In the four years I knew him I never knew his real name. Everyone called him "Lucky", a name that dates back to his infancy. But in the early morning hours of Monday, February 4, not much after midnight, Lucky's name betrayed him. Sunday night was like most any other night for Lucky, sitting with his friends at Sada's Guesthouse, drinking a few cans of beer, sometimes drinking more than he should, until that time he would hop on his moto and head for home. This time he never made it.
Details of the accident are vague, whether alcohol was a factor, or whether he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, we'll never know. It doesn't matter, though. He's gone.
His real name was Son Sydoeun. He was 25 years old. He was for a time past one of the motodops that hung out across the street from the Capitol Guesthouse, but like many who plied their trade there in the mid to late 90s he had since moved on to better things. He was going to a private business school, I'm not sure which one or what exactly he wanted to do when he graduated, though he spoke at times of wanting to have some kind of tour business.
His English was excellent and I often used his services for translation. He often accompanied me to the Stung Meanchey garbage dump, never complaining about being dragged down to that wretched place. Most of my conversations with Phoeun, the girl who I profile on the Stung Meanchey web page, were through Lucky.
The first time, maybe two times, I used Lucky as an assistant I thought he was lazy. I complained to a mutual friend about it. He was never lazy again and he soon became the first person I'd call when I needed a fixer/interpreter/gopher in Phnom Penh.
Oh sure, occasionally there were times he'd fail to turn up, sending somebody in his place with marginal English skills, but it was one of those things I came to overlook. Just the price of his friendship, I guess.
And he was funny. A master of the understatement, he could always be counted on to simplify the most complicated issue in a single word or two. And while we often talk about Khmers indirectness and evasiveness, Lucky could be extraordinarily candid and direct sometimes.
I recall one morning, waiting outside my
Phnom Penh home - the Dara Reang Sey Hotel, waiting for Lucky to turn
up for the day's work. Late, fifteen, twenty minutes, finally he'd appear,
eyes bloodshot, face revealing that another late night of happiness had
resulted in a less than happy body today.
It was from Lucky that I learned much about commissions and the various ways that motodops supplemented their income above that which the customer paid directly. And again, with me, everything was open. I could ask him directly how much he would get and when possible I made a point of pushing commissions his way when we did work together.
His motorbike was good for laugh. An old Suzuki something or other, he long ago lost the key needed to open and lift the seat to allow putting gas in the moto. He never bothered to make a new one, instead every time we'd stop for gas he'd run around asking all the attendants or other customers if anybody had a key that might fit. Eventually he'd find one that worked.
Lucky was always a dollar short and an hour late, but as his friend and employer I learned to ignore these things, advance him cash, pay for his gas, ask him to arrive thirty minutes before I actually needed him. It long ago ceased to be of anything important for if he was a dollar short and an hour late, perhaps I was a dollar late and an hour short.
In October 2000 on one particularly rainy evening I was taking photographs of traffic along Monivong Blvd. I was shooting from the roof of one of the hotels near Kampuchea Krom Blvd, doing 30-second exposures. In the pouring rain, without complaint, he stood holding an umbrella over me and the camera while getting thoroughly soaked himself. He was that kind of a guy.
I wish I could leave off here, but there are some odd circumstances surrounding his death that need to be aired. In talking with a close mutual friend I learned that when Lucky left Sada's Gueshouse he had about $100 in his pocket. Some time from immediately following the accident to when the police dumped him, and I do mean dumped him, at Calmette Hospital, that money disappeared.
Nor is it known in what condition he was in or at what time he was dumped at Calmette. Was he still alive? Was he treatable? Nobody knows and nobody could get an answer from Calmette. But with no money is his pocket, no jewelry on his body, Calmette would not lift a finger to treat him.
No one was contacted about his death until ten a.m. the following (Monday) morning. He had phone numbers in his wallet and it was one of those numbers that was called - but only to request that somebody come pick up the body.
Why did the hospital wait some nine hours from the accident to call?
Who stole the $100 he had?
In what condition was he in when he was dumped at Calmette?
Did he die at Calmette due to their refusal to treat him because what money he had that could have paid for his treatment disappeared before he was dumped there?
