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Planes, trains, automobiles, and other assorted motorized conveyances. There have been a lot of recent changes in transportation in Cambodia, but old habits die hard, proving once again that the old cliche: "the more things change the more they stay the same" isn't so much of a cliche after all.
Planes: Airlines come and airlines go. Remember Kampuchea Air, Royal Air Cambodge, and Mekong Airways? And maybe we can add to this list of gone but not entirely forgotten airlines: Royal Phnom Penh Airways and Royal Khmer Airlines (who?). Still in the air are Siem Reap Airways, President Airlines, and First Cambodia Air, and ask me next year and I'll write you a new list. But we still don't have a national carrier.
Royal Air Cambodge was the national carrier and somewhat of a national joke. In October 2001 the Malaysian outfit that owned the one remaining Boeing which RAC flew, repossessed the aircraft claiming RAC wasn't taking proper care of the plane, which in retrospect was probably the best thing that could have happened for aviation in Cambodia. Say what you will about Cambodia-based airlines, if there's one thing they haven't done yet, it's crash.
Mekong Airways seemed like a promising upstart offering domestic service between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and international flights to Hong Kong and Singapore using a late model Boeing. Unfortunately for them, after a number of bumps just getting their inaugural flight in the air, that nasty SARS hysteria hit (umm, Hong Kong and Singapore?... ouch!) and that was the end of them. Gone.
Royal Phnom Penh Airways has been around for awhile, flying first, Antonov 24s and then Chinese-made Y7s - a copy cat of the Antonov 24 (eeeeeiyyaaahhhhhh!!!!) - on domestic routes and sometimes to Bangkok. But the owner of the company, a prince and head of his own political party, spent all his money on the 2003 election, I think he got eleven votes or maybe it was one hundred eleven, but it was all during the SARS scare and that was the beginning and the end of both his airline and his political career. Today his aircraft sit idly on the tarmac at Phnom Penh International Airport and given some of the debts the company has, in some respects, the planes aren't his anymore. Sad really, it was always good for a laugh to be in one of the Y7s when steam started flooding the cabin through the A/C vents and inevitably some passenger or two would start having a panic, convinced the plane was engulfed in flames and headed for a hard crash in some mine-infested field somewhere.
Royal Khmer Airlines (who?). Back in April some people (who?) got their hands on a jet (what?) and flew a few times between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap (when?) and seemed to have since disappeared. They never advertised, promoted, or did much of anything. I recently asked a couple of travel agents about this airline. They said, "who?". I said "Royal Khmer Airlines". They said, "what?". I said, "an airline in Cambodia.". They said, "when?". I said, "apparently not anymore," and we talked about dodgy visa extensions and things.
First Cambodia Air, despite minimal promotion is still with us, flying three times a week to Guangzhou, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. And perhaps we don't hear so much about them because they are targeting the Asian market? Plausible. In any event, they exist, and with Hun Sen's sister having half the company they have a solid foundation to stick around. Personally, I don't give a toss who owns the airline. If they maintain their planes and give good service, more power to them.
President Air has been with us for awhile and after years of existing essentially as a mirror of Royal Phnom Penh Air, have since picked up a couple of jets (at least one is wet-leased from Belgrade-based Aviogenex) and are expanding their coverage in Asia. I have no firsthand knowledge of their maintenance records, but some people express reservations about the carrier. I've flown the Aviogenex Boeing plenty of times... it's a little old, but it's still in the air and no, I'm not afraid to fly on President and it is the cheapest flight to Bangkok, but only from Phnom Penh.
Siem Reap Airways is the Cambodia version of Thailand-based Bangkok Airways, famous for building their own airports in Thailand, avoiding competition, charging outrageous airfares, and essentially doing whatever they have to do to make a lot of money... hmm, not such a bad plan maybe? Anyway, they fly French-made ATRs, mostly of the 72 variety and Boeing 717s. Forget that the name is Siem Reap Air, the company is Bangkok Airways all the way. Rapidly expanding their coverage of Asia and forever targeting the foreign tourist market, they may not be cheap, but they are possibly the most reliable of the carriers operating in Cambodia.
And how about our airports? Both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports got much needed face-lifts as both were much too small. Unfortunately, the airports are run by SCA, a 70% French-owned company which charges an outrageous $25 international departure tax and yes, you should complain every time you pay it. It doesn't matter that the person collecting the money has nothing to do with it. Complain. And you should also complain as to why Cambodians get a reduced tax. Forget the excuse Cambodians are poor. If you can afford a plane ticket you can afford the departure tax. But new facelifts or not, the airports are still crap, they just look nicer, that's all.
