No surprise, Hun Sen and the CPP have another five years in power after a resounding victory in the July 27 national election. The official final tally won't be announced until the 8th of August but the preliminary results show the CPP with 73 seats, Funcinpec with 26 seats, and the Sam Rainsy Party with 24 seats. The CPP won the majority in every province and municipality except Phnom Penh (4 of 12), Kandal (5 of 11), and Kompong Cham (8 of 18). The popular vote is breaking down as CPP 47%, SRP 22%, and Funcinpec 21%. As a two-thirds majority (82 seats) is necessary the CPP will have to form a coalition government which they have promised will be a bilateral coalition with, to quote Hun Sen, "whoever is honest."
On election day something went "boom" in a garbage receptacle in front of Funcinpec headquarters but otherwise reports were, and to the possible annoyance of the international media and certain members of the US senate, of a peaceful day where Khmers lined up in an orderly fashion to cast their ballots. If anything ugly will happen it will be after the official results are announced as the opposition, the darling of the international media and certain members of the US senate, has promised to stage massive demonstrations if these results are "unacceptable". Unacceptable would likely be defined as "we lost".
In concern for these possible protests, which in 1998 were indeed rather ugly, owners of sixty-four Phnom Penh motorbike shops stocked with new and as yet unsold motorbikes have removed their inventory for fears of rioting and looting. I can hear the opposition call now, "come protest the election results and win a free motorbike!"
The European Union Observation Mission, the largest group of election observers in the country, called the elections a success and that the CPP victory reflects the will of the Cambodian people.
Talesofasia Sihanoukville correspondent Will Capel observed the elections and has offered us his own views on democracy in Cambodia. Here's the link.
In related election news, my favorite Senator from the United States of Cambodia did it again. If you didn't see it already, on the 11th of July I posted an editorial in response to Sen. McConnell's attempt at controlling the Cambodia elections. It would have been a great piece for this column, but in the name of timeliness I posted it as its own story. If you haven't seen it already, here's the link.
After that SARS disaster it's not surprising that we've seen some restructuring of the domestic airline industry. Siem Reap Airways, the local version of Thailand's Bangkok Airways and flying only the Phnom Penh - Siem Reap route seems to have come out of this mess okay and President Airlines, if anything has come out better as a result of the possible demise of Mekong Airlines and the temporary suspension of service of the Royal Phnom Penh Airways' Siem Reap - Phnom Penh route.
Mekong Airlines, a promising startup that has run into one bad turn after another, barely got its plane off the ground when the SARS scare hit. The airline flew three routes, two international and one domestic. The international routes? Try Phnom Penh to Hong Kong and Phnom Penh to Singapore. Ouch! Last I saw, their jet was collecting dust in a far-off corner of tarmac at the Phnom Penh International Airport.
Royal Phnom Penh Airways chose to suspend temporarily its Phnom Penh - Siem Reap route, which while saving money in the short term, has had the undesirable effect of sending passengers to their competitor, President Airlines, and now leaving the company in the unenviable position of getting these passengers back. And just as challenging, getting the travel agents to resume bookings with them. I flew Royal Phnom Penh Airways in mid-July. There were four people on the Siem Reap to Phnom Penh flight. Leaving a few minutes ahead of us on the same route was President Airlines. Their plane was full.
Royal Phnom Penh Airways recently moved their Siem Reap office and for the third time. You can now find them on the north side of the new Center Market. You might want to bring a telephone as when I visited earlier in July to book a seat to Phnom Penh the man who works there had to use my phone to call Phnom Penh to find out if there was a flight or not!
I had an opportunity to see the now completed international terminal of the Phnom Penh (formerly Pochentong) International Airport. It certainly is an improvement as the old terminal was a little too cozy if there were more than two planes leaving at the same time. The new computerized immigration system still has a lot of bugs and I must have stood for at least five minutes while the officer tried to sort out my details and determine whether I was permitted to leave the country or not. I never did figure out whether the system was finally motivated to work or he just gave up and let me go. Facilities in the new terminal are still rather sparse. There's the requisite bookstore and a cafe, but not much else. I don't think Singapore's Changi Airport (my favorite airport in the world, I'm not shy to say) needs to fear any regional competition from Phnom Penh.