Although Lucky was not from a wealthy family, he was not from a poor family either. If he was still alive when he was taken to Calmette, a simple phone call to any of the numbers in his wallet and his friends and family would have had little difficulty in raising a few hundred dollars if needed.
Calmette is notorious for refusing treatment in the absence of money and many people have died at their doorstep because of it. But Lucky had money. It just disappeared somewhere between the accident and the hospital.
Rest in peace my friend. I still have your number in my phone so let me know when they get a mobile system set up in the afterlife. We all want to hear from you.
A word from our sponsor
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Phnom Penh safety
Phnom Penh has the reputation of being a fairly dodgy place to be out in at night. Over the years the city has become notorious for armed robberies in its dark streets. Never walk at night, always use taxis, etc. has always been the conventional advice. And while that is still good advice, by all accounts the place really is getting safer. Granted, there are no reliable hard statistics available, but the "feel" of the city and the word from the expat residents is that street robberies are way down as of late.
Don't be careless, but now more than ever, get out and enjoy Phnom Penh's nightlife in whatever form you choose. New spots are opening regularly, the bar closure of last November is a distant memory, and the streets are safer.
In early February I spent six days in Ratanakiri in the far northeast of Cambodia. It was my third trip to this most interesting of provinces. Wow! What a difference. Where the province once struggled to get fifty tourists a month, they're now getting fifty every couple of days.
So here comes the development.
A couple of years ago the Ministry of Tourism brought in several representatives from the Tourism Authority of Thailand for consultation on developing the northeast. Now two years later we're seeing the first stages of tourism a la northern Thailand.
While the economic benefits are obvious, there's the usual question of who will ultimately benefit and who will be harmed. Already there are noticeable changes in the attitudes of some of the hill tribe villagers in respect to the presence of foreign tourists and complaints are being voiced that the villages are receiving minimal fiscal benefit from this increase in tourism.
In addition to tourism infrastructure development, Ratanakiri, always an overwhelming CPP stronghold, is high on the ruling party's list of areas to receive general infrastructure development as well - roads, bridges, schools, communications, etc. While there's no denying that any development that can improve the livelihood of the residents is a positive thing, more than ever, this is a place to see and see now, for as of 2001, the development ball is rolling.
To read more about my experiences and impressions of Ratanakiri, please connect here.
New border crossings?
We have confirmation of one new border crossing ready to open and a second one that we're not too sure about and the ambiguities of this information are entirely my fault.
The government of Thailand just announced that they would open their side of the Surin/O'Smach border crossing to foreigners of all nationalities. We can expect Cambodia to do their part soon as well. This border crossing is in northwest Cambodia on the northern border more or less near Anlong Veng and will facilitate Cambodia's desire to develop the northern region for tourism. There are a number of significant monuments scattered across the area - Banteay Chhmar, Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, and Preah Khan (not the Siem Reap one) are just four of the major monuments in the region. This will also improve access to the Isaan region of Thailand and further ease overland travel from Siem Reap to Vientiane in Laos.
The second crossing is with Vietnam, east of Banlung in Ratanakiri province. In mid-February I rode a motorcycle from Banlung to the border and this was my experience:
I expected to pull up to the border, chat with the guards a minute and leave. But surprise! They asked me for my passport. Well, why would I have my passport with me since this border isn't open? But the border IS open, they tell me. Really? Yes, if I had my passport they'd have stamped me out and stamped me back in (as I have a multi-entry business visa). And the motorbike? No problem, either.
But not having my passport I couldn't go through and ascertain as to whether the Vietnamese authorities would let me in if I was to have a valid visa. I have since been admonished several times for not returning to Banlung, getting my passport, returning to the border, getting the stamps - I probably would have been the first barang ever to have Ratanakiri (the stamp probably would have said Oyedao or whatever that district is called) entry and exit stamps in his passport - and finding out from the Vietnamese authorities what the real deal was. Sorry guys, I blew it, I know.
But at least I can confirm that the Cambodian authorities will stamp any foreigner in and out at the Ratanakiri/Vietnam border.
Singapore and Phnom Penh compared - really!
I took a long weekend in Singapore at the end of the month and while it really isn't fair to try to draw too many comparisons between it and Phnom Penh as Singapore is one of the most prosperous cities in Asia and Phnom Penh is the capital city of one of the poorest countries in the world, a few things just cry out for attention.
