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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update

December 2002

1.) Poipet
2.) ASEAN summit
3.) Road updates
4.) Water festival
5.) Siem Reap nightlife
6.) Embassy warnings revisited
7.) Last month's question
8.) This month's question
9.) Perspective



You see this town name a lot on this website as I complain so often about it (some people would say I complain a lot about everything). But I do so again with good reason. Hear me out.

Poipet, as I would expect most of the regular readers know by now, is in western Cambodia and is home to the main overland border crossing with Thailand. It's always been a shithole, as many border towns are, but on a planet full of end of the world stinking frontier towns Poipet is an especially rotten place.

In a several hundred meter-long "no man's land" strip from the border to the immigration booths, seven casinos have sprung up and more are in various stages of construction. Las Vegas, Monte Carlo, Macau, and, err, Poipet. Doesn't fit, really, and I can’t imagine we'll ever see 007 in a flash tuxedo sitting at one of the Poipet tables with a bevy of ladies, a pile of chips, and a vodka martini or whatever the guy drinks that’s stirred, not shaken, reciting "Bond, James Bond," to all who feel the need to know. No, I imagine he'd take his license to kill and blow away a few taxi mafia and tourist transport touts, hop in his Aston Martin and go screeching down the road towards Sisophon, whereby his car, totally unequipped for the road that lies ahead subsequently breaks down and the only assistance comes in the form of a pick-up truck with 19 Cambodians and two Japanese backpackers stuffed in the bed, now taking on one tuxedoed British Secret Agent who will have to hold Auntie Navi’s four chickens for the rest of the trip. Sounds like a good opening, and who’s the Bond lady going to be, Angelina Jolie? Anyway, I digress…

Poipet is many tourists’ first impression of Cambodia and it's one lousy introduction. The scams, the hassles, the rip-offs, not to mention surly and corrupt immigration police, leave many a tourist to wonder why they've even bothered with Cambodia. And for some, the bad taste in their mouth that Poipet provides doesn't wear off for days. See Traveler's Reports Bangkok - Siem Reap to read some of these stories.

Given the outrageous airfare charged by the only carrier flying the Siem Reap to Bangkok route (and how'd they get that rosy deal, huh?), a tourist considering a return to Cambodia facing the prospect of a second trip through Poipet may reconsider whether Cambodia is a country they want to revisit. Not good for the tourism industry, guys.

I recently counted the Poipet stamps in my passports and tallied 27 border crossings at this post. That’s right, 27 times I've gone through Poipet. And you'd probably think I've got the place down pat, trouble free. Nope, not with the flotsam they have running around this town.

So really, what’s so bad about the place?

First of all, before you even get out of Thailand, or even out of the tuk-tuk that brought you to the border, you stand a chance of having several Khmer taxi and tourist transport touts jump in and start hassling you. If you can avoid that (an umbrella stuck in one rather surprised young lad’s chest followed by an admonition to piss off spoken for his benefit in three languages [English, Thai, and Khmer] did the trick once for me), you still have throngs of kids swarming around you making themselves into all sorts of a nuisance.

So you get away from all of this, get yourself stamped out of Thailand and chances are you’ll now have to get a Cambodia visa.

Cambodia law is very clear on visa fees. A tourist visa is $20. It is not whatever the local immigration police want to charge on a particular day based on a number of factors such as whether they need a new phone card or they had a tough night in one of the casinos, but the fee is $20. Period. In Poipet they charge 1000 baht, which presently works out to about $23.25. And if you want a business visa they ask for 1500 baht which works out to about $35 for a visa that by law should only be $25. Immigration scam #1.

So, you've bought your overpriced visa. Now you need your entry stamp which is not so simple sometimes.

My most recent trip entering Cambodia from Thailand was on the 14th of November. In the immigration room, while I was waiting for my entry stamp, were three African men, I know not from which country, Nigeria, Ghana, one of those, also waiting for their entry stamps. But they weren't getting theirs, instead they were told to go to some office and see the big guy to discuss a “problem”. Never mind these guys had in their passports proper visas obtained from the embassy in Bangkok.

They were furious and with good reason. Then seeing a white guy (me) having no problems, no hassles, only made things worse. And then I agreed, yes, you probably weren't getting into this country because you were black. So the guys started yelling louder. And the immigration police yelled back.

