You arrive at Siem Reap full of anticipation. Three days, five days, perhaps a week you have set aside to explore some of the most magnificent ancient structures on the planet. Leaving the town of Siem Reap you head north along the road to Angkor Wat. Soon you see a large toll gate facility off the right side of the road. Your driver dutifully takes you there whereupon you fork over a hefty sum of US dollars for your pass to visit the temples. A single day - $20. Three days - $40. And a week - that'll be $60. You're even asked for a passport style photograph, or in the absence of one, you're led into a room and photographed. What next? Fingerprints. Well, not yet. You're then handed your laminated pass as the ticket seller politely runs down the list of rules - don't give/sell/transfer the ticket to anyone, don't lose it, don't be caught in a temple without it, etc. "Uh-huh, uh-huh," you nod your head in bewilderment. As you head north towards Angkor Wat, capturing that first glimpse of the famous towers peaking out from behind the trees, you no doubt think, 'at least my money is going to save the temples... isn't it?'
Look at that ticket again. Above the picture of Angkor Wat it says "Sokha Hotel Co., LTD." They are the ones taking your money. Sokha Hotel is a division of Sokimex - a corporation founded in 1980 with close ties to the CPP government. Aside from the Angkor ticket concession, Sokimex is a petroleum company, and is a supplier to the government of military uniforms, medicines, and food for the military. It is also involved in import-export, rubber, transportation, and real estate.
In April 1999 with no public debate or prior warning the government of Cambodia quietly entered into an agreement with Sokimex to operate the ticket concession at the Angkor Archaeological Park. This deal required Sokimex to pay a flat $1,000,000 US per year to the government in exchange for the right to control the ticket concession. Whatever money Sokimex received in excess of the one million dollars was pure profit. Given the utter lack of transparency in this deal, combined with the perceived privatization of Cambodia's cultural heritage, there was immediate opposition to this deal. But the deal stood, taking effect on May 1, 1999, with only a fraction of tourist dollars going to the temples via the government agency - Apsara Authority - which oversees the preservation, restoration, etc. of the monuments.
This deal remained in place until August 15, 2000 when a new and better deal (for Apsara - and the monuments) was hammered out. But in the 15 months from the implementation of the original deal to the recent renegotiation of the contract the following changes have taken place at the Angkor Park. First, the souvenir sellers were kicked out of the temples. Good for the tourists, bad for the local economy. The second move was a proposal to ban all motorized traffic from within the park - a scenario that would require all tourists to be shuttled around in electric cars provided by a Korean firm. There was loud opposition from the motorcycle and taxi drivers and the idea was, at least temporarily, shelved. In an interview I had last March with the Secretary of State of the Ministry of Tourism, Dr. Thong Khon, he informed me that no such deal would be permitted, "although this deal is not with the government, we are committed to free choices for tourists."
The next visible change at the park came in the procedure for checking admission tickets. At almost every temple guards have been stationed who examine the ticket of every entering tourist. This policy has not been well received by the tourists, but to give credit where credit is due, most of the Sokimex employees do show a very high level of politeness and professional courtesy to the visitor.
Upon taking over the ticket concession, one serious problem Sokimex had to face was overcoming the extremely high incidence of fraud that had existed in the sale and usage of temple tickets.
Prior to the Sokimex deal there was minimal control over the sale of temple tickets. While most tourists were buying tickets and paying full price for them, who actually got the money was anybody's guess. The most common scam was the recycling of used tickets. The perpetrators were usually the guesthouses and their resident motorbike drivers. Relieving departing tourists of their tickets and using whatever available stripping agent was handy, nail polish remover was effective, they'd remove all the details of the previous user and resell the ticket to the unsuspecting tourist. In defiance of all regulation the guesthouse would offer to purchase your ticket for you, but in fact they were selling you a recycled ticket and pocketing the $20, $40, whatever. Under Sokimex's tight controls this scam has been eliminated, though some would argue it's all still a scam, but now it's a fat corporation taking all the money instead of the guesthouses and motorbike drivers. You decide.
In a recent interview I had with Ang Choulean, Director of the Department of Monuments and Culture for the Apsara Authority, I asked him about the problems with fraudulent tickets, "There were an incredible number of fake tickets before Sokimex. But I think that after the first contract if there were still fake tickets there were much less than before. But I hope now there are no more fake tickets." From what I have observed the problem has been eliminated.
As the number of visitors to the Angkor Park has risen rapidly it should come as no surprise that the government, and certainly the Apsara Authority would seek to renegotiate the contract with Sokimex. In the original negotiation in April 1999 the Apsara Authority was not part of the process, but it had significant say in the renegotiation and as a result it now has a much better financial situation and far greater control over the doings of Sokimex. As reported in the Phnom Penh Post in the August 18-31, 2000 issue, the new deal provides for 50% of all income to the first $3 million dollars to be handed over to the government and 70% of all sales over the $3 million mark. This puts the Apsara Authority in a far greater position both financially and in terms of control of the park operations.
Based on these figures Ang Choulean has projected that roughly 28% of all park money will go directly to the temples and 31% will go to park maintenance and construction of much needed infrastructure. So for the time being approximately 59 cents of every dollar is landing in the proper hands, a vast improvement over a couple of years ago when that figure may have been as low as 5 cents of every dollar.
But with its new found wealth, what can we expect from Apsara and from Sokimex? According to Ang Choulean. "We are controlling them strictly because this is very clearly specified in the contract. We have two persons from our department of tourist development who are controlling every day the number of tickets sold because each ticket sold has to have the Apsara stamp." And... "The contract began from May 1999 and we were not at the direct negotiation for this first contract. But we are controlling them, we control Sokimex according to the terms of the contract already signed. We were directly involved with the renegotiation and we continue to have strong control of this." And... when asked if he was pleased with the new arrangement? "Happier than before. (Laughter) But we are ambitious to have more (control)."
For more information see:
O'Connell, Stephen, and Soeum, Yin. "All that glitters seems to be... Sokimex." Phnom Penh Post, 28 April-11 May 2000.
Sokheng, Vong, and Marcher, Anette. "Sokimex and Government revisit Angkor deal." Phnom Penh Post, 18-31 August 2000.
The Phnom Penh Post internet site is at http://www.phnompenhpost.com
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