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"If you want to implement [your policy] please wait until you are [appointed] to be Prime Minister," is a quote from the ever-quotable Prime Minister Hun Sen appearing in a recent Cambodia Daily report. This comment was directed at:
A.) Mitch McConnell/The United States of America
The correct answer appears at the end of the column.
The Bangkok Hospital Group, responsible for providing us with the Naga International Clinic in Siem Reap, announced plans to construct an $8 million, 50-bed hospital on the Airport Road across from the Cambodian Cultural Village. The hospital is to be built either this year or next. Bangkok Airways is a partner in the project.
Siem Reap certainly needs a proper medical care facility, because if you have a serious problem you're pretty much out of luck unless you're a Cambodian child, where two NGO hospitals have been set up to sort you out. No doubt some criticism will be levied on the project as the Bangkok Hospital Group is not known for building charity hospitals, and I expect services would be cash/insurance only and only for those who can afford it.
But who will the doctors be? As this is a Thai facility am I to believe that there will be a generous supply of Thai doctors, western-trained even, eager to line up and take a position in Cambodia? What will the training be for the Khmer doctors? Khmer medical schools that still give instruction in French? L'hopital du Cambodge? Not likely if it's Thai money involved. I'm sure they've got this figured out, I'm just curious to know who the doctors will be.
Unfortunately this still leaves a gap in local healthcare. The Cambodian kids are covered, and folks with money and or insurance will be covered. But where does that leave the average Cambodian in need of decent medical care? That remains a problem not only in Siem Reap but throughout Cambodia.
The Bangkok Airways partnership strikes my curiosity. Will they will make a "royalty payment" to ensure they are the only hospital in Siem Reap? Will they call it the Bangkok Airways Hospital: Asia's Boutique Health Care Facility? Or perhaps they'll borrow from Thailand's cable monopoly, UBC, which once came up with the rather odd slogan considering their market share, "You gotta watch it!" Perhaps then, Bangkok Airways will attach a slogan of "You gotta bleed here!"? How about discount air tickets for medical evacuation? The Distress Express.
Anyway, all kidding aside, Siem Reap needs a hospital and I'm glad we're getting one, whenever they build it.
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The hysteria over bird flu is heating up and it looks like we might be on the way to another SARS-like round of hysterical warnings and panicked ravings from the WHO, the CDC, assorted government agencies, American tourists (just what are they telling you guys back there about this disease?), and generally nervous and unstable individuals.
Okay, I accept that if this thing mutates we could have a big problem on our hands, but it hasn't mutated. Therefore there is no danger. We could also have a problem if North Korea drops the bomb. But they haven't. We could also have a problem if an even bigger earthquake strikes off the coast of Indonesia. But it hasn't. And we could have a problem if the bubonic plague makes a comeback. But it hasn't. And we could have a problem if invaders from Planet Donx obliterate us with Silly Puddy. But it hasn't happened. And we could have a problem if George Bush is re-ele..., oops, err, sorry, that one did happen.
The sky is not falling. Since the first bird flu death
was recorded there have been fifty or so fatalities in Asia from the
disease. In the same timeframe the number of traffic fatalities has
been what, 75,000? I hope that puts this in some kind of perspective.
No one is canceling holidays because they might be in a traffic accident,
so why this? Sure, if this thing mutates and people start dropping dead
by the hundreds of thousands you might want to head for Iceland or somewhere
but in the meantime, follow these simple precautions (and yes, I've
offered this advice before):
In their travel sites, the US State Department is now directing readers to some Avian Flu Fact Sheet which I hope is more accurate than their current advisory on Cambodia where they still seem to think that the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is in poor condition. Don't those people ever get out?
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Hun Sen promised before the 2003 election that overhauling the tax system would be one of the priorities for the next government. Few would argue it's a system not in need of some major changes.
One program, announced on January 13, was to collect outstanding vehicle import taxes. Basically, every car in Cambodia, with the exception of the two hand-built Angkor cars in Phnom Penh, are imports. Therefore a tax is due.
Over the years, thousands of vehicles, many with right-hand drive, have been smuggled into the country. Now the government wants the money. Not surprisingly, many vehicle owners have been unable to pay the tax, as assessments have been in the area of a couple of thousand dollars. The alternative to paying the tax is having the vehicle seized. The immediate effect was a difficulty in finding long distance taxis as it seems half the cars on the road disappeared within a week of the edict, and many more drivers were running scared that maybe they would be next.
