Warning: I'm particularly crabby this month as I'm suffering through a bad case of SARS (Severe Adverse Reaction to Stupidity).
I've lost a lot of faith in humanity these past few months. First we had the stupid riots in Phnom Penh where stupid people did stupid things and even more stupid people, for a variety of reasons, all of them stupid, decided to stay away from Cambodia.
Then we had the US-led invasion of Iraq. That was bad enough but the mere fact that apparently a majority of Americans supported this action gave me another reason to shake my head in dismay (I've buried a little more about this at the bottom of the column seeing as I received a few e-mails on the subject). And of course, people have been canceling travel plans which seems kind of silly as I don't recall Cambodia making the Axis of Evil or even the Axis of Countries We Don't Like Because The French Got There First (except for US Senator Mitch McConnell who tends to forget that he is a US Senator and not a Cambodia Senator).
And finally, SARS, which has turned into the biggest disaster to hit Asia since the economic crisis of 1997. The disaster, however, is not the illness but the hysteria and economic fallout that has ensued.
Look, I'm all for press freedoms, but the media hype surrounding this SARS thing is really transcending the bounds of responsible reportage. Perhaps all the regional governments should consider filing lawsuits against all the world's media organizations for hyping this thing? Why stop there? Considering the economic catastrophe this is turning into why not press charges against CNN, BBC, et al for crimes against humanity?
As of April 29, 2003 when I'm writing this there have been what, 5000 cases worldwide and about 300 deaths? In that time frame how many people died in any single Asian country of dengue fever? Of malaria? Of the flu? Of gunshot wounds? Of accidents in the home? Of cancer? Of obesity? Of liver disease? Of heart disease? And how about one of the deadliest killers in this part of the world - motor vehicle accidents?
Over the April New Year holiday Thailand recorded approximately 600 highway deaths in a five day period (April 11-15)!!! And how many did Cambodia lose? 100 maybe? But how many tourists are shitting themselves over fears of road accidents? Where is the news hype surrounding what in Thailand has shown to be 300 times more fatal than SARS??? Thailand has recorded eight cases of SARS and two deaths.
It doesn't make sense. 600 people can die in five days and it hardly gets a mention outside of Thailand (no figures for Cambodia have been made available), but lose a couple of hundred around the planet to a virus and world panic sets in. Go figure.
Kousoum Saroeuth, Director General for the Ministry of Tourism reported that April tourism arrivals in Cambodia were down 40% from April 2002! 40%!!!!! This represents a serious serious loss of income for a lot of people who have been made to suffer needlessly due to the inability of the news media and the WHO to place this SARS thing in proper realistic perspective. They should all be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Better yet, perhaps the heads of the media organizations and the WHO should be forced to work as a motodriver in Siem Reap for a few months with only that income to live on. Maybe then they'd think two or three times before reporting that the sky is falling.
Too little too late and hardly worth noting, but at least (with the exception of China), the WHO have come out and said the worst is behind us. However, for the livelihoods of millions of Asians whose lives have been needlessly disrupted by the SARS scare the worst is hardly over.
And if someone reading this is having second thoughts about traveling to Asia because of this SARS thing I suggest you lock yourself in your home and never leave because statistically speaking there are a lot more risks outside your door than SARS and you face these things every day without a second thought.
Siem Reap has once again resumed the ban on tourists (as a distinct entity to expats) from renting and operating motorbikes. We're not exactly sure why, but two theories have been brought forward.
The first theory is that the motodrivers and taxi drivers - who have the Tourist Transport Association to speak for them and have never liked that tourists could drive themselves around the temples, complained to the police about tourists using their own transportation and accompanied these complaints with the proper pieces of paper one would need to accompany a complaint and presto! no more tourists on motorbikes.
A second theory says that the police were tired of dealing with rental shop owners coming to them because some tourist wrecked the motorbike (I cannot begin to tell you how often tourists crash up here) and pulled a runner, ultimately going to Phnom Penh, getting a new passport and leaving the country, sticking the rental shop with a damaged bike and a useless passport. Of course you could argue effectively that this really is a matter for the rental shops to deal with and not the police, but if the police tire of dealing with a problem, they'll simply make it go away.
