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Dumb criminals, Apsara Authority, Hun Sen, Siem Reap image, lakeside

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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

.Cambodia Update

August 2005

1.) Two steps forward, one step back
2.) Earth to the Apsara Authority
3.) Save the children
4.) Baseball in Cambodia
5.) Pornography in Cambodia
6.) China calling
7.) 20th century banking in the 21st century
8.) President scarelines
9.) The guesthouse saga part 11
10.) Website(s) of the month
11.) New on toa for July


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).

Two steps forward, one step back

One of the truisms of Cambodia is that nothing gets done if there isn't something in it for somebody. And only when a solution can first be seen as serving the interests of the problem solvers will a program be put in force.

Take that wonderful welcome wagon of Cambodia - Poipet, Cambodia's scummiest place and first glimpse to Cambodia for a hundred thousand or more tourists a year. For quite some time, years really, the seemingly simple process of obtaining onward transport could at times be a trying experience and though small improvements were made in fits and starts, many, self-included, have said that a major overhaul of the system was in order. The first improvement of any note came in January 2004 when the tourist police took control of the taxi mafia and made some effort, albeit an inconsistent one, to control prices and ensure some sort of safety for travelers. While this had no effect on the infamous "Scam Buses", for independents traveling to Siem Reap, the police control of the taxi mafia did eliminate some of the price gouging and other tout-initiated rip-offs. Prices for taxis to Siem Reap were pretty well stabilized in the $25 to $30 range. Still, despite this improvement, the main traffic circle was at times a chaotic place and on a bad day, as in any day the police didn't feel like working, obtaining onward transport could be as problematic as it was in say, 2001. An overhaul was still needed.

Well, be careful what you wish for. Once and for all, beginning July 15, the powers that be in Poipet, or the power as the case may be (the man with the most stripes on his uniform), took absolute control of all onward transport. Like so many over-the-top plans, the decision making process included no input from anyone other than those who stood to profit from the scheme and the initial plan was seriously inconvenient for tourists, who should have been the first consideration, not last, when designing a better transport system from Poipet. Problems and protests plagued the original plan, which came as no surprise to anyone able to see beyond the reaches of Poipet commune, but surprisingly, three weeks down the road a few adjustments have been made and I must say in all fairness that the system as it stands now is an improvement. Did I just say that? But still, this is once again another example of two steps forward and one step back.

The original plan implemented that first weekend was a sick joke. The idea was that all tourists, meaning anyone not Cambodian, would be required to purchase from the government, an $11 bus ticket to Siem Reap (an exorbitant fare for a 150-kilometer journey), and no other transport options would be made available, no trucks, no taxis, nothing - take a tourist bus and like it. The tourists would also be afforded the privilege of sitting around the Poipet transport depot until they had enough tourists to fill the bus (five hours would not be beyond the realm of possibility according to my contact), and then bounce along the road eventually arriving in Siem Reap hopefully before dawn's early light. Fortunately, it took only a couple of days for the authorities to realize that this extreme measure wasn't going to work and I suppose the combination of having dozens of long distance taxi drivers staging a protest at the traffic circle on the second day and dozens of irate tourists screaming at them only facilitated their comprehension of this point. Okay then, tourists can take taxis... but they have to buy the tickets from us. And we're going to charge more. And the compromise is that the $25 taxi now costs about $35 or 1500 Thai baht.

So in a nutshell the situation is that:
1.) Tourists can still more or less travel any way they want.
2.) It will cost more money.
3.) It may take a little longer to get out of Poipet.
4.) The big guy in Poipet is building a new house.

I think this plan may last awhile given that some money has been spent obtaining shuttle vans and sprucing up the Poipet transport depot. The way it works is that when someone exits Cambodian immigration they find themselves on a covered sidewalk along the southwest side of the circle. Parked to the side are a couple of shuttle vans offering "FREE CHARGE TOURIST TRANSPORT" or something to that effect. Sitting at a table are a couple of guys in uniform to explain to tourists what's going on. The vans take you to the depot where you can make your choice for a taxi ($35/1500 baht) or a seat on a bus ($11). According to tourists I've talked with, the folks at the depot were helpful and the system worked efficiently. Other than the higher price the consensus so far is that this system is an improvement. Did I just say that again?

