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Milestones. The end of this month will mark the seventh anniversary of the day I first arrived in Asia. Wide-eyed and clueless, I disembarked a Cathay Pacific flight at Bangkok International Airport, ostensibly I had come to teach English at a vocational college in Bangkok for a year and then travel around Asia until my money ran out, whereupon I would return to Philadelphia for a life of Phillies and Eagles, cheesesteaks, a dog or three, and who would even want to know what else.
Well, when the year was up a funny thing happened on the way to the airport. The teaching job lasted three and a half years. During which time I sold a few travel stories, figured out I could probably sell people some photos if I tried. I traveled some more and started a website (debut was August 15, 2000) for no other reason that I could and that folks could read about what it was I was doing, where it was I had been and what it was I did when I got there. I also came to the realization that spending the rest of my life teaching 20-year-old Thais not to say "I go to shopping" was, on a good day, probably not going to lead to much more than 20-year-old Thais not saying, "I go to shopping". So I ditched the job, turned up in Cambodia in March 2001 (I had already visited it nearly a dozen times in the 1998-2000 period) with an idea to do something more with myself than "collect life experience".
Another three and a half years and I find myself with two residences in two countries, a wife, a much larger website, a postcard business, photos all over Siem Reap which I'm well tired of looking at, a guesthouse and restaurant opening in a matter of days (soft opening...), and no possible plan to travel till the money runs out and return to Philadelphia. Truth be told, the money already ran out more than once and I've been back to Philly four times, but only long enough to remember that cheesesteaks are good, but tom yum is better - well, that depends on who makes the cheesesteaks (hey, check out the stand on 12th Street between Walnut and Chestnut - or conversely, tom yum from the night food stall on Soi Suanphlu in front of the newsstand and fruit juice stand). And does anyone know how I can beam via satellite all the Phillies ballgames into my house? I digress.
I remember the first time I set foot in Cambodia. It was March 20, 1998. There was effectively no government at the time (hmm, didn't I say something last month about the more things change...). Pol Pot was still alive. The Khmer Rouge were still in existence. Ranariddh was in exile. Sam Rainsy was more interesting.
You didn't travel much by road. The boat really was the only way to travel. The first land border crossing with Thailand (Poipet) had just opened. Royal Air Cambodge had more than one plane.
The electricity worked only sometimes. There were no internet shops and only a couple of places you could send an e-mail and at a cost of about a dollar a message. A mobile phone is what you got when you threw a regular landline phone out the window, frustrated because you couldn't put a call through.
Concerns for personal safety were more real. People were robbed with guns. People got robbed coming home from Martini's. The Heart of Darkness was a small hole in the wall but still a safe one and there wasn't a whole lot else on Street 51. Sharky Bar didn't have the longest bar in Cambodia, but it had a dance floor. The Bayon Pearnik threw a party at the Casa. The Phnom Penh Post was more interesting, if only because the news was more interesting.
Siem Reap had only a few expatriate-owned businesses. None of the Pub Street bars existed yet. You could climb the walls of Ta Prohm and smoke a joint when you got there. Going to Banteay Srei was an arduous journey. The Angkor ticket booth was a small kiosk and not the massive toll plaza you see now. The government sold the tickets, usually someone else's. Angkor What?, Red Piano, Ivy... nothing more than a question, an instrument, and a plant. The road to the airport had houses not hotels on it. The nearest Sofitel was in Bangkok. Siem Reap still felt like a village and not a gold rush.
But don't get me wrong. I'm not one to say "You should have been here when..." I hate it when people say that, though I'm sure I've done it a few times myself. But really, if we could have been here 'when' we would have been here 'when'. Sure, I saw Siem Reap fairly early, and parts of China, too. But I still haven't been to Laos or Sapa, or even Bali, Kathmandu, or Goa. But wherever you go, someone was there before you and many more will come after. It was 1997 that I came, not 1992, not 2002. Either other possibility and things would have turned out differently. Funny thing, time.
