An industry in its infancy
Perception is reality.
Let me say that again.
Perception is reality.
It's a cliché, I know, but have truer words ever been spoken? Is there anyone in any service industry who might not live or die by these words?
One night this past month I happened to get into a very heated discussion with a fellow expat, him from Australia, with ten years in Cambodia. The argument as it was, centered on the treatment tourists received on the super cheap Khao San Road to Siem Reap bus service. Go here if you don't know what I'm referring to. His contention, as I saw it, was that it was perfectly okay to lie to and bully the tourists at the border over the visa nonsense and also equally acceptable for guesthouses to lock the passengers in on arrival. His justification was that what should tourists expect for such a cheap price and also that this is Cambodia and the guesthouses are making money so more power to them.
I disagreed. Strongly, really. The argument went on for a couple of hours and with copious amounts of alcohol involved it only deteriorated. As with any disagreement one could find three versions of the reality. My reality. His reality. The true reality. I, of course, would argue that the true reality would lie somewhere close to my reality.
I'm not going into a he said I said bit here. It's not fair to him, he's not here to rebut what I say and he sees things as he does, I sees things as I do.
But what is appropriate here is a discussion of Cambodia's tourist industry, because it's a service industry and as such how the visitor perceives Cambodia will have a significant bearing on how long they stay, whether they will return, and how they will recommend Cambodia to other would be tourists if they recommend it at all. This is vital because Cambodia has little to offer the world except ancient temples and cheap unskilled labor well suited for making clothes. Every foreigner in Cambodia trying to make a living will either directly or indirectly benefit or perish from the relative health of the tourist industry.
Cambodia is booming and Siem Reap is the epicenter. An industry in its infancy is seeing enormous and rapid growth that will result in millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into the economy each year. And everybody wants a cut. And so many of these people have little education or capacity to see beyond the present moment, and no understanding of what is and isn't acceptable business behavior in the eyes of the foreign tourist.
Those of us who live here and try to make a living have to adapt ourselves to the local way of doing things. But it's not fair to expect a tourist coming to Cambodia for the first and perhaps only time to have insight and knowledge of how to deal with the locals. If the locals wish to reap financial gain from foreign tourists it is imperative that they understand what the tourists want and how they should be treated.
Still, tourists have to take responsibility for themselves. Educating themselves on the country they plan to visit should entail more than just reading up on the tourist attractions, but also learning something of the history, the present-day political and economic climate, the scams and hassles prevalent, and try somehow to get more insight into what they are setting themselves up for. Travel in any third world country is going to present challenges that exceed simple matters of infrastructure, but include difficulties with locals not experienced in dealing with foreigners.
Furthermore, tourists have to exercise common sense. I'm continually amazed and appalled by how many people get caught up in the Thai gem scam (go here for details). I think none of these people if in their home countries would for a moment even entertain the possibility of handing over several thousand dollars on the advice of somebody they met on the street only an hour or two before. But they do it in Bangkok every day. Even more surprising is that this must be one of the most well-publicized scams on the planet. Are there really that many people who jump on an airplane and fly half way around the world without so much as reading one guidebook or one website on the country they are visiting?
In any event, while tourists do need to be responsible for themselves, anybody working in the tourism industry has to keep in mind that no matter how stupid some tourists might seem, their perception of the country they are visiting, the treatment they receive from guesthouses, tour guides, restaurants, taxi drivers, etc all make up their reality. And that reality is the one they are going to tell people about when they get home. It doesn't matter if their assessment of Cambodia is accurate or not, it is their assessment and they will believe it to be accurate.
Regrettably, I have met and received e-mails from far too many people who will never set foot in Siem Reap again. As much as Angkor Wat and the other temples impressed them, the hassles from motodrivers, the price gouging, the mistreatment at the border, the constant feeling of being cheated, all left them with an unfavorable perception, thus an unfavorable reality, of Cambodia. And many more people have cut short their stays choosing instead to get in and out of Siem Reap as quickly as possible.
