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Hospitals, taxing fun, staff issues, moto bans

Accidents, one million, Koh Ker, tax department, McDonald's

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Opening a guesthouse, crime, air news, Angkor car, traffic lesson, renovations

Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

.Cambodia Update

April 2005

1.) Profiling
2.) The guesthouse saga part 7
3.) Off to Sudan
4.) Yes, people die here
5.) Stupidity Season
6.) Reality check
7.) Selling the Killing Fields
8.) Intellectual property
9.) Angkor Air
10. Hun Sen quote of the month
11.) New on toa for March


HEY YOU! Why just read? Talk, too. Head over to the talesofasia Discussion Forum and toss in your 500 riels worth. Some stories from this column are also cross-posted to the forum for further discussion (or not).


A guesthouse somewhere in Cambodia but nowhere near Siem Reap was recently taken to task in print and on another website's discussion forum allegedly for banning all mixed-race couples - white guy turns up with Asian woman - sorry folks, no service. Needless to say, the public exposure of such a policy garnered a lot of attention, most of it negative, which if you were to take the accusation at face value it should have been negative. And I have to admit that I too was quick to jump on the bandwagon of belligerent bashers. And why not? My wife is Asian, this hits home.

Well, let's back up a bit. As it turns out, what the establishment in question has apparently been trying to do is maintain a policy of not permitting, shall we say, ladies of the evening. But to achieve this end and probably by the lack of local experience of said establishment's expatriate management (they have been characterized as being a bit green where life in this part of the world is concerned), went a bit over the top, and hence accusations of racist policies ensued. A friend of mine visited the establishment and got the concession from the owner that in an effort to keep the image of the business clean, some mistakes may have been made. But the place did not and claims never to have had a policy of categorically banning any and all mixed-race couples.

This highlights one of the unique aspects of running a customer service business in Southeast Asia. Back in the west, how often would the owner of a tourist-oriented business have to concern themselves either with A.) guests coming back with a lass who's companionship is for hire or B.) concern themselves in any way shape or form with the vocational choice of their female customers?

Many businesses that do not wish to have the reputation as a pick-up joint (for hire) can, without really raising anyone's hackles, keep out the single girls whose sole purpose on the premises is the solicitation of customers. It's not hard to spot and not hard to stop. For some, the business plan is centered on having the girls, for others it's not.

How do you define solicitation? Sure, a girl that says "You go with me? Boom-boom, $20, okay?" is obviously on the game. But when a single woman walks into a bar, sits down and orders a coke, what is she doing different from everyone else in the bar? How many single western women walk into a bar, sit down, and order a coke and raise the suspicions of the management for doing so? If a single Asian woman starts making conversation with another customer, what is she doing different from most any other single person who comes into a bar? Really nothing. So.. where does that leave us? Profiling.

So a business owner who wishes not to have working girls in his or her establishment is forced then to make a judgment as to the status of said patron and act upon it. And how will the decision be made? Via a combination of nationality, physical appearance, and body language. And is it racist? Is it meant to bar a certain nationality or nationalities or a particular type of person? And what happens when the effort to bar a particular type of person by default follows lines of ethnicity or nationality? In other words, how many girls from Denmark are in Cambodia looking to score $10 or $20 for a shag and how many girls from Vietnam are here doing the same?

More points to ponder. Perhaps you're not running a bar, but like me you have a guesthouse. You have to make a decision about this as you will be asked on a number of occasions if you are "guest friendly"? Which is a nice way of saying, "Can I pick up a girl and bring her back to my room?" In reality, "guest tolerant" is probably a more accurate term for most establishments.