I pulled the three aside, again conceding the point that they were most likely being denied entry because they were black. But I suggested that if they don't calm themselves down a few notches they will never get in to Cambodia. Why do we have to go to this office, they wanted to know. I offered that this was so the police could determine how much money three African men would have to pay to receive free entry stamps on their perfectly legitimate, recently issued visas. I have no idea if they ever made it in to Cambodia. Immigration scam #2.

So, if you're African your visa is nothing more than a new passport decoration for all the good it'll do you. If you're Thai, your visa is good but not good enough, you want a stamp in your passport, that’ll be 100 baht, please. If you're Khmer, no visa required of course, but you still need that stamp. Once again, that's 100 baht, please. Except they don't say please. Folks of other Asian nationalities are also hit with this 100 baht "stamp fee". Immigration scam #3.

Finally, you're in. Unless you’re African. Now it's time for your transportation. This ought to be easy, as right over there are a few taxis and a lot of trucks driving around. Good luck talking directly to a taxi driver, though. But, hey, we have these helpful guys that will gladly assist you in finding a taxi and sorting out the fare which will be drastically inflated if you don’t know any better and mildly inflated if you do. And is this money for the driver? No, of course not. If you’re an unsuspecting tourist you might just hand your money to the tout before you leave. Do you think he’s giving much of it to the driver?

Of course, I know better. So what happened the last time I was in Poipet getting a taxi to Siem Reap? Two, yes two taxi mafia thugs jumped in the car. Was it to hassle the foreigner for money? No, it was to hassle the driver for money, who they promptly relieved of $10 for the privilege of having me as his customer. Taking away $5 for his gas money, the poor guy was left with all of $10 to show for driving me to Siem Reap. And given the state of the road, he probably suffered at least $10 if not more in wear and tear on his Camry.

Thank you helpful Poipet taxi mafia, you just forced a guy to drive a foreigner for five hours essentially for free. But hey, you made ten bucks on the deal for doing... for doing... can someone help me out here? I'm trying to figure out what it is they did for that ten dollars and I'm having a bit of trouble coming up with something. For what it's worth, I let the driver stop in Sisophon and grab another passenger at no price reduction to me to help recoup some of his losses.

It turns out the driver spoke very good English and eventually warmed up to the idea of telling me about the Poipet taxi mafia. 50 baht per passenger seat or 300 for the whole car is what they demand from the drivers, which probably explains why it's becoming more difficult to get a taxi out of Poipet as more and more drivers have decided that the Poipet taxi mafia creates too much hassle to make waiting for fares worth the effort.

Later that week in Siem Reap I talked to a couple of taxi drivers I know and they pretty much expressed the same sentiments. One driver even suggested, in jest (but sometimes comments made in jest have an underlying seriousness to them) that a hand grenade to the south side of the Poipet traffic circle (where the mafia hangs out) might be a positive direction in improving long distance transport in Cambodia.

So what do we have in Poipet? We have casinos, beggars, pickpockets, thieves, corrupt immigration police denying people entry even though they have valid documents, extra charges for entry and exit stamps, and a transport mafia that is doing nobody any favors other than for themselves. And finally, the place is filthy.

To be fair there have been some improvements in Poipet. The number of touts and other riff-raff working the "no man's land" strip has been reduced over the past six to eight months, and the immigration facilities have been improved, but these are only small steps where a great leap is needed. Why? Because 2003 is Visit Cambodia year.

Folks, you have a serious problem here. If you want to promote this country and hope that people have a positive experience in Cambodia, cleaning up Poipet should be a top priority. And I do not accept excuses over lack of development, poverty, etc. On this issue, Cambodia is beyond that. The mere fact that the Cambodian government has taken it upon themselves to promote 2003 as Visit Cambodia year tells me that they believe they are ready for the world. But Poipet is not ready and Poipet is a major gateway to one of the most spectacular tourist attractions in this world, the exploitation of which is a top priority of the Cambodian government. That said, clean up Poipet. Now. Your reputation depends on it.

