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Another year, another review. Once again, toa takes a look at the year that was.
January: With fresh memories of the SARS hysteria that sunk tourism in 2003, fears of an outbreak of avian flu causes panic among nervous tourists, Americans, and chickens. Nervous tourists are advised not to roll in chicken shit, have sexual relations with chickens, or eat raw chicken, Americans are advised to stay home and watch Fox News for further developments, and chickens are advised to run like hell.
In an effort to promote tourism in Siem Reap, EDC (the local power company) stages a series of citywide blackouts from roughly 4:30 pm to 10:30 pm nearly every night for several weeks. When asked why not schedule blackouts during the day when most tourists would be at the temples, an EDC spokesperson twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
To further promote tourism in Siem Reap, it is decided to reconstruct the road leading from Highway 6 to the airport in the middle of one of the two busiest months of the year, causing all airport traffic to be diverted towards Angkor Wat and past the Sokimex Angkor ticket booths. Despite dozens of tuk-tuks passing by each day with tourists loaded down with stacks of luggage, the Sokimex folks still make a point of running out in the street demanding to know, as if they couldn't tell, where it is you are going and how dare you use this public road if the temples are not your destination and you don't have a ticket! When it is suggested that perhaps the Sokimex employees might exercise a touch of lateral thinking along with the obvious visual clues that a vehicle is heading for the airport (the luggage should be the giveaway) a Sokimex spokesperson twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
February: In an effort to stop the spread of avian flu, border guards at the Poipet and Koh Kong crossings reinstate SARS screening. As no new cases of SARS are reported in Cambodia in 2004, the border guards consider the program a success and vow to continue it well into 2005 and beyond.
Terror strikes Phnom Penh as an unknown assailant drives around the city firing projectiles from a slingshot at western men. As several injuries are reported, local motodops surmise that westerners riding motorbikes and wearing helmets must be doing so as protection from the slingshot artist.
March: Nhim Sophea, nephew of PM Hun Sen is handed a prison sentence for his part in the Coconut Gang incident of October 2003. However, all accused insist the real assailant is a man named Sam Doeun. The court accepts their testimony and hands the mysterious man a ten-year prison sentence. When asked to produce the slippery fellow, Coconut Gang members twist their hands around a few times, smile, and say "cannot".
In an effort to promote tourism and national pride, operators of the Khao San Road to Bangkok "scam" bus begin money-changing services for all tourists. Offering 3400 riels to the dollar, the agents announce that the mandatory money swap is part of a government effort to promote use of the national currency. Gullible tourists fail to consider what currency it was they used to buy their visas and readily change money, forcing Siem Reap bar owners to open riel accounts at local banks.
April: The Tonle Sap lake, normally low this time of year, drops to some of its lowest levels in living memory. This pushes various organizations into a research frenzy which turns up some sort of an ancient "road" in the lake's bed. Though likely a sediment deposit, its existence in the otherwise muddy lake bottom prompts several research specialists to head out to the middle of the lake, plop down some beach chairs, and knock back a few cold ones. Further ideas hatched include sponsoring a "walk across the lake" charity event, and a more commercially minded expedition to ride dirt bikes between a number of floating villages.
Raffles Hotel decides to respond to workers' demands for their fair cut of the 10% service charge by firing the entire lot of them. When tourists ask as to why the hotel doesn't give the money to the staff, after all, that's what the tourists thought they were paying the service charge for, a hotel spokesperson twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
New Year celebrations once again see imbecilic teenagers fling plastic bags of water at innocent motorcyclists leading to scores of injuries and a handful of fatalities. In an effort to reduce the number of casualties, authorities announce a ban on motorbike riding on all paved highways from April 14 - 16. When it is suggested to authorities that perhaps instead they could ban throwing bags of water at moving vehicles, a spokesperson twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
May: A near riot occurs at a Phnom Penh garment factory over rumors that a visiting inspector from Thailand remarked that "Angkor Wat belongs to Thailand". Order is restored when it is clarified that she in fact said that "Vietnam belongs to Thailand." A leading political opposition figure is observed smiling in the background.
