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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update

January 2002

1.) Protecting copyrights - Cambodia style
2.) Scaring the Angkor souvenir sellers
3.) Tourism in Anlong Veng
4.) Nightclub closing status
5.) The end of Apsara?
6.) An NGO needs help
7.) Siem Reap round-up
   A.) Baggage trolleys in the airport
   B.) Motorbike rentals - the latest
   C.) Local road work
   D.) Fast food
8.) New scam - overland Bangkok to Siem Reap
9.) Fires - photos
10.) Perspective


Protecting copyrights - Cambodia style

There is minimal legal protection of intellectual property in Cambodia. What laws do exist are rarely enforced. Books on Cambodia are routinely photo-copied and sold in the markets, in hotels, and by souvenir vendors at the temples. Finding a legitimate CD - music or software - is almost impossible.

The Cambodian government is working on a more comprehensive draft law to address this problem, but even then, it is likely that the law will only be enforced when copyright holders pursue and pay for a case to be prosecuted.

Still today, a copyright holder residing in country does have some legal recourse. A visit to the local police convincing them you really are who you say you are and with a little tea money on the side the police might be persuaded to confiscate photo-copied books (if they were copies of your work), slap around the sellers a bit and create a lot of headaches for the person or persons who printed the books. It has been done.

When I started printing postcards I figured it was only a matter of time before somebody would steal, or try to steal, the images in one way or another. If someone was to take an image and reproduce it in, say, a travel brochure I'd likely have no legal means of stopping them and the police would surely not allow themselves to be bothered by something so petty. However, most brazen would be for someone to outright reproduce and then sell the postcards. Somebody gave it a shot.

As I am based in Siem Reap, I have an expat friend with a Khmer assistant who handle my Phnom Penh distribution. As a matter of simplicity, for distribution in the city's two main markets - The Central Market and the Russian Market, my distributors have arranged for a single stallholder to buy from us in bulk and then sell to the other vendors. It's a system that works quite well for everybody. And as it's profitable for the one stallholder we do business with, we get another ally should, for example, any potential counterfeiting schemes develop.

On December 3rd our man in the market called my distributor with his weekly order. Upon delivery the man said that one of the other sellers who had purchased a full set of cards said he planned to copy them and sell them himself. Our man in the market wasn't too thrilled to hear this, my distributor was outright pissed, and I, well, I won't reproduce my comments here - use your imagination. But a fourth individual was also involved and absolutely livid as well, the owner of the pre-press and printing company I use - 3D Graphics Publishing. Should this person succeed in counterfeiting my postcards four people stood to lose - me, my Phnom Penh distributor, the Central/Russian Market distributor, and the printing company. United we stand.

Leung, the owner of 3D Graphics wasted no time. He immediately called every pre-press company in the city telling them that if anybody brings in these postcards (they bear the 3D Graphics name on the back) the copyright holder, me, with the support of the other three parties would prosecute the company to the fullest extent of the law and then some for printing material protected by international copyright. This is actually doable in Cambodia. Apparently the companies were most abiding.

As of now, no counterfeit copies of my postcards have appeared so it would seem this indirect non-confrontational uniquely Asian approach to a problem has worked and worked well. I did hear at the end of the month that the would-be counterfeiter did in fact bring the cards to a pre-press outfit who promptly told him to get lost. But if by any chance this cretin should manage to print up a few postcards, well, I'm sure my Khmer cohorts will solve that problem for me as well.

Scaring the Angkor souvenir sellers

Ugly rumors. What started as a potential major news story has seemingly turned out to be nothing more than a rumor and an almost amusing anecdote of how things work over here.

Anatomy of a rumor:

Background - about 20% of my nationwide postcard retail is at select locations around the Angkor Archaeological Park. The lion's share are sold at Banteay Kdei/Sras Srang, recently around the Bayon, and to a smaller scale at Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm, Pre Rup, and Prasat Kravan - but you may have to really look to find them at some of those latter places as only one or two girls may have them. Okay, I'll stop advertising...  But anyway, hence, I am in close contact with a number of the girls working out at the temples. 

On the 12th of December I was restocking my number one temple retailer who told me that effective December 18 all souvenir selling would be banned within the Angkor Archaeological Park and that the Apsara Authority was giving a souvenir concession over to a corporation which would construct souvenir outlets around the park.