But what do you do if a guy turns up traveling with a local girl from, say, Phnom Penh? Do you ponder the issue of renting them a room or not? Do you ask questions as to the status of their relationship? I hope not. Do you make judgments as to whether the two have been together for two days or two years, for richer or for poorer or for twenty bucks a day? I hope not. It's none of your business. They arrive together, they check in together. They get a room. I don't think any place should be passing judgment on the status of the relationship of people who turn up together looking for a room. And is the profiling and possible refusal of service of a couple based on foregone conclusions made by the management done so to appease the preconceptions held by other customers - or worse, the management's assumptions of what they believe are the preconceptions held by their clientele? If a couple of backpackers might be offended because you booked in a 45-year-old guy with a 22-year-old Khmer girl, well, too bad. Maybe it's preferable instead not to cater to the distorted whims of a minority of travelers but to expose these people to a simple reality: Asia is full of mixed race couples whose relationships, if you were so disposed to doing so, could be categorized under so many different headings it'd be a fool's endeavor even to try, and trying to arrive at a determination of the status of the relationship of two patrons booking a room for a couple of nights of holiday for the purpose of deciding whether or not their presence is good for your business is more than a fool's endeavor, it's downright dangerous.

Before I move on, it should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that without exception I'm operating under the premise that all persons are legal adults. If a patron turns up with a partner of questionable age, all bets are off. But there is of course very strong legal support for such an action. Where two adults are concerned, there is not.

And what is the purpose of profiling? To satisfy one's own moral stance? To create an image for your business which would in theory relate to your business plan thus offering some economic considerations? Or is it purely economic?

Consider, what do I do when two backpackers walk into my place dressed in dirty rags, sporting dreadlocks and body odor that could only be explained by assuming that the person in question must suffer severe skin allergies when they come in contact with soap? If they agree to take a room at the price offered, then we book them in and maybe toss in an extra free bar of soap. If they want to haggle a bit over the price of the room I'm probably not going to be interested in playing along as it's been most proprietors experience that the customer that spends considerable energy haggling on the price of the room that's only $7 to begin with is probably not going to spend much energy or money on your food or your beer, though you may get to sell them an electrolyte beverage and a bowl of boiled rice after they've contracted food poisoning from eating at 1000-riel noodle stalls (this has happened at my place... more than once).

But what happens when a certain commonality of undesirable behavior that has financial consequences upon your business follows ethnic or national lines?

Back in November I made the following comment in the guesthouse saga installment:

Like most western-run guesthouses, Khmer guests are few and far between and most of us want to keep it that way. Personally, I'll rent a room to anyone, but when a group of ten Khmers turns up and wants to cram themselves into two $6 rooms and they think they should only have to pay $4 for the privilege, well, you can see why. My manager, who is Khmer herself and from her own prior experience would just as soon not see any Khmer guests either has been instructed to answer the inevitable question, "You give me special rate because I'm Cambodian?" with, "Yes, we have special Cambodian rate, you pay double."

That's quite a bit of profiling on my part, huh? I'll be the first to admit that the "most of us want to keep it that way" was not the choicest group of words I've come up with in recent months and probably should warrant a bit of elaboration seeing as this sort of thing is the topic of the month. It's not nor has ever been my intention to keep Khmers out of my business, though curiously the staff, and particularly the manager, have voiced on numerous occasions a preference for not having them in, ever. I can only imagine what sort of abuse must be heaped on their shoulders from their own. Apparently, there is quite a bit of pressure placed on Khmer staff of foreign-owned businesses from Khmer patrons to cut them special deals, give them something, etc - because "we're Khmer and your boss is a foreigner." Would anyone want to put up with this?.

Unfortunately, while Khmers are hardly the only nationality that wants to haggle, though they sometimes take it to extremes (then I went to Pakistan!), the issue of cramming large groups into a single room has a direct consequence on the finances of a business. My policy is simple: No more than two people per bed per room. And thus far in six months of operation and hundreds upon hundreds of guests, Khmers have been the only customers that have tried to exceed this limit. So what is going to happen when a Khmer customer walks in? Past experience has shown that they will spend twenty minutes trying to knock a $7 single-bed room down to $5 and then expect to cram in the entire extended family who have been conveniently sitting in the car around the corner and out of view. Hence the customer knows exactly what they are doing and that it's sneaky. So when a Khmer walks into my place asking about a room, the first thing that goes through my mind and my Khmer manager tells me it goes through her mind, too... is how many more of you are hiding around the corner? I have also had Khmer guesthouse owners tell me the same thing - that they find their own countryfolk to be the most difficult of all customers and for the same reason, but as Khmers they feel they have to take them, even if it means there are five of them crammed onto a single bed.

