the toa Blog
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The toa blog - December 28, 2006
So a few days ago I flew back into Bangkok's new King Power-Suvarnabhumi Intl Shopping Plaza, the world's first shopping mall with aircraft parking bays. I'll be fair - it wasn't a traumatic experience. I knew we'd be parked far from the terminal and need to be bused in - I was flying a discount carrier (Air Asia) and you almost never get docked at a gate when using one of these airlines. The bus dropped us at the terminal, and other than a tight squeeze getting up the escalator it was a very short walk to the immigration counters with no shopping displays to impede our way. Immigration to baggage claim was a quick walk, no problems finding my way out to the arrivals hall. Sure, a couple of the touts for the expensive AOT operated taxi-limo service got in my face but they've been doing the same at Don Muang for years. Downstairs to the taxi queue - not sure if I would have had problems finding it if I hadn't already known where it was - no queue to speak of, in a taxi, turned the meter on and away we went. And 56 km and 320 baht later I was home, again having a conversation with the driver about what a disaster the new airport was, even if in this particular case everything went smoothly.
And this is where I mention it was 10:00 am on a Sunday morning.
However, apparently all is not well at the new airport. On a lighter note, the fiasco has been making the rounds of the world's newspapers with the New York Times recently running a piece on all the airport problems and design flaws.
On a not so light note, three months after the airport's opening they've reported that the airport has not reached capacity and it might be necessary to move the discount and possibly domestic flights back to Don Muang. How's that? Three months after opening?
Well, remember this thing was rushed to completion by the now exiled former PM. The airport has plenty of room for expansion - up to six runways and several more terminal buildings... but none of these things have been built yet. What exists now is hardly more than what Don Muang had, hence the saturation.
I think what concerns me most about this new airport is given how many problems are visible to us (bathrooms, signage, roof leaks, poor human traffic flow, parking garage construction flaws, etc) and the problems we've heard about (cracks in the taxiways, water leaking into and jamming elevators, mass corruption in contracts), what problems of a potentially much more serious nature are we not hearing about? Control tower computer crashes? Radar failures? Yes, it does concern me... which leads to...
...On a more serious note there have been suggestions made within the Thai government to close the new airport partially if not entirely until the problems can be repaired. Is Suvarnabhumi really that bad?
Last night we were watching a Thai news special about the new airport which spent about half an hour or so ridiculing the airport for all the reasons previously cited. I think it's refreshing that we're seeing a rare case in Thailand where Thais aren't sticking their heads in the ground, worrying about face, but rather are quite openly saying that this airport sucks and it's a national embarrassment. Of course that's because the man responsible is off in exile somewhere and his political enemies are in power now.
So I'm left to wonder two things:
It's one or the other.
Speaking of arrivals, this was my fourth entry since October 1 so this might mean that they really are enforcing the number of days and not number of entries... or it could mean the woman at the immigration desk went through my passport so fast she didn't notice the previous three entries.
It's one or the other.
I had a good laugh at the guesthouse a few weeks ago though I'm not sure I'd want this kind of laugh too often. Coming right out of Fawlty Towers... a potential customer walks in off the street looking for a room. The girl at the counter, a fairly new employee and generally pleasant if anything, greets the potential customer:
It was funny once.
Tax season is upon us. Every December and again in January we are summoned into the tax office and forced to haggle about our tax rates. Tax collector chooses two seemingly arbitrary months and asks us what we made and that will determine how much tax we pay the next year. Yup, that's it. Busy months, slow months, no, just picks two months. First she tells me November and December. I say December has barely begun. Okay then, how about October and November. I suggest May and September. She thinks October and November will be fine and yes we understand about high and low season. No you don't, you don't understand a thing because you have no idea what kind of high and low seasons anyone has. And the whole thing is negotiated in an entirely opaque way and you can, if you're so inclined, even negotiate how much the receipts will be written for.
I think the system absolutely sucks. It sucks because the extent of accounting is - How much did you spend opening your business? How much did you gross in a particular month? How much did you pay in salaries? How much was your rent? Your electricity? And that's it.
Okay, the amount of tax we pay in respect to our income is reasonable, but at the same time I also know that for a 14-room guesthouse it was on the high end of the scale meaning my tax isn't just on my business but that I'm also picking up part of the tab for some of the Cambodian-owned guesthouses around the corner from me.
