Border openings, visas on arrival
The Cambodian government announced that as of the 1st of August, visas would be available on arrival for all nationalities at all entry points open to foreigners coming from Vietnam. Additionally, the border crossing at OíSmach, about 125 kilometers north of Siem Reap, would also be open to all nationalities and visas would be issued to visitors entering there as well. This is a convenient entry-exit point for those who wish to travel by land between Siem Reap and Vientiane, Laos through Thailandís Isaan region. O'Smach is west of Anlong Veng, the final Khmer Rouge stronghold and place where Pol Pot died. Further to the east is Preah Vihear temple and to the west, Banteay Chhmar.
So it was no surprise then, that a tourist attempted in late August to enter Cambodia at O'Smach and was unable to do so, being told that the border was not open to non-locals and wouldn't be open until the 1st of September. As usual the Cambodian government has proven incapable of reporting accurate information on itself. No word yet on whether anyone has successfully been able to get a visa at any of the Vietnam entry points.
The O'Smach border would prove to be one more vital step in the government's plan to open all of northwest Cambodia to tourism assuming they can ever actually get the thing open. Difficult thing, opening these borders.
Speaking of borders, surprisingly, on my last few trips through Poipet, I've found the touts to be remarkably mellower than in previous times. Earlier this year they were becoming more and more overwhelming and had, in my opinion, far exceeded the limits of acceptable behavior. I realize that touts are a fact of life, especially in third world countries where so many people have nothing better to do with their time and really need to make a buck as they can, but Poipet was becoming too much. Perhaps the authorities started to realize this and told the guys to turn it down a few notches. Whatever the reason, while I still can't stand the place, it has become a little easier to deal with.
I did ask a couple of border touts if whether the police had told them to chill out a bit or was I just being lucky? The answer was, twice actually, that I was lucky. But this is Cambodia, and telling me I was lucky might have meant "yes, the police told us not to hassle people so much, but we don't want to admit this to you, so you're lucky" or it might just as well meant, "nobody told us anything so you're just lucky today". The verdict is I'm no more knowledgeable than before about why Poipet has become a little easier to deal with, but I'll be content with the fact that things are easier as of late. Let's hope this lasts.
As it's clear the ball is rolling in respect to Cambodia's effort to make arrests of individuals caught having sex with minors, I'm going to do my part and keep this issue in the forefront, reporting on arrests, trials, and other bits that are associated with this crime.
The latest is the arrest of two Siem Reap expats on August 3, Clint Betteridge, 35, and Bart Lauwaert, 36, both Australian citizens. The two are still languishing in a Siem Reap jail awaiting trial. Both of the defendants are known to a number of us in Siem Reap.
I received an e-mail from a French citizen recently who informed me that local television there recently ran a report on pedophilia in Cambodia. Also, the arrests of the Australian citizens in Siem Reap received press coverage in their home countries as well.
There are those who say the press should back off reporting on pedophilia in Cambodia as it gives the country a bad image. I couldn't disagree more. This issue needs to be publicized, especially the arrests.
There's no doubt that the image problem is real. One day sitting in the Ivy Bar with a group of fellow expats discussing this issue (since the arrest of Lauwaert and Betteridge this is a hot topic of discussion in Siem Reap), I remarked that in Phnom Penh if I so desired sex with a youngster (eight, eleven, fourteen years old, whatever), I knew exactly where to go. Obtaining the kid would be no problem. Back in the United States I wouldn't know where to begin to find someone underage. Another expat remarked, "that's because you're not a pedophile. If you were a pedophile you'd know where to go."
And he's probably right. And that is why Cambodia has the image problem. Is pedophilia more rampant here than other countries? Probably not, the problem exists everywhere, but for years this country has become in some ways a bit of a haven and heaven for pedophiles. This is due to minimal law enforcement, desperate poverty, and lack of social pressures. A few years ago when a foreigner was arrested for having sex with underage boys an arresting police officer was overheard saying something to the effect of the guy was a real weirdo, but not for having sex with underage kids, but for having sex with boys..."if it was girls," he said, "well, that we can understand."
However, as the Cambodian authorities charge forward zealously rounding up suspected pedophiles another potential problem arises that must be addressed.
Consider if you will, that in many countries, the police are involved in prostitution, either passively, by accepting money not to make arrests or actively, by running brothels, and taking part in trafficking and procuring underage girls (and boys) for customers.
