HEY YOU! Why just read? Talk, too. Head over to the talesofasia Discussion Forum and toss in your 500 riels worth. And beginning this month some stories from this column will be cross-posted to the forum for further discussion (or not).
What a fuss a simple development proposal can make. In mid-June Canadia Bank unveiled plans to construct a 24-story office building on Monivong Blvd near the railway station. While such a building is hardly a skyscraper by international standards, it would be the tallest building in Cambodia. But whatever its size, judging by some of the reactions, you’d think they were proposing to build a major theme park and a shopping mall complete with McDonald’s, Starbucks, a Major Cineplex movie house, a 7-11, and three dozen other international chains and all in an environmentally-sensitive protected wetlands region. Hmm, actually that’d be kinda cool. But anyway, what we’re only talking about here is a 24-story office tower in the middle of a city boasting a population of nearly one million people.
Canadia bank has announced that they would use some of the space for themselves and target the NGO market, presently scattered around Phnom Penh in a variety of converted villas, for tenants to fill the remaining floors.
So what happens? No sooner is this building project announced that we hear cries of “Oh, no, Cambodia has better things to do than build skyscrapers! What about poverty, education! Oh, no, it will destroy the beauty of Phnom Penh! It’s such a beautiful French colonial city! Ah, development, stop the raping of this lovely city!”
Shut up all of you.
First of all, Canadia Bank is not the government (even if the government banks there), this is a private sector project using private funds so you can all give up on the idea that Cambodia has better things to do. Private enterprise is private enterprise and if Canadia Bank thinks they can build a 24-story office tower, more power to them. And consider that a project of this magnitude creates jobs and stimulates the building industry.
As for the appearance of Phnom Penh, well, nonsense about being French colonial. Most of the architecture is 1950's white shophouse slop and last I checked, Phnom Penh was in Asia not France, which makes it an Asian city not a European city, and in Asia they build up not out. If you want a French city go live in France, they have plenty of cities to choose from. I hear Amiens is kind of nice.
I look forward to seeing this building go up and I also look forward to seeing what kind of medal Hun Sen hands out. See, it was the Prime Minister himself who, back in January in an unprecedented effort to encourage the building of skyscrapers made the most generous concession of, and I quote, “Whoever will build taller buildings, we will give a medal.” Well Samdech, here’s your chance. And I want a front row seat to the event. Bring on the steel cranes!
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Scam alert! Well, maybe. Okay... the background: Although I have not previously reported on it here, a few rouge characters, one of them a German expat, the others some Khmer insiders, cooked up a bogus visa extension scam some months back. An “agent” visited a number of travel agencies in Sihanoukville offering that they could get six-month and twelve-month visa extensions at cheaper prices and presto, they were in business. In short time various expats set off to Thailand or Vietnam or wherever and found their stickers were bogus and large overstay fines were levied and that was the end of the dodgy visa scam. Or so we thought. Maybe.
Okay, here's the confusion. A proper business visa extension bears the "E" designation, is referenced to the visa number that one originally entered the country on, and bears the signature of the head of the national police force, Hok Lundy. The bogus extensions were sourced from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as gratis NGO “visas” with reference not to one's original visa but to the Ministry of Public Works and Transport and rather than bearing Hok Lundy's signature they had the signature of someone named Kim Sovanna.
A couple of weeks ago I went to get the missus a six-month business visa extension via a travel agency based in Siem Reap and what came back? One of the MFA gratis "visas". Groan.
I brought this to the attention of the travel agency in Siem Reap, where the two girls seemed a bit confused themselves when I pointed out the differences in my own one-year visa and this visa.
One of the girls at the agency called Phnom Penh to see what was up with this silly sticker, with the excuse coming back that because we had a visa purchased at the embassy in Bangkok and not on arrival, they couldn’t give us a normal business extension and had to do this NGO thing and what a favor they were doing us because normally a letter would have to accompany the application and they created one for us and yadda yadda. And I wondered if the girl on the phone was believing this nonsense anymore than I was. I always thought a visa was a visa and that was that.
I then solicited the opinions of two well-informed individuals (expats) who also agreed that we were most surely in possession of a bogus visa as one of these individuals had been through this already and his description of the bad visas matched exactly what was in the missus' passport. So I got the travel agency to agree (in writing!) to give me a refund should the visa be unusable and hoped for the best come July 1 when we would re-enter in Poipet.
And July 1 came and the only drams was the 40-some-odd Koreans clogging up the Poipet immigration line. The official didn't bat an eye at the visa and duly stamped her in.
So... why did she get in with hers yet so many others were unable to use theirs? Methinks there may be more to this story than meets the eye. Par for the course here, really.