It is pointless to the extent of being detrimental to say that they should know better, that this is a third world country, that people are poor, etc. No. It is totally unrealistic to expect a tourist to be able to form an accurate understanding of a country based on a single one-week visit. While they should have some understanding of third world culture, yes, they can't be expected to be as street savvy as we are. They are tourists. They don't live here. We live here. We have to know better. They don't. They came here as guests to see Angkor Wat and they deserved to be treated as guests, not as stupid walking ATMs.
There is no doubt that the tourism industry in Cambodia will continue to see rapid growth, but what about the long term? Is Cambodia going to fall the way of Vietnam which has one of, if not the worst tourist return rates in Asia? All because of tourists feeling hassled and cheated?
What, if for example, Cambodia receives in 2005 1.3 million tourists spending an average of, say, 5.6 days in country. All of us in the tourism industry are laughing, right? But what if that number would have been 1.5 million visitors staying an average of 6.3 days, had Cambodia and ALL PEOPLE in the tourism industry paid better attention to how tourists were treated during their stay here? According to these hypothetical but highly plausible figures, this translates to an across the board industry revenue loss of 12% to 14%. EVERY PERSON involved directly or indirectly in the tourism industry in Cambodia suffers an income reduction of 12% to 14% simply because tourists were not satisfied with the treatment they received here.
As educated westerners with the ability to think beyond today this concept is not difficult to grasp but for the locals, many of whom lack any appreciable level of formal education, seeing how their actions impact their future is less easy to comprehend. And of course there's always the argument that they are in a desperate situation and really need to make a dollar or two today as they can never mind tomorrow. While I concede truth in those words, it's an apologist's reaction to leave it at that. Rather, I accept the underlying truth in the situation but counter that if locals don't start thinking more about how their actions affect their future, then they stand the possibility of forever being in the situation of having to make a dollar today never mind tomorrow. Therefore, as we have the ability to see down the road a few years it is all the more necessary that we are not passive but do our part to improve the perception tourists have of Siem Reap and Cambodia in general.
I won't shy away from the truth. I will talk about poverty, human trafficking, third world diseases, all the ugly things that make up a poor country recovering from three decades of war. But these realities do not have to adversely affect the tourist. Tourists are going to be far more affected by the direct treatment received from those whom they do business with, the moto and taxi drivers, the tour guides, the guesthouse owners.
Everybody working here has a vested interest in how tourists are treated. Simply throwing up one's hands and passively saying "this is Cambodia, that's the way it is" is a defeatist attitude that hurts everyone - locals and expats. All of us working in the tourism industry in any capacity need to consider how people with little knowledge of Cambodia perceive us. Not what the reality is. But what the perception is.
And this is why the actions of the Khao San Road to Siem Reap tourist bus operators rankle me as much as they do. Because for so many people, Poipet, the bus, the guesthouses they are sold to, are their first impressions of Cambodia and it's a lot more difficult to turn a bad experience into a good one than to turn a good experience bad.
Of course the bus service is going to be crap. What do you expect for two dollars? But signing up for a cheap trip does not include signing on to be bullied and fed a load of lies at the border over your visa and worse, having to fight your way out of the guesthouse you're delivered to in Siem Reap. These actions are unacceptable at any price!
As such, I will continue staunchly refusing to be an apologist for the behavior of some people in the tourism industry based on the fact that this is a poor, uneducated country. Nonsense. It's time for people to start learning. Yes, make money from tourists. Make lots of money. But be fair and be ethical.
By and large, with the exception of the budget operations on Khao San Road, Thailand has figured this bit out and as a result continues to be a major worldwide tourist destination with something like 12+ million visitors last year and a highly favorable return rate (though there are other factors involved in that favorable return rate, but that's another matter of discussion, go see Stickman's website if you still don't know what I'm getting at).
Someday, too, Cambodia will learn. But the sooner the better. It matters to us all. The world is now taking notice of Cambodia and it's on Siem Reap that their eyes first fall.
