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Every Cambodia Update: August, 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update.

January 2003

1.) Terrorism in Siem Reap?
2.) Hun Sen: a National Hero
3.) Road updates
4.) Cambodia's toilet capital
5.) More silly ideas for Angkor
6.) Sihanoukville motodops
7.) Upcoming motorbike trip
8.) Phone repairs
9.) Job offer
10.) El Nino or something
11.) Toll booths
12.) Perspective


Terrorism in Siem Reap?

I expect the folks at the various embassies are having a snicker at me for all the noise I've made about their warnings in the wake of the bombs found in Siem Reap mid-December. But before you start canceling travel plans and having a pissy-poo (that includes the embassies, too) let's talk about what happened and what we do know and don't know.

What we were told: Three bombs each containing approximately 1.5 kilograms of TNT were found outside a brothel one block northeast of Psah Chas (Old Market) in downtown Siem Reap. The bombs were diffused and no one was injured. The street in question is a single block long and contains two Vietnamese brothels. Some liken to calling it Siem Reap's Red Light District which is rather silly when you consider there are only two brothels here and there are an awful lot more scattered elsewhere around town.

The first official take is that the bombs were placed to cause disruption to the ASEAN conference on poverty being held at the Angkor Century Hotel. Then the government said, well, maybe not, let's not jump to any conclusions, we will investigate.

A number of arrests were made with the detainees claiming they were paid a tidy sum of cash and a motorbike to leave the bombs but they themselves had no idea why. Additional arrests, that may have been tied to this attempted bombing, were made in the Battambang area.

What rumors abounded: While the official report was TNT, on the streets some had heard it was hand grenades, others had even heard a land mine had been placed in the ground in the empty lot next to one of the brothels.

What we know for sure: Something that goes "boom" was placed outside a brothel one block northeast of Psah Chas.

What doesn't make sense: They told us initially that the bombs were placed to disrupt the ASEAN conference on poverty. But the Angkor Century Hotel is at least one kilometer from where the bombs were placed. It would not have been difficult to place the bombs much closer to the hotel. And why the conference on poverty? In Phnom Penh in November we had *The Summit*, the big guys, the leaders of Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, China, Japan, Indonesia, etc, all of them, they were here. If you're going to disrupt an ASEAN conference and send some kind of "message", well, that would have been the conference to disrupt.

What other scenarios we sit around the bars thinking about: We all agree this ASEAN thing doesn't make much sense, so why else might this have happened?

Scenario #1: Terrorist attack perpetrated by anti-Hun Sen/CPP forces with the intent to somehow anyhow discredit the CPP government. Such an organization does exist in the body of the CFF, the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, an opposition organization deemed a terrorist network responsible for an attack on a Phnom Penh government building in November 2000 and an organization that has called for the overthrow of the CPP government before the upcoming national elections in July 2003.

Scenario #2: Anti-Hun Sen/CPP forces choose Siem Reap to stir up trouble as it's the center of Cambodia's most vital industry - tourism. This is not without precedent as a March 2000 hijacking and robbery of a Phnom Penh to Siem Reap speedboat carrying a large number of tourists was believed to have been a politically motivated attack.

Scenario #3: A radical women's organization seeks to scare off sex tourists by placing bombs in front of a brothel in Cambodia's tourism center. Now, if they were actually to look inside one of these brothels and see the ragged bunch of Vietnamese girls that await, they'd see that all but the most desperate and indiscriminating would likely be scared off within seconds of stepping into one of these dragon's lairs.

Scenario #4: A local dispute involving one of the brothel owners.

What we can conclude: The only fact not in dispute is that something that goes "boom" was placed in front of a brothel. Beyond that, everything is conjecture as even the official story doesn't make much sense. Will probably never know what really happened, but for what it's worth, everyone is getting on with their lives here, it's business as usual. Al-Qaeda is not making a presence in Cambodia. Relax. Temples await.

Hun Sen: a National Hero

Prime Minister Hun Sen is a national hero. Deal with it. The National Embarrassment (the deterioration of National Highway 6) that has been such a hot topic in this column the past few months (and the local media as well) finally came to the attention of the PM himself. And His Excellency wasn't pleased. At a disaster management conference in early December, Hun Sen came down on Siem Reap Governor Chap Nhalivuth, telling him in what may be the political quote of the year, "Don't wait for the road to come visit you, please visit the road."

The government conceded the very point I had been making here for some time, that this neglect caused substantial financial loss to the country, largely in lost tourism revenues as people chose not to go through the ordeal of traveling overland to Siem Reap and could not afford the scandalously high airfare charged by Bangkok Airways on the Bangkok - Siem Reap route ("Open Skies" my ass!).