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First it was hot. Unbearably hot this year. Then when we should have had rain we only had an occasional drizzle and in the process we watched the Tonle Sap sink lower, and lower, and lower, and reach lows never seen before in anyone’s present lifetime. But alas, in mid-June those long forgotten rains finally arrived. And it rained. And it rained. And it rained. Twice this month downtown Siem Reap was under half a meter of water. Motodops attached outboard motors to their bikes and stood outside bars shouting "motoboat" to all who needed a lift to the next bar. The speedboat from Phnom Penh eschewed the docks and dropped off guests at their chosen guesthouses, taking the commissions for themselves. Beggars took to casting nets on Sivatha Street – you know teach a man to fish and all that. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau team turned up and claims to have made a "discovery". A couple of enterprising expats started a new local business venture - Dive Angkor (PADI certified). And seriously (well, the half meter of water bit was true), one guesthouse had the misfortune of finding out what happens when it rains like this and their neighbor has a ton of sand dumped on the side of the road... where the water would flow away... good thing the guesthouse is owned by a plumber. But opportunity knocks but once and they put fish on the specials board with the caveat the guests had to step out to the front yard and catch the fish themselves.
So things have balanced out and Siem Reap seems, at least climatologically speaking, to be returning to normal.
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For a number of years now, the Cambodia government has made noise about developing Anlong Veng for tourism. Why Anlong Veng? It was the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge and the place of Pol Pot’s death in 1998. Seems logical enough as after the Angkor temples, attractions such as the S-21 museum in Phnom Penh and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek rank as some of the more popular tourist attractions in Cambodia.
So up in Anlong Veng, a remote outpost along the Thai border one can find Pol Pot’s cremation site and bunker atop the Dangrek Escarpment as well as the in-town home of Ta Mok. For whatever reason, and I can think of a few, Anlong Veng never took off. A few ramshackle guesthouses, restaurants with signs in English yet no food to offer save one place that sells just about every possible form of wildlife found in the jungle, and little else comprise Anlong Veng.
Or not. As a full international border post recently opened in Anlong Veng, the next stage of development is a no-brainer. What does one find right at the border at Koh Kong? A casino. At the border in Poipet? Many casinos. And at the border in O’Smach? Yup, a casino. So guess what they are going to build at Anlong Veng? And guess where they are going to put it? How about a few hundred meters from Pol Pot’s cremation site. Casino, five-star hotel, duty-free shopping. Might not get tourists to Pol Pot’s cremation site or bunker, but it’ll certainly bring in some dosh.
There’s been some opposition to this as there are some who fear that such development could undermine the understanding of Khmer history and I suppose there’s some truth to that. Still, I quite like the idea of a casino built so close to the cremation site of the leading architect of the Khmer Rouge fiasco. From agrarian utopia to slot machines and crap tables. Poetic justice.
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I wrote about this in April, but seeing as nothing has changed and if my re-posting of this here can save a few people some money, then I’m happy to waste the bandwidth.
Among the various scams that one may encounter at the borders, a recent development at Poipet and inflicted almost exclusively on users of the Khao San Road tourist buses is the money changing scam.
What they do is tell you that you must change as much as $100 US into Cambodian riel and offer you several opportunities to do so. There is no such regulation in Cambodia and the US dollar remains the de facto currency of Cambodia. But the real scam lies in the fact that you may be given as little as 3400 riel to the dollar. Presently the riel fluctuates between 3950 and 4000 riel to the dollar and has remained there for several years now. This rip-off will cost you as much as $15 if you fall for it. DO NOT CHANGE ANY MONEY HERE! They also may try this scam on again in Sisophon. Various lies to encourage you to change your money include:
Lie #1: "US dollars are no longer accepted in Cambodia."
Lie #2: "You need to change to riel as it's part of a new
program to encourage Khmer(-ness, spirit, nationality, etc.) and we are
getting rid of the US dollar."
Lie #3: "The rates in Siem Reap are much worse."
Lie #4: "There are no money changing facilities in Siem
I'm not sure which is more dramatic, seeing newly arrived tourists paying their bar tabs with stacks of riels or seeing their reaction when they find out they were scammed.
And speaking of Khao San Road buses, I read a report on the Lonely Planet Thorntree recently of some people who were really taken for a ride – they were not taken from KSR to Poipet to Siem Reap, but instead to O’Smach (!) and then tossed into pick-up trucks for the remaining and long ride to Siem Reap. I can’t for the life of me figure out how they make more money going so far out of the way, but I'm sure it worked for somebody. One more of a million reasons why not to use any ground transport that originates on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. To anywhere.