Boats: This one mystifies me. Why do people still use these things? One route is obscenely overpriced (Phnom Penh - Siem Reap), one route is scandalously dangerous (Siem Reap - Battambang), and one route turns many a passenger's insides out (Sihanoukville - Koh Kong, especially in the wet season).
The only route that is faster than the road is Sihanoukville - Koh Kong, but what you gain in an hour or two of time you lose by missing out on one of Cambodia's most scenic drives. And during the wet season, if the boats run at all - keep in mind we're talking about a boat designed for river travel used on the open seas - you may spend much of your time worrying about your decidedly greenish looking neighbor and where their breakfast is about to land. Cost for foreigners is $15 which is about the same as a van ticket. Two seats in a taxi for the same route can be had for about $15, maybe $20, likewise to Phnom Penh, so there is no need to take a boat to Sihanoukville just to get to Phnom Penh.
With a vastly improved road (well, it's almost done!), a bus between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap will take about the same time as the boat - six hours, but does so with the added bonus of a lunch break - there are no food stops on the boats! A taxi can do the trip in four hours and with the advantage of leaving ANY time YOU want. And the cost? The boat operators have been gouging tourists for $22-25 a ticket. You can take a bus for $4 (or $6 for Mekong Express), or get an entire taxi for $35-40. Imagine if there are two or three of you traveling together and what a taxi can do for you in terms of cost, duration, and departure time? So why are you taking the boat? To see the lake? Then take a floating village tour when you get to Siem Reap.
And Battambang to Siem Reap? You can do this in a taxi in three hours, while the boat, not including transfer time to or from the Siem Reap boat docks, will take, if you're lucky - three and a half hours, and if you're not lucky as many as ten hours. Most people's luck falls somewhere in between, except when the boats sink. Barring a submersion, more often the boats take on enough water to soak everybody's belongings and force the passengers into the fun chore of having to bail the boat out for three hours just to keep it from sinking. No ifs ands or buts, while quite a scenic route, this boat trip is very dodgy.
New bus services, new roads, buses and taxis... forget what Lonely Planet says, get off the boats and onto the road - it's faster, cheaper, and safer. Break old habits and start anew. Hit the road!
Taxis: Despite rising gas prices (now almost $3 a gallon), with improved roads and more competition, including bus competition, prices are coming down now on most routes. Taxis between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap can be had for $35 to $40, and from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville for $20. The only route that hasn't seen a decrease in price is the Poipet to Siem Reap route, but the road takes more of a bite out of the cars and there are especially strong transport mafia issues in Poipet to contend with. Still, cars, with a bit of insistence can be had for less than $25 on this route.
Buses: Lots of players and lots or routes now. With a new road there are plenty of companies running between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap now. But, proving that old habits die hard, all six or something bus companies have been leaving at 7:00 or 7:30 a.m., continuing this Cambodian obsession with obscenely early departure times. Finally Mekong Express came to their senses and on August 1 started an early afternoon departure (12:30 pm I think). All buses except Mekong Express are $4. Mekong Express charges $2 more but offers an onboard snack, a new bus, a hostess, that armed with a microphone, informs in Khmer and butchered English what important landmarks you are passing and usually while you're trying to sleep, and finally, something no one else in Cambodia has - a toilet onboard. Still, despite their name, they are actually the slowest of all the buses - but at least I guess that makes them safe - and they are the most comfortable.
There is also now service between Poipet and Phnom Penh and with pre-arranged connections to Bangkok. Curiously, the bus from Poipet to Phnom Penh (GST) departs at 6:30 a.m. Which is kind of interesting seeing as the border doesn't open until 7:30 a.m. and no one in their right mind would spend the night in Poipet unless they absolutely had to and a bus can make Phnom Penh in about six, maybe seven hours now.
A few comments on departure times. Sure, there was a time when it was a necessity to get on the road at the crack of dawn - terrible roads, roadblocks set up by drunken military personnel, bandits, etc. all made it necessary to leave early in the morning, but these are all things of the past. Still, with the rare exception, buses, even on routes that can be over and done with in less than five hours, are hitting the road shortly after the roosters crow.