I was flying to Bangkok on President Airlines, quite a bit cheaper than Bangkok Airways, which is quite a bit cheaper again then Thai Airways. President has a jet, one jet, an aging Boeing 737-200 (Royal Phnom Penh Airways is still not in the jet age, content to stick with its fleet of three Chinese-made Y7s). As the air hostess was doing the safety presentation I looked at the life vest - it said 'Property of SIA' (Singapore Intl Airlines). I was then hoping that the airline also nicked SIA's quality (in a relative sense, we are talking about airplanes here) in-flight meals. Well, no. There was no meal. We did, however, get some artificial strawberry cookies packaged in a pink metal container bearing a Piglet motif! I brought the box back to Bangkok where my girlfriend thought it quite cute, though we both decided as cute as the container was, the cookies were inedible. I guess President is seeking not only the Chinese tour groups, but the kiddie market as well.
From time to time I'm accused of being a bit too careless where my safety advice is concerned, that I casually tell people Cambodia is safe, don't worry about it, have a good time, relax, etc. Whereupon it's then pointed out to me that there was a rape in Siem Reap, an armed robbery in Phnom Penh, a taxi robbery in Poipet.
Well, does anyone expect any place on this planet to be crime free? I make the assumption, I hope not incorrectly, that people aren't total idiots. When I tell someone that Cambodia is safe, I expect the reader/listener realizes that bad things can still happen and the assertion that a place is safe does not permit someone to assume that they cannot still be a victim of a crime. I assume people are intelligent. I assume they know this already. Relatively speaking, Cambodia is a safe travel destination. But when there is something I think people should know, I tell them, and I have a couple of things to mention further along in this column.
Cambodia is a lot safer than it used to be. Armed robberies occur, yes, but I contend that the incidence of street robbery is way down despite having people publicly disagree with me on another website's travel forum. There was a time you'd walk into a bar and hear stories of who had a gun stuck in their face last week, last night, an hour ago. Now you're more likely to hear about who got held up in 1996 and who got held up in 1999.
If someone asks the question: Is Cambodia safe? And needs to be reminded that crime in a general sense still happens, perhaps then that someone needs to stay home. On the other hand, knowing what the possible trouble spots are (Poipet, after dark in Phnom Penh, etc) is good sense. But awareness of these particular aspects of Cambodia crime is not reason to stay home, nor is the understanding that Cambodia, in a relative sense, is a safe place, reason to assume one cannot be a crime victim. Common sense, people.
Okay, here's a crime alert: It seems that long-term bane
of Saigon, the motorbike bag-snatchers, have reached Phnom Penh. In the
past year there has been an increase in cases of motorbikes pulling alongside
another moto carrying a foreign passenger, which by all reports is almost
always female, and the pillion rider snatches her bag and they speed away.
So girls, if you're riding on the back of a moto in Phnom Penh do keep
your bag close and tight. If by any chance you are robbed you have three
July 9, Phnom Penh. I'm on a rented 250cc Honda Degree at the intersection of Sihanouk and Monivong headed west on Sihanouk. I'm unaware that the headlight is on and a headlight on in the daytime is an offense in Cambodia (which I do know). Never mind that a light on is safer, this is Cambodia and in Cambodia it is illegal to ride in the daytime with your headlight on, probably because it annoys somebody important or something. I also have a hangover. Not that the hangover is relevant to the story but I suppose it does help frame the setting.
Anyway, there is the usual collection of police officers on the opposite side of the intersection. Light turns green. I accelerate. A police officer jumps in front of the bike. I can either run him over or stop. I decide to stop, instinctively removing the keys from the ignition before the police can.
"What?" I shout out in English.
So, the million dollar question is, how much did it cost me and how well did I manage the negotiation?
One officer did most of the talking and did most of that talking in Khmer, speaking to me as if I'm fluent which I am not. So I smiled and nodded my head a lot. He did however also speak more than enough English to sort this out sufficiently and resorted to that language when truly necessary. To be fair, I should also point out that this officer in blue was very polite and friendly with me.
The first couple of times I said "how much?" I was ignored
and instead the friendly police officer suggested I join them all for
coffee (no doubt my treat). I commented that I didn't see any coffee shops
around and I really didn't see the feasibility of having the entire force
jump on the back of my motorcycle so I could buy them all coffee. After
another minute of friendly banter a second officer cut to the chase and
requested five dollars.