Another arrest in Siem Reap in September, a 40-something German man was arrested in front of Angkor Wat after being identified by a pair of teenage souvenir sellers who had previously reported him to police as a man who had several months earlier enticed them to a hotel room, drugged them and had sex with them.
But the big item is a pair of stories that appeared in the UK Telegraph about the goings-on at Svay Pak, the infamous brothel area eleven kilometers north of central Phnom Penh. The stories claim that several reporters spent better than a week at Svay Pak acting undercover to expose the incidence of pedophilia in the brothels.
I have two opinions on these pieces. First of all, I'm glad they were written because it does expose activities that do occur at Svay Pak and should be discussed and stopped. However, I also have two complaints, the stories, especially the longer piece, are sensationalist in approach, lacking hard facts to support the reporters' interpretations of what they observed and second, while they do report on activities happening at Svay Pak, they do not present the full story of what Svay Pak is all about.
The shorter item is here:
And the longer piece which I comment on below is here:
Here are some bits I have a problem with:
The second piece describes Svay Pak as "Its sole distinguishing feature is that it is lined with brothels full of underage girls." Reading this you'd probably have the impression that underage girls is the only thing Svay Pak offers. That's nonsense. Svay Pak sells sex. All kinds of sex.
I have only been to Svay Pak once, it's not my kind of place, but in sitting at one of the cafes across the street from the brothels the dozen or so girls I saw standing in front of each of the houses all seemed to be of age. The age of consent in Cambodia is 15 and I'd say most of the girls I saw, all Vietnamese, were probably between 16 and 21. No one asked me if I wanted any children either. The story describes the girls out front to be from nine to 14 years old.
But yes, these young children are available, but it's not out in the open. I know people who frequent Svay Pak and claim to have been offered the services of children under the age of ten and I trust their word and I also have had motodrivers admit to acting as a go-between for tourists, and I trust their word as well. And while sex with children does, by all accounts, occur at Svay Pak, it is not the sole purpose of Svay Pak and many of its customers are not there to engage in this activity. But these reports would probably lead you to believe otherwise.
The story goes on to publish quotes (with names!) from a number of assorted customers talking about the young girls they've had sex with and also the relative laxity of law enforcement.
What the story does not present are hard facts. The story should not have been chock a block of quotes and allegations of pedophilia and misrepresentations of what Svay Pak is. Svay Pak is not just a place for underage girls, it is a place for sex - all kinds of sex.
Tell me! What percentage of the sex workers are underage? What percentage are not? What percentage of the shops offer children and what percentage do not? What evidence is there to support other quotes such as customers dismissing any long-term legal crackdown as unlikely? If they are going to do a story on Svay Pak then they ought to do a story that accurately portrays the brothel area. Instead, we are offered stories long on observations but short on facts.
But here lies a problem. Despite the absence of supporting facts, with a few exceptions (though there should have been NO EXCEPTIONS), the observations are accurate and I applaud the Telegraph for producing a story on this crime. I just wish the reporters did their jobs a little more thoroughly and described Svay Pak for what it really is, a sex supermarket and not giving the false impression that all the customers are pedophiles and all the sex workers are children. They are not.
I give this story an A for further promoting discussion on this topic but only a C for accurate reportage. If the Telegraph plans to investigate this further, and I hope the Telegraph does return to this story, please get a few more facts and try to report on Svay Pak more objectively. Hey, what goes on there makes a lot of people sick, but that's not an excuse for skewing a story. It doesn't matter to me what happens to Svay Pak. They could shut the whole place down for all I care.