I've seen the whole arrangement, but having had my own transport already, I didn't have the opportunity to actually test drive the system for myself. But what tourists think is probably more important than what I think, anyway.

Still, four problems in respect to transport have been a plague on Poipet and this new program takes care of one, addresses two others to some extent, and ignores a fourth.

1.) Problem: The Scam Bus.
Status: Not solved and completely ignored. The "service" is alive and well. The infamous Scam Bus, which brings tourists from Bangkok's Khao San Road, plus whatever extras the touts can scoop at the border is still operating (as they can, they have a license issued by the Ministry of Tourism in Phnom Penh that allows them to transport tourists for hire). The scams of the Scam Bus involve excessive visa fees, money exchange scams, an intentionally time-extended trip, and subsequent sale to a guesthouse. The number and degree of the scams has gotten worse in the past year and the "service" continues to be one of the biggest black eyes on Cambodia tourism. The Poipet authorities have made no effort to curtail this operation and as the Cambodia leg originates in their town I do believe they have some responsibilty to it.

The only improvement is that the government service does give a tourist the option of taking a bus that is not a guesthouse affiliated bus (at least not yet anyway, but I do wonder if the lure of selling all the customers to guesthouses at $6 or $7 a head might not get the big guy biting, especially when his new house goes over budget)? Still, though, at $11 a pop, this service is not that much of a compromise.

2.) Problem: Too many touts.
Status: Mostly solved. There are a few still lurking on the Thai side of the border in Rongklua Market who are hustling for the Scam Bus, but the touts one finds around the traffic circle, are for the time being, gone.

3.) Problem: Chaos of trying to find onward transport after exiting the immigration booth.
Status: Solved. Tourists are shuttled to a main transport depot and this is now the only place to get onward transport of any variety. No taxis or buses can pick up passengers in any other location and you'd have trouble finding one elsewhere no matter how hard you tried.

4.) Problem: Price gouging.
Status: Sort of solved, as at least now the rip-off is consistently applied. While one no longer has to worry about erratic pricing and massive rip-offs (i.e. 2000 baht taxis, paying for transport to Siem Reap and only being taken to Sisophon, etc.), the prices set by the government ($11 for a seat on a bus and $35/1500 baht for a taxi) are outrageously high. A bus journey of this distance should not cost more than about $3 or $4 and for that price you should have functioning A/C, good suspension, a toilet, and a free bottle of water. Taxis prices should be no more than $25 and locals were often paying as little as $20. Furthermore, they are not allowing tourists (again, defined as anyone not Cambodian) to share taxis with locals as they don't want us to know what the locals are paying. I've always advocated a single-tier fixed-pricing scheme on long-distance routes, but I guess the old adage of be careful what you wish for as you might get it, again seems appropriate. I supported fixed prices, I just never imagined they would be these prices!

Still, the challenge and intimidation of finding onward transportation from Poipet seems to have, at least for the time being, been solved. And that's a good thing. However, the compromise is the prices are higher and the big boss of Poipet gets a new house. I suppose that's progress.

While on the subject of self-interest taking precedence over doing the right thing, do we even begin to discuss once again, why the road to Siem Reap, possibly Cambodia's most vital road, remains an African mud track across the Serengeti? That here in 2005, the road has deteriorated to a condition not seen in nearly three years? Do we discuss Cambodia's Open Skies policy which says any carrier can fly to either international airport from anywhere, yet the government openly admits that Bangkok Airways pays a "royalty" to receive exclusive rights to the Bangkok/Siem Reap route and Vietnam Air has the same privilege for flights to and from Saigon? Do we wonder if part of the royalty includes a clause to prevent reconstruction of the Siem Reap/Poipet road? Do we mention that the Asian Development Bank approved the $50 million USD loan for the reconstruction of this road back on November 27, 2002? That the contracts were put up for bid in June 2003? That the project was supposed to be completed in 2006? That it hasn't even started? No, we are not supposed to discuss these things. No, instead we're supposed to shrug our shoulders and be apologists because Cambodia is a third world country and that's how third world countries operate. Funny thing is... that's also how they stay third world countries.