ASEAN summit

The  ASEAN summit by all accounts went well and no problems were recorded. 100% security was promised and 100% security was delivered. While the approach may have been a bit heavy-handed, hosting this event was a major litmus test for the country. I'd say they passed this test. Next up for Phnom Penh? The ASEAN Tourism Forum in January 2003.

Road updates

National Highway 6 has begun to heal and Neak Krorhorm, the largest tourist bus service in this part of the country, resumed operations on November 19. As of the 27th of November, the road has already been regraded for about a fifteen-kilometer stretch just east of Sisophon and work continues eastward. The two areas where the road broke apart are now dry so I imagine they'll be sorting the rest of this out soon.

I'm going to be an optimist and predict, perhaps foolishly, that this is the last time we will see this highway deteriorate as it had in 2002. I expect we'll get a full regrading in the next few months followed by a resumption in paving.

Another positive development was the announcement on November 27th of the approval of a US $50 million loan from the ADB (Asian Development Bank) to complete National Highway 6 between Siem Reap and Poipet. The Cambodia Road Improvement Project includes complete reconstruction of this 150-kilometer road into a two-lane asphalt concrete highway with paved shoulders and also rebuilding the approximately 45 bridges along the way. Also in the project is the construction of a 200-kilometer northern loop through northwest Cambodia that will reach all the way to Samrong. Finally, reforms in Cambodia's Ministry of Public Works and Transport will be made that will include among other things, the establishment of effective road maintenance financing mechanisms.

The total cost of the project has been placed at US $77.5 million with the Cambodian government putting up US $17.5 million and the remaining US $10 million coming from the OPEC fund for International Development.

The project is due to be completed in 2006.

Water festival

In a country with twenty-something holidays a year, it's hard to get excited over them, but the two biggest are the Khmer New Year, which is in mid-April, and the Water Festival which is in November. The Water festival, or Bon Om Tuk, celebrates the end of the rainy season and the reversal of the water flow of the Tonle Sap. It's a big event in Phnom Penh, with estimates ranging from 1.5 to 2 million visitors descending upon the city each year to watch the boat races. Most expats flee.

In Siem Reap it's a smaller affair, but a recent change has been to move the boat races from the Angkor Wat moat to the center of town. I suppose not having Angkor Wat in the background is a bit of letdown, but having the center of Siem Reap turned into a massive spectacle for three days of races does lend a bit of excitement to an otherwise sleepy town. I like the shift and it seems many tourists enjoyed the races as well.

Siem Reap nightlife

Siem Reap has never been known for its nightlife but things are changing. The old standbys, the Ivy Bar, the Angkor What? Bar, Zanzybar, and a few joints on the northeast side of the market have served us well for years, but two new joints have just opened to give us more excuses to exercise our livers.

First is the Laundry Bar, so named as there's a laundry service next door and in the adjacent lot scores of clothes hang out to dry each day. Washing your clothes aside, It's a late night bar, sometime western discotheque. Though it's building its name from their twice monthly all night parties, hosted by a Brit DJ, that seem to attract half of Siem Reap, the Laundry is looking to build a reputation as a relaxed comfortable late night hangout the other 28 or 29 days a month. It's next to Psah Chas a couple of doors down from the Lotus Market.

Dead Fish Tower is a brand new place that just opened across the street from the E-Cafe. It's a large, spacious and comfortable joint with a laid back atmosphere. Promising, yes, but unfortunately after staying open late on their opening night, we strolled in for a drink the following night shortly before midnight and found they were closing the place up for the night. This is too bad, because there’s a definite need for a relaxed and quiet (but not too quiet!) place for chatting at 2:00 a.m., which they can’t fill by closing at midnight every night. We'll see what happens.

For a local experience the Sok San Palace is back in business. Down a side street just up from the Zanzybar, this is a large karaoke disco/massage parlor that attracts about a 99% local/Asian crowd, but seems happy to accommodate foreigners and westerners (seeing that the name is written in four languages - Khmer, English, Japanese, and Chinese). If you want to see how the locals party, seated around tables drinking warm beer with ice, check this place out.

Other Siem Reap bits:

Aside from these new openings, within a few blocks of Psah Chas numerous craft / souvenir shops have materialized. Most are western run and the offerings at some are refreshingly original compared to the same junk that's been long since cranked out by the local joints.