I also believe that asking for a discount because of one's race or nationality can be as racist as making someone pay more for the same reason. While there are exceptions, a privately-run guesthouse is certainly not one of them.

But what is the correct answer? Do you categorically deny Khmers access to your business? Of course not. But you try to establish consistent guidelines that allow you to operate your business as well as possible and if it effects one nationality more than another, so be it. No one of any nationality may put more than two people per bed per room in my guesthouse and customers who wish to enter protracted bargaining sessions will inevitably told "this is the price, take it or leave it." And if they leave it. So be it.

It's not a policy meant to keep a particular nationality or ethnic group out, it's a policy designed to keep a manageable number of customers per room and a desire not to waste extended periods of time haggling over a dollar.

And how do Khmers profile? Foreigners here constantly complain about being overcharged because they are foreigners, but do Khmers ever make distinctions that reflect negatively on their own? Of course they do. Consider long distance taxi drivers. We once had a customer who wanted to leave for the border at four in the morning. So we called our taxi driver whose first question was "Foreigner or Khmer?" If it was Khmer his answer was no, he would not take any of his own nationals until the sun was up. Too much of a robbery risk. But if it's a foreigner, no problem.

And do we profile other nationalities? Do we not sometimes make snap judgments on a potential customer based on their nationality, perhaps Israeli, American, Indian, French? All four of which are nationalities that come with some fairly negative stereotypes attached. I think most of us who have traveled extensively in Asia have at one point or another stumbled upon a "No Israelis" sign or heard a pair of Israeli travelers berating staff over some misconstrued or petty flaw in service, heard a Brit mumble "the bloody French", shook their head in disbelief at an Indian's endless desire to "make a deal", or wished the Americans at the next table would tone their voices down as well as come to the realization they are not in Kansas anymore.

I've had Israelis at my guesthouse, they spent a ton of money and didn't complain about anything. I've had Indians who readily accepted what I offered at the price I asked and complained about nothing. I've had Americans who spoke softly, knew they weren't in Kansas or California, and were far more clued in to the world around them then any so-called enlightened European. Every negative stereotype I've heard about any nationality I've seen more often then not, broken. Yes there are commonalities due to cultural origins, but profiling any customer based on their nationality is no less dangerous then profiling an Asian/Western couple because of what you think their relationship might be.

You can anticipate certain types of behavior, and certainly for many of us, our nationality precedes us and the mind of the person on the other side of the counter is clicking away as they decide what kind of customer we might be, but ultimately there must be a policy that's applied fairly regardless of who walks into your place. Controlling your mind is one thing, controlling your actions is another. Think whatever you want but if you have a no haggle, one-price policy. Enforce it. If you have a policy of no more than two persons per bed per room. Enforce it. If you have a policy of no unregistered guests. Enforce it. If certain nationalities violate your rules more than others, so be it, but give them all an opportunity. Decisions should be based on tangible grounds and not assumptions based on gender, race, or nationality. However, we're all human and the reality is this is all too often easier said than done. And I won't claim I'm an exception.

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The guesthouse saga part 7

March offers the first indications that the high season is departing - the guests depart. At the Two Dragons Guesthouse it was a most erratic month seeing us in the space of less than a week go from being completely full to nearly empty to nearly full again. Such is a roller coaster is March in the amusement park of guesthouse life.

There was little interference from Cambodian officialdom this month. The inspectors that gave everybody hairballs with their idiotic "No Guns" signs have yet to return and have shown the same disregard to most other establishments despite their seemingly zealous desire to have us conform to their wishes.

By all indications we are headed, as promised by the PM himself, to a more transparent, more sophisticated, and therefore more costly tax system. I was summoned back to the tax office at the end of the month to discuss my situation. The good natured negotiations that took place three months ago were replaced by a no nonsense, no smiles, and no argument approach that really did smack of sophistication. When was the last time you turned up at the IRS or Inland Revenue and had a laugh and a drink with the tax collector?

