A little late
I'm back, finally. Sorry I'm so late this month but as I warned in my April column I would be in China for awhile, thus delaying this month's column. I spent 34 days in China (April 10 - May 13) escaping the oppressive southeast Asian summer heat, the water throwing nonsense of the Khmer New Year, and enjoying spending some time in one of my favorite countries to visit and one which will be receiving a lot more attention on this website in the not too distant future. Starting in early June, stories and photos from this most recent trip, plus practical information, travel tips, and general observations will appear on this website. But in the meantime, there is plenty of text and photos from my first two visits to China in 1998 and 1999 on my China page.
In the April column I made a lot of noise about the Khmer New Year and the dangerous practice of throwing water bags at motorists, especially motorcycles. Apparently some people misunderstood me. I am not calling for a ban to the festivities of the Khmer New Year or even a ban to the throwing of water. I am suggesting ONLY that there is a ban on throwing water bags at motor vehicles on the highways. This has nothing to do with Khmers throwing water on each other. People can throw all the water they want, just leave the folks alone who are only trying to get somewhere and would like to get there in the same condition they left in.
"The Magic of Cambodia"
Going to be in England on the 17th of August? Andy Brouwer is sponsoring the following:
'The Magic of
Cambodia' - Saturday, 17 August 2002
'The Magic of Cambodia'
- Saturday 17 August - will be a day to celebrate all that is positive
about this wonderful country.
Will it rain?
The rainy season is upon us. It started a little early this year but after last year's oppressive summer, getting a break on the heat in exchange for some early rains isn't such a bad thing.
While I'm often spared the "will it rain on my vacation?" question, judging by the sheer number of people asking this question on the LP Thorntree, there is certainly a lot of concern as to whether the rainy season is a bad time to travel to Southeast Asia.
Nobody can predict the weather, but the rainy season can pretty much be divided into three possible scenarios:
1.) The most likely occurrence is several brief showers a day, albeit quite heavy at times, divided by periods of sunshine. Rarely is flooding much of a problem and the regular showers bring out all sorts of colors. This really is a good time to visit Cambodia, especially the Angkor temples. Crowds aren't too bad, the jungle is lush, and the lighting can be quite good. You might even catch a rainbow over Angkor Wat. Your holiday will not be overly inconvenienced by rains of this nature.
2.) Next, is the possibility that it won't rain at all. It's not uncommon during the rainy season to have periods of a week, two weeks, sometimes even a month of almost no showers.
3.) The least likely scenario is that it rains heavily nonstop for several days flooding everything. Some days may bring as much as 250mm of rain. We had one stretch in July 2001 where it rained for four days straight dropping, I would roughly guess, about 500mm of rain, with half that falling the first day. My house was completely surrounded by water for weeks afterwards. Fortunately, rains of this magnitude generally occur only a couple of times a year and are not par for the season.
Fear not the rain, while scenario #3 could still happen, it more than likely will not. Just bring an umbrella anyway.
What? Did you think I'd go a month without offering more #$%& on that omnipresent Cambodian form of public transport? However, this upcoming advice applies equally to car taxis, as they can be just as guilty of what I'm going to address as their two-wheeled cohorts.
Okay, you're taking a motodop (or taxi) to a place a bit outside Siem Reap like Banteay Srei or Kbal Spean, or perhaps you've hired a guy to take you somewhere a few hours from Phnom Penh, say Udong or Tonle Bati, or even as far as Kampot. Despite having agreed upon a price, halfway to your destination the guy stops, turns around and asks for more money. What do you do?
If you're not too familiar with your surroundings, perhaps you'd look around, have visions of Khmer Rouge abductions or maybe have concern for spending the night in some village miles from where you want to be, so you agree to his demands and pay up the extra cash. Bad idea.
Call the bastard's bluff. Get off the bike or get out of the taxi. If he leaves you where you are, you will find another ride, trust me. If you're anywhere north of Siem Reap on the road to Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean, Phnom Kulen, or even quiet route 34 to Anlong Veng, it will be short time before another motorbike or car will come by and happily agree to take you where you want to go and probably for a whole lot less than the first price you had agreed to with Mr. Reliable. TRUST ME!!!! Do not yield to this kind of extortion. No matter what B.S. the guy pulls, do not budge. Having gone halfway to the destination do you really think the guy is going to go back to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh empty-handed? And if he does, let him. His loss. This of course assumes you didn't pay the guy anything up front. When dealing with taxis, motodops, pick-up trucks in Cambodia - NEVER pay anything up front!!!!