Personal illness kept me from looking into the matter the following day, but on the 14th, Friday, I went out to the temples myself to see what was going on. I went to Ta Prohm where I know some of the sellers quite well.
"Yes," they all said, "next week we are finished - no more selling".
"Who told you this?" I asked.
"Apsara tell us, they come with the police."

This was the same thing I was told two days earlier. One of the girls at Ta Prohm produced a copy of the paper they had been given. It was in Khmer, of course, but it bore the Apsara stamp and an official seal from the Director. I took the paper back into town to have it translated word for word.

I took it to a Khmer friend, fluent in English. He had heard about the vending ban already. He went through the paper with me. From Apsara to the Temple Police, was the heading - re: souvenir selling and music playing inside the temples. The paper went on to say that effective December 18 due to tourists' complaints about noise and harassment, all the sellers and musicians would have to leave the temples. It didn't say anything about souvenir concessions or even a stoppage to souvenir selling outside the temples. Hmm, what's going on here?

I needed clarification. Next stop, the Apsara Authority office in Siem Reap. I met with Deputy Director Seung Kong who was emphatic that they were only asking the police to do what they've been asked to do since the summer of 1999 - keep the sellers out of the temples! Nothing more. No vending ban. No concessionaire. No nothing.

Naturally then, I had to ask, why does everybody  - the sellers - even some motodops and your average Joe around town - believe that all vending will cease on the 18th?

The local police control the souvenir vending within the Angkor Archaeological Park. The teenagers selling in the vending stalls outside the temples pay roughly $2 a month to be there. The price can vary by a few thousand riels depending on location, but $2 a month is about right. Selling inside the temples is another matter for here the profits are highest. Outside the temples many sellers can expect to make a profit of $30-40 a month spread out over the course of the year. Inside some temples that number can reach or exceed $100. Yes, there are souvenir sellers making as much as $100 a month - but they are the exception not the norm. So who gets inside the temples? Most likely the seller is closely related to whatever police officer is in charge of that particular temple. In the absence of a close relation, $25-30 a month to the police can get one inside.

This is of course, why then, the Apsara Authority has had some difficulties getting the police to fully enforce the 'no vending in the temples' rule. Sure, it's nothing like pre-summer 1999 days when the entire Angkor Wat causeway was lined end to end with t-shirt sellers, but it's still not what Apsara wants. And I will concur, no tourist really wants some 10-year-old flute seller tugging on their arm for twenty minutes when they're trying to look at a temple.

For further verification I stopped next at the Cultural Heritage (aka the temple police) Police Headquarters opposite Angkor Wat. They backed up what Apsara told me, they are only removing the sellers from the temples, that's all.

I returned to Ta Prohm and told a now much relieved group of girls to relax, you'll still be selling on the 18th. But I'd go out that day just to confirm. I went out the morning of the 18th and everything was normal. There were even sellers inside at least one temple.

It was almost two years ago that the government, in a totally asinine move, decided to award a contract to some Korean firm to operate electric cars, something like a golf cart, to ferry tourists around the temples. "It's good for the environment!" they said. Yeah, and I could take copious amounts of morphine every time I had a headache, but where would that leave me in the long run? Needless to say, the taxi drivers and moto drivers in Siem Reap rightly went ballistic staging numerous protests against this move. Most tourists voiced support for the drivers as well. And let me just say that I would not have wanted to be then-Director of the Apsara Authority, Vann Molyvann. Anyway, eventually reason won out, as the massive economic damage this move would have created was considered along with a few more personal matters, and the whole idea disappeared. But not from anyone's memory.

Could the government do something like this again? Is it within the realm of possibility that the Cambodian government, perhaps in the guise of the Apsara Authority, would try to strip the Angkor villages of desperately needed income, which I broadly estimate at a half million US dollars a year and hand a lucrative concession over to a corporation in exchange for a suitcase full of dough? Probably not. But anything is possible.