Well, how dare the government take these vehicles! Corruption!
Err... huh? Wasn't it corruption that allowed the vehicles into the country in the first place? Wasn't it corruption that allowed the vehicles to be driven on the highways for years? Pick most any country on the planet and ask in how many could you drive an unregistered (and unregisterable) vehicle, with no tags, no license, no title, no nothing, and the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car? Not many, huh? So why is Cambodia different? I realize the inconvenience and financial burden this new campaign places on people, but it does seem that the government's action in this case is, if anything, a show of normalcy. Progress in an odd sort of way.
I think of bigger concern is whether this is one more of many short-lived campaigns that fizzles out in six months and at the expense of the unlucky ones caught up in the fun or is it one step in a stated desire not only to overhaul the tax system, but also to overhaul the motor vehicle registration process? And seeing as the government has netted over $10 million in the first month I imagine the desire to continue this program is well in place.
Many more tax changes await us down the road and we can only wonder what's around the corner. Increasing the number of businesses collecting VAT? That would certainly bring in a business like mine. And am I concerned about it? Not really. I could do without the added paperwork, but if I have to collect 10% VAT on every sale, well so then does everybody else and I'll just whack the 10% on to each sale. "Give me the forms and tell me what to do and please tell me it's going to be simple," I'll tell the tax woman when she comes around. Though I imagine for an extra ten bucks or so she'll have a way to expedite the paperwork. Perhaps as well they'll decide to collect the extra tax on alcoholic drinks. It's on the books, my tax collector, she told me so, smiling as she informed me not yet to be concerned about it. But Marom, my driver and translator at the time, he just frowned. He tells me with the tax people frowning is good. It makes you look poor.
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February was a bit of a surprise at the Two Dragons Guesthouse. Boosted by a Chinese New Year holiday that saw Siem Reap completely over-run with tourists, we were until the final days of the month, running at 90% capacity.
And it was an interesting month as all sorts of bizarre requests were made by various police and other government agencies. Well I think they were government agencies. And as none asked us to pay money to make them go away, this kind of confused us.
Let's start with the official visits:
The tourist police finally turned up with our long-awaited official guest registration book. Well, it was long-awaited because I knew one day they'd come around with it and as it took until February, it was a long wait.
This is a thick green thing with columns for such pertinent information as name, nationality, passport number, visa number, age, occupation... yes, they want to know each guest's occupation. Give me a few months and I'll compile a list of the more creative answers. In theory, you're supposed to log the details on every guest, but who wants to do that? Then they'd know we have more customers then we want them to know. Well, that's what my manager told me and she's in charge of the book. I only look at it to see what funny occupations we got this week. It's fun to be the boss.
The book itself is free... well, in theory it's free. The police give you two options, you can buy one from them for $5 or you can come by the police station, pick up a copy (for free!) and then go make your own photocopy bringing back the one they loaned you. So let's say it's free for $5. It's a thick book so it'll last awhile.
Every entry is supposed to be entered with a carbon, the police taking the originals and leaving us with the copies. The regulation, whose regulation nobody knows, but it makes a few bucks for the tourist police (they have nice uniforms), is that someone from our guesthouse is to drop the copies off at the police station every day. Yes, every day. Well, who the #$%& is going to do that? So the police offer an option (you knew they would). For $5 a month they will stop by whenever they feel like it and pick up the copies. At the end of the month they even issued us a receipt, why the officer wanted to know how to spell "castrol" I'll never know, but that's what it says on my receipt.
A few days after we received our free for $5 guest registration book, a second pair of tourist police officers turned up also to provide us with a free for $5 guest registration book. Seeing as we had one already the two could only exchange embarrassed glances. To save face they had me fill out a form.