Lessons to be learned. If you're guilty you have to pay. The trick is to make sure it's an amount you feel comfortable with. Had I paid $5 I'd have been none too pleased about the situation and probably would have carried that uncomfortable feeling of having been scammed for a few hours or so, but 5000 riels ($1.25), sure, I could live with that. And the total amount of time out of my day? About five minutes.
I've said it before, I'll say it again. The police here aren't all that bad. And not for the first time, the demeanor of these officers was considerably more friendly than what one often encounters in the west. It's a game. You're guilty you have to pay. If they can get a large fine out of you, well, of course they will try. On the other hand, if you know that a traffic offense is normally in the 2000-5000 riel range, then you can bargain to that. Just do it with a lot of smiles and joking, there's no reason to get all indignant about it. It's just Cambodia police doing their jobs. Remember--- you are guilty.
For the past year or so, Siem Reap's been transforming a two-block area just north of the main Old Market area into a large shopping plaza called the Center Market. The first tenants were mostly small no name souvenir shops that apparently aren't doing very good business, followed by a bank and several other business offices. As construction continues we are now on the verge of the opening of a food court and a supermarket (rumored to be a Lucky Market - but no confirmation so don't spread that info as fact).
Elsewhere we have unsubstantiated reports (it was in the Cambodia Daily - so it must be true!) that a McDonald's is slated to be included in a shopping plaza along the Angkor Wat road between the Grand Hotel and the Olympic Stadium.
Well first of all I'm skeptical that McDonald's is ready to set up shop in Siem Reap or even Cambodia just yet. McDonald's needs two things to enter a market - the ability to produce or import the necessary ingredients in an economical way that maintains the corporation's standards of consistency and two, enough domestic support to turn a profit. Contrary to what people believe (or want to believe), McDonald's does not enter a country to cater to the whims of residing or visiting westerners, but enters a market when there is sufficient local interest and ability to purchase the product. I've been in many McDonald's in Thailand as well as China, Malaysia, and Hong Kong and almost all the customers are locals and not westerners.
Soap box time. I have a real problem with people who start ripping out their hair over the presence of McDonald's in a given foreign country. The restaurant is very popular around the world and that someone thinks McDonald's shouldn't be in Cambodia because they don't like the food or more likely feel that McDonald's somehow symbolizes the evils of western culture and how dare they invade poor little Cambodia with their cultural pollution wrecking the social fabric of these poor little impressionable Cambodians is quite a patronizing attitude if there ever was one. If Cambodians want to enjoy McDonald's then they have every right to enjoy it and don't need some westerner telling them what is and isn't right for them. Cambodia is for the Cambodians and they can decide for themselves whether or not they want a McDonald's.
If the presence of a McDonald's somehow disturbs some westerner's idea of what Siem Reap should look like, well, that's a personal problem to work out. If you don't like it, you're welcome to go to any of the numerous privately owned bars or restaurants in Siem Reap, order a beer and complain to whoever will listen, never mind said bar or restaurant is probably going to be western-owned and themed. If a McDonald's should appear in Cambodia I suggest you complain not to McDonald's or your local bartender but to the local Cambodian government that issued them the business license. However, don't be too surprised if the person behind the counter laughs at you and tells you to get lost as he turns around to take a bite out of his Big Mac.
I'm a regular reader of the Lonely Planet Thorntree discussion forum. It's far and away the largest, most widely read travel board in the world and I make brief visits daily, often twice daily, and do so for several reasons: it can be entertaining, it keeps me abreast of the major regional travel issues, and perhaps of paramount importance, it's a great way to steer people over to this website.
Like most discussion forums, advertising is generally a no-no, though certain kinds of promotion are acceptable, i.e. sending people to this website when the site can specifically answer or enhance other replies to legitimate travel-related questions.
In mid-July, Siem Reap's Angkor What? Bar posted a message looking for a western bar manager. The moderators let the piece stay and as it's still there on July 31 and some interesting debate ensued in reference to the bar's desire for a western manager I think the thread is worth looking at. *So here it is*. I'm GorShar if you can't figure it out.
Without overly repeating what's in the thread, you can read it if you're really interested, the basics of the discussion were whether it was right or not to have a westerner managing a bar in Cambodia. In Thailand it's illegal for a westerner to work in a bar even if he or she is the owner, but no such law in Cambodia exists and while most bars have fully local staff, including managers, there are exceptions and the Angkor What? Bar is such an exception, though I should point out that most of the staff are Khmers and quite competent at what they do.