Other than the local police getting their tea money, the Cambodian government isn't getting much off this souvenir business. Taxes? Licenses? Business/VAT records? Yeah, and it snows in Cambodia, too. Based on an interview I did with Apsara Authority Director of the Department of Culture and Monuments, Ang Choulean, in October 2000, the Apsara Authority is well aware of the hardships put upon the Angkor residents with the highly restrictive zoning that exists within park boundaries and he admits that Apsara has not done enough to help. So it would surprise me that they would ever do something that would deny the villagers of this much needed income. (To read excerpts of the interview, go here)

So I leave it there. For now it's just a rumor, albeit an ugly rumor - and I'm not, let me reemphasize that, I AM NOT suggesting in some indirect subtle way that it's anything but a rumor - but just to play the devil's advocate, let's say there is a shred of truth to the rumor, and this is just the first of a number of gradual steps leading towards handing over a souvenir concession to a corporation. Then I caution the powers - don't forget about the fiasco with the electric cars. History repeats itself for those who fail to learn. Too many people will put their asses on the line, self-included, if any move is made to deny the residents of the Angkor Archaeological Park their number one source of income.

One final comment. It was the 14th of December that I put the rumor to bed, informed the Phnom Penh Post that there was no story after all and sorry for disturbing the managing editor's lunch. So it was with great surprise that on the 17th of December, the Cambodia Daily reported rather erroneously, and I quote:

Vendors Banned From Near Angkor Temples

Beginning Tuesday (Dec 18), vendors no longer will be allowed to sell inside Angkor Archeological Park. According to a memo signed by Apsara Authority Director-General Bun Narith, selling goods or playing music no longer will be tolerated inside or near the temples, said Tek-Sakana Savuth, executive director of the NGO Angkor Participatory Development Organization. Vendors sometimes annoy visitors, said Chea Sophat, Cultural Heritage police Chief in Siem Reap. But he added that "this ban will affect the poor; Apsara Authority would need to take measures" to help them. Since their traditional farming areas have been taken in conjunction with monument preservation plans, many vendors have relied on sales to tourists to pull themselves out of poverty, said Tek-Sakana Savuth, whose NGO helps villagers find new sources of income. Apsara Authority has hired villagers to work as security guards, maintenance workers and laborers on the park grounds said Tek-Sakana Savuth. The ban also will affect vendors who set up tables booths, said Keo Saravuth, director of administration for Angkor Conservation Office. There has been an increasing number of tables set up closer to the temples. Bun Narith could not be reached for comment Sunday. (Pin Sisovann and Michelle Vachon)

So I suppose that for the time being, at least in Phnom Penh, thanks to this choice piece of reporting the rumor still lives on as fact. But I'll give proper credit - other than further confounding the vending status within the park, the rest of the story is correct.

Tourism in Anlong Veng

Ever since the Cambodian government took firm control of the Anlong Veng area there's been talk of opening the region up for tourism, for Anlong Veng was the final territory of the Khmer Rouge. In town, one can see Ta Mok's villa, and a dozen kilometers to the north on the Dangrek mountain alongside the Thai border are important memorials to the Khmer Rouge such as the remains of Pol Pot's last two homes (one house is completely gone save for a slab of cement that was once in his bathroom), a more modest home of Ta Mok's with a spectacular view of northwest Cambodia, and perhaps of greatest interest - Pol Pot's cremation site.

I'm not going to debate the pros and cons of visitors wishing to see these sites. But suffice it to say, I find it a bit ironic that the many people who make visiting the Tuol Sleng museum in Phnom Penh, the Killing Fields Memorial at Choeung Ek and any number of other smaller killing fields memorials around the country a top priority are so quick to criticize the idea of seeing where it all ended.

In addition to these sites, future road construction will link this area (and Siem Reap which lies 122 kilometers to the south of Anlong Veng) with the famous Preah Vihear temple to the east and the also famous Banteay Chhmar to the west. Also in the works is to make the border entry with Thailand north of Anlong Veng into a fully legal international crossing point.

I first visited Anlong Veng on July 24, 2000 to do a story on the viability of tourism in the area. To read my trip report connect here. I returned on December 16, 2001 to see if any progress had been made in the effort to promote the region and facilitate tourism here.

Virtually none had. The road north is holding up pretty good. There are some rough spots between Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean and again north of the village of Srei Noi. I still made the trip on a Honda 250 in about two and a half hours. The stretch of magnificent hardwood forest has been thinned out a bit. But everyone knows that quality wood furniture always comes from Anlong Veng.

