We've had a month now to sit back and see how all this silliness has played out. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that the late-January rioting in Phnom Penh was about the stupidest thing that's gone down in Cambodia in anyone's recent memory.
Like so many things that happen in this country, we will never know the truth. Hun Sen was fairly quick to say that the opposition was not behind the rioting. And this is probably so, though many possibilities for the cause of these riots have been suggested. The most likely scenario is that this was a Cambodian People's Party (CPP, the ruling party) staged event that was designed to stir up a little nationalist spirit in an election year, but instead, what was supposed to be kept under control got totally out of hand.
No evidence has been brought forward to suggest the opposition was involved, but consider that should Hun Sen take the blame, deflecting it from the opposition, that would give the appearance that he has more control of the country than perhaps he really does. Whatever. We don't know. We will never know. We can only make educated guesses. Conspiracy theories abound. Enjoy them.
Meanwhile, with the riots over we're now left to clean up this mess. No, not the rubble in the streets, but the damage to Cambodia's image. And specifically, damage in the form of lost tourism revenue, a depletion of the nation's reserves, a loss in foreign investor confidence, infrastructure projects canceled, and a shake-up of the CPP party.
Tourism took a hit as the usual naive panic that inevitably follows civil unrest kept many would-be visitors away. While all segments of the tourism industry suffered to some extent, it was, surprisingly, at the budget and not the mid-range level that businesses suffered the worst losses. This wasn't so much directly from people's fears of Cambodia but rather from the spread of misinformation about the situation in Cambodia. The source of much of this misinformation came from Thai guesthouses and travel agencies, proving at least, to this observer, that the "backpackers", the "I'm a traveler, not a tourist" types, are in fact nothing more than sheep grazing in the meadows of Khao San Road waiting to be led to the next Full Moon Party or "Authentic Trekking" experience in the north of Thailand.
Following the riots the land borders between Thailand and Cambodia were closed to commerce and to nationals of both countries. At no time were the borders ever closed to individuals of nations other than Thailand or Cambodia so long as they weren't trying to import or export goods. This was accurately reported in the regional newspapers and on Thai television. In the days immediately following the riots Thai news showed foreigners crossing the border at, with the exception of the first day when thousands of Cambodians stood pressed against locked gates, a very quiet Aranyaprathet/Poipet border. More importantly, via independent sources (non-Thais and non-Cambodians) there was no shortage of accurate information available on the internet for anyone that cared to look.
However, many tourists on Khao San Road inquiring at either their guesthouse or a travel agency about going to Cambodia were more likely than not told that the border was closed, Cambodia was very dangerous, that there might even be a war there. As bad as this misrepresentation of the situation is, I can at least understand why the Thais would say this. But what I have a more difficult time accepting is how so many tourists could be as gullible to believe somebody with a vested interest in keeping them out of Cambodia during a tense situation that's more about things like nationalism, face, tit for tat, and so on. It seems few tourists gave the slightest notion to questioning the motives of the person they were receiving this (mis)information from or thought to seek out independent and assumedly more accurate information on their own. There really is a sheep mentality on Khao San Road and part of that mentality is the belief that the only way to get around the country, or the region for that matter, is to use the services of the local tour agencies and if they can't help you, nobody can. Disgraceful.
Just because it was difficult for those 23 days of limited border service to get a KSR to Siem Reap bus ticket, excuse me, tourist bus ticket, why couldn't these so-called backpackers have gone to the government bus station at Morchit like normal people and done the trip themselves?? And then they criticize package tourists for being too "touristy", too mainstream.
Perhaps the Khao San Road travel agents and guesthouses spread a rumor that the real reason behind the Phnom Penh riots was that Khao San Road claimed ownership of Boeung Kak Lake.
Next month: A backpacker "does" Cambodia. Debbie is not impressed.
Anyway, enough about stupid backpackers. Next topic on the aftermath of the riots - damage to foreign investor confidence and the depletion of Cambodia's reserves.
It's rather easy to see how would-be foreign investors might be more cautious on sinking large sums of cash into a country where political shenanigans result in the trashing of millions and millions of dollars worth of foreign-owned businesses. It will be interesting to see how Cambodia goes about restoring investor confidence. Tax incentives? Land deals? Legal exemptions?
But Cambodia has another related problem. Reserves. The final bill for this damage is now pushing 80 million US dollars, which is not a sum of money a country like Cambodia can easily throw around. It will hurt. And with the loss in tourism revenues and investor confidence it will be even more difficult to recover this money. Makes you wonder how they will afford to cut deals with businesses? Also makes you wonder if we might not see somewhere an increase in fees for licenses, visas, etc? Somewhere the government has to find the cash to make up the $80 million US they torched one evening in late January.
Another fall-out is the canceling, or at least suspension, of infrastructure projects being either funded or built by Thailand. One such suspended project is the new Koh Kong - Sre Ambel Highway, for which Thailand had taken responsibility for the construction and maintenance.
