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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update

April 2002

1.) Illuminating Angkor Wat
2.) Fixing Banteay Srei
3.) Protecting copyrights part 2
4.) Fun with dodgy banks
5.) Fun with Cambodia visas
6.) Motodop mafias
7.) Upcoming Khmer New Year
8.) Highway construction - the latest
9.) Major infrastructure development in Siem Reap
10.) More Cambodian logic
11.) Perspective


Illuminating Angkor Wat

A few months back a suggestion was made by a French firm to provide Angkor Wat with an evening sound and light show, "son et luminere". Imagine, lights of all colors bouncing around the temple and lighting the sky, images of apsara dancers reflected on the temple - five times larger than life, a crowd of package tourists, freshly relieved of more than a few dollars sits captive oohing and aahing at the spectacle.

Excuse me, my stomach is doing uncomfortable things to me. Umm, I'll be right back.

There. That's better.

Too bad the Cambodians seemed rather intrigued by the idea,
"Hey, Chea."
"Yes, Sok?"
"Hand me the Casio, will you?"
"Sure, boss."
Sok punches a number here, a figure there, and a decimal over there.
"Hmm," says Sok, "big money to be made."

While I can always find things to grumble about in respect to the management of the Angkor Archaeological Park, I do give credit that for the most part, the decision makers have done a reasonably good job (so far!!!) of avoiding any kind of a Disneyland-like atmosphere. Why stop now?

It has been suggested to those in authority that should they start lightning up Angkor Wat like the Las Vegas strip they might keep one practical concern in mind. For the Millennium New Year's 1999-2000 a large light show was held at Angkor Wat. At each of the large lamps the pile of dead bugs was two feet thick. Are they going to clean up millions of dead bugs EVERY NIGHT???? Just something to think about.

Fixing Banteay Srei

Back in September I complained about the barriers at Banteay Srei that made it impossible to see the divinity carvings on the three towers on the platform on the west end of the temple. Regrettably, this was a necessary move as the hundreds of tourists traipsing around the towers each day, touching the divinities, etc., were beginning to cause damage to these fragile images and to the platform.

The good news is I received word recently that a Swiss team will soon commence restoration work on the temple. However, this does not allow us to assume that tourists will ever again be able to walk on the platform, but this should at least make it possible to get close enough to see the images and walk away with some degree of appreciation for the beauty they possess.

But here's an idea...

When the restoration work is complete, why not make Banteay Srei temple a visit by appointment only site? It's worked at other major archaeological attractions and museum exhibitions where crowd control is of utmost concern. Banteay Srei has rightly become one of the most popular temples in the Angkor Park, but given its small size and fragile nature I don't see how it can accommodate the ever increasing crowds and at the same time allow the visitor to truly appreciate that which the temple offers - subtle beauty.

Banteay Srei is not Angkor Wat - with its mammoth proportions and an impact one feels hundreds of meters away, but is a small temple that needs to be seen up close and personal to truly appreciate. While an appointment only system would make it impossible for all tourists to see the temple, at least those who are willing to schedule a time will be duly rewarded for having made the effort. And as snobbish as it may sound, I do believe that a lot of tourists visiting Banteay Srei are only visiting it because someone told them they should.

Protecting copyrights part 2

You may recall back in my January column I wrote about how I successfully staved off an attempt to copy my postcards. Well, a second incident occurred in early March that is a fine example as to what lengths Khmers will go to make a buck.

My postcards are printed in sets of eight - eight images on a single sheet, printed, laminated, and then machine-cut. In any print run there is going to be waste - colors that run, are incorrect, etc. As my printer, 3D Graphics Publishing, is a fairly large company in Phnom Penh, they generate a lot of paper waste which is sold to a recycler.

Someone, apparently an employee of the recycling company, removed the discarded sheets of postcards from the garbage, cut them up by hand, and sold them to a retailer in Phnom Penh's Central Market. No lamination, incorrect colors, improperly cut, these postcards were pure and simple crap. And they bore both my name and the 3D Graphics name.

It didn't take much to get the cards off the racks. The cards were spotted by my spies within hours of their appearing in the market. One of my Khmer assistants told the retailer that police action would be forthcoming. The retailer pulled the cards asking, almost begging, not to involve the police. Of course, no sooner did my assistant walk away that the retailer put the bogus cards back on the rack.