In seven years I've made a lot of friends, sadly buried a couple of them, watched others move away - some back to their countries, just as many to the next station. More will come and more will go, but plenty put down roots. There are big trees with deep roots and small trees with shallow roots, but in time you find there are just as many small trees with deep roots and big trees with shallow roots, and more than a few tumbleweeds.
Most of my friends are people, if back in the States I might hardly know as more than passing acquaintances. Back where we come from we often choose our friends for sharing common interests - sports, music, profession or vocation, but here we're united by something bigger - we are outsiders, misfits by definition, broad or narrow.
Back in the States I used to wonder, naively, why foreign communities were so closely knit. I got over that. Through the bonds of a common language (or at least the ability to speak a common language) and the desire to relocate halfway around the world, I look at those who I can call friends and I see a few Americans in there, a couple of Canadians, a lot of Brits, some Aussies, Kiwis, French, German, Belgian, and Asians of course - Khmer, Thai, Malaysian, Chinese, etc. Different ages, different nationalities, different backgrounds, different reasons for arriving where we are. Only that we came.
Curious thing about expats. We don't ask each other a lot of questions about who we were or what we did before we arrived, let alone even ask why. With the exception of a few of my closest friends I'd have a difficult time answering these questions about most of the people I know. Oh, I know what country they came from, but not much more. A conversation on the histories of my fellow expats would be a short conversation.
Sure, some folks are running from something, others are running to something, some run in place, others run backwards, quite a few run in circles, some gave up running, some never ran at all. Some live within society, some without, most don't care one way or another where they fit in or whether they walk, run, skip, or fall over.
Society is a funny place. Those who choose to live outside it sometimes forget that often it's the very society they've chosen to shun that allows them the privilege to withdraw from it. Which in many respects, the long-term expatriate does. While we may not feel any pressing urge to go back from where we came, where we came from made us who we are. And where we are there is a new society that we created with its own set of unwritten rules and ethics. Oh, they are there. Not very rigid or formal, mind you. And more pronounced in the smaller towns like Siem Reap and Sihanoukville then in Phnom Penh, but there nonetheless. And we have our outcasts.
I gave up judging the motivations of others long ago. I don't need to scratch that itch anymore. We're all more alike than different. Most of us want basically the same things, even if we tell ourselves we don't. We want to be secure. We want to take care of our families. Enjoy our friends. Have stability. Laugh. And that's not just the expatriates, that's everyone. Rich, poor, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, old, young.
Oh, there are the expatriate stereotypes - the old guy immersed in his liquor, a young local girl on his lap, whining about the incompetent locals and corrupt officials. It's a phase most of us go through to some degree, but most of us who become long-term residents get over it, I did long ago, and wonder why those who don't still remain. To be fair the expatriate stereotype is no more accurate then the one we use to describe the penny-pinching culturally insensitive judgmental backpacker... yes, real-life examples exist on both sides and encountering one makes it all too easy to reinforce and perpetuate these very stereotypes to which we were taught in our youth not to fall prey.
If there's one thing seven years outside of my homeland has taught me it's how few things in this world can be defined in absolute terms. Oh, I stand on my soapbox and say this or that is wrong and what or which must be done, but when it comes to judging the motives of others, what propels an existence, causes a move here or a change there, nah. I'd like to pass. I'd rather just look at the results. Remind me when I forget.
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The World Bank was not very kind to Cambodia this month, issuing a scathing report on the business and investment climate, citing rampant corruption and bureaucracy as major contributors to these ills. Hun Sen fired back, but rather than denying the allegations, he acknowledged them and vowed that Cambodia would change and change fast.
That's great news if the rhetoric is supported with action. As Hun Sen has shown in the past, when he well and truly puts his mind to something, results happen and happen fast - remember the military exercise of 1997? or the bar fiasco of 2001?
Briefly, the World Bank report cited among other things, a survey of 800 companies in Cambodia where 80% acknowledged "the necessity of paying bribes" and that the payments amounted to an average of 5.2 percent of total sales revenue, which is more than double the amounts found in Bangladesh, Pakistan, or China.
Bureaucratic hurdles involved in setting up a business results in procedures that take on average 94 days in Cambodia to complete compared with 64 days in Vietnam and 42 days in Thailand.