I know it would seem mighty intimidating to be standing on the side of the road in an unfamiliar place in an unfamiliar country, but please take my word for it - if the guy refuses to continue at the agreed upon price, then leave him -- You will get another ride in very short time. Fortunately, this is not a common occurrence, but, regrettably it still does happen. Don't be bullied!
Airport departure tax
Some good news and bad news. There have been changes in the airport departure tax for domestic flights. The good news is that the departure tax at Pochentong Airport (Phnom Penh) has been lowered from $10 to $5. The bad news is that Siem Reap has been raised from $4 to $5. I haven't been able to check whether or not the $5 is now a nationwide standard for domestic flights but logic would tell me that it is - so it probably isn't. Now, if only they'd do something about that outrageous $20 international departure tax at Pochentong.
Meeting the Cambodian police
If you drive in Cambodia - car or motorcycle, sooner or later, probably sooner, you're going to be stopped by the police for some infraction which you may or may not have committed. Believe or it not, you probably did do something you weren't supposed to. Anyway, what do you do?
Hand over license, registration, and insurance proof? Of course not, hardly anybody has all three let alone even one. What you do is wait to see what amount of money is requested. Regardless of what amount is asked for, whether it be $20 or $1, the first word out of your mouth should be "sombot". This means receipt. Every infraction has a fixed fine and a receipt goes with it.
Of course you can't read Khmer but you can read numbers, right? Look for something that looks like a number, 3,000 is a likely figure. No, not 3,000 dollars but 3,000 riels - about 75 cents US. And pay it. If the officer tries to write out a receipt for something like the ridiculous $20 he asked for, then you'll have to bargain because he's offering you a bogus receipt. Bargaining generally means standing around for a few minutes smiling and smoking cigarettes. Then the price will be a dollar. But you shouldn't have to do this because the police are supposed to have pre-written receipts, as often when they are on a fund-raising campaign they already have a specific infraction in mind. In Siem Reap this is usually going the wrong way on a one-way street - enforced around Psah Chas and on the west side of the road along the river. In Phnom Penh it's often illegal left turns or lack of a number plate that gets you pulled over.
Ministry of Tourism FAQ
The Cambodia Ministry of Tourism recently published a FAQ on its website. Good idea, yes?
Granted, there is some accurate information, but there's quite a bit of misinformation as well. While some of the answers are good for a chuckle, other answers are dangerously irresponsible in the false information they provide. Here's a bit of what they have to say:
After first mentioning that visas can be obtained at Cambodian embassies and consulates overseas, they offer the following:
I interpret this to mean that even the Ministry of Tourism is unsure just what the answer is, because I sure can't decipher what they're talking about with this 'gateways' bit. But I do know that visas are available on arrival overland from Thailand and not available on arrival overland from Laos or Vietnam. Perhaps they could explain this so simply as I??
Apparently the MOT has never tried to enter by land from Thailand where they demand 1000 baht (now about $23.75) for the tourist visa and 1500 baht (now about $35.65) for the business visa refusing to accept US dollars. Likewise, at the embassy in Bangkok, while accepting US dollars they also accept Thai baht but at these same ridiculous exchange rates.
Not exactly the whole story. International departure tax from Siem Reap is $8 and until recently, domestic tax was $4. At Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (and possibly everywhere else) domestic tax is now $5.
"...little to worry about in a country where health standards are ranked amongst the highest in Asia"? High standards by what measurement? The likelihood to contract frostbite?? Please guys, be honest, health standards in Cambodia stink. Have you checked your infant mortality rate lately? The average life expectancy? The number of annual cases of dysentery, cholera, typhoid, and tuberculosis? The average daily intake of vitamins and other nutrients a child living in a rural village can expect? Look, I want to promote tourism as much as you do but that doesn't preclude misrepresenting the health standards of Cambodia.
Rather hot, wouldn't you say?