Recommendations, nah, I don't want to be unfair to anyone I could forget, so if you're in Siem Reap just walk around any of the streets within two blocks of the Old Market and you'll find a few of these shops.

Embassy warnings revisited

Just a reminder, western embassies throughout Southeast Asia continue to publish warnings of "credible terrorism threats", continue to close their doors at a moment's notice, and otherwise continue living in a state of sheer panic.

I have some advice.

Go home.

No, not you the tourist, but you the embassy staff. Go home if you think it's so dangerous here, but please stop telling us the sky is falling. You all (USA, UK, Australia, Canada, etc.) have cried wolf so many times that most of us expats have long since stopped paying attention.

You've got regional leaders pissed off at you, and with good reason. While I'm not usually one to jump on the Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra bandwagon, I agree 110% with the comments he has voiced re: embassy reports over perceived terrorist threats in Thailand, that they were false, hysterical, and unfairly painting a negative image of his country.

And if someone reading this wants to question how I, just some beer-guzzling expat, have information better than the embassies, re: terrorism. Well, I don't. But the numbers speak for themselves. Take away road accidents, which I have said for eternity continue to be the number one danger in the region, and it's quite difficult to justify any such dangers in the area. Yes, we had the Bali bombing. But how many western tourists in Southeast Asia were not killed in a terrorist attack on October 12? And what was the statistical likelihood that any one of them might have perished in an automobile accident, home accident, or anything else back at home?

Actually, I do have better information than the embassies. For example, back in my September 2002 column I published the following, courtesy the US State Department's information sheet on Cambodia:

The town of Siem Reap and the vicinity of the Angkor Wat temple complex remain officially open to tourists, but the U.S. Embassy advises U.S. citizens to travel only by air and to limit their movements to the city of Siem Reap and the main Angkor Wat temple complexes. The risk of banditry and military activity continues in various parts of Siem Reap Province. Illegal checkpoints, requiring cash payment to pass, have been reported sporadically on the road to the Banteay Srey temple, which is approximately 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) northeast of the town of Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. Americans are advised to consult with local police or tourist authorities before traveling to Banteay Srey.

My original response was:

This is laughable. Is the US State Department aware that hundreds and hundreds of tourists travel every day to Banteay Srey? That it is one of the most frequently visited temples in Angkor? That it's been several years since anyone had to pay any cash to continue along this road? If the State Department is so concerned about cash payments, perhaps they could address the issue of moto and taxi drivers demanding outrageous premiums to make the trip or worse, going halfway, stopping, and asking the tourist for more money. These activities result in a loss of cash to tourists in far greater sums than any military officer ever took off a tourist.

Now, given this highly inaccurate advisory, how much can you really trust the embassies to provide accurate warnings on anything these days? Really, how? I have no faith whatsoever in any embassy to provide specific accurate information that could be of use if planning a trip somewhere.

My advice continues, if you were thinking of a trip to Southeast Asia, do not change your plans. Ignore the embassies. If you want accurate information talk to tourists just returning, talk to people like myself who live here, talk to people who work and travel the region and not some snot-nose bureaucrat who pisses his pants at the mere thought of the word "terrorist".

Last month's question

Several replies to last month's question. The question being:

Cambodia is an impoverished nation. We can all agree. Therefore, where do you draw the line on petty corruption (i.e. border guards charging extra money for visas), laxity in law enforcement (i.e. lack or respect of intellectual property, wide-scale book photocopying, etc), and dishonest behavior from businesses (i.e., small lies such as what I outline in the Rotten Durian award above). Do you draw the line at zero tolerance, some tolerance, or hey, anything goes, it's a poor country and folks gotta make a buck?


Answer from reader #1:

Regarding your latest question on where the line should be drawn on petty corruption, I think there must be some tolerance, as in such an impoverished country it will always exist to some degree.

Perhaps the best way to limit the corruption, is by education in helping these people see the big picture. When many refer to the country as “Scambodia”, for the reasons you have mentioned, this sends out a very negative image to the many tourists who will visit. While tourists will still visit the country, I think many are intimidated, and only go for a few days to see the temples, and get out as soon as possible to avoid all the hassles. On the other hand, if it were a more relaxed and friendly place, most people would probably be eager to remain longer – leaving behind many more dollars. Bottom line – treat the tourists well, and they will stay longer & spend more money.