Imagine if you will, a police officer involved in the prostitution business provides underage girls to customers, Cambodian and foreign. One day the officer decides to increase his profits so he arranges for one of the girls, say some fourteen-year-old, to file a debauchery complaint with him against one of the customers, likely a foreigner and perceived to be reasonably well off. The foreigner, though guilty, is arrested in a set-up arranged by the very police officer that had been providing him with girls and the girl he is having sex with. And both the police officer and the girl will profit from it. I'm not talking about some legal sting operation, I'm talking about corrupt law enforcement personnel, as guilty as any pedophile, partaking in the commission of a crime themselves and then gaining personal profit through an arrest.
I support a crackdown on pedophilia but it must be done fairly and with due process. Corrupt police must be taken down as well, but who would testify against him? The girl? The accused? The accused in all likelihood is probably offered freedom in exchange for a sizeable cash payment to the officer who arrests him. Do you think the foreigner will pass up freedom to file a complaint against the officer and in doing so admit his own guilt? And the girl? She's likely in an arrangement with the police officer and is going to get, albeit a smaller one than the police officer, a cut of the take.
I have no sympathy for pedophiles and I'm not looking to generate any, but I do care for the rule of law and due process. And an abuse of authority is an abuse of authority regardless of circumstances.
It's easy to say, oh, they're pedophile scum, who cares, let them rot in prison. Okay, fine, agreed. Let them rot there, but getting them there and having police line their pockets with the defendant's money in the process is not an acceptable course of action. If a girl is on the game, she's on the game. Setting up a customer for a fall, after a consensual act of sex, is not a direction of law enforcement I would support.
Rough Guide Cambodia
The first edition of the Rough Guide Cambodia is now available in Southeast Asia. I've only made a quick survey of it, but overall it covers the country well and should be useful for most travelers. The book does provide better than usual (for Rough Guide) coverage of transportation but still falls short in certain areas - for example, it describes independent travel onward from Poipet as straightforward. I suggest Rough Guide reads the Traveler's Reports page in my Overland section to see just how straightforward many people have found it. There are a few other minor errors and some advice I disagree with, but little that would cause major inconveniences for the tourist beyond a few unnecessarily spent dollars.
One personal bone to pick is in the internet resources section this website does not appear. Andy Brouwer's website is listed (as it should), Canby Publications is listed (as it should), and regrettably so typical of guidebooks, they list the Ministry of Tourism's website. No, I'm not going to offer a link to that worthless piece of canine excrement, with it's highly inaccurate, to the point of being dangerous, FAQ. Why there are people who feel some duty to plug the MOT's useless website is beyond me. Rough Guide gets a big raspberry from me for listing that site.
In any event, in short order, I will have a comprehensive review of the book posted on my new Book section that will debut at that time.
Apparently the new Lonely Planet Cambodia book has hit the shelves but I have yet to see a copy in Southeast Asia. Should be interesting to compare the two.
Speedboat price war
Recently a price war developed between the competing boat companies running the Siem Reap - Phnom Penh route. Prices, which had always been artificially inflated for foreigners in the $22-25 range, had dropped to as low as $5. Before you start cheering, consider whether you really want to pay this price factoring in the sometimes dodgy maintenance standards of these boats and the all too frequent overcrowding. For $5 a ticket you could expect boats twice as full and half as well maintained. No thanks, I'll spend some more dollars and fly.
Well, the various boat operators got together and came to the obvious conclusion that nobody can survive on $5 a ticket, so they agreed to push the prices back up to $25 for foreigners.
Price wars do not always create a positive situation for consumers. One need only consider the Khao San Road/Bangkok - Siem Reap tourist buses. There was a time a ticket cost 400 to 600 baht and in return one was taken to Siem Reap with minimal fuss and in reasonable time. Then a big price war developed seeing fares drop to as low as 80 baht - just under two bucks for a 450-kilometer bus ride! This is of course, a totally ridiculous stupid price and the result is one of the most problematic tourist operations in Cambodia. If you're not familiar with this I suggest you visit my Overland page for the details.
Siem Reap News
A boat sinks
In early August a small passenger boat on the Battambang to Siem Reap route, designed to carry about ten people and carrying fifteen instead, sunk near the village of Chong Khneas (the port nearest to Siem Reap). One passenger stated that the boat began taking on water as soon as they departed from Battambang but the boat operator still stopped to pick-up six more passengers. The rest of the journey saw the boat occupants frantically bailing water as the driver floored it across the Tonle Sap Lake. Fortunately, there were no casualties as the boat sank near a populated area within a few kilometers of its destination and fishing boats rescued the passengers. Still, bags got wet and people got scared and it's quite plain to see that had the operator not taken the extra passengers, the boat would never have sunk. Do you think any boat operators will learn from this? Me neither.