The road problems in question were in the stretch of highway between Sisophon and Siem Reap. The half section from Sisophon to Kralanh is under the jurisdiction of Banteay Meanchey province, while the half from Kralanh to Siem Reap is under the jurisdiction of Siem Reap province. The former was attended to as soon as the rainy season ended. The latter, which was also the area suffering the worst damage, was ignored.

Since Hun Sen's tirade, repairs have begun fast and furiously and we are nearing the end of what may be the fastest road reconstruction project on the planet. If all goes to plan we will have a completely repaired and regraded road (albeit dirty and dusty) by early to mid-January that should see a return to those glorious days of late 2001 when it was possible to travel overland from Siem Reap to Poipet in as little as two and a half hours. As it is, on the 24th of December I covered the distance in two hours and fifty-five minutes.

The down side is, as always, that it's a temporary fix that probably won't last a year. Furthermore, when you consider that the cost of this construction is $120,000 per kilometer this raises a lot of questions as to how that money is spent and Cambodia's level of competence in highway construction and maintenance. I recently had a conversation with a western technical advisor in the area of roads and bridges who had few if any flattering comments to say on this topic. I will have more on this next month.

Road Updates

With #6 coming back together again between Siem Reap and Sisophon, it's also with great pleasure that I announce a vastly improved National Highway 6 between Kompong Thom and Siem Reap. Most of this road is now tarmac and what areas are still awaiting a hard top have been regraded and should be sealed within a few months making a Siem Reap to Phnom Penh trip conceivably as fast as four hours and certainly no more than five ...or at least until that time the road fills up with potholes or worse, collapses. Hopefully, the final construction which consists of upgrading the highway to international standards, will occur before this happens.

Also on #6, the stretch of road between Poipet and Sisophon is being attended to as well. They had begun work earlier this year on a 15-kilometer section just outside of Poipet, but had neglected it for the past six months or so leaving us with a bone-jarring bed of rocks. Finally, they're back at it again and hopefully we'll see this finished in January as well.

Locally, many of the roads in Siem Reap have been resurfaced making the tourism capital a much better sight to the tourists and allowing the rest of us to zip around town with far less fear of being swallowed up by moto-chewing potholes and mud pits.

Now, if only the locals would figure out that a one-way street means traffic only goes in one direction and does not confirm the seemingly obvious fact that it's physically impossible to travel in anything but a single direction at any one given moment.

An approximately twelve-year old girl on a bicycle, coming the wrong way out of a one way street into a busy intersection, making no attempt to slow down or even assess her surroundings came within a fraction of a second of being splattered on the road by yours truly and his considerably larger, heavier, faster, and operating in full compliance of all traffic laws, 250cc Honda.

The scream she let out when we almost collided was bad enough but had I whacked this kid it would really have screwed up my day as I would have to deal with the fact that while I was fully in the right, legally, and she was fully in the wrong, legally, a twelve-year-old kid is lying in the street in some sort of adverse state and a foreigner on a big bike had something to do with it. While I would certainly have felt bad for the girl, there would also be the hassle of dealing with police reports and the costs involved and so on and so on. I very well could have ended up without the use of my bike for some time, having to compensate the police for their time to file a report confirming that I wasn't at fault, and possibly still being told, "No, it wasn't your fault, but this girl is hurt, why not help out with the medical bills?" Saying this as they are holding the keys to my motorcycle.

Down in Phnom Penh, rush hour traffic has gotten so bad now one can seriously question whether it's worth going anywhere between five and seven p.m. if the journey should require a left-turn onto, or worse, a crossing of a major thoroughfare (Norodom, Sihanouk, Monivong, etc) if it's at an intersection without a traffic signal.

While we can cheer the growing prosperity that's generated this traffic, there are a lot of intersections that desperately need traffic signals before the entire city grinds to a complete halt every evening at six p.m.

Cambodia's toilet capital

Kralanh is a village halfway between Siem Reap and Sisophon. Awhile back, somebody there, no doubt observing the steady flow of tourists between Siem Reap and the border and knowing the abuse the road heaped upon these traveler's innards, got the idea to build a block of clean toilets, advertising this fact with a large sign in English, Thai, and Khmer. The plan worked as numerous taxis, buses, trucks, etc., especially those carrying foreigners, pulled up with weary travelers pouring out en masse paying the happy toilet owners 500 riels for the privilege of using these clean facilities. So what happened? Cambodians being the great imitators they are, all the neighbors began building their own rest facilities and now there most be at least eight of these things in this small village and more seem to pop up every month. And I can attest, upon visiting one recently, it was clean and stocked with all the things a westerner would require.