With rains not yet forthcoming the lake drops to perilously low levels prompting one Siem Reap expat to attempt to ride his motorbike from one side to the other. The trip is a failure when local police set up a roadblock demanding that all foreigners wishing to ride a motorbike across the Tonle Sap must use a specially appointed guide who will drive the bike and owner across the lake. Police are mystified as to how such a program manages to raise not one single dollar when a similar program was proving so successful nearby at Chong Khneas for tourists wishing to hire a boat to see the floating village.
June: Responding to PM Hun Sen's announcement that “whoever will build taller buildings, we will give a medal," Canadia Bank announces plans to construct a 24-story skyscraper near the railway station in Phnom Penh. Conservationists and other tree-hugging types scream bloody murder as if such a building would surely destroy the European colonial charm of Phnom Penh, failing to take into account the seemingly obvious fact that Phnom Penh is not a European city, but an Asian one. Talesofasia representatives request a front-row seat at the medal presentation ceremony to congratulate both the PM and Canadia Bank officials for a job well done.
Finally, nearly a year after the election, CPP and FUNCINPEC officials announce a deal to form a new government that once again leaves Sam Rainsy standing out in the cold without a microphone to talk in. One almost daily newspaper runs a three-page obituary for the death of the Alliance of Democrats ignoring suggestions to run a three-page expose on the newly-formed Alliance of Excellencies.
July: In a move that would launch a thousand conspiracy theories, acting head of state and longtime CPP bigwig Chea Sim makes a sudden exit from Phnom Penh under a police escort directed by National Police Chief Hok Lundy. The official version of events is he needs medical treatment in Bangkok. More likely it is because he won't affix his signature to the new government. Regardless, his stay in Bangkok sees a remarkable improvement in his personal health.
Two days after Chea Sim's departure the National Assembly convenes for the first time under the new government. Sam Rainsy boycotts the proceedings but only one almost daily newspaper bothers to take note.
In an effort to rid Cambodia of sex, a local NGO facilitates the jailing of a bar owner under allegations he was forcing his staff into prostitution. The truth quickly comes to light that the girls had a personal vendetta against the bar owner for having the audacity to fire them for stealing from him. Furthermore it is revealed that the girls had already accepted employment at another bar where once again they agreed to be forced to have sex. When questioned as to whether people should have sex in Cambodia, the NGO director, Petrol Legirons, twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
August: The World Bank issues a scathing report on the climate of corruption one encounters in the process of opening and running a business in Cambodia and the IMF issues a report on the falling rate of annual growth. PM Hun Sen vows to do something about it, citing measures that will streamline and reduce the costs of setting up a business. When asked as to whether it would be possible to run a business without corruption in Cambodia, a senior government spokesman twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
Raising questions as to what degree of influence PM Hun Sen has on the aviation industry in Cambodia, the family airline First Cambodia Air (one of his daughters held 51%) throws in the towel after just three months of operations and losses in excess of one million dollars.
September: An announcement is made for the construction of a new international airport in Poipet, no doubt to encourage the gambling trade from Thailand. When asked as to why not encourage the tourist trade and build the road from the border to Siem Reap, a senior official twists his hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
In an effort to put Cambodia auto manufacturing on the map, Nhean Phalet and his daughter Leakhena produce their second hand-built car, the Angkor II. Reception to the one-off product is positive. For once, no one twists their hands around a few times, smiles, and says "cannot".
October: King Norodom Sihanouk says "enough already". Conspiracy theorists have another field day, but a peaceful succession takes place as one of Sihanouk's sons becomes King Norodom Sihamoni in a three-day coronation ceremony. Questions remain as to who will become queen.
The new Minister of Tourism Lay Prohas grants a number of interviews, and for the first time a government official speaks out publicly about visa overcharges at the borders, illegal police checkpoints at tourist attractions, and other general shenanigans that have plagued the tourism industry. We still await results.
November: Sam Rainsy finds himself answering defamation charges for claiming Ranariddh pocketed $30 million to form a government with Hun Sen. One almost daily newspaper files an exclusive story.
The annual Water Festival comes late this year but lives up to its name as storms hit Phnom Penh turning the boat races into a new form of extreme surfing.
December: In their continuing drive to rid Cambodia of sex, an NGO stages a raid on a local hotel, citing numerous acts of sex occurring on premises. The following day a counter raid sees the NGO's shelter emptied of all its guests, many of whom later interviewed that they were not sex workers but kitchen workers and any sex they were having is nobody else's business. The NGO finds itself in a most precarious situation and its director, Petrol Legirons, speaking from Bangkok vows to continue his crusade to rid Cambodia of sex. Representatives of a number of foreign embassies, including the United States, applaud the move, but they aren't allowed out to have fun, anyway.