A tree falls
A tree fell on Beng Mealea temple (about 35~40 km northeast of the Angkor temple complex) causing a bit of damage to the structure. I don't yet have specific details as only a short blurb appeared in the Bangkok Post and I've yet to hear any firsthand reports, but apparently one of the entryways was hit hard.
I first visited Beng Mealea in March 2000 when only a handful of tourists made it out there each month. Now with improved road access, many make the trip every day. And it's certainly a trip worth making. If there's anything of further importance relating to temple damage or restrictions on visitations, I'll post the news next column.
This question keeps popping up. Who gets the Angkor ticket money? Many people (including more than a few Khmers in Siem Reap) have been lead to believe the money is going to Vietnam, that the temples are owned by the Vietnamese, that the government gave away all rights to the facility, etc.
The ticket concession is operated by Sokha Hotel Co., Ltd, a division of Sokimex, which is very much a Cambodian corporation. Under the present agreement, the Apsara Authority, the government agency that oversees the temple park, receives about 60 cents on the dollar while Sokimex gets about 40 cents.
For further details you can read a story I did on this arrangement back in October 2000.
The bypass around the Angkor temple park is now open. The road begins east of Psah Leu and connects with the Angkor Park road near Pre Rup temple. Also open is a feeder road that runs from near the Sofitel Hotel to this bypass. This feeder road is part of the new hotel zone and we can expect in a few years that this road will be lined end to end with hotels.
The Poipet to Siem Reap road is still crap. Deteriorating by the day. No new construction in the past month. Also, the bridges are collectively in the worse shape I've seen them in years. I don't get it. Cambodia is supposed to be progressing, but here, on what is one of the most vital overland links in the country responsible for bringing in millions of dollars in tourists and goods, we are experiencing one of the most inexcusable regressions I've ever seen. The government can talk all they want about development for Cambodia, but all one has to do is be a regular user of this road and realize that this talk is nothing more than gums flapping in the wind. National route 6 is a national disgrace.
US State Department information
I found the following on the internet, courtesy the US State Department's information sheet on Cambodia:
The town of Siem Reap and the vicinity of the Angkor Wat temple complex remain officially open to tourists, but the U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to travel only by air and to limit their movements to the city of Siem Reap and the main Angkor Wat temple complexes. The risk of banditry and military activity continues in various parts of Siem Reap Province. Illegal checkpoints, requiring cash payment to pass, have been reported sporadically on the road to the Banteay Srey temple, which is approximately 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) northeast of the town of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Americans are advised to consult with local police or tourist authorities before traveling to Banteay Srey.
This is laughable. Is the US State Department aware that hundreds and hundreds of tourists travel every day to Banteay Srey? That it is one of the most frequently visited temples in Angkor? That it's been several years since anyone had to pay any cash to continue along this road? If the State Department is so concerned about cash payments, perhaps they could address the issue of moto and taxi drivers demanding outrageous premiums to make the trip or worse, going halfway, stopping, and asking the tourist for more money. These activities result in a loss of cash to tourists in far greater sums than any military officer ever took off a tourist.
This advisory is beyond comical, itís downright stupid and as it is so highly inaccurate it raises serious questions as to whether one can believe anything the State Department tells us about Cambodia or any country anywhere. Really, what are we supposed to believe? Knowing just how bad this advice is what should I believe if I was reading about, say Lebanon, a country which I have no special knowledge of?
Phnom Penh News
With the big ASEAN summit scheduled for Phnom Penh this coming November, Phnom Penh municipality is charging forward on its latest campaign to improve the image of the city. How? By scooping up all the homeless and either shipping them off to the provinces or dumping them at one of the resettlement communities about twenty kilometers west of the city.
There is, as there should be, widespread opposition to this policy. NGOs working with the homeless have reported being followed by city workers as they make their rounds. Then after the NGO workers depart the homeless are arrested and taken from the city.
So, some influential people from throughout Southeast Asia will be coming to Phnom Penh in November? And they don't have homeless in their own countries? And as they're driven around in their expensive Mercedes are we to expect these dignitaries will remark on how prosperous Cambodia is, what, with no homeless and all? Right. The world is well aware of the poverty of Cambodia. Sweeping away the problem solves nothing and fools no one. All that is accomplished is raising valid questions as to Cambodia's true commitment to respecting human rights and rule of law.
