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It's safe to assume that no country lacks for stupid criminals and there is probably no reason for reality TV America's Dumbest Criminals to seek overseas segments for their program, yet Siem Reap made international headlines this month for playing host to a completely senseless and idiotic criminal act, which, might it have passed without the tragic death of a two-year-old boy, would have been a story better suited for late night comedy hour skits than CNN and BBC.
On June 16 four of the world's dumbest criminals entered the Siem Reap International School and held a classroom of pre-school and kindergarten age children hostage for six hours. As the day wore on and the motive for taking hostages remained unknown the story went international, attaining status of "Breaking News" on CNN and BBC and flooding newswires around the globe. The networks and agencies all begged to ask... "is it an international terrorist incident? Al-Qaida? Jemaah Islamiah? Carlos the Jackal? Charles the Beagle? Or even the Cambodian Freedom Fighters?" No, none of the above, and this was all made apparent when the four morons of the apoplexy made their ransom demands: An arsenal of weapons (AK47s, RPGs), a vehicle to the Thai border, $1000 US, and to bring the children along when they made their getaway.
Obviously, we weren't dealing with specially trained terrorists but rather criminal versions of the Three Stooges, little ambition ($1000?), little sense (what, Thailand is going to let them in?), and little logic (an arsenal, to do what - invade Kralanh and hold a block of toilets for ransom?). The Cambodian police, under the personal supervision if National Police Chief Hok Lundy who arrived from Phnom Penh to oversee the negotiations, smartly refused the weapons or the right to take any children with them and in lieu of their refusal to fulfill these demands upped the cash offer from the the silly $1000 that was requested to $30,000, a figure which I imagine was too large for the hostage takers to comprehend and no doubt would have sent one scrambling among the classrooms in search of a calculator.
Six hours after the mess started the hostage takers emerged from the school, got into a van with a couple of kids, and were immediately apprehended by police who then, in true Cambodian tradition, cuffed the morons and then walked away allowing the crowd to beat the crap out of them for awhile. According to one of my eyewitnesses, the mob did a proper job, inflicting a few injuries for good measure. It's a shame that none of the hostage takers died as they would have been prime candidates for Darwin Awards.
It's been suggested that the police may have been responsible for the death of the child. They were not. I have an eyewitness report (the teacher in the classroom) that at roughly one o'clock, the head gangster, frustrated at the predicament he had put himself in, grabbed a two-year old boy (who was asleep at the time) took him out back and put a bullet in his head, killing him instantly. This chief stooge, Chea Sokhom, would later claim he shot the boy because he wouldn't stop crying. Nonsense. The boy was asleep.
And for the record, several friends of mine have children who attend the Siem Reap International School. Two people I know, one fairly well, had children who were hostages.
The leader of this criminal gang of dimwits, Chea Sokhom, surprisingly labeled by at least one newspaper as the "mastermind" (maybe they were making a joke?), later admitted his master plan. He had once been employed as the personal driver to a local South Korean businessman and claims that his boss had once slapped him. I believe this is true.
So our mastermind returned home to Kandal province and hooked up with several equally sharp gangsters - his own family had described Sokhom as a notorious gangster and had sent him to Siem Reap to reform himself with obvious limited success - and there they hatched their plan. They would storm the school, kidnap the Korean's two children and maybe hold them for ransom (what, one thousand dollars - divided four ways?), maybe then kill them... or maybe just kill them and never mind the ransom.
Enlisting additional help from the school's security guard (what would he get? $20?), they entered the school unimpeded. Seeing as they didn't know what room the kids were in, they stormed about the school providing ample opportunity for most of the children, teachers, and staff to escape. Still, they managed to take over a classroom full of kindergarten and pre-school children none of whom were the desired Korean children. "Err, now what do we do?" It's reasonable to assume they hadn't planned for the possibility that they wouldn't get the kids nor how they would handle a hostage crisis should they find themselves in one.
The Cambodian police, often the source of much mockery, should be commended here. They brought this thing to an end without any additional loss of life beyond the one child killed by Chea Sokhom earlier in the day. It could have ended much worse.
In the absence of any international terrorists, we were left with a Cambodian problem, which was quite admirably solved in a Cambodian style. Still, some things cannot be resisted and as the drama continued, comments were made to the effect that the stalemate was the result of police canvassing Siem Reap to stop motorists and hit them up for small "fines" to raise the money to pay off the hostage takers.
In any event, the crisis ended, CNN and BBC moved on to other things, one recently arrived expat couple are living every parent's worst nightmare, and Siem Reap expats are re-evaluating their situation.
It's worth noting that following this event, Cambodian government officials, who one might think would be the first to downplay any possible long-term negative effects of the hostage drama were surprisingly candid in their assessment of what this tragedy represents on a larger scale. While no one felt that this would have an adverse effect on tourism (and I agree), the general consensus is that this is representative of more things to come (I also agree). While this exact scenario is unprecedented and is unlikely to be repeated, Cambodia is going to see more utterly stupid, flagrant, violent crimes perpetrated against both foreigners and wealthy Cambodians.