The town now has two guesthouses, both very basic. Several places advertise themselves in English as restaurants though neither one could serve me any food when I asked. One pointed me to the other which pointed me to another which told me to go to the market. The tanks in the road have been removed and are now in the new War Museum in Siem Reap run by the Ministry of Defense.

The road up the Dangrek Mountain is as wretched as ever though there was some heavy earth moving equipment lying about and one stretch had seen some new dirt recently thrown down, but it's still mostly one big rock field. Once on the mountain, the military still runs the show but they are a lot more relaxed now. I still had to check in at the front but it wasn't necessary to explain my purpose. Only a couple of soldiers now hang out around Ta Mok's villa.

Going out to Pol Pot's house, the road is still blocked - this is because the Thai border is only a few meters away. But they didn't ask me for any money or demand that I use and pay for an escort. As a matter of fact, further down the road towards Pol Pot's place the former military station was devoid of soldiers. I was able to go all the way to Pol Pot's place unescorted, which other than being a bit more overgrown around the villa it's much as it was in July 2000.

Pol Pot's cremation site is the one place the government seems most interested in promoting for tourism - so consider this: When I visited, there was a gate near the first military checkpoint blocking access to it. Hungry, I chose to leave well enough alone. I'd seen it before, had heard they had already constructed some sort of crude memorial over the ashes, and figured if there's a gate, then somebody will probably want money for me to visit the site. So it was with some surprise that I heard on the 31st of December - two days after a friend of mine visited Dangrek - that the military refused to allow him and his two companions to see the site. My friend reported that the military person they spoke with was extremely rude and nasty saying things along the lines of - Who are you to visit this place? This place isn't for you. Get lost. And so forth. This hardly sounds like the proper attitude to take for an area which PM Hun Sen is insisting be developed for tourism - and with Pol Pot's cremation site the main attraction.

And that was that. The area is open and if you can get yourself up there nobody's going to bother you about visiting these places - with the possible exception of Pol Pot's cremation site - but you'll probably need somebody to show you around as you can get lost up on the mountain. Or try to follow my map.

Nightclub closing status

It's now been a month and a week since PM Hun Sen ordered all nightclubs, discotheques, and karaoke clubs closed. You'd never know it. I was in Phnom Penh from the 28th to the 31st of the month and all the western-oriented clubs were operating normally. Martini's on a Saturday night was jam packed, the disco was fully operational with a live band inside and there was no shortage of girls - including a lot of new faces - wandering around looking for a companion. Sharky Bar, Heart of Darkness all open and normal. Many of the Khmer clubs are also up and running again but some are still maintaining a more low-key approach to business. Come and have a blast in whatever form you choose.

The end of Apsara?

Here's a developing story that for the time being is a bit confusing but may have some important implications further down the road.

Route 6 is the main east-west highway in Siem Reap. Largely a commercial strip, it includes to the west towards the airport numerous large Khmer-run hotels catering mostly to package tourists. Land along this road is needless to say, quite valuable. To the east it's mostly small businesses to Psah Leu.

Mid-month it was reported that PM Hun Sen slammed a subdecree on land use along Route 6 claiming it would dislocate numerous poor families. Two things entered my mind. One, where was the PM when two huge fires dislocated a few thousand families in Phnom Penh in November and two, what poor families was he talking about? I couldn't think of anywhere along Route 6 that were even residential, let alone poor until you go east of Psah Leu.

I wasn't the only person confused. The Cambodia Daily reported on December 17 the reaction to Hun Sen's denunciation. Various officials didn't know what areas he was talking about anymore than I did. Officials, who wished to remain anonymous, could only scratch their heads as they commented that the poor families had been relocated from the area several years ago. Furthermore, none of the officials had been allowed the chance to see the new subdecree, anyway.

Apparently, there's a 1995 subdecree that gives the Apsara Authority, the government body in charge of overseeing the Angkor Archaeological Park, control of land usage for 250 meters either side of Route 6 from the airport in the west to Roluos in the east. They also have control of the land along the Siem Reap river and along the road to the Angkor Archaeological Park. The premise being that Apsara, while not only in charge of direct maintenance of the Angkor monuments, is also in charge of overseeing tourism and development in the region in a way beneficial to the preservation of the temples. According to this subdecree Apsara's permission must be obtained to develop along any of these roads. The Daily reports that this is not often enforced. One well-connected local I spoke with doubted the legalities of the decree in the first place, but concedes that Apsara does claim control of the land just the same.