Cambodia is concerned with image and a year ago, in an effort to present Phnom Penh as a "prosperous city", the municipal powers - okay, the municipal power, Governor Chea Sophara, decided that everybody should paint their buildings a uniform color. The color of choice - an off-white, creamy yellowish, maybe beige, okay, okay, I'll call it what it was: piss yellow (hey, this is Tales of Asia not the Christian Science Monitor). In any event, the experiment was a miserable failure as there was no uniformity in the shades of color used, the paint jobs were shoddy, and participation wasn't even 50%.
Phnom Penh is not prosperous. Singapore is. Singapore is a very colorful city with multi-colored buildings painted with pastel colors of all shades of the rainbow. One could even say the buildings are almost too colorful. But I liked it. It's bright, colorful, warm. Perhaps if Phnom Penh Municipality really wants the city to look prosperous, take a page from the Singapore Guide to City Beautification and throw some colors out there.
The second point is trees. Singapore has trees. Hundreds. Thousands. Maybe millions. Phnom Penh doesn't have millions. It may not even have thousands. It's working on having only hundreds. In Phnom Penh they are chopping trees down at every turn. 'They're the wrong tree,' they tell us. 'The leaves clog up the sewers,' they say. Nonsense.
Personally, I think Phnom Penh Municipality is just jealous that the rest of the country has lots of trees to chop down and sell and they only want to join in the fray.
Seriously though, a few months ago the city did begin chopping down what few trees it had much to the disapproval of many a resident, Khmer and foreign. Again, folks in the city government, take a look at Singapore - it's got trees - more than just about any Asian city I've ever visited. You want to look prosperous? Well, Singapore is about as prosperous as you can get - so copy them. We all know what great imitators the Khmers are. So get to it.
And while we're at it, could the Cambodians also copy the Singaporean attitudes towards corruption? Umm, well, okay, if you can manage to at least plant some trees and brighten up some buildings we'll be happy.
Poipet and a highway update
Is it me or are the number of touts and assorted riff-raff (beggars, thieves, annoying individuals with nothing but too much time on their hands) in Poipet increasing at a seemingly exponential rate? Every time I pass through there (far too often) it becomes a bigger and bigger hassle. Now, I don't know if anyone with any authority in Cambodia is reading this, probably not, but folks, Poipet is a really lousy introduction to Cambodia and a little effort to scoot away the riff-raff and calm down the touts a bit would go a long way in that ever important image department. Just a suggestion.
That said, it is with some regret that I report that the highway between Poipet and Siem Reap is deteriorating rapidly. While the Poipet to Sisophon section is getting some new work done to it (as of my last passing, February 21), the longer stretch, Sisophon to Siem Reap, which was such a fast road for most of 2001, is not holding up well these days. While it was rather surprising that the road was in such good shape throughout the rainy season, since the rains stopped the top layer of dirt has been steadily blowing away into the dry and barren rice fields. With each trip I have made the road is rougher with more and more small potholes and numerous rocks sticking through the surface creating a bone-jarring ride and blowing out a few tires. While it was possible to travel from Poipet to Siem Reap in two and a half hours a few months back, it's now taking at least an hour more and on my last trip I needed four hours and fifteen minutes.
What concerns me the most is that if they don't throw a few inches of fresh dirt down soon and do a proper job of it, when the rains commence in a few months some very large craters will form in this road, once again raising the possibility of seven and eight-hour journeys - journeys which we all had hoped were completely things of the past. I'm not going to start claiming doom and gloom as there are still a few months left to fix the road, but fix it please. With all that wonderful construction done in early 2001, it would be a real shame if this road is left to completely fall apart again.
On the 3rd of February, Cambodia finally held its commune elections. Fears of violence in the aftermath of these elections were unfounded. While a number of candidates came to untimely ends in the run-up to this election, since the results were announced all has been calm.
And why shouldn't it be calm? The CPP won 68% of the commune seats and 98% of the commune chief positions ensuring that the communes, the true power base of Cambodia, are remaining firmly in the hands of the CPP.
This election may also be evidence that Funcinpec is on its way out. Funcinpec was decimated in this election winning only 20% of the commune seats and a meager 1% of the commune chief positions, clearly indicating diminishing support for the Royalist party and likely paving the way for another CPP landslide in the 2003 national elections.
