be given the opportunity to turn a profit?
I look forward to reporting further on this project.
You may not be aware of it, but the Apsara Authority, the government agency in charge of the temples, has guidelines controlling the use of photographic images of the temples for commercial purposes and technically, anyone that wishes to photograph a temple and use the image commercially is supposed to have a signed contract with the Apsara Authority that specifies how the images will be used.
Cambodia is now seeking greater control over the usage of such images in the form of a law that will give the government full rights to treat these monuments as cultural property in a manner similar to how intellectual property is handled. The nation of Cambodia would be the legal owner of the temples and therefore have the right to dictate how the temples are used, in movies, in advertisements, postcards, t-shirts, etc.
It's an interesting legal issue, taking a monument in the public domain and putting what is essentially a copyright on it. There are two main benefits for Cambodia here. One, such a law would in theory, help ensure that the monuments are not presented in a disrespectful or insulting manner and two, by exercising greater control over the commercial use of Cambodia's cultural property it could help raise additional and certainly needed revenue for the country.
I have no problem with the intent of this law. Cambodia has every right to make sure its monuments are treated respectfully and they certainly have a right to generate income from them. My only concern will be the definition of what is fair usage of Angkor images, what if any costs may be involved, presently the Apsara Authority does not charge additional fees for commercial photography, and who in the private sector can turn a profit.
The reality is that there are an enormous number of people in Cambodia that in one way or another are using an image of Angkor Wat in a commercial manner - mostly in promoting their own businesses and products. If it's a matter of simply signing off a form that assures the Apsara Authority that the image is respectful and proper (99.99% of them are) that's okay, but if it becomes a matter of paying money, or the government limiting significantly the number of commercial uses of Angkor Wat, meaning money and influence may determine who can use such an image, then we may have a problem. Still, for the time being, I'll, I hope not naively, give the government the benefit of the doubt.
Want to build a road? The Cambodian government is now taking bids for the long-awaited and overdue project of rebuilding National Highways 5 and 6 between Poipet and Siem Reap. One contract is for the 50 km stretch of Highway 5 from Poipet to Sisophon, a second contract covers the 50 km stretch of Highway 6 from Sisophon to Kralanh, and then finally a third contract for the 50 km stretch of Highway 6 from Kralanh to Siem Reap. The contracts will be awarded at the end of the year and the project is scheduled for completion in 2006. This project, funded largely by the ADB, will finally see this infamous road built to international standards.
In other projects, the laying down of tarmac on Highway 6 between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh is almost finished. And the Cambodian government is once again negotiating with Thailand to have them pave route 48 from Koh Kong to Sre Ambel and build the four bridges where now ferries are in use. And finally, Japan may be coming through with a bridge over the Mekong River at Neak Luong on the road to Saigon, which is presently another major ferry crossing.
In the past year, Poipet has been gradually becoming less of a hassle. In a moment of relapse one could still have a particularly bad day with the touts there, but by and large things have been getting better.
Most recently, June 27, I entered Cambodia via Poipet and found the situation further improved. I know that one instance does not make a trend, but I'll relate my story here anyway and hope that this is well and truly the beginning of a new day in Poipet.
First of all, the usual group of touts are hanging around the Thailand side and as it's going to be up to the Thai authorities to make them go away, a tourist may still have to hassle with these guys. They ignore me as they know I'm useless to them, but a tourist won't have such luck. As I caution in my Overland section, these guys should always be ignored.
Once in Cambodia I had the rare need to purchase a tourist visa on arrival. I usually carry six-month business visas, but as my time in Cambodia has been a little more limited since April when my last business visa expired, it's cheaper for me to use a single-entry tourist visa. I'll go back to the business visa in August. Anyway, I've gone on many times about the overcharging for visas here so I'm not going to throw out another explanation of that scam. As when I entered in Koh Kong a couple of months ago I had no US dollars (my fault) so I was forced into haggling with Thai baht. However, with almost no effort I got them to take 900 baht from me (about $21.75). When they wanted more I said "sombot" (receipt). I only had to do this twice before they reluctantly took the 900 baht and with that exercise finished we spent the next few minutes joking around like we are all the best of friends.
There was a SARS screening desk outside which I ignored and nobody chased after me for having done so.