Speaking of forms, the tourist police, or was it the foreigner police? Or perhaps it was the immigration police or just as likely the paper police, or representatives of the ministry of silly forms, maybe some of them, or maybe all of them, I really don't know because there are so many forms on our counter, but somebody out there wants to know all sorts of vital details on every employee. These are very official looking forms that require photos of each staff member, name, names of parents, address, date of birth, place of birth, height, weight, hair color, teeth color, number of toes, etc. It looks like some kind of official permanent registration of persons employed by foreigners with business in the Kingdom of Cambodia, Nation, Religion, King, Angkor Wat is our national symbol and do you have a license thing and knowing the kind of employee turnover some businesses have I really wonder what the point is in the first place? And every day I'm wondering even more because nobody has bothered to pick up any of these forms which the staff so dutifully filled out and provided their thumbprints with the manager's lipstick. There were a couple of forms for me to fill out that included such key bits of information as "another". I have no idea what I was supposed to write in the space after the word "another" so I wrote in the word "form".
The next round of official visits began with three guys from the Foreigner Police (or so they said) who told us that we needed to be compliant with a number of safety regulations to which we were today not compliant. One produced a form with about ten boxes which either got a check or an X (or was it an O?) depending on whether I was compliant or not.
We failed on five counts, though we were absolved from the sin of not having a gate because we have a security guard at night who as far as anyone can tell, stays awake. We were then told we needed a bigger hose so that if our building burned down we could make a proper spectacle of trying to put the fire out. Next, they complained about the doors in the guestrooms. We have small bolts which guests can lock from the inside, but the inspectors decided they weren't good enough and we needed stronger ones. There's probably some proper name for the kind of door catches they wanted us to install, but I don't know what the name is and I doubt you do either. There was another minor point we failed on, but the inspectors didn't seem particularly concerned about it and I've already forgotten what it was. The final security faux pas was we didn't have a sign up out front as well as in every room informing customers that the use of illegal drugs and possession of guns on the premises was not permitted. Hmm, I can buy morphine and ketamine in the pharmacy... Anyway, I'll comment on this nonsense in a moment.
The inspectors (or whoever they were) were pleasant about the whole thing, didn't ask for any money, didn't tell me one had a brother in the door accessories business, said no money would be requested now or later, and insisted these were legitimate regulations and everyone had to be compliant. They said they would be back in a month to see if I was up to par.
I can only imagine that in a western country the list of safety regulations I would have to conform to would be much longer. None of the requests were unreasonable, except maybe one. The illegal drugs sign I can deal with but being told to add "no guns" really pisses me off. Maybe I'm over-reacting, but several points:
1.) If someone is coming on to my premises with a gun
and with the intent of using it, are they going to be deterred by a
Sorry folks, I think this "No guns" thing is a real clunker and has exactly the opposite effect from what is intended to have. In response, the sign by our front desk as well as in every room, as we've been instructed to do, reads:
POLICE REQUIRE US TO INFORM YOU THAT:
I have no idea whether I will get away with this and what if any humor the powers that be will see or will they instead find humor in some sort of imaginary fine, well, imaginary until I have to pay it. I think humor is much needed here. I've had quite a few guests comment on the signs and without exception they agreed with my points on the counter-productivity of the "No guns" message.
And as a final note on the inspectors, after visiting and telling me I had one month to comply with their requests, a second group came by, not one month later but one week later. Seeing no progress they scolded my manager (I was asleep upstairs and not woken up for the occasion, I suppose it's easier to scold a woman) that I didn't listen to them and if they come back again and no progress has been made there might be some trouble.
I got rather angry and wondered why they didn't listen to themselves and come back in a month and not a week like they said they would. I told my manager that if they set foot in my place again with a complaint I want the complaint in writing accompanied with a specific date for compliance, and I want it signed by the official and his ID number written down. I can only imagine her "Yes, boss" comments were accompanied with thoughts of "he wants we to ask these guys to do what...?"
Taxi drivers. I've said before that I don't expect too much cooperation from taxi drivers because I don't pay commissions, but I heard a really good one from a customer recently. Taxi driver said, "Two Dragons is now Home Sweet Home" as he pushed her to my neighbor. I guess the driver forgot about my signs...