For the time being then, if you're a tourist, you can't operate a motorbike in Siem Reap province. If you do manage to get your hands on one and are caught by the police the problems for you will be small, but for the person you got the bike from, those problems will be large, so if you ask to borrow an expat's motorbike and are told no, that's why. One western rental shop owner has already lost one bike to the police and she sees little prospect of ever getting it back.
Personally, I don't care if tourists can drive themselves around Angkor Wat or not. I have always advised tourists against this, anyway. However, I do think that if tourists want to take longer trips to the distant temples and villages scattered about the northwest part of the country and have some biking experience then they should be able to do so. A reasonable compromise would be to ban tourists from operating motorbikes within the Angkor Archaeological Park grounds and possibly from Siem Reap town as well, but no further. A temple ban would be easy to enforce - you simply don't allow tourists to park motorbikes. And if you can't park the bike how are you going to see the temples?
One of the problems with the present law, which applies to the entire province, is that it wasn't designed to stop tourists from crashing, it was designed to keep tourists from getting kidnapped or killed. The law was originally drafted in 1996 during a time when the Khmer Rouge were active and holding territory not all that far from the Angkor temples. The reasoning was that tourists would not be aware of the safe and unsafe areas and potentially could drive off into the countryside never to return. Most people agree that in 1996 this law made sense. Those who lived and worked in Siem Reap, as business owners, aid workers, etc were always exempt from enforcement of this law is it was assumed that we would be aware of the dangers in the area.
Ultimately, this is an issue with no good answers, but thinking of tourists and motorbikes, I'm reminded of a recent trip to the northern Thailand town of Pai where I saw three motorbike wrecks (two involving tourists, a third was a local hitting a dog) in one afternoon. The fact remains, a majority of tourists really don't know what they are doing renting motorbikes in this part of the world.
To read more about the history of this law you can read my report in my October 2001 column from the last time this law was instated as well as read a similar summary in my Siem Reap section of the website.
Mealy Chenda does it again. About six months ago I awarded McMealy Chenda one of these smelly fruits as a result of their crappy Koh Kong to Phnom Penh van service and now I'm going to do it again. Well, Gordon, if the service was so bad the first time, why did you use it again? Hear me out. I came up through Koh Kong just after the April holiday with no intention of using this service. However, my guesthouse for the night told me that the van service was no longer Mealy Chenda, that they didn't like Mealy Chenda either, and now it was just a regular van and it would drop me off at the Central Market in Phnom Penh, and I, with over five years here - believed them. That was stupid. Anyway, I had the choice of 600 baht for a ride in a van or 800 baht to buy two seats in a Camry. Okay, we'll try the van again.
At 9:15 in the morning a van pulls up to the guesthouse. It says "Mealy Chenda" on the side. I even recognize the driver as the same worm who laid all the lies on me about the service last October. Well, too late, now. So eight of us head off to Phnom Penh, or so we thought, and traveling in a van which no longer has functioning air conditioning making for a hot and dusty ride that's not all that better than sitting in the back of a pick-up truck.
The ride from Koh Kong to Sre Ambel was uneventful though about halfway there the Mealy Chenda van from the other direction (Sihanoukville, I suppose) meets up with us and - we exchange drivers! I begin wondering if the fact that we now have a driver who barely speaks English is anything significant? Well, we get to Sre Ambel (the town almost exactly midway between Koh Kong and Phnom Penh) and as soon as we hit the highway the driver pulls off to the side of the road and yells out to a van parked there with fourteen Khmer passengers sitting on top of each other. I understand just enough Khmer to realize he's asking if they can take four foreigners to Phnom Penh. As it turns out only four of us in the van were going to Phnom Penh, the other four were going to Sihanoukville. Imagine that!
What a scam! Take one van, charge fifteen dollars. Travel halfway to your destination and sell off half of your cargo for what, about 5000 riels ($1.25) each, stuffing them in a van with fourteen other Khmers for five times the going price!