I defended the practice because as visitors to and residents of Siem Reap know, the bar has become one of the most successful in town and did so with a western owner/manager team. The bar caters exclusively to westerners, which are predominantly backpackers, though Khmers are always welcome. The bar operates under no pretexts that it is anything but a backpacker bar and makes no attempt to provide a local experience in even the most remote way. And it's become very successful.
My contention is that if your target is western than who knows that target better than westerners? It's a simple business decision. The bar employs Khmers, purchases its supplies from Khmers, donates to charities supporting Khmers, and is by and large a good neighbor. But the sensible business decision is to maintain a western presence. If there's something sad about all of this perhaps it's the throngs of western travelers that pack the place out every night and not the business seizing upon the opportunity to capitalize off of this.
Westerners and Cambodians are different people. If I were opening a business catering to Khmers I of course would employ and consult with Khmers at every stage of the development process. If I were opening a business offering some sort of local experience, whatever it may be, I would employ and consult with Khmers to ensure that I realized the authenticity I was seeking. However, if I'm a westerner seeking to flog some drinks to a bunch of backpackers, well, who knows a fellow western barfly than a western barfly?
It's not about cultural superiority, it's about simple business decisions that hopefully bring in the maximum yield to the investors no matter what nationality they are.
In one of the less thought out campaign promises, Funcinpec head Prince Norodom Ranariddh said that if his party is elected, he would cancel the government's arrangement with Sokimex to operate the Angkor ticket concession. The Sokimex deal, which doesn't expire until 2005, is unpopular to some as it's a real good earner for Sokimex (read: CPP) and the awarding of the contract to the CPP-friendly firm was hardly a transparent procedure. Of course with Funcinpec losing the election it's an empty promise.
Politically, the arrangement has been used by the Sam Rainsy Party to drum up anti-Vietnamese sentiment as Sokimex, like the CPP, has Vietnamese origins, though Sam Rainsy would do well from time to time to remind himself that Sokimex is still a Cambodian corporation and the brothers Sok (a most Cambodian family name) could rather convincingly prove they are as Cambodian as the next person.
Say what you will about a percentage of the Angkor ticket money, about 35% in 2002, going to a private corporation, the fact is the operation of the Angkor Archaeological Park has improved in the four years Sokimex has controlled the ticket sales and more importantly, unilaterally canceling a contract prior to its expiration sends a very dangerous message to would-be foreign investors.
Are you in Thailand planning to head to Cambodia on a visa run? Expect a 100 to 300 baht (illegal!) stamp fee for the privilege, never mind you already paid from $20 to as much as 1300 baht for the visa you use for only a few minutes.
At Koh Kong they've been demanding 300 baht for the turnaround and it's a hard one to beat as you get your entry and exit stamp at the same counter. Still, try to haggle this one down, but do it with a smile and demand a receipt if they ask for this additional tea money.
Poipet is a little easier to beat and their requests are usually for only 100 baht. If upon getting your exit stamp they ask for the 100 baht try telling them you paid it when you entered. According to a report I recently received, this can work.
And keep in mind, these (illegal!) stamp fees are only applied to people entering and exiting on the same day and not to tourists entering or exiting the country on a longer stay.
On July 22 the US Embassy released the following:
This, dare I say, is a message based in fact. The Heart, one of Phnom Penh's original and most well-known western-oriented bars, has in the past year become a preferred hangout for young Khmers with rich and influential daddies. These young Khmers therefore need not be responsible for anything they might do and the incidents of violence are real. I know of one westerner who was assaulted, accused of "looking down on Khmers," and have heard additional reports of other westerners being beaten for causing offense to some young Khmer with a powerful daddy. According to reports the offenses have been walking too close (within five meters), staring too long (in excess of one-tenth of a second), being white, being tall, being short, being with a Khmer girl, being with a western girl, being alone, etc. In other words, if you go to the Heart do steer clear of 20-year-old, well-dressed Khmers, who look like they don't give a hoot about anything because that includes you.
I really didn't want to slag off on the Heart as I've personally never had a problem there (though I don't go there very often), but in light of the numerous reports I've heard from other expats and the official warning from the US Embassy I thought I'd pass this along. If the Heart can sort this problem out I will gladly report on the development.