I was asked again how much my business grossed per month, I qualified my answer that surely you realize we are heading into low season and any figure I quote you will of course be higher than what I can expect to gross in another two months? She would have none of it. She figured I was probably lying about everything anyway. Everyone else does. The taxwoman announced that for the next three months I would be required to pay an amount nearly double what my January to March assessment was. As hard as my trusted motodriver Marom tried, there was no negotiating, and all the frowns, smiles, nods, and shakes weren't worth the energy required to make them. At one point a man sitting at another desk barked out something which as well as I could understand meant, "shut up and pay what you're asked and consider yourself lucky we don't make you pay more."

As I was considering whether to accept the offer or not, the taxwoman punched some figures into her calculator and showed me a figure nearly two and a half times higher than what she was asking me to pay, promptly explaining how she could make me pay it. Marom suggested that we didn't have to accept her offer today, we could go home and think about it and come back another day to try it again. I gave this about a millisecond of thought coming to the prompt conclusion that what was being offered was certainly not going to get any lower and if I went home to think about it, I'd probably come back to find that her and her boss had been thinking about my monthly payment too, deciding that I should have taken the offer she gave me the first time because now the boss says I should pay more. I signed my name.

And for the next three, maybe six months, they didn't seem to know, even the receipts will match the true payment. And they will no longer come around to collect the money. We now have to send somebody to the office between the 18th and 22nd of each month.

I discussed my experience with several other expat business owners and learned I came out no worse and in fact even better than some. Everybody's assessments have more or less doubled and some have seen their annual license fees doubled as well. Everybody pays at the office now and one was even having VAT rammed down their throat. I was spared VAT collection, but she did hint that it could be down my road so I considered how my future actions at the office might have some bearing as to if and when VAT turns me into a state tax collection agent.

They, some police agency, I never did figure out which one, finally took away all the forms my staff had so dutifully filled out, manager's lipstick and all and never mind the head cook no longer works here. I wasn't around when they came, but when I was doing the receipts that night I saw a pay-out of $3. "What's this?" I ask my manager.
"Oh the police finally come and take all the forms."
'And they take three dollars, too?" Hmm. Must be a storage fee or something. I shrugged my shoulders and promised not to give it another thought.
Best of all this March, I managed to make it through the entire 31 days without filling out a single form. And on the final day when the police came around for the five dollar collection fee for the guest registration forms, this month's receipt read, as well as he could spell it, "gasoline". I liked "castrol" better.

No major staffing issues, though the part-time receptionist quit after only three weeks of work. She claimed she was going to Laos or something. I had been given a vague warning that this was imminent and on the 31st of the month, as I'm paying her salary, she tells me, "Thank you. I leave start tomorrow." More power to her then I suppose. As we're slowing down for a few months I'm not in much of a hurry to replace her just yet. My perpetual headache, you know who I mean, actually had a pretty good month. No major foul-ups, and the humor value of the minor cock-ups far outweighed any damage they caused. How she managed to add up, collect, and balance a bill to end with 2 cents when everything we price ends in a 0 or 5 and never realize her mistake is beyond me... With her duties diminished she has less opportunity to make a serious mistake and more opportunity to stick to doing what she does best and get better at it. I suppose at this point her job is reasonably secure, as she is by all accounts, reasonably honest and I really don't care to go through this all over again with somebody else.

The biggest incident of the month, and the more I think about it, the more I laugh, involved one of the cleaning girls. Somehow a bottle of motorbike oil was spilled in the storeroom and said cleaning girl proceeded not to notice the spill and step in the oil, leaving a track of it in the shape of her flip flop out of the room, down the hallway, and into the kitchen, and apparently never realizing (or showing any inclination to admit) that she had done so never mind we had a solid track leading from the storeroom to where she was standing in the kitchen. Told to clean up the mess, she managed to remove about 25% of the stain, spread 25% more of the stain in a wobbly circle about eight inches in diameter around her footprint, and leave about 50% still in the shape of her flip flop. I reckon the stains will be there forever. So if you see stains down my front hallway, now you know how they got there.