Want to import something? It presently requires the filing of 45 different documents. Is it any surprise then how much tea money is involved in the importing and exporting trade?
The IMF was no kinder to Cambodia citing this month predictions that annual growth would fall from a projected 4.3 percent in 2004 to only 1.9 percent in 2005. Again, the finger of blame was pointed at corruption and bureaucracy.
But Hun Sen has spoken. He has promised, shaking the finger of progress, to take "concrete measures" to alleviate the burdens of setting up businesses, importing goods, etc. I also recall that as an election promise, the premier vowed to tighten up on tax compliance, the facilitation of which would be greatly eased by simplifying the procedures required to become compliant in the first place.
According to the premier, registration costs will be reduced from US$615 to just $177 and the time needed to complete the process to be reduced from 30 days to only 10 days. However, neither figure jibes with the World Bank which cited the average cost as around $1500 and the time spent at 94 days. People I know who have gone through the procedures of setting up a proper compliant business have reported spending even more cash than that.
As with everything of this nature, one can only wait and see if we get streamlined registration and tax compliance procedures, but what strikes me most about all of this is not the World Bank report, but that the government has chosen not to challenge the report, but to admit its validity, and at least in words, do something about it. That in itself speaks of progress.
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Continuing on this month's theme of things wrong with Cambodia and what the government wants to do about it, the Phnom Penh Post reports in its August 27 - September 9, 2004 issue that the government is seeking to cut the costs of tourism to Cambodia.
The government's identified a few problem areas, and they are indeed problem areas, but overall the report leads me to believe that the government is taking a very myopic approach.
The emphasis is on package tourists and there's no doubt that this is indeed a large market and a very Asian market, but it still ignores the other half, the predominantly western independent market. While in terms of dollars spent, the independent market may not be any larger than the package tour market, it is ultimately the independents that are going to do more for the reputation and therefore, future health of the Cambodian tourism industry. Who writes guide books? Independents. Who writes most magazine articles? Independents. Who writes most websites? Independents.
A major issue raised is the cost of tourism in Cambodia, which regardless of mode of travel, is generally higher than it is in neighboring Thailand which enjoys an enormous advantage in the number of foreign arrivals each year. The government cites the completion of the Siem Reap to Phnom Penh road as an incentive to cheaper tourism as it opens up easy ground travel between the capital city and Angkor, yet the government continues to ignore that vital road link - the Siem Reap to Thailand road.
True, few if any tourists intent on visiting Cambodia ever cancelled a trip solely because of that road, but how many have chosen not to come back? And how many more, the ones over in Bangkok undecided as to whether to head to Cambodia, Laos, or Koh Samui have looked at the price of an air ticket to Siem Reap and the condition of the road in Cambodia and headed instead to Luang Prabang or Samui? For every foreign arrival in Cambodia, Thailand gets about fourteen. That's a lot of potential visitors not coming to Angkor.
One quote in the report was from Moeung Sonn, President of the National Association of Tourism Enterprises, who said, "We want many tourists to stay longer - at least one week as in neighboring countries" Well, here's an idea they missed - Angkor tickets. Multi-day tickets still must be used on consecutive days. Well, what incentive then is there for a tourist to hang out in Siem Reap for a few extra days when they are forced to compact their Angkor visit into consecutive days? Why can't a three-day ticket be used on any three days in a one-week period, and a seven-day ticket good for any seven days in a two-week period?
Complaints were also voiced against the high passenger departure tax. Well, great, we all complain about this. So dump the French company running the airports, bring someone new in and sort out a more reasonable way of raising revenue - such as increasing airport concessions. How do you think Changi in Singapore raises the bulk of its revenue?
It was also reported from Pich Saran, Immigration Police Chief at Poipet, that between 500 and 1,000 foreigners enter at Poipet every day. And what impression of Cambodia are they given? They are overcharged for their visa. If they are Asian they may be asked to fork over 100 baht just to get an entry stamp, independent travelers will be hassled by touts for transport and whatever else, pickpockets are rife, the traffic circle is chaos and the police are selling bus tickets for the 150-km journey to Siem Reap for $12 on a bus that takes all day for what should be a three to four-hour drive and then sells them to a guesthouse.