One again, the myopic Cambodian authorities are seeking a short-term solution that will have long-term repercussions far from what they had envisioned.
Boeng Kak Lake
From Khao San Road to the lake. Why? Why do so many people want to stay in this area of Phnom Penh, the KSR backpacker-ghetto of Cambodia? A bunch of guesthouses on the edge of a mosquito-filled lake in a dodgy neighborhood (I know several Khmers that won't go near the place after dark) that I suppose shields the tourist from the realities of Phnom Penh. So why did you come to Phnom Penh, anyway? To lie in a hammock smoking spliffs with fellow backpackers thinking you're really "doing Cambodia". C'mon folks, scattered throughout Phnom Penh are numerous friendly family-run hotels in Khmer neighborhoods with fan rooms for under $10 a night that will give you such a better feel for the city. Phnom Penh may be a dirty chaotic place but it's got a weird sort of energy that you're not going to get hanging around the lake with a bunch of other backpackers. Get out and see the city. That's what you're here for, right?
Help wanted, hi-tech career
Construction continues rapidly on Phnom Penhís first modern indoor shopping mall (itís that huge structure just south of the Central market). Expectedly, elevators and escalators will shuttle shoppers between floors. But considering that many Cambodians have never seen an elevator or escalator, the mallís management is hiring personnel to show people how to use them.
As I'm spending quite a bit of time in Bangkok these days, I've decided to expand the scope of this column a bit and start including a few observations on the Land of Smiles.
Start the meter
For whatever reason I almost never have a problem with a metered taxi in Bangkok. They turn on the meter, take me where I want to go using the most direct route, and give me the proper change without games. Yet many tourists complain of difficulties in getting a taxi in Bangkok to use the meter. Why is that? I don't know, but what I can offer are a few tips on getting a taxi in Bangkok that should diminish the likelihood of having to contend with any nonsense.
1.) Except in established taxi ranks, for
example at Don Muang Airport or Morchit Bus Terminal, never use a taxi
that's waiting, always flag down a moving taxi. This is especially true
of taxis that sit in front of hotels which should be avoided at all costs.
While you may have never ridden in a taxi in Bangkok before, you have, may I assume, ridden in a metered taxi somewhere in the world? It's the same thing. Same rules. Don't tolerate nonsense you wouldn't tolerate at home.
For the past forty years Bangkok has been building, or trying to build, an international airport. When the whole idea began it was decided that in the interim, a section of Don Muang Air Force Base would be given over to a commercial airport. Forty years later Don Muang is still Bangkok's international airport and the new facility at Nong Ngu Hao (Samut Prakarn area, about forty kilometers east of Bangkok), now called Suvarnabhumi, is about 20% complete.
The Thai government insists it will be ready in 2004. Anyone taking odds? I wouldn't bet so much as one baht that they'll get this thing open in 2004. They're forty years late already.
Still, Bangkok will get a new airport sometime between 2004 and oh, maybe 2008. Is this airport needed? Yes and no. Don Muang is not a bad airport, but nor is it a great airport. It is adequate. I have flown in and out dozens of times and have little to complain about other than the difficulties in obtaining a local newspaper (Bangkok Post or Nation) anywhere in the international terminals [Insider's tip: go to the far end of the check-in counters in Terminal 2, go down (or is it up? I can never remember) one floor and there's a news stand that carries these papers]. While Don Muang is nowhere close to being in the same league as Singapore's Changi (now that is a great airport!) or Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok, it's functional and most of the time handles the traffic load.
Just as important, Don Muang is easy to get to by road or by rail. Of the dozens of times I've traveled to and from Don Muang and downtown Bangkok, I have rarely ever needed more than half an hour to travel and never more than forty-five minutes.
So what can we expect from Suvarnabhumi? Will it be able to handle the anticipated traffic load? It will if they build both runways, something that is now in question. Will it be as accessible as Don Muang? There has been little discussion on transport links to the airport other than someone on the inside suggesting that it might be a good idea at some point to build road and rail links between the airport and Bangkok.
My prediction is Suvarnabhumi will open in 2005 with one runway and incomplete transport links requiring drive times of between one and two hours depending on the time of day. As a result, Bangkok is going to lose business. Airlines will take their business elsewhere and the entire region is going to suffer as a majority of travelers visiting Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar do so through Thailand. Sure, the people planning a Thailand vacation will still come, but the many who simply pop into Bangkok for a day or two while in transit will either find themselves elsewhere because the airlines have moved to another hub or decide for themselves that two hours in traffic with no other public transport options is simply not worth it.