It's a simple formula really:
1.) Piles of money are flowing into Cambodia, particularly Siem Reap.
So in a country of 14 million people it cannot come as a surprise that every now and then somebody, quite possibly experiencing the illusionary invincible effects of yaa maa, is going to flip out and commit some extraordinarily colossal criminal act that defies all logic and reason and ends in tragedy.
In the days after this tragedy, many an expat conversation was dominated by talk concerning our own personal security situation. We look at our homes and our businesses and think we have them safe and secure, and we do - safe and secure to one thinking rationally. But criminals do not always think with logic or reason, and as we're seeing more often, with any concern for capture, either. After all, when you have nothing to lose, what's to stop you from trying anything?
I drive a 250cc motorbike. Almost all Cambodians drive small step-throughs of no more than 125cc, none of which have any hopes of ever out-running or out-accelerating a 250cc, even one in poor condition such as my own. Yet did that stop a pair of punks from trying (unsuccessfully) to pull a bag off my shoulder one time last year?
Or the man who tried breaking into my friend's house in broad daylight by taking a rooftop door off its hinges. Too bad he wasn't very quiet about it.
Or the man who climbed up to a second-story window and tried fishing through the grate only to find out what happens when someone is in the room and awake. It was a fast and hard fall and my friend saw blood in the area the next day.
Then there was the gang that ran a rope across a road south of Phnom Penh and would use it to knockdown passing motorbikes and rob the riders, and did so repeatedly.
Or the daylight robberies that continued day after day outside Psah Kandal in Phnom Penh.
That almost every expat has been the target of either a home invasion, window fishing, or bag snatching robbery.
That I hear more and more about tourists and even expats (who should know better) getting their bags and pockets picked by children around the Poipet border area.
The recent rise in nationalism that has been manifested almost entirely in negative and utterly pointless and stupid violent acts such as the anti-Thai riots and more benignly in general attitudes of "stupid foreigners".
What is most unsettling is not that we are seeing a rise in crime - I think if accurate statistics could be obtained, Siem Reap and Cambodia as a whole would still come out looking pretty good - but it's the type of crimes we're seeing now. Things like what happened at the Siem Reap International School cannot be predicted. And if you cannot predict something how can you protect yourself against it?
I don't have the answers. I cannot solve the drug problem, the education problem, the social dysfunction problem, or any of the issues that plague contemporary society in Cambodia. But I can at least take care of the people who work for me (slapping the staff is definitely not part of the program), take care of my business and its security and my guests security, and conduct myself in a manner that won't make me an easy target for the next uneducated, unskilled yaa baa crazed wanna-be punk gangster who decides to flip out.
And it makes you wonder, could it be anywhere else but Cambodia where the slapping of an employee escalated into an international incident?
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Last month the Apsara Authority came up with this brilliant idea to give all tourists (regardless of whether they can read English or not) a free tourism and investment guide. And in exchange for this free guide they would raise the price of Angkor tickets by three dollars. No surprise the whole thing blew up in their face and they backed off of the price increase citing unspecified "technical difficulties".
To prove how on top of things they are, this month the geniuses at the Apsara Authority came up with another brilliant plan. As a measure to protect the Angkor temples they decided that tourists would be required to rent (for a fee) special shoes to wear as they explored the temples. This brilliant idea may have trouble taking off as one Apsara Authority spokesperson made the blunder of stating that they were undecided as to whether this requirement would be extended to Cambodian visitors. I guess we're to assume that Cambodian feet don't have the same effect on the temples as foreign feet or is the Apsara Authority simply seeking ways to make more money? And is that a stupid question?
Well, the Apsara Authority have been behaving rather stupidly lately and I can only wait anxiously to see what they'll come up with next month... camera fees? Free for three dollar souvenirs?
Hey guys... here's a problem to solve - the traffic jams created around the South Gate of Angkor Thom and how many more tour buses are going to bump the walls and when are you going to do something about it? Probably too busy signing slipper contracts and printing free for three dollars guidebooks to notice that there are temples to take care of and logistical issues surrounding the movement of people and maybe you should deal with them. Oh... and how's your hotel zone coming along? Still empty, huh? Well, the golf course should look nice.
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Here's a bummer of a story. About a week ago a main section - like most of the northern half along "main street" - of Kompong Phluk burned to the ground. Kompong Phluk is a Tonle Sap lakeside village about thirty kilometers from Siem Reap and one where we have sent many a satisfied tourist for half-day visits.
According to reports, 182 houses were destroyed as a result of a fire that started when a 12-year-old girl was cooking rice unsupervised and apparently had, well, an accident of some sort.
I've seen photos of the damage and it is quite extensive.
During part of the year the town, which is comprised almost entirely of houses on stilts, is completely surrounded by water. Unfortunately, June is not part of that time.