A police report was filed, a $30 fee was paid, and the police removed the offending cards warning the retailer that any future incidents would involve further and more serious legal action.

This is proof again, that contrary to conventional wisdom, there *IS* copyright protection in Cambodia and this protection is available for those who make the effort to avail themselves of this protection. Availing themselves meaning pay the police.

That said, while there's probably nobody reading this column that would likely infringe on my copyrights, I will remind just the same that I take my copyrights very seriously and will use whatever means necessary to protect these rights, both in Cambodia and around the world. My spies are everywhere.

Fun with dodgy banks

In an effort to improve Cambodia's banking system, in 1999, the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) raised the minimum capital requirement that banks must have on deposit with the NBC. The new figure was set at $13 million US. Many banks were unable to comply and within a year they pulled out of the country. Unfortunately, in these forced closures, some depositors lost money.

Now in 2002, we (expat residents and locals alike) have been under the assumption that the banks still doing business in Cambodia have all been operating in compliance with NBC regulations. Wrong. Early in March, without warning, the First Overseas Bank (FOB), a Malaysian-owned bank, was ordered by the NBC to refund all deposits and cease operations.

FOB responded by remaining open but freezing all accounts in excess of $500. Those with less on deposit could close out their accounts, but the rest of us, yes, I am/was an FOB customer, were screwed. A few meetings with the local Siem Reap manager and I was fortunate enough to be able to pull $500 out of my account leaving only $203.25 at risk. Luckily I do not keep all my eggs in one basket so my FOB account hardly amounts to my life savings.

A week later the doors of the Siem Reap branch were locked shut, a sign posted, addressed to "Valued Customer", I chuckled at that one, telling us "valued customers" - if we're so valued where the f$%k is our money? - that the bank was closed and any further inquiries should be directed to the NBC.

I'm lucky. I only stand to lose $203.25, money I'm not entirely optimistic I will ever see in its entirety, if at all. But I know other Siem Reap expats with thousands upon thousands at risk.

The result is that at the local watering holes, beer and liquor sales are up as expats lament their financial woes. And First Overseas Bank? I'm guessing its executives are truly somewhere overseas. With my money.

Fun with Cambodia visas

At the end of February I applied for a new passport at the US embassy in Bangkok. By doing this in Thailand and not in Cambodia at the US embassy in Phnom Penh, it would be necessary to transfer visas/entry stamps from both countries from the old passport to the new one.

No problem with Thailand, I dutifully turned up at the immigration office, filled out a form, made a few photocopies, and waited a few minutes while a civil servant put a stamp here, put a stamp there, notated this and notated that, returned me my passports and sent me on my way.

Next stop, the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. No, they tell me, my business visa with two remaining months of validity was no longer valid as the old passport was canceled. Well, why don't you transfer the stamps from the old passport to the new passport like most normal countries? Nope, can't do that, have to apply for a new visa.

While in the embassy, I took a look at the posted fees, $20 US for a tourist visa and $25 for a business visa, which is normal and what you would pay for a visa on arrival at either of the international airports. But what if you want to pay in Thai baht? Well, seeing as the baht presently exchanges at about 43 to the dollar we would probably assume that the visas would cost around, oh, let's say, 860 baht and 1075 baht, respectively. Wrong! Let's try 1000 baht for the tourist visa and, are you ready for this --- 1500 baht for the business visa!!! Which means that if you want to pay in baht they'll exchange at 50 baht to the dollar for a tourist visa but at 60 baht to the dollar for a business visa!!! Could somebody explain to me what moron in Cambodia immigration devised this scheme and why or is this simply an example of the present state of mathematics education in Cambodia?

At the land crossings at Poipet and Koh Kong, they've always charged these baht fees, but as they refuse to accept dollars anyway, I always wrote it off as one more corruption scam at the border, but these same nonsensical rates are being charged at the embassy in Bangkok!!!!

I flew back to Cambodia a couple of days later and purchased a new business visa on arrival at the Siem Reap airport. They are now using the stickers that most countries seem to have adopted and here's a new twist - in the upper-right hand corner is a space for filling in the fee. Mine was correctly notated as being $25. I wonder what they would have written had I paid 1500 baht at the embassy or one of the land crossings?

A couple of weeks later I was in Phnom Penh to purchase a new six-month visa extension which this time I got for $148 (standard rate for next-day service is about $150). But as the authorities have refused to honor the two months of previous visa validity I had, I hereby publicly accuse Cambodian immigration of the crime of theft in the name of $50 US.