A new national carrier
As predicted, it was recently announced that Hainan Airlines of China had set up an arrangement with the Cambodian government to once again give Cambodia a national carrier. The new airline will be called Air Cambodia. The former national carrier, Royal Air Cambodge, ceased operations October 16.
Please folks, do a better job this time. And while were at it, do you think you could offer a competitive airfare between Siem Reap and Bangkok releasing us all from the clutches of Bangkok Airways and their $270/return, $150/one-way fare between these two airports? Just a thought.
In this month's electronic mail bag:
First, an ugly reminder of what remains, in my opinion, one of Cambodia's biggest problems and one I see little effort on the part of the authorities to address.
I saw a very sick and disturbing report about an american pedophile in Phnom-Penh on french television yesterday . I knew that there were people operating like this in Phnom-Penh but I was very shocked how easy it was for them to rape children . They said that before he was operating in Siem Reap and had some problems so he relocated to Phnom Penh . This guy is operating at the [name of a well-known PP guesthouse deleted - GS] restaurant with the children in the street who are cleaning shoes . What was horrible is that he went back to his hotel room with the children [name of a different hotel deleted - GS] . At the reception desk the woman said no problem for the children to go to the room, they just have to be discreet because of the police... I think this guy will soon go to jail because they give all the proofs to an NGO . This american pedophile seems to be 50-60 years old, has a big straw hat and a Bible book always with him . They called him "Mr David". I wanted to tell it to you because I was very shocked especially after they asked to the little children that are bathing in the Mekong river and they said that they often go at the hotels with some sick pedos .
Next, a fair criticism, but I'm still not changing my stance on missionaries. I'm all for charity and offering assistance where assistance is needed, but come to lend a hand only and leave the religion at home, please.
... I was sorry to see that you are opposed to missionaries. I just hope you did not throw a stone in the path of your second tour guides conversion to Christ. Being a Cambodian, maybe, he has greater insight into what his people need than you. You do not say anything about your own belief or even if you have one. But it seems evident that you are not a Christian. However, you yourself became an ambassador of some belief when you started putting your tour guide in his place. Even if your belief is that your tour guide should not share his or that his people there should not have the opportunity to hear about Christ. Think about it.
A positive experience with motodops. Perhaps the Asian respect for age? But whatever the reason I'm glad to hear it!
I am a 65 year-old Canadian lady departing Calgary next week for a five-week stay in Cambodia, with maybe a side trip to Hanoi for a few days. I enjoyed very much your entire website, especially the stories about the street children in Phnom Penh. I was there last year for three days, four days in Siem Reap and Angkor. Your opinions on motodops were fascinating (where does that word originate?). The drivers I got to know in P.P. who congregate across the street from the Royal Hiness Hotel I found to have lovely manners, were just cheeky enough to be fun, and a couple of them bought me gifts of fruit on my last day. The fellow I rode with was quite territorial but in turn was committed to my safety and happiness, and treated me like I was his mother. A very interesting guy, he was a piece of work if I ever met one. I never met anybody so comfortable in his own skin. (Although he did turn shy when I took his picture.)
I have also spent some time in Viet Nam, have no trouble with the vendors when I am alone. These people too treat me like their Mom, ask if they can call me Mama, why not, everyone else does. I think in another life maybe I was Vietnamese.
I have never in my life travelled alone until last year on a six-week journey through Cambodia, Viet Nam and Korea, where my daughter was teaching. Loved it, since I had no one with me to talk to I learned to talk freely to the locals, and found they had much to offer.
A Siem Reap experience. I'll comment at the end.
re: the souvenir sellers. i've travelled extensively in india so i'm used to hassle and touts. i was actually pleasantly surprised at the low-key approach my first day. it wasn't bad. i could look without being dragged in by my left arm. a smile and a no thank you shut them up (as opposed to walking by sullenly, which i just can't do). it's fine at the major temples, but any of the smaller outlying ones, they are running up to you as soon as the motorbike stops, or as soon as your foot comes down off that last temple step. i did do some shopping at the temples when the spirit moved me, which meant mostly when i didn't feel too hassled. my impression, though, based on the reading i did before i left, is that things have gotten more intense now.