Mealy Chenda. This is a new low, even for you. You guys (Mealy Chenda/Narin's/Smiley's), are simply amazing (and pathetic!) in your ongoing ability to lower the standards of Cambodia tourism.
If you're a tourist in Cambodia, do yourself a favor and give Mealy Chenda/Narin's/Smiley's a wide miss. They are filthy rich money grabbing $#%&s who don't deserve your business. This country is full of friendly local family-run operations that will bend over backwards to please you and they could certainly use your money far more than the Mealy Chenda/Narin's/Smiley's empire does.
And can anyone figure out why Lonely Planet speaks so favorably about this group? So please, Nick Ray, if you're reading this would you be so kind in your next edition - starting with the 2004 Southeast Asia book to put this operation in the proper context. I keep hearing and experiencing one bad turn after another. They offer nothing more than a package tour of Cambodia from one of their guesthouses to another and they don't even offer a good one at that.
Once again, Mealy Chenda gets a Rotten Durian Award from me and if Lonely Planet praises these folks one more time I might give them one, too.
To read another person's perspective on Mealy Chenda, albeit no different from mine, see the new Talesofasia Guide to Sihanoukville and the South Coast written by Sihanoukville resident Will Capel. You'll find his rant about a third of the way, maybe not quite halfway down the page.
Three months after the riots, Cambodia and Thailand are friends again. Ambassadors have returned, diplomatic relations have been restored, backs are patted, hands are shook, borders are open, toilets are available. Yes, toilets. In last month's column I commented on how the village of Kralanh, the toilet rest stop capital of Cambodia, obliterated the Thai script off of the numerous toilet signs in the village. Well, one fine citizen of Kralanh has repainted the Thai script on his toilet sign telling one and all, well, one and all Thais, that clean toilets are indeed available. We can only assume the other ten or so toilet block owners will follow suit as they all copied the original in constructing the toilets, making the signs, erasing the signs, and probably a few other things we'd just as well not know about.
So now we can hopefully put all this stupid riot silliness behind us and get on with whatever the next scheduled event will be in the Don't Visit Cambodia Year 2003 promotion. Riots, war, SARS, national elections in July... more fun awaits.
I'm usually on six-month multi-entry business visas but due to uncertain travel plans I let my visa expire in early April and subsequently returned on the 19th of April intending only to purchase a standard tourist visa. I had put off my April Pakistan/Afghanistan trip until May so there's a good chance that as you're reading this I'm in one of those two countries, but, we'll talk about Pakistan and Afghanistan someplace else on the website when I get back, this is the Cambodia section. So anyway, I had to get a visa and it would be a true test to see if I could successfully get the visa for the correct $20 and not the 1000, 1100, even 1300 baht they try to fleece tourists for.
It was easy. For me. But it's not going to be so easy to do this if you've never been to Cambodia before or you speak no Khmer. But how did I do it? First of all, my passport is full of Cambodia visas and stamps, I can manage to speak a little Khmer (very little), and I can prove I do business here. There were also no other foreigners in the room. You probably have none of these advantages.
Now, first of all, I had forgotten a photo and I knew that my forgetfulness was going to cost me 100 baht and as Cambodia law does require that a passport application be accompanied by a photo I was going to have to pay this. It's a fair request on the part of the authorities. I had another problem, a shortage of dollars. So I did a little math. $20 x 43 baht to the dollar = 860 baht. Add 100 for the photo we have 960 baht. I had a nice crispy 1000 baht note.
When I walked in the office I didn't say anything to the guards, I simply took out 1000 baht, laid it on the table and began filling out the form. Halfway through I said "knyom plek ruup" (I forget photo). "100 baht," they replied. I didn't look up but only pointed to the money already on the table. Again they asked for a 100 baht more.
Now, here I had an advantage, my passport is full of stamps and visas and as soon as they saw this, the whole conversation ended. Though they did want my namecard saying they'd all like to visit me in Phnom Penh sometime and we'd get together for some drinks. I declined to mention that I do most of my work in Siem Reap.