The assistant cook is now the head cook and doing an able job. He's got the food costs a few percentage points lower than the previous cook and he's making an effort to expand his repertoire, bringing in a Thai colleague to teach him how to properly do some Thai dishes and all at no expense to us. Way to go. The promotion nearly doubled his salary, and with the overtime he's been putting in, his actual pay was a bit more than doubled. Quite the muzzled grin on his face come pay day. He knew about the salary increase but apparently the O/T came as a pleasant surprise.

One of the biggest headaches expatriate small business owners face is getting someone to watch your place for extended periods of time to allow one a chance to run away for awhile. It's quite customary that many expats leave the country for a month or more this time of year. High season has ended, April is brutally hot, and May and June are two of the slowest months of the year. Even before I had this business, I too, often chose this time to leave for other parts of the globe.

As regular readers should know by now, my wife is Thai and is now less than two months from giving birth to our first child. The baby will be born in Bangkok and the expectant mother is already there. I intend to join her the middle of this month and except for a few quick trips back to Siem Reap each month lasting but a few days in duration, I will sit around Bangkok until after the baby is born, whereupon the three of us will return to Siem Reap in late June... Probably a good time to put together a Bangkok section for this website or something. Anyway, so like every expat in the situation of needing to escape for a while I find myself in a dilemma. Some of you may have even noticed that there was a job request from me on the Business page of this website... fortunately now removed.

Some expats hire tourists to look after things with the standard package being free room and board but very little pay, others find unemployed expats, others find friends, and others manage to suck in a partner. Hiring a tourist was not too high on my list as I wanted someone familiar with Siem Reap, but it's otherwise not a demanding job though it does require someone that can be trusted. Really trusted.

My staff is pretty good, they know their jobs and can run the place on a day to day business without me. They've been left on their own for as long as three days and two nights and did fine, though the manager doesn't like this as I think she really wants someone around all the time who can make a decision when it really hits the fan. So all I really need is someone I can trust to handle a crisis, make sure the standards of service and cleanliness are maintained, collect the money, pay the salaries, rent, and major utility bills, and basically be there to periodically hit the staff over the head with the rolled up poster we keep around for just such a purpose. Yes, I regularly beat my staff with a rolled-up poster. They in turn hit me with notebooks and other office supplies. We're a happy bunch.

Fortunately, an expat with nine years in Siem Reap found himself homeless recently as he was relocating his own business and no longer had the advantage of an upstairs apartment there. Problem solved. We have a new tenant and I have someone to look after the place while I attend to my impending family obligations and also hopefully use some of that Bangkok free time to attend a little more to this website, which I personally feel has been a bit neglected since I went into the guesthouse business.

Wildlife. Ever wonder what wildlife lurks around a guesthouse in Cambodia? We have three wild cats who adopted us, but have proven to be completely untouchable. They are all male, and two of them periodically get into fights in the ceiling above the restaurant. I've seen a few small centipedes, though I imagine the bite is just as lethal, one dead black scorpion, and the other day sitting in a tree that partially overhangs our property, was a green tree pit viper enjoying a meal of live bat. Three cats and a viper. Nope, no vermin on our premises! Now hopefully I didn't just scare off any potential customers, but venomous wildlife is a reality in this part of the world, and you'd have a tough time finding any property outside of Phnom Penh that didn't play host to black scorpions and poisonous centipedes. Snakes are less common, but around Siem Reap I have seen many a green viper, one banded krait, and one cobra. Personally, I'm all for these kind of vipers, they are generally non aggressive, avoid humans, and eat unwanted pests. The viper got a lot of attention from the motodrivers who I admonished, "Snake is good! Rat is bad! Snake eats rat!"

We don't have music in our restaurant. I had originally planned to have some, albeit quiet, but I got lazy about putting it in and customers have so far voiced, by about a 3 to 1 ratio, a preference that I keep music out, enjoying instead the peaceful silence offered by an environment without melody or harmony or screaming heavy metal. Recently, the internet place I use every day reminded me of one of the problems with having music in your establishment: The staff never changes it. Staff at said internet shop, like at so many other businesses with music controlled by the local staff, were playing the same six songs over and over and over again all day. And just about every place that's relied on anything other than six hundred MP3s in a shuffle or a westerner running the CD player does the same thing. Unless specifically told to remove a particular CD and replace it with another, staff lets the same music run over and over and over again. I've seen... heard... this in countless times in Asia. This is hardly specific to Cambodia and I really wonder sometimes if Asians care or even notice that they've heard the same song four times an hour every hour for the past eight?