Last weekend, the Linga Bar in Siem Reap held a fund-raiser for the town. When I return to Siem Reap next week I'll try to update this story, as well as offer some information on making donations or any kind of aid. As our guesthouse sends people to the village regularly, we will in some capacity get involved, but I will wait until I see firsthand the situation and decide what we will do from there.
No doubt new houses will go up at a fast and furious pace as any day now the lake will begin flowing back and by October the town will once again be surrounded by four to six meters of water.
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"The one who has an accident is the one who just came from the bar. Some people making love in the car cause the accident."
Phnom Penh recently installed barriers to divide opposing travel lanes on several major roads in the city. Since their installation there have been a number of accidents as a result of people crashing into the barriers. Apparently the problem is drunk drivers (makes sense) and people having sex while driving (this one I'd like to see). We can also assume the Independence Monument is another hapless victim of drunk and amorous drivers as Hun Sen, whose Phnom Penh home is in a compound adjacent to the traffic circle, says "I usually wake up a few times a night." No word yet as to whether any of these barriers or the Independence Monument have been filled with a few rounds from an AK-47 for causing an accident as befalls unfortunate coconut vendors. Or maybe so far the Coconut Gang boys have managed not to crash any of their vehicles into anything but fruit vendors.
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Maybe I'm just getting old, but am I the only one who doesn't like having every other motodriver in Siem Reap approach me any night I'm out on the town with offers of drugs or women? Frankly, I'm quite capable of finding either on my own - there are only how many Vietnamese brothels but half a klick away?
Very few tourists come to Siem Reap for the women or the drugs and those that do hardly need a motodriver to find them a woman, and drugs, well, as I've said on these pages before and others have said as well, the motodriver doesn't give a toss what's in the bag he's selling you and you buy and use at your own peril.
Cautionary statements aside, I don't appreciate the solicitations and I don't think it does the town any favors having every other motodriver make these offers to every westerner that passes them by.
Or maybe I am just getting old.
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Though still outrageously expensive, prices for internet in Cambodia are starting to drop a little as more players are getting in the market and one company definitely worth a look is the new start-up City Link. The Bayon Pearnik made the herculean effort to try to sort out all the companies and their offers and arrange it into one easy to read table. If you're interested, have a look at their website and download the latest (July 2005) issue of the magazine for the scoop.
Rumor has it that sleazy shithole of a backpacker flophouse area known as "the lake" may go under the wrecking ball to be replaced by an upscale resort. Well good riddance if this is true. It's bad enough to have a Khao San Road imitation, but this isn't even a good imitation. I've said it for years, it's a dirty, ugly, rat-infested neighborhood, not near anything but the next guesthouse, abutting a lake that's horribly polluted and you'd probably die on contact if you fell in. And if that didn't get you the mosquitoes would.
The businesses there are all squatting and they know it, so if the bulldozers turn up they have nothing to protest over. And as for the backpackers, well, maybe if the neighborhood goes, they'll be forced to find accommodation somewhere that might actually push them to see Phnom Penh as a real city and not a paradise of travel agents, used book shops, internet cafes, and hair braiding boutiques. "Hey look, Simon, there's a man with one leg!"
The original Update item and discussion appears here: http://www.talesofasia.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2926
If I've learned anything during my period of paternity leave, it's that my guesthouse doesn't need me. Which is sort of what I was hoping for. Of course I have someone watching the place for me, but the day to day operations are entirely in the hands of the staff and judging by the e-mails and other reports I've received from customers, the hands are quite capable, but I kinda sorta knew that already. The place runs itself. And that is something I do take satisfaction in.
I'll be there for a spell in a week or so and I'm bringing the whole family back for the month of August as these two months represent a mini-high season - not as intense or as long as the winter high season, but certainly an improvement over April to June, which is the long dead season. By and large we have emerged from the low season unscathed. We didn't lose money.
I commented last month about some plumbing and water woes. The plumbing was fixed and the bill not too dire, but we as well as every business in Siem Reap are facing an inevitable water crisis. Siem Reap simply doesn't have enough water to meet demand. During the dry season we lost water completely several times (as does just about everybody at one time or another) and the heavy iron content has already destroyed one water pump and is most likely a contributing factor to the constant problems we've had with water heaters.
Sometime in the next few months my partner and I are going to make a long range water plan, because if there's one thing I don't want to have happen five years down the road - it's to run out of water - for good.
So here's my advice for the month - if you're looking to open a guesthouse in Siem Reap make sure you get your water straightened out because Siem Reap has water shortage problems and they are only going to get worse.
While most of our e-mail is the standard reservation requests we do on occasion get some rather bizarre e-mails. This is the second time I've received the following though the first time it was under a different name and with different arrival dates. I assume this is some new spin on the Nigerian 4-1-9 scam?
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June 30: Sydney resident Matt Kemp's View from Oz returns with: Corby, Chen, Whales, Visas.
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