It would seem the education should start at the top – but who teaches those at the top? Perhaps as tourists, we can each do our small part by trying to explain to the locals each time they try to perform some sort of scam (although it may be very difficult explaining this concept to someone who may be wondering where their next meal may be coming from). In any case, if enough of us tried to do this, perhaps over time it could make some small difference. I don’t see that it could hurt.

Answer from reader #2:

Before answering the question you posed about corruption, I would like to make a couple of points:

1) I have visited Cambodia just once, a 2 week visit during July 2002 to see Phnom Penh and the Angkor Wat Temples. While there I read a couple of books on Cambodian history, culture and politics. I have also read most of the information on your excellent website (truly outrageous that it is not mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook to Cambodia).

2) My answer below assumes I have dictatorial powers in Cambodia and can run the country pretty much anyway I want without worrying about losing an election or being deposed in a coup. But I am a 'good' dictator in that I have the nation's best interests at heart.

I would have zero tolerance for corruption. My strongest argument to support this can be summed up in one word: "Singapore". Lee Kwan Yew took a 3rd world country and turned it into a fully-developed, technologically advanced, wealthy country within a generation. There are many reasons for his success, but I am saying the most important one is the very low tolerance for corruption that Mr. Lee has somehow managed to instill in the people of Singapore. All other things being equal, I think the vast majority of foreign investors looking for an Asian base would think of Singapore first, because foreign investment is always a risky business, but this risk is lessened considerably by being in a corruption-free place. Even with Singapore's much-higher costs vs. her neighbours, a lot of foreign businesses still choose to set up here.

It is fairly evident, looking at countries around the world, that low corruption has a high correlation with wealth. It is not a perfect correlation - there are other factors that determine the wealth of a country. But the level of corruption plays an important role. This is just common sense, really. The vast majority of people in the world prefer to work in an environment where rules are obeyed and enforced, and everyone in playing on a level field. Even in corrupt countries, many people resort to corruption themselves only because they see it as the only realistic way to get ahead, not because of any glaring moral shortcomings.

No doubt the scumbags who rip off tourists in Cambodia rationalize their behaviour by saying "hey, we are a poor country, so it's OK to make an extra buck off the wealthy foreigners". This only results in what Adam Smith called the "Tragedy of the Commons". A situation where everyone grabs what they can from a common resource, but collectively they exhaust the resource so nothing is left. The scumbags profit in the short term, but in the long run Cambodia loses out - word gets around (and very quickly too these days with the Internet), and foreign tourists stay away. Angkor Wat is an amazing place to visit, but its not the only place a tourist can go.

So, here I am, the 'good' dictator of Cambodia recently elevated to power. I would not have a zero-tolerance policy immediately. I would widely publicize my intentions first, and there would be a 'grace phase' of perhaps a few months where corrupt officials who were caught would be given a stern warning, perhaps pay a fine. Their misdeeds would be made public - this would let everyone know I really mean business. After the grace period, it would be zero tolerance - fire all civil servants caught being corrupt and press criminal charges as well. I would be particularly unforgiving with the misdeeds of police constables and people in the military. The way I see it, society is giving them the legal right to weld firearms; in exchange, they need to be held to higher standard of behaviour.

Regarding laws about intellectual property theft, dishonest business practices; this is a complicated issue as to exactly what legislation should be enacted. It depends on Khmer culture, historical legal precedence, what the international community will accept, etc. However, once those laws were passed, I would have them strictly enforced.

Over time, I am confident that the good people of Cambodia would see the benefit of this zero-tolerance for corruption attitude as they prospered. Hopefully they would come to internalize this attitude; perhaps this would take a generation to achieve, as with Singapore. My goal is to make behave honestly because they feel it is in their collective self-interest to do so, not because they fear my dictatorial powers. I also want them to expect a corruption-free government as a natural state of affairs.