As the year comes to a close, cold weather grips the region, holiday festivities are in full swing, tourism is up, and the outlook is good. Talesofasia would like to wish all a Happy New Year and may each and every one of us resolve to encourage at least one person this year not to twist their hands around a few times, smile, and say "cannot" when faced with even the slightest of challenges.
Discuss this story here:
Cambodia was fortunately spared the wrath of December 26th's 9.0 earthquake and tsunamis but we are in the region and not immune to the effects. A terrible tragedy with a scale of destruction most of us not eyewitness to simply cannot comprehend.
Personally, I am fine and my wife and her family are fine - they are Bangkok-based and were far from any damage, so if anyone had any concerns, thanks, but we're okay.
But over 150,000 people have lost their lives and millions have been affected. Recovery will take years. But recovery begins from day one and part of that recovery is trying to revert to some kind of normalcy in life. And on that point I want to say that other than supporting relief efforts, one can further help the recovery process not by canceling trips or avoiding Andaman Sea destinations but instead turning up as planned and supporting the industries that support the local population. The world doesn't stop for tragedy. Yes, there are beaches, bungalows, and resorts that are gone. But the Andaman side of Thailand is a big place and a majority of places are still intact or at least able to support some degree of tourism, even most of Phuket is still intact. Many people lost everything, but the only way they'll begin to get it back is for people to support the businesses that support the people. Just a thought.
Discuss this story and the following item here:
December is historically one of the busiest months of the year so it should come as no surprise that we were busy and month three of the Two Dragons Guesthouse gives us many reasons to be optimistic for our future.
Not once in the entire thirty-one days of December did one person ask us for money. Not one government official, non-government official, government non-official, or non-government non-official. So let's put to rest once and for all, all those bar stool stories of "Hey man, you don't want to run a business in Cambodia, dude. Like, all sorts of people gonna walk in your door and demand some money from you because you the whitey westerner, man. This is Cambodia, they got you by the balls, dude. Even your landlord gonna come along and demand a cut."
Well, let me tell you about my landlord. Other than coming by each month to collect his due on the appointed date, the only other times he's popped in was to give us something. In November he brought us a giant papaya which he thought we might like, and we did. And this past month he delivered a half dozen orchids in hanging baskets for the side of restaurant where we have hanging baskets of orchids and things. He knew we liked them and thought six more would look kinda nice there, and they did. I suppose maybe one day he'll come along and demand a cut of, I don't know, a flower? He can take two.
The staff has grown. We've just added a night-time kitchen helper which will relieve one overworked day-time cleaner of a lot of overtime and us of overtime salary. But trying to find an afternoon receptionist/front-desk girl has been a frustrating ordeal and it remains the same unfilled position I wrote about a month ago.
When it comes to finding a presentable, attractive, energetic young female (hey, this is Asia, you want to hire a woman, you can hire a woman and no one can file a sex-discrimination suit against you, so there), comfortable with dealing with westerners, has hospitality experience, and good English-speaking skills, well, you might as well be asking for a locally-trained nuclear physicist. In Siem Reap demand for staff of this ilk far exceeds supply and after about thirteen clowns graced our premises requesting a job I finally threw up my hands in frustration and told Nin the Manager to call somebody, anybody, she knows in Phnom Penh and send them our way.
So I met one prospect down that way about two weeks ago, and while not exactly what I wanted (her lack of enthusiasm on relocating to Siem Reap being paramount), she was a far cry better than anything else that has walked in our door. She is supposed to turn up some day this week (originally it was some day last week), and my expectations are diminishing as this is the second time she's delayed her arrival, giving me ever growing doubts as to whether she'll really be any good if and when she ever shows up. Still, nothing better has walked in our door... so she'll have to do for now - assuming she ever gets here.
Since last month, ten people turned up looking for the job and it's been a comedy of errors in a twisted sort of way. Nine males, one female. Half could barely speak English, they all lacked experience, and most were completely opposite what I wanted. What I want is an energetic outgoing reasonably attractive female. What was walking in my door were comatose guys with their hands in their pockets scratching their nuts and looking at the ceiling as they talked. Only two had a CV, though one supplemented this with photocopies of just about every certificate he had ever earned or bought.