Meanwhile Street 51 still offers Howie's, Shanghai Bar, and the Walkabout. Howie's, a couple of doors down from the Heart, is clearly the most laid back of the three and a great place to chill at 3 a.m.
I'm not much of a fan of Noam Chomsky. An excellent analysis of Chomsky's ranting on Cambodia recently appeared on the Beauty & Darkness website. As I largely agree with this analysis the obvious thing to do is send interested readers over to it. So here it is: http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm.
Oh, why don't I like Chomsky? Practices all trades, masters few. Blames the US for everything. Fails to see the evil that also exists on the other side. Supports the underdog failing to account for the fact that sometimes the underdog is a rabid wolf. Draws a conclusion and then seeks facts to support it rather than seeking facts and then drawing a conclusion. Anyway, that's a few brief general comments, but as the above referenced piece so well dissects Chomsky on Cambodia in a way I so largely agree with I see no reason to produce what would be admittedly a vastly inferior piece.
August 9 is the closing of the O'Baratin on Phnom Penh's Sisowath Quay. For more information see the Perspective section of my July column.
Siem Reap: The Lotus Market (click to see). Convenience store in a prime location adjacent to the Old Market. Established 1999. Fully operational with manager and staff. Gross sales: $23K (US) per month. Asking $40K (US) or best offer for a one-half share. Contact: email@example.com
Ratanakiri: The Pikey Hut. Cafe/bar in Banlung, Ratanakiri - one of the fastest growing tourist locations in Cambodia. Established and well fit out bar with a beautiful 3-bedroom house on the premises. Cheap Rent. Guesthouse and Restaurant easy possibilities. Offers in the region of $5,000. For more information please call (855) 12-947-652.
Kampot: The Little Garden Bar (click to see). Established Khmer/Western restaurant on the riverfront. Situated within the grounds of a large colonial residential building with excellent potential for development. Nice landlord who is currently converting the adjacent building into a guesthouse that may also be rented by the new restaurant owner. Restaurant is fully furnished and equipped. Well trained experienced staff. Recognised in six international guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Roughguide, etc). Reason for selling: Partners NGO contract due to expire. Returning to Germany. Selling price: $20K (US). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org, or call: (855) 12-994-161. Or visit, ask for: Olli or Alex.
In the UK and want to be on TV? [June
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
Poipet surprise take 2. I guess I was wrong about Poipet last month. I received a recent travel report on July 16th that included the following:
So much for an easy 1000 baht. And then a few days later I get this:
Lesson to be learned: never let anyone get in the taxi with you. More at the Overland - On Your Own page.
As I know more than a few Cambodia-based expats read this column, perhaps somebody can offer some assistance to these folks? Any ideas or suggestions, please e-mail me and I will pass them along. From the rest of the e-mail message not reproduced here, they seem like decent folks wanting to make a difference in a small but educational way. I did give them an idea or two but I'm hoping someone can improve on it:
I'm continuing to receive a few travelers' reports every month, mostly detailing experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are three of them.
I've also begun a Reader's Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country in the appropriate place on the website. You can link to them from the main Cambodia page as well as the main index page.
It's a done deal. I now have a Visa merchant's account and if you want to purchase a photograph from me you may now do so on this website using your Visa card. Go to the newly redesigned Photography section for more details.
A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 127 questions and answers on a variety of Cambodia subjects that should answer a majority and then some of the questions tourists and would-be expats might have. While I welcome e-mail questions from readers and I try to answer them all promptly and properly, the answers you are looking for might be found in the FAQ file. Have a look. The entire section was updated April 27, 2003.
And don't forget to check out the new Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
restaurants, tours and more
Since the 24th, I've been on my annual see the friends and family back home trip, hiding out in suburban Philadelphia for a couple of weeks. It's cold, that means it's less than 32 degrees (90 Yank degrees).
It's been interesting watching the elections from afar. Thanks to the wonders of the internet and e-mail I can get the latest developments, because the US newspapers sure aren't going to help.
Cambodia Update debuted on August 1, 2001 making this column the 25th monthly column. And August 16 will mark the third anniversary of the debut of talesofasia.com.
This past July 15th I finally kicked off the long awaited Thailand Update, which will be a mid-month Thai version of what I've been offering on Cambodia for the past two years. If that's of interest to you, do stop back on the 15th to see the latest edition.
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