OK, I concede that absolute dictatorships are rare. Let me make a more realistic assumption: say I am the Prime Minister of Cambodia. I am head of the government, but need to be re-elected every few years to stay in power. I also need to compromise with various other centres of power in the country in order to achieve my political goals. It would still be my long term aim to have zero corruption, but I would initially need to tolerate some corruption - In Cambodia's case, probably a great deal of it at first. If I start out with a zero-tolerance policy off the bat, I am probably looking at losing power (and my life) in a military coup by corrupt generals who like things the way they are just find. Assuming I could stay in power long enough, I would slowly work to reduce corruption in the country. The only difference between being Prime Minister vs. an absolute dictator would be the speed with which I could achieve this goal.

Answer from reader #3:

For the question of the month: Some tolerance. Here a story from a Belgium guy I met in southern Laos and had a long discussion with him on this topic.

He is on the zero tolerance side. His arguments are pretty straight forward: It is officially not allowed to ask for extra money at the border, and only because we (tourists) are paying extra money everywhere the same b.s. just starts.

My opinion is hard to explain, because it is more a kind of feeling. It is ok for me to pay some extra dollar to the visa guy. Why: Better he and his family has some food on the table than a weapon in hand. Same goes with double prices for tourists/locals. I don't like them and usually I try to get the local price on buses etc. But I know that most of the times I pay more then the locals, this is ok - but there is a level, I cannot explain where, but when the difference is too big I am just fed up. Just a few month ago I have been in Russia (Moskow and Petersburg) and there I started discussing everywhere because the entry fee was up to 20 times the locals have to pay. That was more than I could stand. So I didn't enter most of the buildings, I have seen them some years ago in the soviet era, so I need not pay a lot of dollars for already rich russians scamming me.

In Cambodia I have the feeling that the money sometimes goes to the hands of those in need (border guard in the Laos/Cambodia border), but sometimes to the already rich ones. Hard to tell the difference, hard to keep the bit tolerance stuff upright, but I try.

Answer from reader #4:

"Draw the line" ??? Sounds rather pompous considering "White Collar " - type crime & suchlike happens Everywhere. How presumptuous to postulate ...I'm surprised really...I've been reading this column in preparation for a mosey thataway in Dec. Not trying to sound preachy here but seems like a judgemental statement to me...too bad we haven't figured out the answer either, eh ? )))

Answer from reader #5:

My answer is: "zero tolerance".

They have to make a buck, well, so have I, as do we all. I am prepared to pay the legal fees for visas etc, entrance fees that are published, transport fees what locals pay etc etc, but not an euro more.

In other words, I pay what a merchandise is worth. And there, it is worth so much on the market (and it is not my fault that in certain countries we have lower levels as to compared to others so I do not want to be victimized, they also have lower levels on other things such as road conditions, and I don't complain about them, either ) and that's that. The fact because I am a "rich tourist" is perhaps something they dream up and anyway it is relative. Over here, I am not rich, period. I don't get any benefits here from people richer than I, and I don't expect any, and I certainly expect the same from Mr Border Official. So, it's zero tolerance from this one and no negotiations on the subject.

This month's question

The question of the month:

With the recent spate of foreign embassy/consular/foreign service advisories on Southeast Asia, do you consider these useful, useless, or somewhere in between? Do you trust your embassy to provide accurate up to date information or do you believe they offer hysterical outdated drivel, or again somewhere in between? In other words, what's your opinion of embassy/consular/foreign service reports and advisories?

E-mail responses to: gordon@talesofasia.com

And look for the answers next month. Thanks to the folks who responded to last month's query.


Cambodia Interviews is the new monthly feature appearing on talesofasia.com, Cambodia Today, with an interview posted on or about the 15th of every month. Last month's debut interview was with Anthony Alderson, Operations Director for the FCCC - the Foreign Correspondent's Club of Cambodia. This month's interview is with Richard Boulter, Programme Manager for The HALO Trust in Cambodia who will discuss the land mine situation in Cambodia, mine removal, and mine awareness and safety.

Check back to Cambodia Today around the 15th of December for the interview.


On-line ordering

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 Photography section for more details.


A reminder. I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file on Cambodia that should answer a majority of 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.



I received an extremely lengthy e-mail from a missionary in Ratanakiri responding to my less than flattering comments on the role of missionaries in Ratanakiri. Due to the length of the piece, it's published on its own page if you care to look. Click here for the letter.