Our manager is of course, an exception, and now with three-plus months on the job she has been showing even more initiative in making independent decisions and most of the time the decisions she makes are the right ones. Thus, I've been encouraging her more and more not to bother me over every little detail that needs to be addressed. There is the ever present risk that one day she will fail to consult me on a really important issue and completely botch the situation, but it's more important to look at the larger picture which shows that most of the time she does the right thing and if I expect her to be able to continue running things without me looking over her shoulder every minute then she has to be given a longer rope.
Probably in part due to the fact she has about four years experience working in western bars and restaurants in Phnom Penh, she's well used to foreigners and well aware that "cannot" and "no have" are death words in the service business (notice a theme this month?). Of course the same can't be said for the rest of the staff who have the uncanny ability not to inform anyone when we've run out of something. The other day, at about 1:30 p.m. I ordered lunch for myself and my wife and was promptly told by the cook, via the manager, that we had no pork. "No f#$%ing pork!" I yelled. "Are you going to tell customers we have no f#$%ing pork? How about no toilet paper? How about no beer? How about no money to pay your salary next month?!?! Pork is not something we run out of!!!! Get your ass down to the market and buy some now and don't tell me ever again that we have no f#$%ing pork!!!!!"
We are making progress in this department, the cleaning girls seem to have figured out how not to run out of toilet paper, laundry detergent, soaps for the guestrooms, etc (they hate getting yelled at and the manager checks these things anyway) but the kitchen is taking a little more work as it is more the domain of the cook than the manager, anyway. Still, there's been progress. It's been quite some time since anyone informed me at eleven o'clock at night that we have no bread to make toast the following morning. Probably something to do with me making the staff go out in the middle of the night and buy it.
We bought some more furniture for the place, including a
set of nice rattan chairs and a glass-topped table for the dining area.
When they delivered the table, the glass was cut wrong. It was cut too
big, hanging over the top of the table and sure to break the first time
someone put their elbows down. "Unacceptable," my wife told
them (I had the foresight to have snuck away at the time) "take it
back and fix the glass."
Brand new PANASONIC water heaters continue to fail at regular intervals. And while I realize Cambodia is going to be a dumping ground - you ought to see the fruit that gets shipped in from Thailand - the problems we've had with these PANASONIC water heaters is beyond ridiculous. We have had trouble now with four out of five and two have given us multiple problems. Needless to say I certainly won't be buying any more PANASONIC products here or likely anywhere else. It would be really nice if some representative of PANASONIC (gee, why I am putting it in bold letters... perhaps to remind everyone that PANASONIC products SUCK?) is reading this and can tell me why the factory in Malaysia would ship products this substandard? Sure, as I've said before, Cambodia is a dumping ground, but shouldn't there be some limit to the level of crap you'd send out?
But all these headaches aside, December was a very positive month and whatever frustrations we experienced with staff, room fittings, suppliers, etc was all well over-shadowed by the many satisfied customers that came through our place and praised the operation on their departure.
Final thought for the month: Three things I won't sell: Bus tickets to Bangkok, boat tickets to Phnom Penh, and cigarettes. Why? Because all three are over-priced rip-off products or services sold to people who ought to know better.
Discuss this story here:
As I did a big discussion on this topic in the November 2004 column I won't follow this up with commentary but I did want to pass along a pair of Khao San Road to Siem Reap bus stories which landed in my e-mail a week ago.
And a second one:
Do what you will with this information.
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I guess it had to happen. Despite a guilty verdict and jail sentence (which he never served), Hun Sen's nephew, Nhim Sophea has been cleared of all charges relating to the famous Coconut Gang incident of October 2003 (see column of April 2004 for more information).
The sole culprit has been most assuredly and definitively identified positively without question as Sam Doeun, the same man who had been originally tried, found guilty, and sentenced to ten years in prison. It was a most remarkable trial seeing as the man never showed up and very little was or is still known about him, other than his name and that everyone else in the car says he did it, an allegation good enough for the court to render a guilty verdict on this invisible man.