We had another tuk-tuk accident. Two months ago I wrote a lengthy piece about the problems of accidents here so I don't need to rehash it all, but three girls in a tuk-tuk on their way to sunrise at Angkor Wat were rear ended by a Toyota Camry which fled the scene. The driver got off okay, but three girls were injured to varying degrees. One got away with only a few stitches in the back of her head, but the other two flew to Bangkok to pay a visit to Bumrungrad Hospital. Both may have had a broken bone or two as well as some nasty scrapes and bruises. I'm really not sure what the remedy is. A hit and run is a hit and run and not much you can do about it, but as I said before, there needs to be better insurance regulations in place. Tourists who are in accidents caused by either hit and run drivers, uninsured and indigent drivers, etc, ought to be able to get something more for their troubles then a broken leg.

Wait! Stop presses! Just as I'm finishing this up and ready to run off to the internet shop and post it my manager comes upstairs with a letter from the fire police wishing me a Happy Khmer New Year and requesting two cases of beer! I told her to give them one. I considered not giving them any, but what the hey... I might need their services some day. I'd like to be sure they're good and drunk when they arrive.

Check us out here.

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Off to Sudan

It was announced last week that Cambodia would send fifteen RCAF officers (captain to lieutenant colonel) to Sudan to assist in the peacekeeping efforts there. All fifteen had worked in the 1993 UNTAC mission. The statement from the Council of Ministers and reported in the Cambodia Daily said that they would be "rigorously examined for their English, health, and political neutrality". Later 135 RCAF soldiers would be sent over to help in demining. PM Hun Sen added that up to 1,000 troops would be made available for UN missions if so requested.

What a difference a few years makes. Hun Sen has never hidden his dissatisfaction with the UN and the UNTAC mission in Cambodia and now he's signing off to send RCAF personnel on a UN peacekeeping mission. I guess that's progress... or forgiveness.

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Yes, people die here

Apparently, and as was mentioned in last month's Bayon Pearnik, there's been another round of expat drug-related deaths. So to reiterate what they warned readers as well as what I say in my FAQ, let's remind folks that in many cases whatever white powder you want - smack, coke, ketamine, the moto driver tells you he has it, even if it's all the same thing. And two, the strength of smack here is not so watered-down like it is back home. It's a whole lot stronger, a whole lot deadlier, and a few people recently opted out of their mortal existence because they forgot this point.

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Stupidity Season

Every year around this time I go on a rant over the stupidity of teenagers, particularly in the Sisophon, Poipet, Battambang, Pailin areas, lining up along the side of the roads flinging bags of water at anything that moves (usually motorbikes) and as a result causing a few of these motorbikes to crash sometimes with fatal consequences. How one reader actually defended this last year is beyond me, but I guess somewhere there must be at least one person over the age of 17 that thinks killing innocent motorcyclists in the name of fun is well, fun. In most western nations throwing a water bag at a motorcyclist causing death would carry a charge at the very least of involuntary manslaughter and a lengthy prison term. Throwing a little water and some powder on your friends around Wat Phnom is cultural fun. Killing motorcyclists is not. It's manslaughter and should be treated as such.

In any event, this inane and dangerous ritual will play itself out again this year officially from April 14 to 16, and unofficially for several days before and after. Not a good time to travel overland between Siem Reap and Poipet or wherever. That and the taxis all want an extra $10 from about now until after the holiday. Other than this nonsense which takes place predominantly in the western part of the country, Khmer New Year is relatively peaceful. People tend to close up businesses for a week or two but tourism more or less continues as ever. Angkor Wat never closes and tends to be quite crowded as the contingency of Khmers who don't head to Sihanoukville, choose instead to celebrate the holiday at Angkor Wat. Depending on your perspective, this can be either a blessing or a curse.