Another reminder that it really is time to track S'kun down again and see how she's doing. If you don't know what I'm talking about, read Life on the Streets:

I spent several months each year in Cambodia from 1997 till I finally moved here permanently in February 2000. When I left to the States in May of 2001 S'Kun was present and well in Phnom Penh.  While in Tennessee I heard from friends that S'Kun was still around but her visits to the Capitol were sporadic. Then she disappeared off the streets completely in October or November of 2001. Rumours said she'd been picked up and put in rehab. Another rumour was that she was last seen dressed to the hilt and in high heels at your photo opening at the FCC - hard to believe, the high heels that is.

When I returned in January 2002 (to her picture on the cover of the Bayon Pearnik) I asked around. I was again told she was in rehab but no one had any details other than some said it was a six month program and others twelve. I saw Srei Toch a couple times in Hun Sen Park last summer. When I asked her about S'Kun she hurriedly told me something I couldn't understand and then gave me the mime for imprisonment - two crossed hands.

I'll end this with a little tale from Tennessee:

It was a beautiful Fall day in the Smokies, the air crisp and the sky a deep blue. I was hand sanding some wooden planks in preparation for putting the finishing touches on my new wood deck.  The renovation I'd started on my house five months earlier was coming to an end and my mind drifted to my imminent return to my apartment in my beloved Phnom Penh. Thinking of Phnom Penh brought S'Kun to mind and soon something popped into my mind I couldn't wait to tell her.

Communicating deeply with S'Kun was never very easy and soon I found my hands empty and floating through the air. I'd put the sandpaper down and begun practicing a mime. I realized my first try wouldn't work so I tried another and another. Got it, but just as I got it I noticed my neighbor staring at me over my new wood railing.

A look of incredulity on his face, he was searching for some rhyme or reason as to what I was doing. I just smiled, my mind content and far away. Later that day he mentioned that talking to one's self wasn't so rare but he'd never seen someone miming to them self. Oh well, he's never been to Cambodia either.

In my Ratanakiri section I have the following comments:

"On my latest trip, I did notice that in the larger villages and in Banlung the shyness of some of the residents has eased a bit due to the recent dramatic increase in tourism. Regrettably, some residents seem to have figured out that they can pick up a little cash in exchange for posing for a photo."

I received the following response:


I first travelled in SE Asia ten years ago and took plenty of photos of people using a telephoto lens - I've never tried to sell any of them - it's not my line of work. These days I rarely take photos, but I really think that the attitude expressed above is rather mean spirited.

My photos give me pleasure to look at, yours bring cash - In both cases depending on people of very limited means and with little or nothing else to sell (hopefully not sex).

We put a value on things by how much we are prepared to pay for them. I suggest that if the photo is worth something either commercially or just as a tourist memory, it should be paid for, even if Cambodia were not one of the poorest countries in the world. If it's not worth to you what they ask, don't take it. I have to admit that I find it somewhat sickening to hear people who are not living in poverty complaining about paying a pittance to people who are - Maybe we should ask them to clean our shoes for free as well, after all it wouldn't cost them anything.

Complicated issue that's anything but black and white. My complaint lies more with people approaching me saying "photo money, photo money" than me asking for a photograph and being met with a request for money which I can then decide whether to fulfill or not. It's up to the individual. I think what it all comes down to is that it's one more example of how tourism affects indigenous communities and the pluses and minuses this tourism brings.

Next up, criminals and police and embassies and things:

I arrived in Phnom Penh to check up on a friend last October. One block from the riverfront, at noon, I had a man run past me up a flight of stairs. When I left, he ran past me down the stairs and was waiting with a gun. Just when I had thought the capital was free of violent crime (in daylight, anyway). It seems that it was a holiday and at that exact moment, the King was arriving at Pochentong, and there were no cops on the street.

I feel a little better now that I've learned that the embassy had been closed for two weeks in September. Getting the police reports for the embassy for a replacement passport and then getting an exit visa from the baksheesh hungry Cambodians was enough of a pain in the ass, and ten day wait, as it was.

I'll give one high ranking cop credit. No bribe, and no fee for the Cambodian translation. Once he figured out that I hadn't made any of this up, he seemed genuinely pissed off, as if there had been a serious breach of sportsmanship.

Bangkok, Thailand
November 30, 2002.




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