But if you're a tourist what can you do? The best thing you can do is to take out $20 in US currency, do not ask about the price of the visa, lay the money on the table, and when they ask you for more money simply point to the money on the table and say nothing. When you do start talking to them, be very polite, laugh a lot, act like you are all best friends and remind them when they ask for more money that the legal visa fee is $20. Ultimately you still may not get the visa for $20 but you'll probably at least get 100, perhaps 200 baht knocked off the original asking price. They may tell you the price is higher because the visas are stickers now. Laugh when they tell you this.
If you do pay more - do two things: ask for a receipt and also request that they stamp on the visa next to the word "fee" the EXACT amount of money you have paid. There's a place on the visa to do this. If they won't do either of these things, it's time to go back to insisting you pay only $20.
The environmental watchdog organization Global Witness has been given the boot. Created to observe and report on illegal logging, they had never gotten along with the government and this expulsion is really no surprise. Some say this is a sad day for Cambodia's trees, others would say "what difference does it make? The government never listened to them, anyway," still others might say, "good riddance, they never cooperated with the government and in Cambodia if you're going to get things done, you have to cooperate with the government." Probably all three sentiments carry some measure of truth. Personally, I don't know enough about Global Witness to comment accurately on them, but I do have some opinions about the trees here.
Cambodia has a lot of forests. Not nearly as many as they had a decade ago, but there are still a lot of trees out there. Cambodia is also in need of money. Cambodia has an absolutely spectacular wilderness area in the Cardamom Mountains, which is one of the most pristine areas in all of Asia. I rode a motorbike through in January 2002 and you can read more about me and the Cardamoms here (the story finally has some pictures now, too!).
Needless to say a lot of people want the trees. Others want to preserve every inch of forest. Neither is the right answer. The problem with the Cardamoms is that people still aren't sure what exactly lives in there. In early 2000, UK-based Fauna & Flora International (FFI) conducted an extensive biological survey in partnership with the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Protection Office. They identified at least 30 species of large mammals, over 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, 30 small mammal species and scores of plants and insects. Threatened species include the tiger, Asian elephant, Asiatic wild dog, gaur, pileated gibbon, clouded leopard, and perhaps of greatest importance – the Siamese crocodile – as no significant populations of this species exist outside of the Cardamom range. It’s even been suggested that Javan and Sumatran rhinoceros may inhabit this region. Obviously, if the existence of the rhinceros is still speculation I think it's fair to say that the region needs to be studied further before it's chopped up into parcels and given over to logging concessions.
I think the Cardamoms should be split three ways. First, determine where are the most ecologically sensitive areas and block them off as wildlife preserves. No roads, no development, no logging, nothing. Take territory somewhere in the middle and also turn it into a preserve but permit limited development. Some roads, a few small villages, and of course create opportunities for eco-tourism. Finally, figure out which areas are the least sensitive, log them, farm them, develop them (within reason, of course). Then everybody wins. The animals get to remain animals. The tree huggers get to keep hugging. The tourists get to tour. The loggers get their logs. The settlers get to settle.
With business so slow here, I was thinking lately of a post I saw a couple of months ago on the Lonely Planet Thorntree travel discussion forum from a first-time Cambodia visitor who recounted her experiences in Cambodia with much glee. While she had a good time here, one thing that disturbed me and also a number of other people who followed up with their opinions no different from mine, was her assertion to BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! everything.
There is certainly a time and a place for bargaining, long distance share taxis, asking for a discount on a room rate in a hotel, any major business deal, yes, bargaining is involved. However, the person was not talking about these things but rather about BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! simple things like buying a bottle of water from a fourteen-year-old kid in front of the Bayon.
It sickens me that there are tourists that will try to beat down these souvenir and drink sellers for 500 or 1000 riels, take the attitude that every transaction with a Cambodian must be BARGAINED! BARGAINED! BARGAINED! and then at the end of the day, walk into a western-owned bar, run up a $15 to $20 tab and pay it without thought. Just once I'd like to see one of these people try to bargain the cost of a beer with a western bartender. Why do some people feel they have to BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! with people who make $40 a month but will think nothing of dropping half that amount on beer from a bar that turns a $40 profit every couple of hours. Get a grip, will ya'?