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Paging through the June 18 - July 1 issue of The Phnom Post, I came across a story credited to Cheang Sokha that, depending on whose side your on, either predicts that tourism, presently 12% of GNP in 2003, will equal the garment industry in contribution to the nation's economy, or... it won't. At present the garment industry accounts for 35% of the nation's GNP, second only to the agriculture industry which cranks out 39%.
The Ministry of Tourism, ever the optimists, are quite sure this will occur in about five years, as quoted by the optimist of all optimists, MoT Secretary of State Thong Khon. In 2000, it was Thong Khon who personally told me that he expected one million foreign visitor arrivals to Cambodia in 2003 which at the time was a prediction scoffed at by many more conservative thinking folks. Well, the million didn't happen, but not because the prediction was too bold, but because 2003 was the year of SARS, war, terrorism panic and the like. Based on growth figures from 1998-2002, had the disaster of 2003 not occurred, those figures should have been realized and they are expected to be realized in 2004 and if they aren't it's not going to be by much.
Other predictions and figures:
Tourism revenue for Siem Reap in 2003 was $100 million US. 2006 is predicted to bring in $240 million US and by 2010 that figure will be $600 million.
57% of all international arrivals will visit Angkor Wat (this includes business and other non-tourism arrivals). Of bona fide tourists (not sure how they define this one), 90% will visit Angkor Wat.
A more depressing figure is that the average visitor to Cambodia will spend between only two and three days, though will spend around $500.
Siem Reap province may boast one million residents come 2010.
In April I reported a slew of 2003 tourism statistics provided by the MoT that placed Japan as the number one source of foreign visitors (88,401), with the USA second (66,123) and South Korea third (62,271). Through the first four months of 2004 there's been a remarkable shift and South Korea is now edging out Japan for the top spot! Must be some kind of fashion thing or something up there.
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You'd be forgiven for not knowing that cars registered in Cambodia must have a number plate as you see so many without them. And many of the vehicles that do have plates have plates that aren't even Cambodian plates but rather come from California, Massachusetts, Oregon, or some other state in the USA where someone has a relative. Makes you wonder if perhaps the law only says that a car must display a plate without specifying what kind or even from what country the plate must be?
But there is now a drive to get every vehicle in Cambodia registered and in possession of proper plates. They've even designed a new standardized plate that uses only western (Roman) letters and numbers and for the first time, the name of the province of registration in both Khmer and English is included on the tag. I've been seeing these tags on a limited but increasing number of vehicles for the past four or five months or so.
The Ministry of Public Works and Transport hopes to see all vehicles in Cambodia properly registered and in possession of these new plates by 2006 that will be supported by a computerized database. Under the present system there is no database and hundreds of thousands of vehicles, cars and motorbikes, remain unregistered and/or have fake or incorrect plates.
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I was dreading what effect all the rain would have on the road to Poipet and was pleasantly surprised to find that in both Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey provinces most of the road has seen recent maintenance and except for a ten-kilometer or so section just east of Sisophon, much of the road is in very good shape. Perhaps there's some effort going on not only to prevent any serious road damage a la 2002, but even to keep things smooth and fast in the meantime. Here’s hoping I don’t eat these words of optimism come September.
On the negative side, I crossed over from Thailand at Poipet on the morning of July 1 and found, regrettably, that the tourist police must have all decided to sleep in that day as none were to be found - not that I needed an officer, though their presence, as I'll explain, would have been appreciated.
In the past year or so, since the police took control over the Poipet taxi mafia the touts have been much easier to deal with and most of the horror stories I heard and experienced so often throughout 2001 and 2002 were now simply stories for the history books. Well, the morning of July 1 the touts were particularly hungry, police were few and far between and it was regrettably a bit like the old days, with excessive price quotes, swarming packs of touts, games about "okay you pay all this money but share with three people. Change taxi in Sisophon," etc, etc. It was not a particularly pleasant morning and I can only wonder how someone who's coming in for the first time would feel about Cambodia. I can only hope that this is an isolated incident because after so much improvement in how foreign visitors have been treated once exiting Cambodian immigration here, the last thing we need is a regression to the old days.
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They say it will finally happen. A government. After a year of wrangling (or waiting…) the CPP and Funcinpec say they’ve struck a deal giving the CPP 60% of the cabinet ministries and Funcinpec getting the remainder. Sam Rainsy has, once again, been left out in the rain. Now, as things apparently are set to return to normal, could something possibly be done to see that the Cambodian constitution is changed to permit a simple majority rather than a two-thirds majority, be sufficient to form a government? It would make life simpler and more importantly, get Cambodia more in line with the rest of the world. Just a thought.
And you’d think I’d make this the lead story but after eleven months and so many supposed agreements, why should we get excited now? Believe this one when the National Assembly meets and accomplishes something.