But a new subdecree apparently solidifies Apsara's control of this land. Hun Sen is not pleased with this and is now saying that the Apsara Authority should be dissolved, claiming it is too heavily influenced by foreigners who do not understand the needs of Cambodia's poor. Apsara is largely funded by the French and Japanese governments and UNESCO (UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Other than confusion as to what poor people the PM is referring to - I can only speculate that it must be people on the area of land between Psah Leu and Roluos - Hun Sen has some potentially valid points. I would agree that local development away from the Angkor temples should be in control of local authorities and not a large government organization.

And the relevancy of all this? Hun Sen is after Apsara's throat and when Hun Sen really sets his mind to something he usually gets his way. So while there may be some confusion over who controls what land and who and where are the poor people, there's no confusion that Hun Sen wants Apsara dissolved. Not less than a few souls around here would welcome such a move.

An NGO needs help

While many of us in Cambodia are often quick to criticize NGOs, especially the large ones, there really are some good ones here and one of them is in a funding crunch. If you read last month's column I made mention of the street kid, S'kun, who I've been writing about for some time now and directed you to the page devoted to her story. On that page I mention two local NGOs, AFESIP and Mith Samlanh / Friends. It is the latter of the two, Mith Samlanh that could use a little help.

The following story, reprinted in its entirety, appeared in the Phnom Penh Post, December 21, 2001 - January 3, 2002.

Street kids' NGO faces funding crisis
by Rachel Scollay

Well-known Phnom Penh NGO, Mith Samlanh / Friends, which offers a broad range of programs and services for street kids, is in a precarious position after two major donors recently had to cut their funding.

Friends' coordinator, Sebastien Marot, said the cuts were particularly worrying as the organization needed to cope with an increasing number of street children.

"Every day we have parents and children asking to stay in our center so they can be safe and study, and we have to reject them because we have no more space and no more money," he said.

Marot said as Friends' funding was spread across many sources it would not have to close completely. However, he said the shortfall meant it lacked money for three main programs: the house where children live, the training center and the HIV / AIDS project.

"You can't tell these kids not to work in prostitution if you don't offer an alternative," he said. "Nothing makes sense if you don't have a place for them to stay and a place for them to train. It's hitting us right at the heart of Friends."

Friends, he said, was looking for donors to make up the significant shortfall: $250,000 a year for housing and training; $150,000 for the HIV / AIDS program.

Marot said one reason for the increase in street kids was the recent Phnom Penh slum fires and subsequent forced relocation of affected families outside the city where they lacked facilities. Travel costs meant many children had dropped out of school.

Because there were no jobs at the resettlement site, Marot said, fathers were forced to leave their families at the site to find work in the city, returning every 10 to 15 days. Mothers were out of work because their jobs were also in the city, but they had to remain at the site to keep the land the families had been assigned.

"The kids can't go to school as there are no schools out there, so they go into town with their fathers to work, and [end up living] on the streets with their dads," said Marot. Many parents had asked Friends to take in their children, he said, all of which increased demand just when money was tightest.

Marot said AIDS provided another reason for the increase in street kids, with more children forced onto the streets after their parents became too sick to work. He said current projections predicted 140,000 AIDS orphans by 2004.

"It's now we need to prepare for the influx of these children and expand our services," he said, but with the funding crisis: "We've got a lot of gray hairs."

So, if you have a few hundred grand kicking around and wondering what to do with it... well, there's an idea.

The website for Mith Samlanh / Friends : http://www.streetfriends.org
The website for the Phnom Penh Post : http://www.phnompenhpost.com
The page on my website that's relevant to this story and contains some information about Mith Samlanh / Friends: http://talesofasia.com/cambodia-lifeonthestreets.htm

Siem Reap round-up

Baggage trolleys in the airport

Two months ago I complained loudly here about the lack of baggage trolleys in the domestic terminal of the Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport. On the 6th of December I flew in from Phnom Penh, this time with 66 kilograms (145 pounds) of junk. There was not one baggage trolley, nor were there two, no, there were fifteen, maybe twenty trolleys! They still seem to think that parking them outside at the taxi booth is the right place to put them, but to CAMS credit, they've at least put a sufficient number of them out. Now, I can only wonder, did Tales of Asia have anything to do with this??? Regardless, a thank you to CAMS for responding to an obvious traveler need.