One of Hun Sen's promises back during the 2003 election campaign was sorting out the taxation system as they didn't seem to think they were getting their fair share down in Phnom Penh and probably that's true. Unfortunately we're still operating under a system of estimation where your tax rate is based at least partially on how well you can lie, how well you can negotiate, and how well your neighbor's could do the same. In many respects the same holds true everywhere, if the tax collector can't get it out of Peter, he (or in our case, she) will go after Paul. I just don't like being Paul. And as a foreigner running a small business surrounded by loclal businesses of the same or even smaller size, well, that's how it'll be. Sometime in January we'll find out how much of Paul we will be this year.
Speaking of scams, we all know the Nigerian 419 scams, but did you know there is a version specifically targeted on hotels? We receive on average one e-mail a day. Here is a sampling of three received in the past week:
Number three (and this one spells out clearly from the start what the scam is, while others will wait for an e-mail or two before asking for the money):
The toa blog - December 19, 2006
Two days. I did it. I promise I'm going to write more. Really. I mean it. Anyway...
We'll call it Camgeria. They've found offshore oil and in or around 2009 they'll start pumping it out. And with an estimated $2 billion US a year windfall, we can expect what? Schools? Highways? No taxes? Electricity and clean water to every man, woman, child, and cow in Cambodia? Not a chance. The new Cambodian oil sheiks will no doubt treat this same national asset the same as they've treated the others (timber and temples).
I posted on the discussion forum two stories that are making the rounds of the world's newspapers this week. You can see them in their entirety here: http://www.talesofasia.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4955. But in a nutshell Chevron found oil in four of five wells sunk in the Gulf of Thailand in waters undisputed as belonging to Cambodia. Additional territory has not been explored as it is territory under dispute with Thailand - and if these tracts have oil, that's a dispute that could get real ugly and never mind who thinks Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand, oil is at stake. Estimates of the financial windfall range from $2 billion US up to $7 billion US per year. Not much in the world scheme of things but a fortune for Cambodia.
So the question remains? The first step on the road to progress or Nigeria here we come?
Consider Nigeria. $12 billion a year in oil revenues, 70% of the population earning under a dollar a day. Massive corruption, ineffectual government... Really? What benefit has Nigeria derived from it's oil reserves? And what reason could anyone offer to convince me that the Cambodia power structure with this kind of money in their hands and no one to watch it too closely won't stuff it in their pockets, sell whatever assets they have (Halliburton will be around soon, I'm sure... and a lot safer than Iraq), and turn its citizenry into a bunch of computer nerds spending their days in internet cafes mass e-mailing Cambodian 419 scams. "Hello Dear Sir, You don't know me but I'm a son of former Funcinpec head Prince Norodom Ranariddh (actually, the bit about being a son is probably true...)..."
Annoying things customers do. About a year ago or so I listed some of the more bizarre and generally ignorant things customers can do that can complicate running a guesthouse, here are a few new, albeit minor, ones.
- We have customer feedback forms. A list of 15 items which they rate us 1 (crap) to 5 (not crap) and a space to write comments. By and large the comments are constructive and helpful but a few are a bit bizarre. Such as staying three nights and then complaining on the form that the TV, hot shower, whatever, didn't work. Why is that bizarre? Well wouldn't you think they'd first alert the staff to the problem rather than waiting until check-out time to complain about it on a piece of paper no one will read until they are halfway home to Kuala Lumpur?
- E-mail is not 100%. Still, you send an e-mail, it doesn't bounce, so you assume it was received. Right? Well, that seems to be the case for some. Fact is, and I'd like to think everyone would know this by now, e-mail doesn't always get through. But obviously not everyone believes this. So here's a message to the asshole who showed up at the guesthouse a week ago blaming my staff, to hear them say it, "he very strong and angry" because we had no record of his booking. WE NEVER GOT YOUR E-MAIL YOU JERK. Got it? Now go away. Nobody yells at my staff but me.
- Hello, what time is it? Had a phone-in request for a room come to my mobile yesterday morning. At 5 a.m. Hello? 5 p.m. in the US is not 5 p.m. in Cambodia, it's 5 a.m.!!! Actually I have no idea where she was calling from, I've forgotten the accent. But I expect it came from somewhere that wasn't dark yet.
- It's high season so maybe I should make bookings at three different guesthouses so I'll be sure to get a room..." The no-show count for the season is up to four.
Winter has finally come. A bit late - November and early December was March revisited, 35 degrees every day (95 Yankee degrees) and an even more superlative electric bill. Last night we dropped to 19 degrees (66 F). Brrr. Global warming you bet.