The riots have also created more problems for the Cambodian People's Party. Somebody had to be the fall guy. Thailand wanted someone's head, and Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara's head was the perfect size. One, he was the governor of Phnom Penh, two, he had a major role in the opening of Preah Vihear temple (read this for more details), and three, he's been seen as favoring Chinese business interests over Thai business interests. Approximately two weeks after the riots Chea Sophara was fired and named (exiled) the new ambassador to Myanmar, replaced by Keb Chutema, former governor of Takeo province. Big mistake.
Chea Sophara was a very popular governor and is seen, and I think accurately, as an unusually forward-thinking open-minded able politician. Opposition to his removal came from all fronts and Hun Sen was forced not to exile Chea Sophara to Myanmar after all. Hun Sen then appointed Chea Sophara to a position as one of his personal advisors with a rank equal to that of a minister. I think this new position means "don't call us, we'll call you".
Chea Sophara's removal from the Cambodian political arena will ultimately do Cambodia more harm than good. Though initial theories that Chea Sophara was fired because he was a potential rival to Hun Sen have been debunked, the fact is, one of Cambodia's most able top officials is for all intents and purposes unemployed and it will probably take some time for the 51-year-old, charismatic leader to regain a proper position in the governing of Cambodia. Not surprisingly, following the reshuffle it was reported that Chea Sophara went to France for a needed rest.
Further questions have been raised as to how National Police Director General Hok Lundy has been able to escape the axe. After all, the slow response of the police to quell the riots was strongly criticized by the Thai government. The press, at least the English-language press, has been quick to note when raising this point that a son of Hun Sen is married to a daughter of Hok Lundy. So I'll mention it, too.
Another riot after-effect has been the removal of Thai programming from Cambodian television, leaving many Cambodians without their favorite soaps, forced instead to watch more karaoke or worse, stare at blank television screens. I don't know if there were any plots left hanging in the air to the degree of, "Who shot J.R.?" or "Will Luke and Laura save the world?", but I'm sure a lot of folks are lamenting the loss of their nightly dose of melodrama.
And finally, there remains the issue of two neighbors not getting along and not understanding each other. In some respects this is the worst damage of all, and like it or not, it spreads beyond the immediate border. Cambodia more than anything else, wants to be a normal functioning country, to be a member of the international community taking care of its own affairs, a productive trading partner with its neighbors. People around the region are asking, "What is with Cambodia? Why do they do such stupid things?" And we still don't have a good answer other than to say, "It's an election year."
Wait, one last thing... US Senator Mitch McConnell, the self-appointed US political, social, economic, and cultural advisor to Cambodia has jumped into the fray telling Cambodia again how to run its country and shaking his finger at that evil Hun Sen and his band of thugs (the CPP).
Once again, I would ask Sen. McConnell to please shut his mouth and focus his attentions on the country he's been elected to serve. You know, with a possible war and all, there are some issues more pressing for a US senator than sticking his nose in a regional issue. Now, if Sen. McConnell were an Australian politician, well, there is the matter of Siem Reap being short one convicted sex offender holding Australian citizenship and one very brand new Australian passport. Go away Mitch.
All business owners in Cambodia are well familiar with the fire police. They visit your business to sell you fire extinguishers, telling you that you need twice or three times as many as you legally need, or that the payments for the new fire truck are due, or that there is some other reason why you should give them money or buy something from them. So it was with some surprise that a few of these guys turned up at the Ivy Bar with an official paper, signed and sealed requesting a case of Beer Lao! Karl Balch, the Ivy Bar owner stuffed the paper in his pocket and denied the request. "Well, umm, err, can we have the paper back?" they asked. A rather emphatic "no", was Karl's reply. And that was that.
I rode my motorbike down to Phnom Penh and back a couple of weeks ago. As slow as I am, I still managed the trip in five hours so most normal(?) people should be able to do the trip on a bike in four. Road construction on Highway 6 in Siem Reap and Kompong Thom provinces continues moving along rapidly. New culverts, new tarmac, new bridges, but still with the same odd assortment of cows, dogs, pigs, and children. With these improved roads and faster driving speeds I do hope that in the communes and villages along these roads there is some kind of educational campaign instructing the residents about the hazards of these newly-built highways. Dozens of lives, including yours and mine, could depend on it.
While further up the page I suggested that an increase in government fees, for example, visa costs, might rise to help pay for the riots, it seems the folks at the Poipet border have wasted no time in putting this theoretical plan into practical use. While Poipet has always been known to ask for excessive and illegal visa fees, recently they've taken this scam to new heights. For quite some time the authorities had been requesting 1500 baht, roughly $35 for a buisness visa that by law costs $25. A temporary Siem Reap resident went to the border in early February to get one of these visas and was asked to pay $50!!!! The price was bargained down to $30, but still, a $50 request?? This is getting silly. Really silly.