Svay Pak and the whole sex industry, not just in Cambodia, but throughout Asia, is an extremely complex element that entails social, cultural, and economic conditions that don't stand up well to generalizations and quick summaries. It's taken me several years to even begin to get a more accurate understanding of the whole industry here and shake off the western ideas I had which only resulted in biased conclusions that stunk of Occidentalism. Reports on any element of the industry, no matter how wretched it may be, need deeper analysis than what the Telegraph provided us.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh closed in the wake of the first anniversary of the September 11 World Trade Center bombing and remained closed until September 26. No doubt this paid vacation was welcomed by the hard-working diligent sensitive embassy staff weary from botching visa applications (immigrant visa applications are now handled in Bangkok due to Phnom Penh incompetence), screwing up citizens' funeral services, and running around in a state of paranoia as the US government dreams up vague new security threats to scare the masses with. Just keep the doors open, will ya'?
Speaking of the US Embassy, does any one find it ironic that while the embassy was canceling numerous visa applications for Cambodian babies being adopted by US parents, ultimately calling a moratorium on any further applications leaving a number of would-be parents stuck in Phnom Penh with nothing to show, that Hollywood actress and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie seemed to encounter no hurdles whatsoever in getting her adopted baby boy off to America?
Dressing up Phnom Penh
I almost fell off my bar stool when I read the following in the September 11 Cambodia Daily:
"Shameless Shirtlessness Shocks Official" was the headline. The story began with the news that an age 30-or-so westerner, caught on his motorbike in a rainstorm on Kampuchea Krom Blvd, decided to remove all of his clothing except for his underwear. This act apparently caused such a stir that Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara announced a ban on shirtless motorcycle driving. The governor was quoted as saying "I must stop this. Do not allow this to go on anymore. They can do whatever they want outside the city, but not once they get inside." He then added that this act would make Phnom Penh more attractive for the November ASEAN summit being held here.
Chev Hak, accident investigator for the Phnom Penh police said that this was not a crime in which anyone could be charged. He was quoted as saying, "All we can do is arrest them and educate them." Then adding that he didn't see shirtless men as a detriment to the city, only that they were too poor to buy clothes.
You have been warned, wear a shirt or stand to be arrested and educated.
A new airline, or then again maybe not
Mekong Airways may be our newest operational airline (only in Cambodia do you have to delineate between operational and non-operational airlines) by the time you read this, or then again maybe not. The airline is affiliated with Andaman Airlines, a small carrier operating mostly in southern Thailand, or then again maybe not. The initial announcement was that this newly-formed airline would fly Bangkok to Phnom Penh, Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, and Siem Reap to Bangkok, or then again maybe not.
The announcement raised a few eyebrows as the highly-prized and lucrative Siem Reap to Bangkok route has been the exclusive domain of Bangkok Airways (operating as Siem Reap Airways). An additional slot on this route is reserved for the national carrier, but seeing as Cambodia hasn't had one in nearly a year now it's a rather moot point.
Most of the eyebrow raising came from Royal Phnom Penh Airways, a small private carrier who have applied three times for this route and been rejected in all three cases. Further questions were raised as to the ownership of Mekong Airways. 49% ownership of Mekong Airways lies with Australia's Via Aviation, but who owns the 51% majority share in Cambodia? That's been kept secret. We've only been told it's an "unnamed holding company". With the announcement that the carrier would be on the Siem Reap to Bangkok route all sorts of rumors began to fly as to just who exactly were those 51%.
It was all for nothing, however, as one week after the announcement of this route, the whole thing was denied, and no, Mekong Airways would not be on this route after all. "Too sensitive," they said.
And that, too, was all for nothing because a few days later it was announced that the partnership with Andaman Airlines had fallen through and Mekong Airways didn't know if and when it would ever fly an airplane on any route.
Who knows? Perhaps if this airline never gets off the ground their adverts in the Cambodia Daily might someday be a collector's item, or then again maybe not.
More from the sky
Forgetting for a moment whether Mekong Airways will ever find a way to the air, this whole bit over the Bangkok to Siem Reap route does raise another point.