Motorbike rentals - the latest

According to the folks at the Siem Reap Moto Club, the governor of Siem Reap province, will, by the time you read this, be once again permitting motorbike rentals to tourists so long as the rental agency carries insurance to cover all costs should a lessee be found liable in an accident. Expect the extra insurance costs to be passed along to the tourist. Keep in mind then that using a motodop is now more than ever a cheaper alternative for touring the temples and it carries no potential liability for theft, damage, accidents, etc. If you want to get out in the countryside, sure, rent a bike, but if your only intention is to see the temples then I still recommend hiring the services of a motodop. It really will make your life easier and cheaper.

Curiously, on the 16th of December, just as I was heading off to Anlong Veng on my motorcycle, I was pulled over at the split near Angkor Wat by the tourist police and forced for the second time in three months to prove my residency. As is usual of Cambodia, the law changes daily. Hopefully in short time this will be sorted out once and for all.

Local road work

The rainy season is over and now its construction season. In Siem Reap numerous surface streets are getting a fresh layer of asphalt, or in some cases, a first ever layer of asphalt. The pace of work is brisk as dozens upon dozens of laborers earning all of about 3,000 riels (75 cents US) a day lay gravel by hand while some grunt runs over it with a roller.

The construction is creating virtually no inconvenience to tourists whatsoever and for us residents, almost daily we find some new stretch of road is now up to or nearly up to international standards. Keep up the good work!

Fast food

...well, not exactly... but it's an interesting idea. The place is called Angkor Chum Restaurant and does serve burgers and fries along with a few Khmer specialties as well. It's on Sivatha Street more-or-less across from the E-Cafe.

New scam - overland Bangkok to Siem Reap

The overland transport companies are continuing their freefall descent into absolute self-destruction as they fill the journey with more scams, hassles, and delays. The latest scam some companies have added is pressuring you to use their 'agent' to obtain your visa and charging several hundred baht extra for this unnecessary service. For awhile the companies have been stopping several kilometers before the border giving the visa/immigration form touts a chance at you, but now some are working in full cooperation with these scum.

A tourist visa should be $20 at the border but ever since they began issuing them at the Poipet and Koh Kong entries the officials have been getting away with charging 1000 baht (presently about $23) and pocketing the difference. While a corrupt practice, it's not a practice you can do anything about just yet.

But the transport companies have added this new twist: You'll stop a few kilometers before the border where heavy pressure followed by assorted lies - "it will take too long to get the visa on your own" - "the bus to Siem Reap can't wait that long" - "because there are many of you they have to process you as a group," etc. All utter bullshit! And the kicker is that they'll pull from 1,200 to as much as 1,500 baht out of you to process your visa. I say it again - getting a visa on arrival is a laughably easy process - you need no one's help! Most of the time the officials don't even bother reading half of what you write on the form - which only takes thirty seconds to fill out anyway.

As one reader e-mailed:

...bus leaves from khao san at 7 am (tho it's supposed to be 6; standard repacking everyone in one bus deal). bus gets to a cafe near poipet at 11:30. from then on, we wait as more mini buses drop people off. at 2 the "visa man" arrives. everyone is told to get their visa from him, or otherwise they will have to wait hours at the border, and "the buses wont wait for you."

but he's charging 1300 baht. and it's only 1000 at the border.

twenty people do it anyway.

Twenty people. Twenty people needlessly forked over 1300 baht creating a 6000 baht (almost $140 US) 'profit' for these scum. And that line "the buses won't wait for you". That's laughable. Of course they'll wait. They're getting $6 a head from the guesthouse they deliver you to. They'll wait all day if they have to.

Apparently some travel agents in Bangkok are involved as well.

...The only caveat I have for you readers is that the kao san road agency tells you the border fee is 1200B but once you get there the tour guides hit you for 1500B. The guard at the kiosk where you pay this fee asked me out the side door how much I paid, presumably to calculate his own kickback?