After first giving Pochentong International Airport a new, albeit hideous, paint job, the airport now has a new name. It is now known officially as the Phnom Penh International Airport. Make a note of it.
Last month I talked about Sharky Bar - the hassle with the Tiger Beer distributor and the bigger hassle they had with the staff. Both problems have been sorted. The first problem was easily solved. Sharky Bar no longer carries Tiger or Anchor Beer on tap. If you want a draft beer, it's going to be Angkor.
The staffing issue has also been solved and by my observations, for the better. Only a handful of the original girls remain - two cashiers, and one or two girls behind the bar. The rest are all new faces who seem far more interested in serving drinks than getting a patron to take them home. Helping this is the new policy that eliminates bar fines and lady drinks. If you're in Sharky Bar and take a liking to one of the waitresses you're just going to have to wait until she finishes her shift.
On the remodeling front, there have been a few minor cosmetic changes. The balcony is tiled and there are a few plants out there. On the wall are a dozen or so framed photos of sharks as apparently Dave got his hands on a shark calendar and the pictures seemed like an obvious decoration. But the biggest change is the opening of Sharky Mart. Next door to the stairs, Sharky Mart is a 24-hour convenience store stocked with all the munchies and drinks and other things you'd expect from a convenience store at four o'clock in the morning or whenever you need something. Given the location and the obvious foreign target it'll be interesting to see if they do well with this new business venture. Stop in and buy a postcard or something.
The famous brothel area, which has been sort of on-again off-again for the past few months seems to be off-again, or at least off enough to capture the attention of The Phnom Penh Post which carried a lengthy story in the February 14 - 27, 2003 issue. It's a fairly good read as it raises the issue of the negative effects of driving sex workers underground. I don't understand why they can't just get the kids out of there and let the brothels remain open but ensuring that the girls are all of legal age. It wouldn't be that hard to do, now would it?
It was successful last year, so they're doing it again this year. If you plan to be in England on June 21, 2003 read on:
Magic of Cambodia 2003
The Magic of Cambodia 2003 day will be held in Banbury on Saturday 21 June 2003 at the Terence Mortimer Postgraduate Centre of the Horton General Hospital. The event will be along similar lines to the successful day in Oxford last August though with a fresh set of guest speakers and a purpose-built location to give it a new impetus. The organizers hope you can join them and make it another special event to celebrate and promote the positive aspects of Cambodia.
Admission to the event will cost £10 per person and all profits will go to two charities, The Cambodia Trust and The Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation.
The organizers are currently finalizing their timetable of events and will update their webpage (http://cambodia.e-files.dk/magic2003.html) as soon as they know the line-up for the day. The aim is to have up to eight guest speakers on topics as diverse as the Temples of Angkor, Khmer dance, culture, religion and the environment, and lots more besides.
The Terence Mortimer Centre is a large Edwardian house with its own car park, adjacent to the Horton General Hospital. It has a large lecture hall with tiered seating, seminar rooms and catering facilities.
If you wish to book your ticket now, or ask any questions, e-mail:
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
S'kun again. I wonder how she's doing:
No wonder I have this peculiar glow (commentary follows):
Unfortunately (and uncharacteristically), I did not personally respond to this letter, but I'll do so here. The same pesticide story also appeared in the Cambodia Daily about a month ago. Prior to the story's publication I was aware of pesticide use but not to the extent that the article claimed. What do I do? Well, I don't eat a lot of vegetables here, anyway, but I'm sure I've poisoned myself at some point. As for the locals, no, I don't think they know anything about the dangers of pesticides and I don't see this situation going away anytime soon as it requires an assault on two fronts - one, keeping the crap out of the country in the first place, and two, a lot of education for people who have never given too much thought to what dangers might lurk within what they put in their mouth. Now, I only hope I haven't scared any would-be visitors off visiting Cambodia.
I'm continuing to receive numerous travelers' reports, mostly detailing experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are three of them.
It's a done deal. I now have a Visa merchant's account and if you want to purchase a photograph from me you may now do so on this website using your Visa card. Go to the Photography section for more details.
A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, 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.
restaurants, tours and more
Apologies for being a day late this month, I changed Bangkok apartments on Feb 28 and then had to wait around for the telephone to be turned on.
Plans are underway for my annual escape from Southeast Asia. As some of you know, April is the hottest month of the year and also the local new year arrives mid-month, a time when everybody stops working for two weeks and throws water on each other. It's a silly and sometimes dangerous celebration which I can just as well do without.
My last two exoduses were to China and last year I stayed there for five weeks. This year I plan to head another direction to a country or countries which are safely hosting a handful of travelers at the moment. Should the US invade Iraq that situation could change. See what I have to say next month when my plans will be confirmed.
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