But while I've made noise about the waterbags, I'll add this year that the week or two before the holiday is, like the week or two before most major holidays here, a time when there is an increase in robberies. So if you're out and about in the next two weeks do take care of your person and possessions. And ladies - I've heard of a few too many recent incidents of female tourists walking down the street somewhere, most anywhere in Siem Reap, with small bags flung over their shoulder which passing motorbikes have relieved them of. Keep your bags on the curbside of your body and maybe keep a hand on them as well - and don't carry around all your money, passport, etc. Leave them back at your hotel or guesthouse. Despite seemingly constant fears tourists have of leaving items at a guesthouse or hotel, the incidents of theft at such establishments are a lot more rarer than people realize. Anything you don't need is going to be safer at your hotel or guesthouse, assuming it's a reputable one, then on your person. And why on earth are you carrying a passport around with you at eleven o'clock at night? To show it to the bartender to prove you're old enough to drink?

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Reality check

Here's a reality check courtesy the Cambodia Daily. Seems that Cambodia still lags behind its neighbors in the development race. Compared to Thailand and Vietnam this is no news, but even behind Laos? Well, according to a publication "Connecting East Asia: A New Framework for Infrastructure" published jointly by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, that is just the situation Cambodia is in.

Findings cited is that despite significant economic growth (this growth is qualified by the fact that there was essentially zero to begin with so any development would signify significant growth), an estimated 78% of Cambodians still live on less than $2 a day. In the 15-year period studied, Cambodia has only lowered this poverty figure from 85% to 78%. In the same time frame Vietnam went from having 87% of its population to 51% of its population living under the same conditions. And Vietnam has six times as many people as Cambodia.

And Laos? Let's try these comparisons:
Percent of population with access to clean water: Cambodia 44%, Laos 58%.
Percent of population with access to some kind of toilet facility: Cambodia 22%, Laos 30%.
Percent of population with access to electricity: Cambodia 17%, Laos 41%.
Percent of population with access to internet: Cambodia 0.2%, Laos 0.3%.
Percentage of roads paved: Cambodia 4%, Laos 15%.

I've often encouraged people who have seen the development in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap to take a look into the countryside. First impressions can be deceiving. Well over 90% of Cambodia does not live in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. Cambodia has made a lot of progress in the past decade but it still has a long long way to go.

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Selling the Killing Fields

See, I publish my column late and I get to squeeze in a last minute story. The April 4 Cambodia Daily reports that the operation of the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh has been sold to a Japanese company, JC Royal, for $15,000 a year. It's a 30-year contract that has built in 10% fee increases beginning after five years and then every five years thereafter. At present Choeung Ek charges foreigners 2000 riels for entry, but the new contract will see that charge increased to $3. Khmers, presently permitted in for free, will pay 500 riels. According to the report the Killing Fields presently brings in revenue of just over $20,000 per year.

The following day (today - April 5), it was reported that the Cabinet Chief of the Council of Ministers, Chea Vandeth, who awarded the contract, is the chairman of the board of directors of this Japanese company!

Hmm... Killing Fields, a most sensitive area indeed, in the hands of a foreign business?

Hmm... the government was making over $20K a year, and now they're only going to get $15K?

Hmm... chairman of the board is on the Council of Ministers and awards the contract?

Am I the only one who thinks this deal stinks worse than the Stung Meanchey garbage dump? I don't even need to waste bandwidth carrying on about this deal it's so lame.

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Intellectual property

The EU has handed some $670,000 to help the government establish intellectual property protections as a condition of World Trade Organization membership. The Cambodia Daily report states that standards as outlined by the WTO must be met by Jan 1, 2007. While Cambodia does in fact have some intellectual property laws, the laws are not strong and enforcement is spotty as they are handled almost exclusively as civil cases and require the violated to take the initiative against the violator.