Here, want to more about the government? Website for the CPP: http://www.camnet.com.kh/cpp/
It's one version of things, anyway.
I suppose I could nominate the CPP website, but I've found something a little more interesting:
What I'm drawing particular attention to is the weblog which is pretty much a daily update of news stories of Cambodia gathered from a variety of sources. While there is but limited commentary on some of the events, the website serves better as a timely starting point to sussing out news on Cambodia and is a far better alternative to many of the so-called newsfeed news sources found around the internet. Definitely worth checking out every few days. And to their credit, the Pookai Books folks are quite diligent about including numerous links to the stories they reference, allowing additional reading for those with a need or desire to know.
And what's Pookai Books and why do they have a website?
Quoted from the site, here's their statement:
Want to read another version of news and events here? Beginning this past month I have added two new columnists. Will Capel, my Sihanoukville correspondent, offers his view of things on the 8th day of each month and on the 15th of each month, Bronwyn Sloan, a Phnom Penh-based journalist offers some combination of travel tales, news, and opinions, with content largely depending on her whims that month. In due time, Bronwyn will be producing a Phnom Penh guide to complement the Siem Reap and Sihanoukville guides already found on this site.
Now a qualifier. Will's debut column stirred up a few folks on account of his closing rant on Ronald Reagan who had died just days before Will's deadline. And I got a few e-mails expressing displeasure on the tone as well as the viewpoint of the rant and the re-appearance of U.S. politics on this, an Asian website.
My position: It's my goal to give writers as much editorial freedom as possible. Now granted, it should be in the context of discussing Asia, which Will deviated from and admitted doing so, but from time to time I will make an allowance for the whims of writers to digress in such a manner regardless of whether I agree with their viewpoint or not. I would encourage readers to feel free to express their opinions of such whims and if they'd like their opinions heard and perhapd repsonded to by myself or other readers they may do so publicly in my Discussion Forum which includes a section devoted exclusively to discussing content and direction of this website.
I apologize to anyone who was overly offended by Will's rant and I appreciate the comments of those who took the time to write.
Now, allow me a brief political digression.
As an expat in Southeast Asia, halfway around the world, it seems easy to feel detached from the American political scene. But let's face it, regardless of what you might think of the Bush administration and their foreign policy, you can't deny that this is one mighty unpopular group of individuals where world opinion is concerned. And personally, as an American living overseas, I feel that since January 2001, the administration's policies, despite intentions and assertions to the contrary, have made the world more unsafe for Americans (and a lot of other people, too). And that then, gives some relevancy to American political discussion as so many of us are affected one way or another by American foreign policy.
I'm American, but not an American basher. I think Michael Moore can be as off-the-wall as those he criticizes, yet I support his right and methods to express himself. I'm a firm believer that all sides of any issue should be given equal opportunity to be as biased and one-dimensional as any other. Hey, I staunchly defended Mel Gibson's right to make and promote the controversial The Passion of the Christ film.
I'm also not a member of the camp that points a finger at the US as the source of all evil in the world. I'll leave that up to the Noam Chomsky's of the world and their cult of worshipers. Politically, if I had to label myself I'd say I'm a libertarian. Though I'm well aware a librarian might have a better chance of winning a major political office in the USA.
But as an American I am making damn sure I vote this coming November. I accept that no one came to this page to be told how to vote so I'm not going to do so, but I am going to urge all American citizens, especially the expatriates out there, to cast a vote this November. The US may be half a world a way, but what goes on in Washington does affect us. Even in a small tourist town like Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The 2004 Magic of Cambodia Day has been scheduled for Saturday
18 September at The Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England.
Well, I've managed to dig out a single e-mail this month worthy of inclusion, so Perspective hangs on for another month and I suppose so long as I get something each month I'll keep the section, but by and large the discussion forum has seen fit to replace personal e-mails on topics here - that, or letters are getting lost in my spam zapper, the zapper being me.
From the virtual mailbag:
The things they say in Bangkok:
I continue to receive a few travelers' reports every month - but not so many as in the past which I think means people are finding the journeys less and less dramatic. Most of the stories detail experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road, but there are small sections for other roads and border crossings. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are now seven of them.
There is also 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.
The offerings have changed and I've created a new page devoted exclusively to business and employment opportunities. Here it is.
Some say I'll live to regret it and at times I already do, but talesofasia offers a discussion forum now. Do register and join the discussion. Intelligence is a highly sought after commodity right now.
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.
I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 138 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. Four sections were updated this past week.
Siem Reap Guide
The latest version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up on May 11. The section will be updated more or less on a monthly basis. Have a look.
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