This is where the answers begin to go from funny to dangerously irresponsible. Yes, medical services are available at government-run hospitals. There are hospitals in every provincial capital. You do not want to go to any of these. Contrary to what MOT may try to tell you, the standard of medical care in Cambodia is nowhere near international standards unless you're using the standards of say, the year 1870. There are a few decent clinics in Phnom Penh: the International $O$, I mean SOS Clinic, Naga Medical Center, and a place down on Mao Tse Tung Blvd, the name of which temporarily escapes me, but avoid Calmette Hospital if at all possible. I know Hun Sen likes the place, but the treatment the PM gets and the treatment some schmuck off the streets gets doesn't necessarily compare favorably. If you have a problem, the best thing to do is get yourself to Bangkok ASAP.
As for drugs, well yes, non-prescription drugs are available at pharmacies, as well as most any prescription drug (and I do mean ANY), none of which you will need a prescription to obtain. However, counterfeiting of medication continues to be a problem. Though there are reputable pharmacies that generally dispense legitimate drugs, there are bogus, unlicensed pharmacies out there dispensing a lot of sugar tablets. Also, even some of the more reputable pharmacies may get screwed by a supplier now and then and be given counterfeit medications. Buyer beware.
This is ridiculous. Absolutely positively irresponsible false misleading dangerous bullshit!!!!! Don't even think about drinking tap water. EVER!!!! Many expats, self-included, won't even use tap water to brush our teeth. C'mon, has MOT forgotten how many deaths there were in 1999 from cholera in Ratanakiri province alone??? And that sporadic outbreaks of cholera still occur throughout the country??? Perhaps some old villager has a bit of immunity to the bacteria in the water, but any tourist that takes a drink of tap water will almost certainly be sprinting for a toilet in short time. And that's if they're lucky. DO NOT DRINK TAP WATER!!!!!!
I've never heard of anyone ever having to produce a driver's license to drive any vehicle in Cambodia. That said, unless you have experience driving in a third world country, you'd be absolutely nuts to rent a vehicle in Cambodia. Don't do it!!
You will definitely need insurance if you follow the MOT's suggestion to drink the water, drive a car, or use local medical facilities. Personally, I'm insured with a Bangkok-based company and carry evacuation insurance. If you're planning to spend any length of time here I'd suggest the same. E-mail me if you want details.
Dual pricing, overcharging, outright scams, and what would you do back home?
I wrote a bit about this back in my October 2001 column, but my recent trip to China has me thinking again. Officially, China has no dual-pricing. Transport and tourist attractions are priced the same for everyone. Where one is most likely to encounter two-tiered pricing is in private transport, i.e. privately-owned buses. This is no different from Cambodia where foreigners are often targeted to pay double, triple, sometimes quadruple the Khmer price for a seat in a truck, especially on the Poipet - Sisophon - Siem Reap/Battambang routes.
But you know what works?
Keeping your mouth shut. As I advise for traveling the afore-mentioned routes, avoid bargaining and just get in the truck. If you can avoid the touts (difficult, I know) you just hand the driver the correct fare and be done with it. The same held true in China. A popular route covered predominantly by privately-owned buses is the Guilin to Yangshuo route, a 65-km journey frequented by many a foreigner. The regular Chinese price is Y7.5 (about 90 cents US). If you just get on the bus and hand the attendant money, that's what you'll pay. Ask how much before you get on and the price starts at Y20!!!!!
There's an important point to be made here. Why is it travelers all too often get scammed and overcharged? Ignorance of local prices is one reason, but another reason is one all too often feels a bit clueless in a strange land. Understandable. Yet often, what holds true in one country will hold true in most countries. If I followed guidebook advice I would have haggled the price before stepping on the bus and who knows what unpleasantness would have followed. But I didn't. I just boarded the bus and surprise! I paid local! Six times I had to travel between the two cities in one week and I never had a problem, yet continually heard stories of other foreigners paying Y10, 15, even 20!!! And in every case they made the same mistake, they asked "how much?" instead of just quietly getting on the bus.
We've all heard (I hope) about the gem scams in Bangkok. Unsuspecting tourists are lured by smooth talking conmen and women to pay as much as 100 times the true value for worthless gems under the premise that they can be resold back home for big bucks (more details at this website).