And how bad is the road now? For the first time since 2002 we are seeing taxi travel times exceed four hours. The twenty kilometers of unpaved road east of Kralanh is a roller coaster of kidney-mashing ruts, the unpaved section from Kralanh to Sisophon is simply poor, and the sealed tarmac section from Sisophon to Poipet has become in spots, difficult to identify as sealed. About a week ago one section roughly 20 kilometers east of Poipet completely collapsed under the weight of an over-loaded truck shutting down the road for several days and creating a logjam of trucks stretching for several miles. For passenger vehicles, buses and taxis, etc, the collapse caused significant delays forcing people either to switch to motos for the last twenty kilometers to Poipet or walk through deep mud around the collapsed section of road where they could switch to another vehicle.

I laugh when I go back and find something I wrote in 2001 talking about the plans to pave the road by 2003. A finished road seemed so far away back then. Four years later it's even farther...

Discuss this story here:

Another discussion on the changing situation of onward travel from Poipet is here:

Earth to the Apsara Authority

First it was free guidebooks for $3, then it was let's protect the temples by requiring foreign tourists to purchase special shoes ($3 we assume) and never mind what the liability will be when a tourist slides down the stairs at Angkor Wat sustaining multiple fractures..., but we'll let Cambodians pass on the shoe thing... err, that doesn't really protect the temples now does it...? Now the Apsara Authority, still determined to get $3 off tourists, has decided they will rent out battery powered bicycles for visiting the temples. Is it mandatory? No, the Apsara Authority seems to have learned that $3 mandatory gimmicks don't work very well. So what's the problem? None, really. But I'm just a bit curious to know how many of these things they'll actually rent. See, tourists make their transport decisions in town, not at the Angkor ticket booth which is quite a few kilometers away and certainly farther than anyone is going to walk, yet it's from there that Apsara plans to rent the bicycles. So unless Apsara starts a major media blitz advertising these rentals, and motodrivers can be convinced simply to shuttle tourists to the ticket booths (can't wait to see what they'll charge for that!), I imagine most of these bicycles are not going to find customers. But then again we're also talking about the same organization that's getting control of the Koh Ker complex and announced their presence by putting up a security booth and then disappearing from the area not to be heard from again. Guess they're waiting for a bicycle, a pair of shoes, and an investment guide. That'll be $9 please.

Next month: The Apsara Authority opens a cold drink, postcard, and t-shirt stand across from the Bayon. All items priced at $3. One mandatory purchase per tourist.

Discuss this story here:

Save the children

The Nation newspaper (Bangkok, Thailand) ran a story on August 1 about the beggar kids at the Aranyaprathet/Poipet border. Seems at least on the Thai side, the authorities have been unable to remove the children, who are just as likely to steal everything you have than mooch a dollar from you. Why? Because the police claim that their efforts to remove these thieves "have drawn a flood of complaints from children’s-rights groups".

We are not talking about kids nicking a few coins or a piece of candy, we're talking telephones, passports, entire bags, wallets, hundreds of dollars in cash. The children around the border are the front lines of a network that could very well take in hundreds, if not several thousand dollars worth of cash and merchandise every day.

Quoted in the report, “When we arrest the children, the activists lambaste us. Now, we virtually can’t touch these children,” said Pol Lt-Colonel Benjapol Rodsawas. Adding that the activists did nothing for the children other than lodge complaints with the government.