Put your violins away.

Motodop mafias

I've frequently complained on these pages about what a pain in the arse motodops can be, with their overcharging, little scams and games and so on... so here's another piece of motodop nonsense.

Some motodops affiliate themselves with a particular hotel or guesthouse. Through whatever connections they may have with the management, the drivers will hang out at the guesthouse or hotel using it as a source of customers. In return for this privilege they'll have to pay a dollar or two back to the hotel as a commission each time they get a customer.

Needless to say, these guys are very protective of their turf. You would think as a tourist this is of no concern to you, but it can be a concern because some of these guys are going way overboard with protecting their little 'hoods.

Imagine if you will, that you flag down a motodop in Siem Reap simply to return you to your guesthouse, perhaps you were shopping in Psah Chas, maybe having lunch in a local restaurant. And the motodop is not one of the guesthouse thugs but is perhaps some old guy that works independently. You get near your guesthouse, maybe 50 meters away - and he stops. But you're still not at the door? Why's he doing that? You complain to him but to no avail as there is a language problem - you don't speak Khmer and he can barely speak English, if at all. He refuses to go any closer to your guesthouse. Annoyed, you throw some money at the guy and stomp off.

What you didn't know and the driver would have told you if he could, is that your particular guesthouse has a nasty group of motodrivers that, had your driver taken you to the door, would have at the very least given him a hard time for "stealing" one of their customers and just as likely demanded he give them a commission - a cut of what you paid him. Do you see the sense in this? Neither do I, it defies all logic, but it's happening in Siem Reap. Way to go, motodop morons.

Upcoming Khmer New Year

The Khmer New Year will be upon us soon, April 14-16 to be precise. But you'll be forgiven for thinking that it's more like April 10-26 as the whole country seems to shut down for most of the month. This is the holiday where half the country comes to Siem Reap to celebrate around the temples and the other half celebrates by throwing little plastic bags of water at passing motorists along the nation's roads.

There was a time barely in the memories of anyone still living that one aspect of the holiday celebration was to sprinkle a little water on your elders as a gesture of hope for things like good luck, good health, prosperity, etc. But like most traditions, it got perverted into something that bears minimal resemblance to the original concept.

For years in Thailand, this water thing has become a sadistic ritual, where mostly teenage boys take to pouring as much water on passers-by and motorists as possible with little regard for the consequences. Numerous motorcyclists are killed every year as a result.

Cambodia is generally not so bad. Most of the country is fairly low-key. In Phnom Penh the sale and use of waterguns is banned for the second year in a row and enforcement last year was quite effective. Siem Reap also bans the same, especially around the temples as the authorities do make a point of ensuring that some unsuspecting tourist, who had no idea they were visiting during such a holiday, doesn't get their cameras destroyed.

If it's your plan to visit Siem Reap during the holiday you still might want to reconsider. Maybe. I hung around for the celebration in 1999 and at least around the temples, I enjoyed it, watching the Khmers celebrate their biggest holiday of the year. On the other hand, if it was solely temple exploration that I had come for, I certainly would have found the crowds and all the ancillary activities and effects to be less than conducive to temple touring.

But there is one aspect to the Khmer version of New Year celebration that I must speak out against. The water bags. On two trips through northwest Cambodia (1999 and 2001) during the holiday, I've noticed that the main source of fun is to stand along the highway and fling plastic bags of water at motorists - cars, trucks, buses, and motorcycles. This is nothing sort of a dangerous and sadistic activity that I urge the Cambodian authorities to put a stop to.

In 1999 I was riding in the back of a pick-up truck from Siem Reap to Poipet on the final day of the official holiday. All was hunky-dory until we reached Sisophon and the bags started flying. I took one squarely in the face - it felt like Mike Tyson had just nailed me. Remember, apply a little physics here, a bag is flung at you at 40, maybe 50 mph, and you're in a vehicle traveling into it at 40 or 50 mph. Yeah, it hurts. In the back of the truck a woman was holding a baby in her arms. The baby got hit squarely in the face. It screamed for thirty minutes.