I appreciate that the government is seeking to improve tourism, but by concentrating solely on the needs of the package tourists they are missing out on a sizable piece of the market and as shown above, they are missing solutions to some of the problems they recognize. More easily said then done, perhaps, but a simple acknowledgement of some of what I have identified would be a nice beginning.
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Another casualty of Cambodia aviation, new start-up First Cambodia Airlines Ltd., grounded its aircraft in mid-August citing continuing losses (over US$1 million) due to a combination of lease payments, high fuel costs, and parking fees at Phnom Penh International Airport. I would assume as well that a lack of passengers would also be a contributing factor to this temporary (?) demise. The airline is partially owned by Hun Sen's eldest daughter Hun Mana (I incorrectly stated previously that it was Hun Sen's sister).
They were flying three times a week to Guangzhou, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur and claim they'll get themselves back up in the air as soon as possible, as in when they can get another aircraft with more favorable lease terms.
It's a tough industry and I often have to ask myself what person in their right mind would start an airline in Cambodia when the track record for success is so poor? (Royal Air Cambodge, Mekong Air, Royal Phnom Penh Air, Royal Khmer Air, and now First Cambodia Air...) But what is all the more frustrating is why is this so? You'd think an airline, with partial ownership in the hands of the PM's daughter ought to have some fighting chance for survival here? And is this not the second article in this month's column citing airport costs as a hindrance to development, in the former to tourism, in the latter to the transport industry. And don't the two go hand in hand? Is this not impetus enough to get a company in there running the airports more competitively?
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As airlines continue to fail at an alarming rate, we then get a report that the government is again in talks to form a national carrier. The last attempt to form a national carrier collapsed when talks with China-based Hainan Air fell apart and that was two years ago.
The latest entrant into the Russian Roulette game of let's form an airline in Cambodia is a partnership with Thailand's Phuket Air and Air France Consulting that would bring us, "Air Cambodia". No date has been set for the company's launch. Personally, as much as I'd like to see Cambodia with a national carrier, if for anything because they get a slot on the monopolized Siem Reap - Bangkok route, this is one I'll believe when it happens.
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Some time ago (okay, it was the May 2002 column), I stumbled across the Ministry of Tourism's website and discovered an FAQ that was, well, one of the most inaccurate items on Cambodia I had ever encountered on the internet, saying among other things that it was safe to drink tap water in Cambodia and that medical standards were among the highest in the world. Well, at some point between then and now the ministry updated its FAQ to a piece that, while shorter, is indeed more accurate. Still, let's have a look inside:
Well, there we have it, the 1000 baht visa scam has reached the MoT website now. Question is, are they facilitating this higher fee or did they simply decide that arguing over the 200 or so baht difference isn't worth the effort? In any event, as always, the real fee is $20 and no, I don't consider a Ministry of Tourism quote as a validation of the 1000 baht charge. Still, getting the immigration guys to take that amount is, as it's always been, a near futile effort that's often not worth the energy. I'd also point out the Philippine and Singapore nationals are also now allowed visa-free entry to Cambodia.
I kinda thought they'd get this one right seeing as it was changed at the beginning of the year to an outrageous $25 for international departures and $6 for domestic.
And they finally got it right...
So while it's now limited to ten simple items, at least the information is by and large accurate. Still, not the most useful of websites except maybe to look up the latest foreign visitor arrival statistics... speaking of which:
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Through July of this year figures are still rockin' way ahead of last year with 525,879 international arrivals (359,503 for the same period last year, but there was that SARS thingy). For country of origin, South Korea still leads at 66,630. Japan is still second at 58,369, and the USA holds third at 54,815. UK is a solid fourth at 37,336 and the next three spots are a close race between France, Taiwan, and Thailand with 30,718, 30,161, and 30,019 respectively. Rounding out the top ten are the PRC at 26,364, Australia at 20,722 and Vietnam at 19,212. Imagine, if China had its way and Taiwan was reunified with the mother ship they'd hold third place. I think what's particularly revealing here is that six of the top ten spots are Asian nations and positions eleven and twelve are held by Malaysia and the Philippines.