More silly ideas for Angkor

This December the international committee that oversees the Angkor World Heritage Site (Angkor Archaeological Park) had another one its meetings where basically everybody sits around and listens to proposals on ways to make more money off the temples. Past ideas have included escalators up Phnom Bakheng and silly sound and light shows, something I referred to here last April.

Well, the silly sound and light show nonsense is upon us again but with a twist. As reported in the Cambodia Daily (December 19, "Investors Aim To Spruce Up Angkor Visits", Molly Ball, page 15), Fabrice Cerezales wishes to offer us a "Celestial Journey". His idea would have tourists stuffed in open carts and ferried about the Angkor Park with light projections, elephants, dancers, shadow puppets, and narration.

A little over the top, I think. I've said before that the Angkor Park should be open for specific purposes in certain areas at night. Apsara dancing at Angkor Wat? Shadow Puppets in Angkor Thom? I have no problem with these and certainly there are plenty folks who could use the added income. But if we are going to exploit Angkor further, can we agree to keep things as simple and natural as possible? Have Apsara dancing, yes - buy a ticket, go to the open air theatre, sit down, enjoy the show, go back to your hotel, done. But silly light shows and electrical cars? Save that for an amusement park, or alternatively, to have a celestial journey that includes all of those aforementioned things with light shows, lasers, holograms or whatever, one should just drop a few hits of acid. It would probably be more fun and have far less of an impact on the temples.

The other proposal was offered by Hakchul Kim of South Korea's Handong Global University who has this grandiose idea to bring back the ancient water culture of old Angkor. How? By creating 70 new villages all along the Siem Reap river stretching from the town to the lake. No word on how he plans to populate these villages. Admitting the project would take twenty years to complete, I'd like to think that by 2023 Cambodia will have reached a level of prosperity where the locals won't feel the need to become tourist attractions in the name of restoring an ancient civilization. And if they do choose to live there, it's because there is quality affordable housing, access to decent schools, health clinics, and so forth and not just an attraction written up in a guidebook.

Sihanoukville motodops

I've commented elsewhere on this website of the overly aggressive nature of the motodops working in Sihanoukville. Despite increased publicity of this problem, there continue to be regular reports of tourists being threatened and even assaulted when they did not agree with the motodops' ideas as to what guesthouse they should stay. Though none of the assaults have resulted in serious injury, the mere fact that a motodop would resort to violence over such an issue is quite serious; more so as these are not isolated incidents but appear to be a growing trend. Several publications are making a point to publicize this outrage on a steady basis, and I too, will do so until I hear that this practice has ended, and hopefully with a few of these guys receiving jail sentences.

The actions of these motodops can do serious harm to the tourism industry in Sihanoukville and that harm will be further perpetuated if this problem receives more and more publicity without any action taken to curtail it. As it should.

If you visit Sihanoukville and encounter any problems with a motodop I urge you to make a major stink at the local police station, contact the Ministry of Tourism, your embassy (well, maybe not your embassy) and every regional English language publication you can think of - this website, the Bayon Pearnik, the Phnom Penh Daily, the Cambodia Daily, Farang magazine, Lonely Planet, etc. This outrage must stop.

Upcoming motorbike trip

From January 15th to the 18th I'm going on a promotional motorbike trip with Hidden Cambodia to Preah Vihear and Koh Ker. You will be able to read about it on this website shortly thereafter. As it's a promo trip, they are offering a special rate to anyone who wants to tag along. If you feel comfortable riding a 250cc dirt bike, will be in Siem Reap on the 15th, have four days to spare and want to ride along on this guided adventure please e-mail hiddencambodia@yahoo.com for more information. Do not e-mail me!

Phone repairs

A foreigner walks into an internet shop with a laptop and asks if he can get on line with his computer through their phone line.
"Yes, but now phone is broken," the helpful girl behind the counter informs him.
"Will it be fixed soon?" the foreigner asks the logical question.
"Don't know. Now phone is broken. Cannot call someone to come fix," is the helpful reply.

Job offer

The Ivy Bar is looking for a bar person. Some experience is desirable but not essential. Duties will be to supervise the trained Khmer staff and converse with customers. The compensation package is a free room at the Ivy Guesthouse, free food, and free drinks. After a probation period of two to three months a $ salary will be negotiated.

Interested persons should e-mail ivyasia@hotmail.com or telephone: 012-800-860. International callers dial 855-12-800-860.

Anyone who e-mails me about this job offer will be automatically disqualified and become the butt of jokes by drunken expats. I have nothing to do with this job so please don't ask me about it.