In 2001 I was on a motorbike trip that included Sisophon, Battambang, and Pailin - all towns squarely in the bag throwing region. Near Battambang I was hit in the head while traveling at nearly 100 kph (that's about 60 mph for the metrically-challenged Yanks). If I wasn't wearing a helmet I consider it within the realm of possibility that you would not be reading this or any other column on this website. I did later see one motorcyclist lose control and crash after being hit, but at a slow speed. I have also seen broken windshields on automobiles. The accident I had in Sisophon on that trip was partly due to my trying to avoid a gauntlet of bags.

This plastic bag thing has to stop. It's stupid. It's dangerous. If the authorities were to publicly execute a few of the teenagers who fling these bags I will request a front-row seat. Barring execution, amputation of both arms would also be a suitable alternative. You probably think I'm kidding. Well, consider how many innocent people will die this April due to this sadistic and utterly imbecilic ritual. And tragically, deaths there will be.

Think I'm exaggerating? If you're in any decent sized town in northwest Cambodia during the holiday, why not hang out in front of the local provincial hospital for the afternoon and watch the arrival of an endless stream of bloody accident victims.

Highway construction - the latest

The biggest news is the completion of the highway between Koh Kong and Sre Ambel. As usual, completion does not include sealing the road so hopefully this road won't blow away too soon, but having driven this road on motorcycle back in January, I can say that it is still one mighty fast road.

Sre Ambel is the town midway between Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville and this completed road now makes it possible to travel overland from Bangkok to Phnom Penh in one long day. The Sre Ambel to Koh Kong stretch, about 145 kilometers, should take pick-up trucks about three and a half to four hours to cover and large motorcycles will do it in an hour less. There are four major rivers along the way which still must be crossed by ferry thus slowing the trip. Share taxis are already covering the route from Phnom Penh and Koh Kong. I don't know yet what the true price is, opposed to what they try to rip-off foreigners for, but I would guess a single seat inside the cab would run about 30,000 riels for the 292-kilometer journey.

The funding from this road came from a variety of sources - one major donor being the owner of one of the Koh Kong casinos. The actual construction was performed by the Thai Army, and from what I saw in January, they were doing a bang-up job.

The next piece of news is the completed bridge in Koh Kong which will eliminate those thieving conniving scumbag boat taxis that tourists were forced to use to reach the border crossing when arriving from Sihanoukville or Sre Ambel by speedboat (until recently, the only way to access Koh Kong). The official opening of the bridge is scheduled for sometime in April.

Two major highways are receiving major reconstruction this year. These are Highway 6 between Kompong Thom and Siem Reap and Highway 5 between Phnom Penh and Battambang. Again, these are typical Cambodian construction projects - widened, raised, packed, and graded - but not sealed. Still, as last year, Highway 6 from Siem Reap to Sisophon was such a breeze, this year that pleasure will be extended to these roads.

Reportedly, come 2003, the next stage of construction will begin - sealing the highways.

Major infrastructure development in Siem Reap

It was erected with no fanfare on the 18th of March and switched on the following day. Brightly illuminated with three different colors, local Khmers stood in amazement watching the colors change - green, yellow, then red. Yes, Siem Reap received its first traffic light and this may be the first traffic light in the country outside of Phnom Penh. At the intersection of Highway 6 and Sivatha Street, this was a much needed piece of equipment, and a hi-tech version at that, equipped with an electronic display that counts down the seconds until the light changes. The Khmers, many of whom have never seen a traffic light before, are figuring it out with relative ease - of course we can assume that the police officers standing at the corner of the intersection screaming at the motorists might have something to do with this. However, several locals have said that watching the numbers count down to zero was thoroughly entertaining and well worth waiting for the light to change. A second light was erected a few days later at the intersection of Highway 6 and Wat Bo Road, which is on the east side of the river.

More Cambodian logic

A majority of Cambodian men smoke and like many Asian countries, Cambodia is a big market for foreign tobacco companies. In Cambodia there are no legal restrictions on cigarette advertising and one can be flicking through the Cambodian television channels and come across the Marlboro Man riding through the expanse of the American West. And local advertisements feature well-dressed, handsome young men, virile and spirited, impressing the most beautiful of Khmer ladies, seen smiling at the men in an awe of innocence and bedazzlement, trying their best not to show their revulsion as a cloud of cigarette smoke engulfs their young faces.

A friend of mine was recently talking about cigarette smoking with a Khmer man who smoked quite a bit. She asked him if he was aware of the dangers of smoking. "Oh, sure," he said with complete seriousness, "but if you smoke a different brand of cigarettes each time you won't get cancer."