Here's an idea! Scam the scammers! How? Buy the 80 baht ticket (though I recently heard the price has gone as low as 50 baht now) on KSR (which is still half what the public bus to Aranyaprathet costs) and when they pull up before the border - leave! Yes, just leave. Find a tuk tuk and do the Cambodia leg on your own. You just scammed the scammers! No visa scam. No commission from the restaurant in Sisophon. No commission from the guesthouse in Siem Reap. No wasting time. No lies. No BS. And you'll arrive quickly and can stay anywhere you want. If you all walk away as a group - they can't do anything to you but complain. Complain back. What? Do you think they're going to beat you up or something? Demand money? You paid for passage to Siem Reap. There's nothing that says you can't walk out before reaching your final destination.

Until the day comes when these companies can conduct their business in such a way that you simply pay your fare and they deliver you to Siem Reap with minimal hassle, I'm going to categorically advise against using any of these transport companies either originating in Bangkok or in Poipet. I've since consolidated all the information on independent overland travel between Bangkok and Siem Reap and have posted it on this new page: Overland. Read it and do the trip yourself.

If by any unlikely chance, a representative of one of these companies is reading this, could you please explain why you have to run all these scams and play all these games? Is it asking too much that instead of charging 80 baht and then ripping off and delaying your customer at every turn you simply charge a fare that allows you a reasonable profit, say 500 or 600 baht, and in return you deliver the tourist to Siem Reap as quickly as possible with no games and no scams? And when you get to Siem Reap you let the tourist choose where they want to stay? Is it really asking too much to request that you run your business with some semblance of legitimacy? Of course it's asking too much.

Fires - photos

In last month's column I wrote a bit about the fires in two squatter communities in Phnom Penh. As promised I have photos of the aftermath of one of these fires. Connect to this page to view them.


In this month's electronic mail bag:

I find your magazine style interesting but I have a negative comment. We shall be in Siem Reap in January and I was hoping your insider's tips (October) on eating places would be helpful. But one restaurant is western, another is Indian and the third is Vietnamese. We are hoping to eating Cambodian food in Cambodia...

Fair comment and appreciated. In Thailand I'm so often asked by Thais to comment on the cuisine of their neighbors. "Well, let's just say nobody travels to Cambodia to eat," is my usual reply. With such excellent cuisines on either side (Thai and Vietnamese) it's somewhat unfortunate and surprising as well that Cambodia doesn't have particularly exciting food. Still, it's not all that bad and Khmer restaurants expectedly abound. One I particularly like in Siem Reap is a truly authentic local dining experience. It's a no-name place about five hundred meters north of Highway 6 on the road that runs parallel to the river on the east side. Walk up the road past the La Noria and look on your right for a covered area with a bunch of tables and an open cooking area in front. To the right of the eating area you'll likely see dozens of motorbikes parked. The place is very popular with locals, but they have an English-language menu and one of the waiters speaks pretty good English. Most dishes are about 3000 riels (75 cents US).

Next, understanding why I report on a lot of negative things:

...I've lived in Japan for about two years, and I know what you mean with the apologies for seemingly focusing on the negative aspects of a country. People who stay for 10 days in an area generally leave the country thinking that they're leaving a paradise; ex-pats who live in the country get to see the everyday annoyances and aggravations that wouldn't register with only a tourist's cursory glance. But reading about the pitfalls can help nip a potentially unpleasant experience in the bud, and also give the tourist a deeper appreciation of the sights they'll encounter when on the streets.

Not a month goes by that someone doesn't write me something about S'kun that warrants consideration. The writer's suggestion of exploring her mother's background further is indeed an excellent one and if I can locate her I might just probe a bit.

Fascinating story! I hope that S'kun continues to do well and overcome such tragedy. She is clearly a child who can accomplish anything she sets her mind to! I do have one question for you - it's in regards to her mother.