The report went further stating that the children, aged from about three to 12 years old, numbering over 100 worked as well organized teams which could pass a stolen item through a number of hands essentially making the item untraceable.

Another officer at the border, Lt-Colonel Subin Boonlek, deputy superintendent of Tambon Khlong Luek police station, was quoted that, “(The activisits) have often complained to our supervisors, and we get in trouble despite the fact that we have never harmed the children,” Subin said. “If we catch these children today and deport them, tomorrow they come back,” he added.

As a regular user of this border post I can vouch for the accuracy of this story. I know many people who have been stung by these kids. We've lost customers who had to return to Bangkok after having their passports and wallets nicked. These children are a serious problem and should be removed from the area and taken far far away - ideally back to the home country of whatever organization is claiming to advocate for these children.

The report did not state which organizations were involved, but I would sure like to know. I would like to know what charitable organization is dedicated to protecting the rights of criminals. I would like to know what charitable organization is so concerned for these children they they have worked so tirelessly to ensure that these children are not in school and can work for the betterment of their family through pick-pocketing and bag snatching. I would like to know what charitable organization is dedicated to the continuation and proliferation of criminal activity as a benefit to children. I would like to know what charitable organization feels that the best way to protect children is to allow them to continue to roam the border in hordes begging and stealing. I would like to know because I would like to give them the full benefit of the kind of publicity this website can offer. I will advertise their name for free. I want their concerned actions for The Children to be made known to the world. I want the world to know about the organizations dedicated to the welfare of children through their unique job training skills (how to get a wallet out of the front pocket of a pair of Levi's), their foreign language instruction (how to recognize "f**k off" in eighteen languages), their mathematics and accounting training (know how much the gang leader takes from you), their physical education activities (how to outrun police and angry tourists), and how to make the world feel sorry for you (when you get caught act like the victim and blame the tourists and the police). I'm proud that such honorable and dedicated NGOs are working in Cambodia. Hey, has anyone seen my phone?

Discuss this story here:

Baseball in Cambodia

The efforts of one Cambodian-American man have successfully brought baseball to one village in Kompong Chhnang province. Joe Cook a former Cambodian refugee and now American citizen recently got the attention of Major League Baseball's international envoy program and a pair of representatives joined him in Kompong Chhnang.

Several stories have appeared recently including on the Major League Baseball website, mlb.com. A Google search for Joe Cook or Cambodia Baseball will bring up dozens of citations.

And a website dedicated to the program is here:


I think the above-referenced sources explain the project well enough and I can really only add two comments. One, I think this program is great. And two, why do some people feel the need to politicize this as some kind of evil American export? We're talking about a simple game for kids. If it were football, would the same comments be made? Oh, but football is the international sport... sure, bring in Manchester United and can I call it an evil British export? Yeah, whatever. Folks, it's a game. Let the kids play and leave your politics out of it.

Discuss this story here:

Pornography in Cambodia

That got your attention. Coming soon to a phone near you - Pornography Cambodian style has seen a proliferation of images passed around on mobile phones. Take the face of a famous Cambodian movie star or singer and stick it on a nude body and send it around as the real thing. Whatever the extent of the activity, it's also got the attention of the Ministry of Women's Affairs.

The Cambodia Daily quoted the Minister of Women's Affairs Ung Kantha, "We can't let these people continue their acts any more. Our stance is to keep the values of our tradition and culture." And she added that the government would clamp down on the internet and mobile telephone distribution. She further blamed the images on the influence of pornographic movies, "This is because of the distribution of porn videos such as near schools, making the situation of the younger generation decline."

One of the actresses portrayed in the bogus photos asked PM Hun Sen for help, “I would like to ask the related authorities to try more to arrest the perpetrators," she said. "This is a personal matter of my family, but I would ask Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene," she said. "He is like our parents." Hun Sen has been a vocal opponent of pornography.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner Heng Pov was more pragmatic, "It's just the idea of the individual to make profits."