But here comes all the good news: I had very few touts to contend with, about three. Once through immigration I was silently walking to the taxis when I blurted out "Siem Reap" as eventually you have to open your mouth or no one will ever know where it is you want to go, and the touts all ran to one car. I was expecting the usual hassles over money and the oftentimes ridiculous amounts they ask for when they began with 1000 baht! Which is a very reasonable price. As a matter of fact it's a price not worth haggling over, because the best you can hope for is about 900 baht and when you deduct the mafia payments the drivers have to make, well, that extra 100 baht means more to him than it does to you. Still, I was suspicious that there would be some game down the road when a tourist police officer pulled up on a motorbike and in fairly good English, confirmed with me and the driver that I was indeed going to be driven directly to Siem Reap for 1000 baht which would be paid on arrival.
This is precisely the kind of thing I have been saying for years that Poipet needs and if this is the way things are going to be, then Cambodia has made one much needed positive step in improving the situation for tourists.
A couple of days ago a 69-year-old American geezer got popped in Phnom Penh for having two boys, aged 10 and 13, in his room and naked. We'll see how much this one costs...
Meanwhile, the saga of Clint Betteridge continues. As I reported in previous columns, Betteridge was one of two Australian citizens arrested last August in Siem Reap. The other, Bart Lauwaert, is serving a 20-year sentence, recently extended to 34 years due to his inability to make restitution to the victims.
The case of Betteridge has been a bit of an embarrassment for the Australian government. Australia has made it known loud and clear that they intend to do their part in a worldwide clampdown on sex crimes against children by, among other things, prosecuting its citizens for offenses committed in another country. When Betteridge was let out on bail one week before sentencing he turned up at the Australian embassy in Phnom Penh and was issued a brand new passport. Needless to say at the time of sentencing a lawyer stood in the courtroom with no client, as said client was back in Australia enjoying the freedom this new passport provided. Betteridge was sentenced in absentia to ten years. At the time Australia and Cambodia had no extradition treaty. Since Betteridge's much publicized flight, an embarrassed Australian government have arrested him and he's in custody while the country sorts out an extradition treaty which will be applied retroactively.
Betteridge is arguing that a return to Cambodia would violate his human rights as he's made claims of having been beaten and tortured by prison guards while in custody in Siem Reap. Funny thing is, while he was in Siem Reap I know several people who visited him, one of my friends was acting as the liaison between the embassies and the defendants, and at no time did he ever mention physical abuse or show evidence of abuse. It's also well agreed here that if the idiot had showed up for sentencing he probably would have been released on time served as apparently his case wasn't all that solid to begin with.
I think there are a number of lessons to be learned here.
Back in September 2002 I commented on the highly inaccurate US embassy report on Cambodia. Well, the embassy did finally update their online information to Cambodia. Actually, it was updated back in November I just didn't find out about it until now.
As usual the safety and security warnings are all the worst-case scenarios with little attempt to address the likelihood that you would actually have a problem. And I still think the report exaggerates the risk for overland travel in rural areas. Still, the report is a bit of an improvement over the previous offering which was if anything, humorous. If you're interested, here it is.
As some readers may be coming to this page directly and not going around the website, I wanted to alert you to a few new things. First of all, a long story and photos are up on Afghanistan and I have some photos, but no text yet, on Pakistan. On Cambodia I put up two quizzes, a tourism quiz and a corruption quiz. The former is meant as a fun way to educate on some of the basics of visiting Cambodia while the latter addresses the more serious issue of corruption and how it plays out in Cambodia.
In the UK and want to be on TV? [June
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
E-mail has been slow this month, most of my interesting website related e-mail has been about Afghanistan since I put the section up mid-month. Anyway, I had an e-mail debate with an Aussie who thought I was quite irresponsible to encourage people to visit Cambodia in light of the regional terrorist threat and the explosives found last December. My views should be well known to readers already and I obviously do not agree with this reader and he has said nothing to change my mind, but some of his comments, cut and pasted from several e-mails, are:
Yes, it's true, you really can drive a car into Cambodia now with no border hassles:
And finally, as I plug the annual Magic of Cambodia on this column I thought I'd pass along a report from the event's sponsor, Andy Brouwer:
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 three of them.
I've also begun a Reader's Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country in the appropriate place on the website. You can link to them from the main Cambodia page as well as the main index page.
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, recently expanded to 127 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. The entire section was updated April 27, 2003.
And don't forget to check out the new Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
restaurants, tours and more
Travel plans and lack of tourists in the region has seen me flip-flop my schedule around. Now I'm in Cambodia when I'm usually in Thailand and vice versa and next month I'll be writing this column from the USA as I'm going back in the end of July to see friends and family for a couple of weeks.
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