That's a start. The prevalence of knock-off, counterfeit, and stolen intellectual property is rampant here. Anyone that's ever produced a book, image, or even a logo, has seen it ripped off. The excuse is that Cambodia is a poor country and therefore Cambodians can only afford pirated material. Well how many poor Cambodians are buying Dawn Rooney's guide to Angkor? Or my postcard images? Or the Canby Publications Visitors Guides? There is no justification for photocopying guidebooks sold to foreigners, of stealing photographic images for your own purposes, of copying another person's publication to repackage it as your own. None of these conditions have anything to do with poverty but have everything to do with a pervasive disrespect and rampant ignorance of intellectual property.

I don't for one moment buy into the notion that, oh these poor people, they're are just trying to make a buck, let them sell the fake books. Nonsense. What is preventing them from selling legitimate copies of the same book? Name me one reason why the small market sellers, the kids around the temples, any of them, are unable to sell proper copyrighted books? Too expensive? Sell used ones. And they won't be too expensive if the fakes are taken away because everyone will be selling the same thing. And what justification is there in someone ripping off one of my postcard images to sell as their own? If they have enough money to print up the postcards then they have enough money to get a camera and go out to Angkor Wat and take their own photographs!

And what message is sent to the general population if everyone is raised with the idea that it's perfectly okay to steal another person's research, writings, photographs, paintings, etc? What motivation is there for someone to go out and create an original work if they have to worry about someone ripping it off as soon as it hits the market? Anyone stop to consider how many books have not been written about Cambodia because the authors don't want to get ripped off? Anyone consider that a better appreciation for the value of intellectual property and the benefits of creativity and ingenuity might be a positive step in the improvement of the national economy and perhaps indirectly support the creation of more home-grown industries? How often is a copy as good as an original?

Cambodia can't get stronger better enforced intellectual property laws soon enough. The day every photocopied book is pulled from the markets and from around the temples will be a joyous day for celebration for every person, Khmer or foreign, who owns and controls intellectual property in Cambodia.

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Angkor Air

I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from some outfit called Angkor Airlines, which I've never heard of, never mind they claim:

"Angkor Airways operates domestic flights from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap since 22 January. The airline wet-leased a B757 aircraft from Far Eastern Air Transportation of Taiwan. The business purpose of Angkor Airways is to promote Angkor Wat to the international travel market with main focus to attract more tourists from all over the world. Therefore, the airline uses Siem Reap as its hub to provide direct flights planned to various international destinations. Effective 15 March, Angkor Airways will operate five direct services per week on the route Siem Reap-Taipei, with onward connections to Phnom Penh. For the future, Angkor Airways plans to fly most of the major cities in Asia. Its motto is “Bring the world to Angkor Wat”."

Well, good luck to them. Angkor Airlines... another First Cambodia Air, Royal Khmer Airlines, Royal Phnom Penh Air, Progress Multitrade, Royal Air Cambodge, Mekong Air... where do all these would-be Howard Hugheses come from?

And speaking of airlines, just read that Asiana Airlines has started twice-weekly direct flights between Seoul and Siem Reap. Already the number one nation of origin for tourists to Angkor, it'll be interesting to see how many more this brings in. Maybe they'll get to pay a "royalty" and get exclusive rights to the route... woo-hoo ...Open Skies! 120,000 Koreans visited Cambodia in 2004.

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Hun Sen quote of the month

"I wanted to be king because the king's role is easiest of all."

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New on toa for March

Not totally neglectful this time around. The following graced the pages of toa in March:

March 25: Cambodia Overland: The most recent of several additions to the Bangkok to Siem Reap Travelers' Reports section.
March 25: Readers' Submissions: Lay Vicheka offers: One of the answers to why Cambodia has sluggish development
March 20: Phnom Penh Perspective by Bronwyn Sloan: Magic business plans.
March 20: Sydney resident Matt Kemp debuts coverage of Australia with Sharks, spiders and mandarin trafficking, perceptions of the land down under.
March 19: Cambodia Overland: Fully updated the Bangkok to Siem Reap section.
March 13: Readers' Submissions: Lay Vicheka offers on Cambodia: A glimpse into one uncivilized action
March 11: Cambodia FAQ. Updated the Communication section.
March 7: Readers' Submissions: Robert Flawith brings us on China: Tai Shan: the reality of China's heavenly mountain and Lay Vicheka offers: A glimpse into Cambodian New Year festival


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