Bet you didn't know (or care) that the Gyeongju-Angkor Expo is still going on? Apparently nobody else does either. Fiasco seems to have started from the opening ceremony when the horses spooked walking past the loudspeaker - and right in front of the PM and Pres of S Korea. Somebody's head rolled for that one I'm sure. Let's see what else... there was the hotel section... they set up an area for something like 90 hotels to buy promotional space. Two bit the bait. There was a fashion show with tickets selling for hundreds a pop. My contact told me as of two weeks ago that sales were, uhm, flat (I think zero was in the sentence). Not sure if this has anything to do with the "costume show" our local Min of Tourism representative came around this morning passing out free invites to. The electricity lines from Thailand still haven't been completed... guys, show's over in less than three weeks... And Cambodia is going to become an oil producing state? Ruled by a bunch of petroleum transfer engineers...
The toa blog - December 17, 2006
I finally had a chance to check out the new airport. Both of them. Yes, two. Did you forget? Siem Reap opened a new airport terminal this past July. And I knew it was better than the King Power-Suvarnabhumi Intl Shopping Plaza before I even set foot in either one. Why? Consider the following points: Since the new Siem Reap airport opened in July… no one has complained about not finding a bathroom; no one’s gotten lost making the trek between the arrival/departure halls and the airplanes; no one’s tripped over a duty free shopping display; no one’s complained about the noise, no one’s needed to sit through three hours of traffic to get to their hotel, there aren’t any cracks in the asphalt, and it opened not a day too soon. So there.
Here's my Suvarnabhumi report. Getting there. Takes longer and it is longer. 45 km and 320 THB on the taxi meter, which with the USD in a freefall (does anyone back in the US know or care that our currency is taking a rapid plunge down the toilet?) and the THB exploding, that's over $9. It used to be about 180 THB, or from my in-laws house about 230 THB. Taxi driver complained about this a lot, too. Actually, I haven't heard any Bangkok taxi driver say anything nice about the new airport.
Arrival: Taxis park in an outer lane, but they have traffic cops to make sure you don't get flattened by a tour bus while walking into the terminal. They were doing their jobs. But for how long?
Departures hall: A little cramped but adequate, signage average. Would like to first see it during peak hours before passing judgment.
Check-in: That's up to Bangkok Airways, really. No problem, but no one in line either. Flight was less than half full and a 3:00 pm departure is not a busy hour.
Immigration: No difference from Don Muang. An adequate number of immigration officials during their job with the usual lack of urgency. Again, don't know how this will turn out at peak hours. Immigration can always be rather variable.
Air side: Yes, it's true. It's a shopping mall. And the ceilings are low the corridors narrow (the photo above shows them at about as wide as they ever get) and I would not want to see the logjams at peak hours. Departure gates, some anyway, are a bit of a hike but no worse than other airports I've been in, and even Don Muang had a few gates that seemed as if they were in the next district.
Departure lounge: Has the unfinished look which some people have complained about, but I kind of like it. Seats typically simple.
Bathrooms: I can definitely see where the complaints have come from. While they've built a few new ones and I had no problem finding a facility, you can tell that some of them were afterthoughts constructed in the wake of near rioting at their absence. I still find it nearly inconceivable, given that the need for adequate public facilities is a problem the ancient Romans grappled with, that they couldn't have opened this thing with enough bathrooms. There are formulas for this sort of thing. Didn't anyone look them up? Or was it a feng shui thing? Or maybe they figured with so many shops to occupy ones time no one would think about the need for a bathroom?
That said, I'll be flying back to Bangkok in a few days so we'll see how the arrivals works out.
Overall, I'm not impressed with this new airport as Thailand would like me to be (and I know more than a few Thais who think this new airport is as much of a disaster as everyone has says it is), but really, it's not a disaster. I still prefer Don Muang. It might not have been pretty, but it did the job. And it's also the one airport I've used more than any other on the planet, so I suppose on a personal note, change doesn't come easily. But change has come, and like it or not, Bangkok has a new airport.
And so does Siem Reap. A new terminal building, anyway. Small, efficient, attractive. Functional. Definitely score the winning point to Cambodia.
But here's a loser. The transport system in Poipet has completely gone to crap again. It's hard to argue that it ever got better, but in some respects it did. After the government decided to make their own transport mafia, the prices of taxis Poipet to Siem Reap were jacked to $45 US with $30 to the driver, $10 to the "government", and $5 to the guys (touts) on the ground that "assisted" the tourists. And for quite a period of time they did their job surprisingly well, getting the tourists through the border and on to the transport station a kilometer and a half away and taking their $5 cut and being done with it.