Food, drinks. You don't normally bargain these things - anywhere. Souvenirs, little trinkets. Yes, you can knock off a small fraction of the price but not like your life depends on it. Relax. And next time you feel poised to BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! with some local over half a buck, ask yourself how much beer you plan to drink that evening and whether you intend to BARGAIN! BARGAIN! BARGAIN! for the price of that.
As the SARS hysteria has damaged the tourism industry, the airline industry has been particularly crippled. In Cambodia we have seen the cancellation of many afternoon flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. When I flew up from Phnom Penh on the 25th at the hideous hour of seven a.m. the flight still had but only ten people on it.
Particularly hard hit has been the newly formed Mekong Airways, a company with the misfortune of flying only two international routes - Phnom Penh to Hong Kong and Phnom Penh to Singapore. They are not expected to survive for much longer.
President Airlines recently added a Boeing 737 to its fleet, I'm assuming they still have the Antonov 24. No word yet whether Royal Phnom Penh Airways, with its pair of Chinese-made Y7s plans to enter the jet age.
We have bars. We have karaoke clubs. We have brothels. But one thing we don't have is a strip joint. No reason why we should, either, though it would spice things up a bit. Still, Siem Reap is about temples and the authorities would like to keep it that way. Recently a strip joint did open in Siem Reap, run by Koreans, I think, and employing Russian girls. It was a very short-lived enterprise with the Ministry of Tourism leading the way to the club's demise.
While Siem Reap does have a few brothels scattered around town as well as a couple of freelancer joints, they are all low key and generally serve locals (Khmer and expat) more so than tourists. Siem Reap will never be a sex tourist destination and ensuring that it stays that way is one task the government does a pretty good job of doing.
Still, it did make for a few laughs as ordering a White Russian in a bar inevitably would be answered with, "Why are you asking me? I hear there are a few on the town looking for work, now."
Now that Thailand and Cambodia are all friendly again they've come to an agreement to extend the border hours at the Poipet/Aranyaprathet border crossing from a closing time of 5 pm to a closing time of 8 pm. The new change will go into effect "soon".
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 lineup 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.
First of all, my little rant on the US invading Iraq generated some mail:
Okay, one more, then we'll move on:
I had intended to respond to these letters, but have since reconsidered. At least not on this page, anyway. I'm still against the war and I'm against a continued US presence in Iraq. As I'm going to be in another country soon that the US is still involved in militarily (Afghanistan) I will address these issues at that time and in that section of the site as there is obvious relevance. Unless US foreign policy has an impact, direct or indirect, on Cambodia, I will avoid any further comment on this section of the website. As this site is approaching 200 pages now, I think I can find a place somewhere else to do this. Moving on...
A couple of months back I addressed the pesticide issue, or shall I say I published a letter from a reader asking me what I knew about the problem. Well, another reader has come out of the woodwork and offered the following:
An NGO experience:
I was then requested to offer my opinion. I replied with the following:
Anyway, I'm continuing to receive a few travelers' reports every month, 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.
I've also begun a Reader's Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country in the appropriate place on the website. You can link to them from the main Cambodia page.
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. The entire section was updated April 27, 2003.
And don't forget to check out the new Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
restaurants, tours and more
Well, I haven't yet made it to Afghanistan or Pakistan, but I am going. After three delays I'm finally flying to Islamabad on the 7th of May in what should be the beginning of a most interesting three, maybe four-week trip that will combine wherever it is I can go in Afghanistan plus some time along the Karakoram Highway region in Northern Pakistan. As a result it's almost a certain guarantee that next month's column will be a bit late and probably won't have a lot to say about Cambodia as I won't hardly have been there. But we'll manage something, just as I managed something a year ago when I disappeared into the wilds of Southwest China for five weeks in April/May. And for what it's worth, I'm going to change the publish date of future columns from the last day of the previous month to the first day of the month. But June will still be late.
I did, however, escape the Songkran/Khmer New Year holiday with a few days in Malaysia - a quick look at Kuala Lumpur and a stint on Perhentian Kecil Island snorkeling with the sharks. I'll have a brief write-up on the website in its own Malaysia section in a few days.
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