Customers: Proof again how little research some people put into their travels. Had a group of three young women turn up around 12:30 at night after getting the ride from hell, the Khao San Road to Siem Reap 'scam bus'. They found us by accident, never had read mine, or apparently any website, but didn't want to stay where they were sold, found our place while wandering around the neighborhood, and liked it enough to stay three or four nights. Not once did they ever approach any staff member or myself to ask any questions about transport, or anything else for that matter. I only know about their experiences from overhearing one of the girls talking to another tourist in our restaurant, "terrible ride, ride from hell, so happy to find a comfortable place to stay so late... etc." Then she added that they were returning to Bangkok tomorrow. "Hmm," I thought, "surely you're not going back the same way you came...?" But not wanting to reveal myself an eavesdropper I kept my mouth shut. After all, they never approached us about anything else while they had been here, why should I bother now?
Sure enough the following morning the three girls are waiting for the scam bus to come pick them up. My manager (I was still asleep, of course) asks them why don't you take a taxi to the border, adding that the whole trip would cost the same or less than the bus tickets and get them to Bangkok in half the time. "What? We didn't know! You mean there's another way to get to Bangkok?!?!?!?!"
When I came down later I saw they had paid their bill with a fresh pile of riel. Hmm, looks as if they got hit with the money exchange scam, too. So, in their own words they had the ride from hell that took seventeen hours, they got scammed on money exchange, who knows what they paid for their visas and everything else, and after all that - they still volunteered to be taken through the wringer all over again. No wonder these services flourish.
Staff: The cook quit. Over the past month or so my wife and I had noticed that the taste of our food was evolving. While the quality of the cook's production was still good, the taste was becoming less and less Thai and more and more generic Asian. This also coincided with a 10% increase in our food costs over the same time period. So we had a little talk with the cook about the changing taste of the food and the rising food costs. As positive as we tried to be in talking to him, and we said repeatedly the quality of the food continued to be excellent and the customers were happy, he was visibly upset at the criticism. Two days later he gave us notice. He claimed it was the drain of working two jobs. I have a strong suspicion it was the drain of being criticized. Not sure if there was a better way of handling it. When the food changes and the costs rise, you deal with it. Damned if you do...
In any event, the cook's former helper is running the show for the foreseeable future. Maybe we hire a new chef, maybe we bring in a professional to train the staff for a month or two and then leave, maybe we just leave it up to the helper, we'll see what we can do based on who we can find.
The receptionist/waitress we hired has been a bit of a problem. Basically she can't do the job she was hired to do, due in part to language skills that are on par with what I would call "Waitress English", fine for serving a gin and tonic but not much help when a customer wants advice on the best way to Battambang or would it be possible to visit the lake. She was a desperation hire and I suppose I should have listened to my own reservations, but I remind myself of what garbage had walked through our door the previous month looking for a job. In response to her language skills, I really can't blame her, they are what they are and I chose to hire her. I suppose I could always take a page from the Human Resources Strategies book of the late Jack Kent Cooke (lived in northern Virginia, USA, owned among other things, the Washington Redskins football team and was worth a little less than a billion US when he passed away a few years ago) who was once overheard berating an employee, "it's all your fault for allowing me to hire you!"
Communication problems aside, she couldn't think her way
out of a box without written instructions. Example: We do fresh fruit
shakes and the drinks are quite popular. One evening a group of customers
all order shakes. It was about 10 pm on what had been a busy night and
we had run out of drinking ice. So the girl goes to the drink cooler
and pulls out several pieces of block ice (not suitable for drinking)
and she might have gotten away with it had I not walked into the kitchen
just as this is happening.
There's been a lot of things like this. Some are communication problems, which I don't blame her for, others are not... opening plastic water bottles with her teeth in full view of the customers (remember, we have an open kitchen), putting her feet on the food prep table, screwing up receipts, etc.
Despite these complaints she does fine as a waitress and gets along well with the customers so she's not entirely useless. But her days as a receptionist are nearly over. We may have her replacement by next week.
Utilities: When my guesthouse was Saron's and operated by a Khmer the monthly garbage bill was $5. Now that I run the place I find myself paying $20 a month. What's up with that I asked the garbage people last time they came around for their money. "Oh, when it was old guesthouse he never have any customers, now is busy, so we charge full rate." Hmm, well, they're right about Saron hardly having any customers. Score one for them.
And finally. We're going to start a new promotion. Rent a room, get a free guppy. Man, these things breed worse than rabbits. We started with about ten in a lotus pot, now we've got at least a hundred and by the looks of things there are more to come. Call us Two Hundred Guppies Guest House.