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Last month I raised the issue of a possible visa scam. Well, it turned out that it is a scam - sort of. It's also confusing, but I'll try to make sense of it as best as I can.
An "E" visa is a proper business visa. In theory the initial entry visa costs $25 and is valid for a month. These can be extended indefinitely in six-month or one-year increments. Although there is an official fee and procedure for obtaining these extensions, almost no one jumps through these hoops, but rather pays a slightly varying fee in the neighborhood of $142-150 for six months and $270-285 for a year, with prices in Siem Reap and other provinces generally upped by around $20 to cover a "courier fee". These prices are roughly double what a visa extension obtained through proper channels would cost. Your passport, a photo, and the money are all that are required to get the extension in this manner.
Extensions for these visas are obtained through the Department of Foreigners of the Ministry of the Interior and will have the signature of the head of the National Police Force, Hok Lundy.
The visa extension number will be preceded by the letter "I" (Interior) and the reference will be to the number of the initial visa on which one enters the country.
A "B" visa is an NGO visa issued to people working for sanctioned organizations. Extensions are given via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and will have the signature of Kim Sovanna (unless the new government sees him out of his post - I haven't checked the list yet on account of the fact I don't have one in front of me). The extension number will be preceded by the letter "F" (Foreign Affairs) and the reference will be to the co-operating government agency.
I don't know what if any official price is attached to these visas as they are stamped "gratis", however they can be purchased by anyone for a price considerably lower than the price for extensions of the "E" visas. I spoke with several people, private business owners, who have chosen to use these "B" extensions due to their lower prices. Legalities seem a little hazy as apparently the only prohibition is that one cannot use this visa to be employed by anyone but a sanctioned NGO, which leaves the issue of business ownership up in the air. Users of these visas have sometimes been quizzed a bit by border guards as to how they came upon having this extension in their passport opposed to the standard "E", but report that the visas do work. However, other sources have informed me that some people who unknowingly were given these visas had significant problems with border guards and some were even turned back.
The scam of course, is that due to the lower prices, some unscrupulous or, let's be fair, unknowing travel agencies have issued people "B" extensions when the visa holder should have received an "E" extension, leaving the user in the position of having a visa that may or, as the case is and how the wind blows, may not be any good.
Some agencies are doing the proper thing, ascertaining which kind of visa the person needs and getting that visa and at the proper price. Others are offering both kinds of visas but informing the user straight up what the deal is with each. In our case, my missus was issued a "B" extension without being informed by the agency that she would receive this instead of the "E" extension which she should have received. Fortunately, we've had no problems with the border guards at Poipet, but as Cambodia slowly but surely streamlines its policies and laws, I don't like the idea of having a visa we're technically not supposed to have and knowing that someone sold it to us without our approval putting a lot more money into their pocket at our risk. That then, is a scam. But as I said, so far so good, but once the thing expires, we're starting over. No more extensions on this visa.
What can you do? My advice is that if you don't qualify for a "B" visa then make sure that the agency gives you an "E" extension, issued by the Department of Foreigners, Ministry of the Interior, signed by Hok Lundy. If the price you are quoted is lower than the figures stated above you may be getting set up for an MFA visa. Ask questions. And if the price is right, still confirm that the visa is coming from the MI and get it in writing.
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Advice of the day:
If you are staying on the ground floor of a guesthouse check the windows and screens. Although almost all guesthouses will have some sort of metal grating that will prevent someone from entering the room, tricky thieves can, using a variety of implements attached to the end of the stick (usually a hook), pull small objects out of the room and into their hands such as wallets, telephones, etc. Most guesthouses do not have locking screens so it's only a matter of carefully sliding the screen open. However, even if the screen locks, thieves can very quietly cut a screen and gain access to your room. Said crime will almost always occur at night and while you are sleeping, four to five a.m. seems to be a particularly troublesome hour.
The moral of the story is that if you're on the ground floor of a guesthouse, keep your valuables someplace where they can't be surreptitiously removed by a thief in the pre-described manner.
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Okay, I offered a robbery warning as I do from time to time when I catch news of a particular crime occurring to anyone I know. Aside from the pre-described criminal act which occurred in Siem Reap at a guesthouse which will remain nameless because it could have happened anywhere, it seems two people I know in Phnom Penh also had recent break-ins, or at least attempted break-ins. Then you read a report like this. Then you read reports of Phnom Penh police, citing frustration with rising crime, summarily executing a pair of carjackers - much to the dismay of the car owner - an Australian embassy worker, but to the general applause of most expats who actually work for a living here. And you have to wonder - is crime worsening in Cambodia?