Cambodia has what they call an "open skies" policy. Basically, this means the skies are open, anyone can come fly here. So with this so-called "open skies" policy why is it that only Bangkok Airways continues to get the Bangkok to Siem Reap route on an exclusive basis and thus continues to charge upwards of $150/$250 US return for a forty-five minute flight (450 kilometers)? Flights between Bangkok and Phnom Penh, a route several hundred kilometers longer, costs depending on the carrier, as much as 50% less than that of the Siem Reap to Bangkok route.
And while I'm still talking about airlines... whatever happened to that partnership between Hainan Airlines and the Cambodian government to create a new national carrier? Seems to have fallen off the table and then some, huh?
And one last thing on airplanes and stuff, can someone explain to me why you still CAN'T GET A SILLY BAGGAGE TROLLEY AT THE DOMESTIC ARRIVALS BUILDING AT THE SIEM REAP AIRPORT???????????
Axis of evil?
The following appeared September 24 in the Khmer-language newspaper Koh Santepheap Daily and on their website in English. I would assume the Cambodia Daily picked this one up as well.
US Senator Asks for “Regime Changes”
US Senator Mitch McConnell has asked for the administration of US President George W Bush to push for “regime change” in Cambodia and Burma. In a statement released Sept 13, McConnell noted that the US signed the “Joint Declaration for Cooperation To Combat International Terrorism” with Asian countries in August.
But the agreement rings hollow given the actions of “hardliners” in Rangoon and Phnom Penh, the Senator said.
He pointed out the March 1997 grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy-led rally that killed at least 19 people and noted the recent death of Sam Rainsy Party activist Heng Sean in Kampong Cham province.
“It would serve American interests in the war on terrorism—as well as benefit the welfare of the people of Burma and Cambodia—for regime changes to occur in those countries,” McConnell said in the statement.
My response is quite simple:
The US government should keep its big mouth shut and worry about its own policies and stay the #$%& out of Cambodia. The politics of Cambodia are entirely the domain of the Cambodian people and if Sen. McConnell has a problem with how things are done in Cambodia perhaps he should look in the mirror and ask himself how some of these problems came to be. I have no use for politicians of any government, especially mine, dictating who should or shouldn't run a country. Sen. McConnell is a two-faced, snake-tongued hypocrite who ought to spend a few days slogging garbage at Stung Meanchey before he starts spouting off about the politics of a sovereign nation. Damn wanker.
When the article was posted on a Cambodia discussion forum which I take part in from time to time, I posted the above response and, surprisingly I thought, was rather harshly attacked by several overseas Khmers for the comments I made.
Allow me to reiterate, I am staunchly opposed to any nation involving itself in the politics of another nation. Period. No exceptions.
That said, knowing that a number of overseas Khmers do read this column I offer the following question to you (and Khmers in Cambodia as well):
Do you support active United States involvement in a regime change in Cambodia? Why or why not? And if so, to what extent would you want this involvement?
Reply to: email@example.com
I will publish, likely on their own page, anonymously if you wish, answers to the above question. And please, Khmers (in-country or overseas) only.
Not a quack but a moo?
A cow in Kampot province is providing folks with relief for rheumatism and other ailments. This cow receives as many as twenty patients a day and after the requisite donation of incense, candles, flowers, and water is made the bovine treats the patients by licking them. Apparently a lot of area residents, many who are coming from considerable distance, are quite convinced of the effectiveness of the treatment. No word yet if regional health plans are covering the procedure or not.
This sign appeared in downtown Siem Reap earlier this year. One sign opposite Psah Chas, and a second sign around the corner, each one pointing down an alley where we could find the "Angkor Lady Virgin". Not reading Khmer nobody I knew could figure out just what Angkor Lady Virgin was offering us, though we had no shortage of ideas. The Bayon Pearnik went so far as to insinuate that this would be a short-lived business given that this was a venture you'd only get one shot at.
Just this past month, the word "virgin" was painted over on both signs. Do we assume that the lady finally did the deed or more likely, did someone finally tell the owner just what exactly his sign meant? Alas, there's still the 25-Hour Watch store in Phnom Penh.