Thus is the state of awareness of matters of public health in Cambodia.


In this month's electronic mail bag:

First, something for the image-conscious authorities to take notice of...

... my husband and I planned to cross to Cambodia via Laos. Got all the info, even a visa stamped with entry at strung treng (the official border point) rode 430 k's and were turned back at the border (26/12/01). Contact Cambodian embassy in Australia where visa was issued - pointed out that web site said (and it still does) one must have visa to cross from laos (where else can one cross from laos????). Told them staff had said the border was open etc etc. Male staff member virtually called me a liar and then when I pointed out that if the border wasn't open why had my visa been granted when I clearly stated point of entry and mode of transport (bicycle) he hung up on me. Sent an email to ambassador who has thus far ignored me! Doubt we could be bothered with Cambodia again.

We back tracked and crossed into vietnam - not exactly our planned journey, but hey, life's never dull.

Next, the price one pays for not reading Tales of Asia before their trip to Cambodia:

In Sisophon, I saw two foreigners (a European-looking man and a woman) who clearly had not read your articles because they were the only ones on the truck, and in the back on top of that. They were being surrounded by no less than 10 baguette ladies. The foreign woman then bought one baguette, which caused an absolute pandemonium in that even more baguette sellers started storming the truck. Those two people could not have gotten off the truck without buying a whole bakery with all those baguette sellers around them.

Adventures trying to buy a Bangkok to Siem Reap bus ticket on Khao San Road:

... Informed here in Bangkok for a ticket 'without scam' to Siem Reap. She asked if I had a visa. I said no, I get it at the border (read your site!)

She said: why?
I: It is cheaper
She: But if you buy at the border you cannot EXIT the country, you have to pay us$ 20 again to leave the country...

So then she offered the visa for 1100 baht. I refused. Her story stinks....Must say that 1100 is not very expensive but it didn't feel right.

Just in case you're not sure, in the above note the big lie is the $20 to exit the country. The only time you pay money to exit the country is if you fly out. You pay a $20 departure tax in Phnom Penh or an $8 departure tax if you leave from Siem Reap.

I recently received several other traveler's tales of overland travel but due to their length and content I have posted them on my Overland page.

And finally, in response to last month's obituary for my departed friend...

I so sorry to hear that your motodup friend, "Lucky" had died so young. I think life in Cambodia is still hard for many people. Dying is imminent for poor and powerless people. From 1980 to 1992 my aunt lost five of her ten children. Two teenagers died in the war and three others children ranging from ages five to twelve died of sickness due to lack of medicines. When I was in Cambodia in 1979 and 1980 many children, 40-50 children in the village of Chungal died of measles and chicken pox. A woman next to my house couldn't deliver her baby and was screaming in pain for help all night. The next day she and her baby died. There was no medicine or hospital to help take care of the sick people. There were some Vietnamese medical personnel in a larger village but they only treat their own soldiers. I, myself got shot by a stray bullet and deposited in my buttocks for two years. When I got to Thailand refugee camp a French doctor removed the bullet. Also, there were many more children picked unexploded mines and" bullets the big guns" and played with them or burned them during the chilly season and the mines and bullets got exploded and killed many of them. All of the above are my true personal accounted. I didn't think much when I was was in Cambodia because it was a normal thing to see. But now that I am in America and and I look back into my past it's amazing how some people can survive the ordeal. 

In closing

For the second month in a row, I'm finishing this column off from a cozy air-conditioned apartment in the Patumwan district of Bangkok. And I'm a day early as I don't anticipate having this computer anywhere near a phone connection on the 31st. I've taken to having two residences now - one in Siem Reap and one in Bangkok. This is due to a variety of reasons - business and personal. I don't want to let this change diminish the Cambodian content, nor the timeliness of what I publish, but rather I want to allow this website to grow applying the same comprehensive coverage I give northwest Cambodia to other regions of Asia.

What region might I be expanding to? Southwest China is looking like a probable target and I will be departing for that region on the 10th of April for approximately three weeks, doing several magazine stories and beginning to explore ways to provide timely information on this website that is not readily available elsewhere.

That said, now contradicting exactly what I said in my first paragraph about the Cambodian content, it's likely that I will not have a column on time next month as my travels in China very well may extend into May and I do not expect to be carrying my laptop around with me.


Bangkok, Thailand
March 30, 2002.




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