Hard statistics are difficult to go by, while the police do compile and report crime stats, you have to wonder how many crimes go unreported or are incorrectly compiled? By and large it's always been anecdotal information that we follow, which is of course, no more if not less accurate than any kind of crime stats offered by the National Police Force, but as it involves crime close to home, the existence of such anecdotes makes one more concerned, their absence makes one more secure.
Crime changes. Where once we worried about guns stuck in our face, now we have to worry about getting a bag snatched while sitting on the back of a motorbike, of someone sliding back a screen window and pulling out our small but valuable objects, of people removing doors and sneaking in under the cover of darkness, of pickpockets, etc. More surreptitious but more frequent?
I don't know. Everyone who lives here gets robbed eventually. It's not a case of if, but for how much and when. So you take precautions to mitigate either outcome and move on, reminding yourself of how much you pay in taxes, what percentage of the population needs a year to make what you can earn in a week, and not to leave $500 laying around when you could have locked it up in a drawer or in the bank.
Tourists however, seem no more under threat then any other country in Southeast Asia. Thailand certainly offers all the same opportunities to get robbed, and in the case of overnight private buses departing from Khao San Road, it's more unusual not to have the bags rifled during the night. Of course, if people would wise up and stop using those buses... but that's for another day and quite frankly, most everyone who talks about this sort of thing is quite tired of tossing out these same warnings day after day, week after week.
Anyway, where was I? Yes, crime in Cambodia. Tourists - you're as safe here as anywhere else in the region so stop worrying, take the usual common sense precautions and get on with your trip. Expats - do what you must to ensure that your neighbor's residence is a more attractive target than your own and see to it that if you are stung, it's for $50 and not $500.
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I received a report recently from a tourist who described his Bangkok to Siem Reap trip in relatively favorable terms (it's buried in the Overland section somewhere, here actually) and most importantly reported that other than asking for too much money for the visa and lying about the fee at the border there were no other scams (including the recent change money scam) and that the trip took but twelve hours. That is indeed about as good as a KSR trip gets, but to prove what inconsistencies abound in this type of travel, here's one from my discussion forum that is particularly troublesome as it shows to what lengths some of these bus operators will go to to fleece their cargo.
The following, courtesy Dave P, appeared here: http://www.talesofasia.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=884 :
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At long last the second edition of Matt Jacobson's Adventure Cambodia has hit area book shelves. Published by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai, Thailand, this new edition is expanded and updated sufficiently to once again reign as the most complete printed source for travel information into Cambodia's distant and even not so distant reaches. While Lonely Planet made some headway with their most recent edition, especially in reference to northwest Cambodia, they could only catch up to "Jake's" book - and that was two years ago. So imagine where we are now.
Adventure Cambodia is once again the anti-LP readers' book as his overall tone shows a well-cultivated distaste for tightwad backpackers and their usual hangouts are generally ignored, except to warn the reader that they might want to stay away from said establishment, which comes as a blessing to the rest of us and increases the usefulness of this book tenfold.
There are of course a few inaccuracies which are not necessarily the fault of the author as the rapidly changing nature of Cambodia's tourism industry and the generally unforgiving temporal nature of the printing business are a pair of thorns in the side of any travel publication.
One thing of note is the safety warnings. While Jake the fireman has toned down some of his warnings - we're no longer told that we are at greater risk of being shot by a family member and the pages of fire safety tips have been reduced to a few paragraphs - hey, how about this: In case of fire: 1.) Alert management. 2.) Pay your bill. 3.) Run. Well, that's what's going up in my guesthouse. Anyway, I still find the long list of things not to do - among other things, you're told not to eat while in Cambodia which is great if it's time for a diet and Jenny Craig doesn't do it for you, but otherwise it seems a bit ironic to see such an exhaustive list of "don'ts" in a book particularly suited to motorbike riding around Cambodia, which, next to maybe calling an Army General a "fat tub of monkey shit", is one of the most dangerous things you can do here.
Still, it's the best Cambodia guidebook on the market (great analysis on the recent Thailand-Cambodia problems, but I would say that, wouldn't I?), so get on your bike and go. But don't eat the food.