The Thaksin government recently blasted foreigners for criticizing the construction of this airport. Instead of blasting us why don't you ask yourself why it is that so many foreigners - tourists, business travelers, airline executives, etc are criticizing the project? No one's trying to put Thailand down. I think I can speak for many when I say we'd like to see Bangkok with an airport of the same class as Changi and we support the efforts to have one, but nothing anybody has seen indicates that this is going to be the result. Instead we are faced with the prospect of having an airport not built on time, not capable of handling the traffic, and not readily accessible by public or private transport. If we are wrong, then show us we our wrong. But blasting us for speaking our minds is not a sufficient nor appropriate response. Evidence. Show us evidence. Which, by the way, you won't see on the new airport's website nor at the Airports Authority of Thailand website.
The following is based on a report that appeared in the Bangkok Post, August 29, 2002.
A recent study by the Thai Chamber of Commerce University that surveyed departing tourists from the People's Republic of China found numerous complaints about the quality of their Thailand holiday and approximately half said if they were to return to Thailand it would be independently and not in a group. Complaints voiced by the Chinese included bad food, poor guides, and tours that involved too much shopping and not enough sight-seeing. They further complained about, are you ready for this... two-tiered pricing!!! Imagine, tourists from a country that has taken two-tiered pricing to new levels complaining about the practice when it's used against them!!!!!
Personally, I see this as a problem of economics. Chinese tourists sign up for a budget tour of Thailand and then of course, get what they pay for. And any budget form of travel is always going to involve other ways for the operator's to earn their cash (commissions, etc). The fact that Thailand has taken notice to the mistreatment of tourists is encouraging. One thing the Thais have figured out (and some day the Cambodians will learn this, and while were on the subject, the Chinese, too, but for different reasons) is how to treat westerners (Khao San Road backpackers exempted somewhat as they are subject to a different level of service) - offer a service at a single published price, be up front about what you get and don't get and avoid playing games, changing services, etc. Now, with tourists from China being the third largest group (almost 700,000 in 2001 spending 17 billion baht [$400 million US]) visiting Thailand, this is a vital market to the Thais and it will be interesting to see how Thailand changes the perception of itself with the Chinese.
Presently, Thailand is seen by the Chinese as a budget destination with a lot of associated hassles. To westerners, Thailand is also seen as a budget destination, but in the past decade there have been a lot of strides made in ironing out some of the problems westerners experienced here. While problems still exist, most of those being experienced by independent budget travelers using private Khao San Road-based tour services, most westerners find Thailand a relatively easy country to visit and come away with few complaints.
Now that takes guts
Early in August a Bangkok woman successfully committed suicide by jumping into a crowded pit of crocodiles at a local crocodile farm.
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.
This question again...
Why? have you no link for Thailand. Have you not visited it yet?
I know, I know. Of course I've visited Thailand, I've maintained a residence in Bangkok for four of the last five years. Anyway, maintaining that dead link seems to have turned into a running joke around here. That, or a source of embarrassment I'm missing somehow. So I've finally removed it until that time I decide what to do about Thailand - probably some kind of FAQ. As for travel coverage, I'd like to explore Isaan as that area is more closely associated with Cambodia and is the one region of Thailand least covered on the web.
Somebody didn't read my FAQ:
...I am still worried about the weather and how this affects travelling from Bangkok to Cambodia, and around Cambodia itself. My boyfriend and I are arriving in BKK on Friday 17th August, and were planning to head to Cambodia for the first two weeks of our stay. What will the weather really be like as the forecast just says thunder storms for the next ten days. Does this mean 24 hours of rain or just the odd shower? And does this mean that the roads between Phnom Penh and Angkor will be OK or not?
I received the following e-mail this past month which I found especially curious seeing as I'm American:
You are now eligible to live and work in USA. Each year, 50,000 immigrant visas are made available through the USA Government immigration lottery. The USA State Department's National Visa Center holds the lottery every year. When permanent residence is granted you will be authorized to live and work permanently in the United States. You will also be allowed to bring your spouse and any unmarried children under the age of 21 to the United States. You are eligible even if you are in the USA now.
This was followed by requests for various bits of vital information (i.e., name, date of birth, country, address, citizenship). Most importantly there was a request for $25, checks made payable to some outfit called "US Services" located in McLean, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, DC). Need I say more?
For months I've been blabbering on about a new talesofasia look and nothing has come of it. Well, guess what!?! It's still not ready! But the design is set in place and hopefully I will receive the templates this month. That said, let's hope this is the last time I have to talk about what will happen.
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