El Nino or something

One of the great pleasures of living in Southeast Asia is the winter. From roughly November through January we are treated to daily highs of about 30 degrees (that's about 86 Yankee degrees), moderate humidity (well, relatively moderate, but when you're accustomed to living in a sauna the other nine months, the winter humidity is quite minimal) and cool evenings that sometimes have us digging for a jacket. I've always said this is our reward for the oppressive March to May months when 40 degrees (104 for my fellow metrically-challenged Americans ...do you think America will ever get with the rest of the world and finally adopt the metric system? Me, neither. Still, perhaps some day I'll stop converting on these pages and all the other Americans can do what I did when I moved over here - learn the system!)... anyway, where was I, yes, something about 40 degrees in April. It happens and it's quite warm.

This year winter came in mid-November and lasted a week. Then it got hot again. Then it started raining with brief daily showers on as many days as not throughout December. That's not supposed to happen. And when it didn't rain it's still been in the 33-34 degree (91-93) range every day. Thailand says this year has been the warmest winter they had in twenty years and they say it's some El Nino thing. I don't know what it is, but I do know two things. One, I want my Southeast Asia winter back. Two, back in the States nobody gives a shit what I want because they're shoveling out of a foot snow. You can have the snow. It's the end of December and I'm sitting here in cut-offs and a t-shirt. So there.

Toll booths

Been on National Highway 4 (the road from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville) lately? Seen the new modern toll plaza, the first of its kind in the country? Did you see the signs directing traffic into specific lanes? One lane is for motorcycles, one lane is for lorries, and one lane is designated for tourist vehicles (define that one, huh!?). And that's it. If you're not classifiable as one of those three types of vehicle, well, I don't know what you're going to do.

Question of the month

Answers to last month's question appear below in Perspective.

This month's question:

To what extent should the Angkor Archaeological Park be developed? Sound and light shows? Electric cars? Tourists in special rubber shoes? Regulated visitation times? In other words, given the need to balance the protection of the monuments with the need to reap financial dividends, what should be done about Angkor?

Send responses to gordon@talesofasia.com.

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.


Per my comments re: embassy warnings:

The bottom line is Embassies are in a no-win situation. They provide the terrorist advisories to cover their ass. Most warnings of terrorists' plans are based on vague and hard-to-understand information. Terrorists are generally very tight lipped but their activity can be monitored so you know they are up to something and this is what Embassies have to work with. If an attack happened in their country and they didn't put out any warnings then heads would roll.

And also:

My opinion is there may be some good advice, depending.

I can only give examples, and one was that recently I asked the Austrian embassy in Bogotá about the security situation in Colombia. Their answer was quite negative, and one can read in online papers similar opinions/situation descriptions. What does that really tell me? Sure enough, it keeps me from planning a trip presently to the most beautiful country on this planet. I traveled there for 3 months in 1995/96 and again in 98 and never a problem. Truth is, there is a new president and one who gets tough with the guerilla and they respond. Result: a higher death toll and less security and the first bomb exploding in Cartagena, which was always safe. So overall, I tend to believe this advice.

However, when it comes to advice from the state department, I would assume this to be over-exaggerated drivel as you may put it, as over there everything is on the verge of hysteria (only on the verge?). See a country lead by you know whom and now equipped with a ministry for home security and air arrivals having to take off shoes and baggage being forcefully opened and "that's not the responsibility of the checking officer" and on and on and on. You not only ask people who see the world from the perspective of an embassy, being protected by diplomatic rules, etc etc and you expect them to know what is really going on on this planet?

Speaking in Siem Reap terms, the real world would not be in the air-con office of a consul, if there was one, but in the stalls of the Psah Chas market. But these embassy folks think their world is the real world.

And on top of it, when things have to do with "that country", they are paranoid anyway and how. I should ask THEM for security questions? Don't make me laugh.

I've recently received numerous travelers' reports, mostly detailing experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are three of them.

In closing

Over the New Year holiday, I spent a few days riding around Northern Thailand on a rented Honda CB400, doing the Chiang Mai - Mae Sariang - Mae Hong Son - Pai - Chiang Mai loop. Writing up this trip will finally mean the beginning of the long-awaited Thailand section of this website. Aside from a standard trip report there will be my detailed impressions of the new Khao San Road of the north - Pai, the ethics of visiting the long-neck Karen villages in Mae Hong Son, thoughts on riding motorcycles in a country where people believe in reincarnation and more. Give me a few weeks to start putting this altogether.

Bangkok, Thailand
January 2, 2003

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