Mr. Sam has proven to be quite a slippery shadow of a man, evading description of even the slightest of personal details, though some have suggested the hiring of a medium might help dig up some more information about him. While we can all laugh at the folly of a court sentencing not a man but a name to a ten year prison term on the basis of testimony offered by those accused of the crime, the fact remains that the bullets that took out several innocent lives were neither shadows nor slippery, but quite real. Well, there's a real Sam Doeun out there somewhere and whatever name he may go by, those who have been in this region long enough know that justice often finds its way, even if by a route not which we'd expect or had first hoped for.
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As if you needed another reason to be concerned for traffic safety on the newly completed Highway 6 between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, you might have a look at http://www.sweetcucumber.com, specifically the December 24 entry. He was on his way to my guesthouse via taxi when the unfortunate incident occurred, which in a nutshell, around Kompong Thom two kids ran out into the road in front of the taxi and one never made it to the other side. I was traveling in a taxi in the other direction and got the sad report over the telephone as the incidents unfolded. I have already sworn off ever riding a motorcycle again between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, so I needed no more encouragement, but to others out there... if you do take to this road on a motorbike, be really careful and keep your speed down. An extra hour saved isn't worth life nor limb. But better yet, don't bother at all. While you and I may understand the concept of speed, it's readily apparent that many local drivers as well as villagers living along the roadside do not, and this newly completed road is presenting these folks with driving speeds which neither have familiarity with. It's proving day after day to be a deadly combination.
The moto - the family car of Cambodia.
This month's excerpt from the Cambodia Motorists Handbook (photo-copied version from the Central Market), discusses the use of a moto as the family car. Motos are not designed to carry one or two people, but entire families, livestock, furniture, large panes of glass, etc. Ten-meter long pieces of pipe can be carried though it usually necessary to use two motorbikes who will hopefully drive at the same speed.
My personal record for most people seen on a moto is seven, though I think a greater feat was seeing a family of five on a bicycle, but that was in Saigon. Like so many other situations, when asked 'how many people can you fit on a moto?" The answer is always, "one more."
But another personal observation, one that impending fatherhood places at the forefront of thought, is how seemingly reckless people are in transporting their children. I recognize that no other form of transportation is possible as the moto well and truly is the family car of Cambodia, but children standing up on the seat of a moto? Against the handlebars? On the handlebars? Or sitting in the back with feet dangling perilously close to the spokes of the wheels? Not my kid I always say, but then again, I remind myself that I have the luxury of having that option.
Next month: Speed kills.
This one's been around for awhile and opinions on this site are quite divided. It existed originally as little more than a Phnom Penh-based English teachers' site but has since evolved into more of an overall Phnom Penh expat site, though with a more youthful slant than say, this site. As its scope and readership expand it is becoming a site to start taking notice of regardless of what one's opinions on the site may be.
The main focus of the site continues to be its forum, which quite frankly, does offer some content clearly more intelligent then some of the tripe that has appeared recently on the toa forum, though with most all forums, and toa is certainly no exception, there is a cliquishness that some may find annoying.
Supporting the forum are frequent articles on life in Cambodia that can be quite insightful and well thought-out. Whether the site's regular contributors can maintain the energy and eagerness to continue this prolific output remains to be seen. As the owner of a now four-year-old website I can say that this is not always easy.
I know the site's creators have bigger ideas and plans and it will be interesting to see what comes of them and when, and also how their transition to a money-making venture (like toa, they now accept advertising) will affect the content. But in the meantime, do pop in and decide for yourself whether the site has a personality you can get along with. While I do read the site I do not, or not yet anyway, contribute to its forum. If for no other reason that I hardly have time to take care of my own site let alone contribute to another's.
A little more active this month than last. The following graced the pages of toa in December:
December 31: Readers'
Submissions: Antonio Graceffo offers Pugilism
and Poultry. An observance of a cock fighting match in Cambodia.
My plea for a Snookyville writer has turned up a response, one which I have acknowledged and if you are reading this... please get back in touch! Likewise the individual who contacted me from Saigon!
Other than three quick days and two highly inebriated nights in Phnom Penh (I finally got myself banned for the first time from Howie's!... I think the record is over ten bannings so I have a bit more work to do) I was again tied down to the guesthouse so I don't have much to report on.
The missus had her first ultrasound. Based on the images and whatever else they factor in, our due date has been set for May 30. As the ultrasound was conducted at sixteen weeks it was too early to make a definitive determination as whether we have a boy or girl in there, but the obstetrician thinks there might be something there indicating we have a boy.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
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