In the story you dismiss her as "worthless", and although I can certainly understand your rage and disgust at her irresponsibility, brutality, and lack of any care at all for her children-especially your friend- I was just wondering if you or anyone else that you've worked with knew anything about HER experiences in life? How old is she, and what has she been through over the past 25 years? There is certainly no excuse for her treatment of her children, and since I don't know any of the parties involved, perhaps it isn't even my place to ask, but there must be some reason at least for her living under these conditions. Perhaps she wasn't worthless for her entire life, perhaps she was destroyed by circumstances and events that were beyond her control. She obviously wasn't gifted with the same strength and dignity that her daughter is graced with, as I'm sure you'll agree. I hope this question doesn't offend you, or give the impression that I sympathize with this woman to any major extent, but I am interested in knowing what brought her to this type of existance. I think that if we can research and study women like her, as well as her daughter, maybe we can find out the true and lasting extent of the effects of the past regime's brutality, and hopefully set programs in place for people who are at risk for abusing as well as being abused. Perhaps if this woman had gotten help earlier in her life she wouldn't have degenerated so far and perpetuated this kind of brutality on her poor children. Also, if we can detect and intervene in more situations like that, perhaps children like S'kun can be saved from repeating the cycle...

A recent overland traveler had a particularly bad spell of luck.

I was recently robbed on a pickup truck from Poipet to Battambang. Got in a pickup on the traffic circle--against your advice, I know, but for 150baht in the cab all the way to Battambang, I didn't mind and was happy to just get going, as it was getting late (and we literally stopped in Sisophan for less than 1 minute, as promised). There was only one seat free in the cab, so I put my big pack in the back of the truck (no way was it sitting on my lap!). I had valuables in a locked compartment of the pack, and the entire thing was covered with a rain cover. Someone opened up the raincover, forced the zipper on the locked compartment, and stole my valuables--cash, camera, CDs.

What's more, INSIDE the cab, an old woman sitting next to me stole something out of my day pack, which was at my feet. Nothing valuable, as the valuables were in a locked compartment, but still. She must have been pretty good--I didn't notice a thing. I don't know if the two thieves worked together, or were independent and it was a coincidence.

Now, I posted this on lonely planet to warn people and got the typical ''if you're so stupid to leave your pack on the back of the truck, you deserve to get robbed' replies. Maybe that's true, I don't know. I guess I was foolish in thinking that the rain cover and lock would prevent casual theft, as it wouldn't be possible to steal something subtly, without everyone else on the back of the truck seeing. So either they all just turned their heads, or more likely got a piece of the action. I guess what I've heard about Cambodians being generally honest people when it comes to this sort of thing just aren't true. Went and spent three hours in the police station in battambang for shits and giggles, answering questions like what my mother did for a living and where my father was born. Fortunately, I'm now in Siem Reap and am liking Cambodia a bit better than i did at first.

In any event, for future reference, was i really absolutely crazy to put my bag in the back? Is the norm to buy an extra seat for your bag.

The writer is not the first person to have this happen to them, but it's not that common of an occurrence. I'm guessing the two thieves had nothing to do with each other and the writer was having a really bad day. As for the folks in the back - half of them probably weren't paying attention and those that might have seen what was going on either decided it wasn't their problem or were told to shut up under threat of violence. But we'll never really know. Also, that the writer got the truck at the circle likely had nothing to do with being robbed

As a rule, I always keep my bags up front with me and buy two seats. I either take the front seat, or if I'm in one of the back seats I put my bags against the window/side of the truck and I sit in the middle and use my bags as a pillow when I go to sleep.

In closing

Happy new year... shouldn't I have said that in the beginning? Anyway, January will be a busy one. Starting the 3rd I will be out on the Tonle Sap lake for a few days shooting photos for a project with the UN-FAO. This will be followed by a motorcycle trip through the Cardamom Mountains and then a day at the beach in Sihanoukville. Back to Siem Reap - then a few days in Bangkok, then followed by, I hope, another trip to the northeast (Ratanakiri, etc.). That'll get me to February where a trip to Singapore is on the horizon. All of this traveling will provide many feature stories for this website and I'm sure some kind of unexpected event in Cambodia will offer more fodder for this column.

This column ran a bit a long this month - over 7700 words. With one short exception (September), the columns have been fairly consistent in the 5000 - 6000 word range. This brings up the possibility of running a slightly shorter column twice a month and if I can discipline myself I may explore doing that. I guess one of the problems is that the column is only as good as events around me allow. Last month's column was looking a little lean until the final week of the month when Hun Sen ordered the bars shut and a few days later two huge slums burned to the ground. But we'll see... there are certainly enough readers... that said...


Siem Reap, Cambodia
January 2, 2002.




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