So the campaign is on. Pornography will be wiped from the websites and telephones of Cambodia all in the name of tradition and culture. Not sure how they'll do it, but they're going to try.

Question. Am I the only one who sees a certain degree of hyprocrisy and nonsense any time someone in a government (and not just Cambodia) throws out the tradition, value, culture argument whenever faced with something they perceive as a social ill, regardless of whether the masses agree or not. We saw the same thing in Thailand a few months ago when a couple of old ducks from the Culture Ministry got all up in arms over a reality TV show that had teenagers (fully-clothed, mind you) jump into bed together. And at the same time all one had to do was flip through the Thai channels and see any number of soaps showing men beating the crap out of their wives and girlfriends.

As for Cambodia tradition, didn't Chou Ta-Kuan write in the late 13th century upon visiting Angkor that "Generally speaking, the women, like the men, wear only a strip of cloth, bound round the waist, showing bare breasts of milky whiteness." And "Everyone with whom I talked said that the Cambodian women are highly sexed. One or two days after giving birth to a child they are ready for intercourse: if a husband is not responsive he will be discarded. When a husband is called away on matters of business, they endure his absence for awhile; but if he is gone as much as ten days, the wife is apt to say, 'I am no ghost; how can I be expected to sleep alone?'" So there's your tradition. Preserve it.

Now excuse me, I just received a text message...

Discuss this story here:

China calling

Earlier this past month I stuck a link on my forum to the following story: http://cambodiapolitics.org/news/cambodia_daily/july_05/13_cd1.pdf. I've been saying that while certain opposition politicians have done a marvelous job of stirring up hatred and racism towards the Vietnamese and uniting the huddled masses with shouts of "yuon! yuon!" China will steal the country blind.

Of course the response is usually along the lines of 'but the Chinese aren't stealing our land and the Vietnamese are." Well, yes, I think the complaints that Vietnam has nibbled along the borders are indeed valid but somehow worrying about a few square kilometers of rice paddy or jungle opposed to a significant economic takeover from a foreign power strikes me as a bit careless. I thought by now it was well established that in this day and age one need not have dominion over another nation's land to have dominion over their economy and self-determination.

So here's the warning again: while spewing childish and counter-productive venom at the evil and vile yuons next door it might pay to take a look in the mirror and see what's going on behind your backs. Slowly, steadily, silently Cambodia could be well on its way to being another satellite province of China. Can't happen? Tell that to the Burmese.

The origianl thread is here:

And a related discussion of questionable intelligence on neighborly relations can be found here:

20th century banking in the 21st century

It finally happened. Cambodia has international ATMs. Newcomer ANZ Bank and old-hand Canadia Bank (no affiliation with Canada whatsoever) both have some international ATMs up and running in choice locations around Phnom Penh. Siem Reap should not be far behind.

As had been surmised elsewhere, it will be interesting to see how much of a time lag there is between the opening of these ATMs and the incidence of increased robberies within a three or four-block radius of their location. Seems like easy pickings to me.

In any event, the ATMs are here, more are on the way and despite best efforts to prevent it, we are finally seeing some modernity to the banking system here.

Any guesses when a Cambodia-based bank will offer internet banking services?

Discussion of ATMs in Cambodia has already begun here:

President Scarelines

President Scarelines, err Airlines, which threw in the towel the end of May have announced they will resume flights in October. Or maybe November.

But does anyone care anymore?

Quick advice... let somebody else buy the first plane ticket if and when they re-launch their service.

Me? I'm ready to send President to that great hanger in the sky along with Royal Phnom Penh Air, Mekong Air, Angkor Air, First Cambodia Air, Royal Khmer Air, Royal Air Cambodge, and one or two others I have probably over-looked. It's getting crowded up there.

It still amazes me... why would anyone in their right mind launch an airline in Cambodia given the track record of failures? I think a snow-making factory in the Yukon would have better success than an air carrier in Cambodia.