Now, how many people would fall for this in their home country? None, I think. Why? Because someone approaching you on the street, no matter how convincing they may sound, offering you some fantastic deal if you agree to part with a few thousand, yes A FEW THOUSAND dollars US, just doesn't seem right, does it? So why do people fall for this in Thailand? Because they are in a strange country. But the rules are the same. If it wouldn't seem right at home, then it probably isn't right anywhere else. Keep this in mind in any financial transaction.
And then there's that mentality that says, "well, I'm a guest in their country and I don't want to offend". Fine, but that's not an excuse to put up with bad service, rip-offs, rude touts, scams, attempts to overcharge, etc. If faced with a situation whereby someone is trying to separate you from your money in ways that don't seem right to you, then chances are it really is a dodgy situation and there's no reason to tolerate it. There's no reason to worry about offending somebody when they are trying to rip you off.
In this month's electronic mail bag:
Some interesting feedback on some opinions I've expressed in various places around this website (and not exclusively Cambodia):
...as a resident of Tokyo, I'd like to weigh in on the subject of large Asian cities and their relative "authenticity," which you touch upon in a few of your entries. If I am reading things correctly, you seem to be saying that large cities in Asia are just as legitimate, in terms of "cultural authenticity," as anywhere else. I completely agree. When I first came to Japan I lived in Kyoto - the "cultural" capitol of "traditional" Japan - terrific city with the most outstanding collection of Buddhist temples and Shinto shines in the country. At that time I firmly believed that Kyoto was the heart of the "real" Japan. However, after graduating from college back in the states I returned to Japan and have made my home in Tokyo for the past 4 years. Since coming back, I've traveled to some of the most remote parts of Japan, including small towns and villages on all four islands. If this experience has taught me anything it is that even though Tokyo may appear to be just like another other big city (New York, London, Paris, etc.) - it is really just as Japanese as Kyoto, Saijo, Nishi-hara, or any place in Japan - in it's unique own Tokyo style.
Most of my recent mail worth printing has been traveler's reports on the Bangkok to Siem Reap route. I'm now publishing these on their own page in my Overland section and will be adding several more reports when I update the section about June 1, but I thought I'd reprint one here, for it's an excellent reminder... if you are traveling in Cambodia in a public pick-up truck share taxi - DO NOT PAY UNTIL YOU REACH YOUR DESTINATION!!!! As described by the writer, "The Hells of Poipet":
Having recently returned in April I have a couple comments and considerations
for your Cambodia overland crossing page. The first is to agree that the
touts were completely out of hand, especially at the circle after crossing
into Poipet. Since we were heading to Battambang we found it extremely
difficult to find a truck that wasn't going to Siem Reap -- and this seemed
to make us an easy target. We also made the mistake of paying up front,
this was the largest mistake of my entire trip through south east Asia.
Once they had our money we sat in the truck for close to two hours, I
then began to get irate and so to appease me they started driving around.
First they took us to a small market in Poipet and tried to unload us
to a bunch of taxi drivers, when we refused to get out of the truck they
drove us further and further into Poipet, finally stopping and pretending
that the truck was broken. Realizing that we had been pretty much abducted
we got out of the truck and demanded our money back -- at which point
I argued with the men for about 15 minutes, and luckily caused a big enough
scene that about 25 villagers came out and watched (possibly preventing
any sort of violence). Finally, we got the majority of our money back
but we still had to find our way out of the shantytown and back to the
highway. . . with our backpacks on and in the noon heat and dust. The
truck we were in then raced ahead of us and told just about everyone they
met on the way to rip us off -- some how every next truck, moto, and taxi
knew we were headed to Battambang -- I wonder how?! In the end we found
a decent truck with a driver who spoke moderate English and had already
been hired by three monks (a good sign). But I can't stress enough how
important it is not to just go in the first truck that promises to
take you, to not give them any money, and to keep your cool no matter
how overwhelmed and over heated you are.
Another column coming to you from Bangkok, but I just returned from China and haven't yet made my way back to Siem Reap. The next column should be on time so check back around June 1. I will also have updated the overland Bangkok to Siem Reap section as I'll be making that wretched trip again this coming weekend. One alert reader has already informed me that the Cambodian immigration is now in separate buildings for arriving and departing.
Readership continues to climb. April saw 10,700 visitors to TalesofAsia and May is on pace to surpass 13,000. Not huge, I know, but it's progress. Thanks to one and all.
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