Starting a couple of months ago when the road fell apart and the taxis needed more money - what, you think getting your car towed through water for a few kilometers is free? - I can only assume that the touts, seeing that tourists would actually pay these increased fares ($60-70) have held on to these rates, even if the drivers have not. And blinded by greed, helpful politeness has been replaced with belligerent arrogance and I've heard about a dozen reports of tourists getting charged from $60 to $80 and even that took an hour of haggling, being followed and bullied by these touts (several locals have referred to them as gangsters and seem no less enthused at their presence than any of us). And every dollar over $40 is going into these guys pockets. Hmm, $30 to the taxi, $10 to the guy upstairs with the stars and bars on his shirt, and $20 or $30 to the "gangsters" on the street. Something ain't right. Poipet has a serious transport problem again. Good luck.
Speaking of "gangsters," which is becoming a popular word in the local vocabulary, Hun Sen and National Police Chief Hok Lundy have decided that Cambodia has a "gangster" problem. Something just about every ex-pat has known for as long as there has been a problem, which, limitations of anecdotal evidence not withstanding, does seem to be getting worse. Don't see too much of it in Siem Reap, but I hear a lot of comments about Phnom Penh. Two or three teenage punks on a Wave riding up and down and around Monivong, robbery, simple assault, or let's just hassle the barang with a Khmer girl on the back of his bike. Too many kids graduating school with worthless degrees and no job to find. Need someone to blame. We'll do. I think China will be the new friend.
A few people I know have had some unfortunate run-ins lately. Nothing serious, a couple of robberies but no violence involved, a threat of a thrashing, punk stuff. Apparently when these kids can't find any westerners to harass they turn on themselves. A few months ago on a street corner of Norodom somewhere around the 170s or thereabouts, at about 11 pm I saw a group of five or six giving two other punks a good beating. My motodop even asked if I wanted to stop and watch.
Seems Thailand is struggling to keep tourists. Saw on the Lonely Planet Thorntree a tourist had asked at a Bangkok tourist information booth about Sihanoukville (Yes, I know, it's dumb, why is a tourist asking a Thai about Cambodia?). Their quote on the TT: "The Thai Tourist information office said not to go to Cambodia because all the beaches are in bad shape due to the tidal wave and that its the typhoon season.." The Tsunami never came near Cambodia but we know what happened in Thailand, particularly to Phuket. Let's be honest, I'm not a big fan of Sihanoukville but even less so of blatant dishonesty such as this. So my beach advice is I'd stay away from Thai beaches. Since the coup, the military have set up bases on every beach to prevent the former PM from sneaking back to Thailand in a canoe. Several females have reported strip searches and at least twenty tourists have been executed for suggesting the coup might have been just a tad anti-democratic. Som num na.
Rumors have it that the near complete loss of internet in mid-November was because they diverted all of Siem Reap's internet resources to the journos, mostly Korean, covering the moronic Gygigolo-Angkor-Expo-Sexpo-whatever-it's-a-fiasco-2007. The other rumor says the main internet cable was sliced in Phnom Penh - in four places - which would hardly be an accident. Both rumors are sworn as true. In any event the internet which we all pay around $200 a month for was non-existent for a week. And since last Thursday it's hardly been any better here. What did I say last time about corruption and progress?
Here's hoping the next installment will be sooner than in seven weeks...
Recent Updates on toa
December 24: Updated four Travellers' Reports pages in the Overland section: Bangkok - Siem Reap ; Bangkok - Phnom Penh + Sihanoukville (Koh Kong crossing) ; Pailin / Battambang ; and Vietnam - Cambodia.
December 24: Readers' Submissions: About Learning that Awful Foreign Language by Antonio Graceffo
December 5: Most recent update of Cambodia Overland, Bangkok-Siem Reap Travelers' Reports section.
December 5: Updated Cambodia Overland, O'Smach Reports section.
December 5: Updated FAQ Communications section.
November 28: Revised the talesofasia Guide to Siem Reap/Angkor.
November 16: Updated the Cambodia Overland, Bangkok to Siem Reap section.
November 10: Most recent update of Cambodia Overland, Bangkok-Phnom Penh + Sihanoukville Travelers' Reports section.
November 10: Updated Cambodia Overland, Cambodia-Vietnam Reports section.
November 10: Readers' Submissions Cambodia: Savong's School by Duncan Stuart, Delightful Cambodians - Srei Tooj by Hans Meier; Singapore: How Much? by Patricia Tan
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