In other book news: Total has released a second edition to its Cambodia road atlas (it carries some French name, but it's the only one made my Total so you should be able to find one without my help). I reviewed the first edition favorably and would probably do the same for the second edition except I haven't seen it yet, but as they are promoting it, I can say with certainty that it's there and you should know about it. I'll try to grab one between now and the first of September (err, maybe the second or third of September...?).
Canby Publications is now offering The Cambodia Visitors Guide: 2004 Edition, a consolidated guidebook that brings its Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, and Sihanoukville guides under a single cover complemented with additional coverage of Kampot and Kep, Battambang, and for the first time, Ratanakiri. It's the usual Canby offering of detailed listings of what to see, where to go, where to stay and eat, as well as business listings and other useful tidbits. And lots of advertising. Typically Canby, opinions and commentary are largely non-controversial and centrist, which sometimes, is exactly what you need. The book carries a price tag and can be purchased at numerous outlets in Cambodia or on-line here: http://www.canbypublications.com/.
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A few months ago the owner of the Le Cyrcee bar in Phnom Penh was arrested for allegedly requiring two staff members to have sex with customers against their will. The so-called victims had taken their tale of abuse to the NGO AFESIP who facilitated the legal proceedings.
Funny thing, once the proceedings began it was apparent that the girls made the whole thing up. Oh, girls working at Le Cyrcee have sex with customers, but it's much like the go-go bars in Bangkok. It comes with the job and there are no surprises. The girls know exactly what the job entails and agree voluntarily to the conditions.
It seems the Le Cyrcee pair were fired from the club (I could be wrong, but the rumor mill says theft was involved), proceeded to take their job skills down the street where they readily agreed to once again have sex with customers against their will, and while there, cooked up the scheme to get back at the club owner.
Come trial time a group of Le Cyrcee girls came to the defense of the owner, the judge realized what was going on and tossed the whole thing away with an admonishment to the NGO.
Such is the climate in Cambodia. Once and for all, is it asking too much for the NGOs to stop railroading every alleged sexual wrongdoing and watch their steps more carefully? A crap case like this only makes all cases suspect. There are problems in Cambodia, yes, pedophilia, trafficking, they are all here and no one needs to embellish a case to put one through. Devote energy and resources to stopping the prevalence of eight-year-old girls in Svay Pak, to trafficked brothel workers in Poipet, but stop witch-hunts based simply on the fact that the alleged and accused is a foreigner. Whatever morals you may have, the important and simple fact is that the Le Cyrcee owner broke no laws in Cambodia and that then is the end of that. Case closed.
Kudos to the judge. A round of drinks to the Le Cyrcee owner (if his staff leapt to his defense he must be doing something right by them - certainly a lot more than so-called legitimate establishments, anyone care to guess how many former and present Raffles employees are defending that fine upstanding member of the international business community?), and a big smack upside the head to AFESIP (we don't think foreigners should have businesses like this in Cambodia - but apparently it's okay for Cambodians) and the two girls.
And on the subject has anyone noticed that the new government does not include the former supreme witch-hunt leader of Cambodia, now ex-Ministry of Women's Affairs head Mu Sochea? Aw shucks, what will the CWCC do now?
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Was he or wasn't he? Was Chea Sim really seeking medical attention or was it simply more convenient to leave Phnom Penh for a short period of time? His abrupt move to Bangkok sparked a lot of interest in the press and on the streets. Fortunately, thanks to the existence of my discussion forum, someone, foolsprogress to be specific, armed with far better insight than I, offered the following analysis:
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The following was updated or added in July:
July 28: FAQ. Four sections
were updated with more to follow shortly.
The 2004 Magic of Cambodia Day has been scheduled for Saturday
18 September at The Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England.
Sorry I was late again this month (two days... arrgh!). The usual excuses, travel to/from Phnom Penh, new guesthouse construction... watch this space! Not having a connection at home in Siem Reap and having to lug the laptop to the internet shop, and yadda yadda yadda. Whatever. Here's the column.
Yup, I'm in the process of putting together a 16-room guesthouse (likely $8-25) with restaurant (Thai food) in the Wat Bo Village area of Siem Reap. Soft opening is early September and the whole thing should, bar and restaurant included, be up and running by the first of November. Surprisingly, the first month of renovation hasn't really offered any anecdotes worth passing on here. I guess we should take that as a positive sign for the maturation of the Cambodian construction industry. Or sheer luck.
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