Separate worlds it would seem as the western and Asian travelers move in such different circles. There is a little overlapping at guesthouses and restaurants, but many of the independent Japanese and Korean travelers find plenty of businesses catering directly to them, and the Asian markets are still predominantly the domain of package tours. As more and more Asians travel independently it will be interesting to seen how much of a crossover may develop between businesses catering to one or the other markets or somehow both.
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Did you ever wonder that where mobile phone service is concerned that this industry doesn't want your money? It seems most anywhere else in the world you walk into a phone shop, plop down your money and you can walk off with a SIM card, a phone number, and with pre-payment plans, you're up and jabbering away in minutes.
But not in Cambodia. Try this one out. Walk into a phone shop and ask for a SIM card. You won't get one. For some time now, foreigners wanting a number, even on a pre-paid plan, have had to produce some kind of business license or organizational ID. In the absence of such documents the only way you'll get a number is to use a Khmer's identity card, which if you know someone is easy enough, and if not, there are still plenty of shops that will register the number for you for a fee. Which begs the question, "What moron devised this system and why?"
Is this some sort of security measure? Are there concerns that terrorists will infiltrate Cambodia and make anonymous phone calls on their mobiles planning evil terrorist plots? And that this silly system will prevent this from happening? These so-called controls on foreigners possessing SIM cards is so easily circumvented that it renders pointless any possible security concerns that may exist. The only thing successful about this program is that it's created a nice little inconvenience for any foreigner desiring a SIM card, but it hasn't prevented one single number registration. So maybe they really don't want our money?
Here's another one and is directed only at Mobitel. Would it be asking too much that when you dial 822 to see what your balance is that the gruff voice on the other end would also inform us as to what day our balance will expire? I lost another, I don't know, ten dollars or so of credit last month when my balance got wiped out without warning. A little advance notice would be nice. I hear CamShin is getting to be a better service now...
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I wrote a bit last month about a perceived rise in crime here. Two big crime stories subsequently hit the news here in August. In Phnom Penh someone broke into a hotel room (the name of the hotel was not mentioned in any report I read) and tied up and robbed a group of Japanese tourists staying there. Later in the month, a pair of thieves broke into an isolated bungalow in Sihanoukville, met resistance and subsequently stabbed two of the three westerners in the room, rather seriously I might add.
Hmm, I had suggested last month that perhaps robbery was becoming more surreptitious in nature, however both these cases might lead one to think otherwise. Not sure what conclusions to draw other than to offer the ages-old advice that when someone waves a gun or knife in your face it's not a bad idea to do what they say.
Following the fall-out which the bad press of the Phnom Penh robbery generated, police in the city decided to push for greater security measures at guesthouses and hotels. One, they said all hotels must log in full details of each guest - nationality, passport number, etc. (Siem Reap hotels and guesthouses are already required to do this and have been for as long as I can remember, and a log book is provided by the police - with a carbon copy of every page for the police to keep). Another move was that lodging establishments should post night security guards, something many, both in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap do already.
I was kind of hoping that if either the Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville thieves were caught, that they'd be publicly executed in front of their friends. But then again, as regular vigilante killings of suspected motorbike thieves hasn't seemed to dampen the enthusiasm for stealing motorbikes I suppose a few messy executions won't do the trick here, either. Well then, we're back to where we were last month... make sure your neighbor's place, whether it's a business or a residence, is a more inviting target than your own.
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Earthwalkers in Siem Reap would like peoples of the earth to know that they are sponsoring a photo exhibition for charity. As quoted from their own website: http://earthwalkers.no/exhibition/ :
Seems like a good idea to me.
August was a tough month, as the death of Sihanoukville correspondent Will Capel hit us all hard but the following was updated or added this past month:
August 30: Cambodia Overland.
Updated the Pailin Reports
The 2004 Magic of Cambodia Day has been scheduled for Saturday
18 September at The Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England.
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