The guesthouse saga part 11

This month I present a look at some of the cultural challenges for a westerner running a business in Cambodia.

I find out one day that the cleaning girls are a little behind on the laundry.
"Why?" I ask my manager.
"Chany is afraid to go into the laundry room alone. She says she saw a ghost."
Protocol dictates that I accept this news with a straight face. "Where exactly did she see this ghost?"
"She was in the laundry room and the door shut, she went outside to look and there was no one there. She says it must be a ghost."
"Was the wind blowing?"
"Don't know, but the security guard says he saw the ghost, too."
"Tell me more ."
"He was walking near the laundry room and saw something dark move, he turned around, nobody there."
I imagined images of breezy nights and near full moons illuminating the shadows of the coconut palms swaying alongside the house.
I resume complete seriousness, "I thought before we started construction that we had the monks come and bless everything. Shouldn't that have taken care of the ghost?"
"Guess not."
"Tell Chany I will take care of the ghost and to please finish the laundry."
"How you take care of the ghost?"
"I will talk to the ghost."
"How you do that?"
"No problem. Have you ever seen me have a problem with a ghost?"
"No, never."
"That's because I can take care of ghosts."

Several months later, while I was in Thailand, we had a group of Thais in and after their departure I sent a message to my manager asking how everything went with the group and were there any problems. "No problem, they happy, but they think their room has a ghost."
"I thought the laundry room has the ghost?"
"No, they say their room has a ghost."
"The ghost is not supposed to be in the customer rooms, but in the laundry room. Please fix the ghost."

Apparently the staff exorcism didn't work as I learned yesterday that the security guard saw the ghost again.
"By the laundry room?" I asked.
"No, out front, where we give the fruit to the Buddha."
"You mean the spirit house?"
"If that's what you call it, yes, he says he saw a ghost come out of the spirit house."
"Well that makes sense. Aren't ghosts supposed to live in spirit houses? And is this the same ghost that lives in the laundry room or do we now have another ghost?"
"Don't know. Security guard didn't say. Just say he saw a ghost come out of the spirit house."
"Well, find the ghost and tell the ghost if he wants to stay here, then to stay in either the laundry room or in the spirit house, but this flying around the guesthouse and lurking in the hallways will have to stop."
"Okay, boss."

I polled the staff and the security guard. Two say we have a ghost, two say we don't have a ghost, one didn't want to answer, one looked at me funny, one just laughed, and one thinks I might be the ghost.

I guess that makes it unanimous.

Discuss this story here:

Website(s) of the month

Website(s) of the month: Cambodia - Global Voices - links to numerous blogs on Cambodia.

This month I promote not one, but many websites. The numerous personal blogs written by both Cambodians and expats alike. Rather than play favorites, I'm simply including a link that will take you to dozens of personal blogs and you can decide for yourself which ones you like.

New on toa for July

The following appeared on the pages of toa in July:

July 27: Updated the Overland Bangkok to Siem Reap Travelers' Reports section.
July 27: Readers' Submissions: Taiwan: Antonio Graceffo offers the second of two submissions this month with On Learning the Awful Chinese Language, and for Readers' Submissions: Cambodia, Lay Vicheka offers the second of two submissions this month with One Point for Cambodia's Transparency-Betterment.
July 23: Phnom Penh Perspective: Bronwyn Sloan discusses rising crime rates in Crime and Punishment.
July 23: Readers' Submissions: Taiwan: Antonio Graceffo offers the first of two submissions this month with Misadventures in Chinese Food, and for Readers' Submissions: Cambodia, Lay Vicheka offers the first of two submissions this month with Cambodia's Best-known Literature/Culture Hero.
July 20 : Updated the Bangkok to Siem Reap Overland section.
July 18: Cambodia FAQ: Updated the Food and Drink section and the Adult Entertainment section.
July 12: Updated the Business and Employment Opportunities Section.
July 7: Cambodia FAQ: Updated the Transportation section and the Money section.


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