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Whatever your terminology: tuk-tuk, remorque, moto-pulled trailer, thingy behind the moto with the tourists inside, if you're visiting the temples you can only stick two passengers in one. This week police began enforcing a "rule" limiting the number of passengers in a tuk-tuk to two. The "rule" seems only to apply to the Angkor temples and not Siem Reap town. According to the drivers who hang around my place the police give the drivers the option of returning to town and dumping the extra passenger(s) or paying the police $10. I suppose somewhere someone will cite this as a safety move, and I suppose somehow someway it is.
While at first glance, it would appear to generate more business for tuk-tuk drivers, "uh, sir, we can only take two in a tuk-tuk, here my friend is available..." in fact, the drivers around my place are complaining about it. Two reasons, it's a bit of a burden on the customers, especially when traveling in groups of three, and when you look at the price for two tuk-tuks ($20) or a tuk-tuk and a moto ($16-18) suddenly an air-con taxi ($20) becomes an attractive alternative and bye-bye tuk-tuk business. Hmm, there is that thing called the Tourist Transport Association which is mostly comprised of taxi drivers... do you think...?
According to one of my drivers there is no discrimination in this policy. They are targeting tuk-tuks carrying Khmers, too. They are also enforcing some rule about one passenger per moto, which will no doubt come at tremendous inconvenience to numerous families who use the moto as the family car, "well, gee officer, I'm sorry there are four people on this moto, but it's the only moto we have and we sort of like live on the other side of the temples and if there were another road away from the temples we'd have used it..." Nonsense. All of it. Though I will concede the dozen or so Khmers I once saw stuffed into a tuk-tuk was a bit over the top.
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So Siem Reap limits two to a tuk-tuk. Siem Reap also prohibits tourists from renting motorbikes (there is no law against riding a motorbike which you own). This come and go law (started in 1996) has been a comer for about two years now. By and large there isn't too much complaining about it. Moto drivers in Siem Reap aren't generally thugs, and while the temples are spread out, the town is not.
But Sihanoukville has jumped on the no rental bandwagon - no motorbike unless you possess either an international or Cambodian driver's license. Not such a good idea. Why? First of all, Sihanoukville is spread out. Beaches here, downtown there, another beach someplace else. Second of all, the motodrivers in Sihanoukville have the not entirely undeserved reputation of being the worst lot in the country when it comes to ripping off, bullying, and on a few occasions even assaulting tourists who would not behave in accordance with their expectations.
So the worst of the lot get worse. The sole competition: rent your own bike, has been effectively neutralized. And people wonder why Sihanoukville hasn't taken off like say, Koh Chang, Thailand?
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"If you want to implement [your policy] please wait until you are [appointed] to be Prime Minister." This comment was directed at:
His Excellency took shots at the Cambodia NGO community adding that, "This is the freedom to create problems for society," NGOs are "established by only a few people" and are not representative of the country... Some NGOs "are hired by foreign countries to control the government or National Assembly."
The sharpness and accuracy of the PM's remarks make them a clear contender for the PM's quote of the year:
Previous Hun Sen classics:
"One million tourists give jobs to 2.5 million Cambodians. Even elephants have jobs." (January 2005 spoken in praise of his "Open Skies" policy)
“Whoever will build taller buildings, we will give a medal.” (January 2004 in encouragement of the construction of skyscrapers in Phnom Penh)
"Don't wait for the road to come visit you, please visit the road." (December 2002 to Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalivuth on the horrific state of Highway 6)
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A little more attentive this month. The following graced the pages of toa in February:
February 28: Readers'
Submissions: Lay Vicheka shares an essay: A
look at how Cambodian people resolve and prevent conflict through cultural
March 5 marks one-year since I made the ill-advised decision to put a discussion forum on my website, Almost without exception people warned me not to do it, but I went ahead and did it anyway. If I had to do it over again, would I? No, I would not. Still, for the time being, the forum is there and will stay there, though there are many days I have wondered why I have bothered.
I won't waste time crying over petty details but if someone reading this
has thought about dumping a discussion forum on their site, consider the
While an overwhelming majority of forum users play by the rules and enhance rather than detract from a board, there is a very small minority that can do a marvelous job of ruining the whole bunch.
Anyway, for the time being the forum is still active, but I will not guarantee its survival.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
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