A new note
When countries issue currency in new denominations, most of the time it's to print a larger valued banknote. But Cambodia, being the country it is, is moving in the other direction, now offering a 50-riel note (about 1.25 cents US). Previously, the smallest note was the 100-riel note (2.5 cents).
There's actually a bit of sense to this new money. In the countryside, it will provide for more exacting pricing where folks live often for considerably less than a dollar a day, and for the rest of us this should eliminate any excuse for merchants short changing us. As the riel fluctuates around 3950 to the dollar (one of the world's most stable currencies, as worthless as it was three years ago) many businesses put the dollar at 4000 coming in, but 3900 going out. While it may seem thoroughly picky to us, if you spread this out over thousands, tens of thousands of transactions a year, the amount of money made on this little scam is considerable. Well, now with this new 50-riel note, it'll be interesting to see how many merchants factor this new money into the transactions. I'm guessing not many.
This new banknote is orange and white with Preah Vihear temple on the rear and a dam on the front that might be Kamping Puoy, which would be rather strange seeing as the Khmer Rouge built that one at the expense of thousands of lives. In any event, Khmers being the bargainers they are will no doubt raise haggling to new heights or as the case may be, given the value of this banknote, bring haggling to new lows.
Earlier this year I talked about the collapse of First Overseas Bank. The liquidation proceedings have ended. Depositors received $500 plus 34 cents on the dollar for every dollar on deposit beyond the initial $500 plus whatever they could privately negotiate. I know some expats that lost thousands, tens of thousands.
We're told that all banks now doing business in Cambodia are in full compliance with National Bank of Cambodia minimum capital requirement regulations which state all banks must have $13 million US in capital. I'm with Canadia Bank now. That's the bank everyone says is, "Hun Sen's bank so it must be safe." Well, if it's good enough for Hun Sen, it's good enough for me.
Poipet border hours
Cambodia officialdom is pushing to extend the Poipet border opening hours to 12 midnight. The reason is, of course, to get more people into the casinos. The problem is that to get the border opened these extra hours it will require the cooperation of Thailand, a country known to be less than thrilled about all the casinos that have sprung up along its borders. Stay tuned.
Honors in education
An expat was talking about his English
teaching job at a well-known private language school. At the end of the
term he was asked to compile a list of the most noteworthy students. Dutifully,
he went over the grades, considered such factors as motivation, class
participation, attention to homework, etc and came up with a list of names
which he submitted to the school's director. The list was rejected, unacceptable
for it was based on the wrong criteria.
This should come as no surprise where in public education, with teacher salaries at around $20 a month, students are pretty much required to pay additional money to the teachers for "extra help". The more the student pays for this "extra help" the better the student's grades will be.
Highway 6 floods
After that wonderful construction done in 2001 that included raising Highway 6 well above the rice fields, I never expected that the road would flood, but it did. Sometime between September 8 and September 23 (probably closer to the 23rd), the road flooded and even washed away in several spots between Siem Reap and Sisophon. Although most vehicles were able to get through without too much delay, if the rains continue for the next month as heavy as they have been in September there may be a couple of weeks where this road will really create problems. 24-hour journeys? No, I don't see a return to those days, but with several sections of road now gone, a particularly heavy rainfall could turn a four-hour journey into seven or eight. Or, if you're on one of those agonizingly slow tourist buses, your five to seven-hour journey could well exceed ten.
These photographs were taken on Highway 6 between Siem Reap and Sisophon on September 23, 2002
What a difference a year makes!
This picture was taken on Highway 6 between Siem Reap and Sisophon on September 2, 2001
On a positive note, I had been complaining recently about the terrible state of the bridges. Someone must have been paying attention as a number of bridges were sorted out this past month.
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 on Cambodia that should answer a majority of 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.
There is no Perspective this month. That is because I haven't received any e-mail worth commenting on. Go figure... readership increases at least 10% every month yet my e-mail is going down???? Really, if you have something to say and want a few thousand people to read it, send it my way.
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Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of
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