the worst had to be sunset at pre rup where i was followed around at the top of the temple by little kids waving flutes at me. (this also happened at east mebon the next day.) i think it's fine in the temples if they're not following people around, and even then it wouldn't bother me if they would take no for an answer. when i left, we stopped at the outer edge of srah sang for literally 30 seconds for me to get a photo of the sunset, and we were literally surrounded with kids by the time i'd clicked two frames. the next day, leaving bantey srei, i walked back over to srah sang with the idea of sitting down on the stairs to write in my journal - it was impossible. i was followed relentlessly & a smile and a 'no thank you' got met with 'okay, you just buy one film from me' and once she left, two seconds later she was replaced by someone else. impossible. but, again, at least that wasn't inside the temples. i really hope it doesn't get worse.
the preah kahn guys mentioned by the people who wrote to you are still there and they are worse i think. it was the only time i felt vaguely unsafe AT ALL. i ran into them on my second day walking in, but it was midafternoon and lots of people were around and i just smiled and said no thank you, i have book, and ignored them. i went back the next morning and there were few tourists there, and they were rude, obnoxious and demanding - i turned and he started to follow me, and i finally stopped and said, no, you go first, i don't want you following me. we kind of stood there staring at each other for a few seconds and then he said something that was likely rude, and went through.
as a result, i felt very uncomfortable venturing down into the south wing of the temple - i didn't do that until about an hour later when the place had filled up a bit more (which kind of defeated the point of getting up early so i could be there without the crowds). it is the only temple where that happened. when i was leaving, one of the police guards there offered me a 'souvenir' which was an official-looking badge in a wallet. i didn't even want to look at it closely, much less touch it to see what it was - could it be that they are selling their badges and then reporting them lost? i found it interesting that the only temple at which there's a local 'gang' harassing tourists is one where a police/guard (i'm sorry i don't know what their function is - the ones wearing brown uniforms and hats, not the blue-shirted ones with the white armbands) is offering to sell me something that looks like his badge. i don't know if it's related. this also happened when i was leaving neak pean - the police saying 'souvenir, madame?' and opening this wallet looking thing.
Some interesting comments above. Actually the souvenir vending is, at most temples, far less intense than it was before the temple vending ban of 1999. Sras Srang is an exception due to the openness of the area. I also can say with absolute fact that the Sras Srang area is one of the most profitable locations for souvenir vending in the entire Angkor Archaeological Park so we're not likely to see the kids calm down much any time soon. But it's the boys at Preah Khan that are the ones that have to be stopped. Authorities - please reread the writer's comments, most notably "...I felt vaguely unsafe..." Is that the kind of experience you want to promote at Angkor? The police badge thing is not new. I've actually seen tourists purchasing them. I have no idea what the angle is from the police. My guess, and I could be totally wrong, is that somebody made a pile of these things for pennies, or perhaps a legitimate order of police badges was redirected, but in any event, if it's a police badge you want, they are indeed for sale. On that note, if you really want, you can buy a police officer's or army uniform in most markets. But if you do purchase one of these uniforms do NOT wear it inside Cambodia or you WILL have a problem with the authorities.
I'm coming to you from Bangkok this month. As usual of months of late, my time spent in Siem Reap was all of about twelve days in February. As a result of my reduced time in Siem Reap a few ideas are bouncing around my head. This website is "Tales of Asia" not "Tales of Cambodia" and "Cambodia Today" is only one part of this site - granted a very large part of this site. With that in mind, as I seek to expand the scope of this site to cover other countries in greater detail, it would seem this column could do with a little coverage of other countries in the region as well. I'm not yet ready to turn this into "Asia Updates" and move it out of Cambodia, nor do I wish to diminish the Cambodia content here, but as my recent and upcoming travels are including more countries, expect to see a little more commentary on some of these countries here.
That said, if you hadn't noticed I have finally gotten the China portion of this site up and running. At the moment it's nothing more than an unfinished collection of travelogues and photos but please, give it a look and come back again as the section grows. Connect to "Tales of Asia - China".
And finally, due to a very hectic end of the month, I was quite lax in acknowledging e-mails and a few that deserved replies didn't get them. Apologies to all and keep in mind that I do read all my e-mail and I do appreciate all the feedback - positive and negative. Thanks.
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