This month's column is going to be a little short on account of the fact that I haven't been in Cambodia since the 1st of May (I've been in Pakistan and Afghanistan) and therefore know little more about what's going on than what you can find from reading a newspaper. Still, there are some news stories regarding Cambodia that do deserve attention and commentary.
Here's a news item that could throw more salt on our near-mortal economic wounds, said injuries received from the general hysteria surrounding a variety of world and regional events none of which should make a rat's ass difference on tourism but people being the irrational fools they are, have.
As the story goes, an Islamic school in Kandal province was employing teachers with links to Jemaah Islamiyah which is the group reportedly responsible for the Bali bombing and maintains links with al-Qaeda. Three teachers, an Egyptian and two Thais, were arrested. Dozens more are being deported.
The school was funded by the NGO Om al-Qura with the cash largely originating in Saudi Arabia.
So terrorism comes to Cambodia. Wake me up when it's over.
Western embassies had been saying for some time that Cambodia could be a suitable location for terrorists to hideout and I suppose that's true. Frankly, if you think about it hard enough is there a place on the planet that's not a suitable hideout for terrorists? America and other western nations have certainly been harboring more than their fair share so why not Cambodia?
While we're supposed to be glad that Suspected Terrorists have been arrested and probably denied basic rights of due process as is usually the case with Suspected Terrorists and governments like the US are probably dancing around saying, "See, we told you there were terrorists there and why didn't you believe all those 'we have evidence of a general terrorist threat' warnings we've been issuing every other week or so for the past eighteen months," the rational line of thinking must address whether the presence of a few Suspected Terrorists in Cambodia really should be cause for worry or not?
Of course I would say there's nothing to worry about because you can't do anything about it anyway. Terrorists can assemble and make plans pretty much anywhere they want and when they're scooped up in one place, a new group will form in another. As for planned attacks, western governments have been, much to the annoyance of ASEAN nations, reporting that a terrorist attack could occur in our neighborhood. Well, one did, Bali. And I suppose another one could occur here as well. Or in Europe. Or in Japan. Or in America. Or in your own backyard.
Stop living in fear. Fear is a propaganda tool being rather effectively used lately by several western nations, America in particular, to further these government's own world agendas which are not necessarily in the best interests of the planet as a whole and overall world opinion has been addressing this quite clearly these past few months.
I'm not denying the terrorist threat isn't real. It is real and it may get worse before it gets better. But disrupting your life over something that only could happen and carries an infinitesimally small likelihood of involving you is not only irrational, it's stupid. When you make changes to your life that prevent you from doing what you had wanted to do, who then wins that battle in the broader war on terrorism? Think about it.
The national elections, the highlight of Don't Visit Cambodia Year 2003, are fast approaching. July 27 is the day when Cambodian citizens will do their national duty and re-elect the CPP party and Hun Sen as Prime Minister for another five years.
Perhaps more suspenseful will not be the outcome of the elections but how the election observers (Motto: See no evil, hear no evil, talk no evil) will rate the event and how the US government (Motto: The world is not enough and what does e plurubus unum mean anyway) will quantify the elections as they plan to tie aid packages with the perceived free and fairness of the election.
A few comments from me:
1.) Should tourists cancel travel plans around this time?
No. Intimidation, vote-buying, assassinations, protests, yes, these are all part of the system here, but not one act of political violence has ever been directed at a tourist. As a tourist, you are not part of the system and no one wants to make you part of it. There will be rallies prior to the elections and there will likely be some protests following the announcement of the results, but as there is no surprise to anyone how the election will turn out, it's unlikely the post-election protests will be as violent as they were in 1998.
Of course these rallies and protests should be avoided, but doing so will not create much of any inconvenience for you. They will be almost universally limited to Phnom Penh.
And as always, if your visit to Cambodia is centered on Siem Reap and Angkor you will probably never even be aware that an election is taking/has taken place. Cambodia does a pretty good job of ensuring that political events do not stand between tourists and Angkor Wat.
2.) Will the elections be free and fair and will Cambodia get its money?
Free and fair? Not likely. But even under the most transparent conditions no one but the CPP has even the slightest chance of winning anything, so then, who cares? As for the USA basing aid packages on the perceived free and fairness of these elections, well, that's a case of the pot calling the kettle black if there ever was one. Given the 2000 election fiasco in the States, I hardly think America has a place in the election monitoring business. America, please, go piss around in your own yard before fouling another's. You're worse than a dog.
Parallel universes. Do they exist? Could there be another
place where long distance Toyota taxis with right-hand steering barrel
down damaged and neglected "highways", where drink stands line
these roads, their respective offerings piled high in a display that belies
the true selection hidden in the cooler? And where traffic police populate
every corner, stopping
Is there a place somewhere littered with millions of land mines producing cities full of one-legged beggars? A land trying to recover from decades of war where NGO Landcruisers circle the capital city like flies around shit advertising their presence not with results but with flags and signs?
Is it possible to imagine a country with a wealthier neighbor that has, on the one hand, been the recipient of an overwhelming influx of refugees from our parallel land yet on the other hand has managed to profit well off the internal troubles of our imagined locale? Is there such a place where residents of this seemingly superior neighbor look down upon our people as poor, uneducated, crude ruffians deserving more of scorn rather than pity or better yet, a little help; wondering why anybody would ever want to visit this poor land when they offer so much in their own country?
And finally, imagine as well, that this land has really boring food.
Sounds like I've just described Cambodia hasn't it? In a way I have, but the country I'm really referring to is Afghanistan, which in many ways is a parallel universe to Cambodia.
I recently spent nearly two weeks (May 13 - May 24) in Afghanistan and was surprised at how many similarities exist between Afghanistan and Cambodia. No doubt as a war-torn country such likenesses should be expected.
If we were to turn the Cambodia clock back a decade to say, 1992, we would find even more similarities. In Afghanistan we have a country but a year away from its first national election in over two decades. A country with virtually no tourists whatsoever save for a handful of Japanese (nothing seems to affect these guys). Highways with numerous police checkpoints, though for a welcome change from the Cambodia of old, they do not seek out payment, but do make sometimes thorough vehicle inspections. Landmines, UXO, and military hardware litter the ground and not just in the distant countryside but along major highways and in certain neighborhoods of Kabul. Locals in Afghanistan are not accustomed to foreigners and while any walk along a street of Kabul brings numerous shouts of friendly hellos, when it comes down to actually getting things done confusion can be the order of the day. Electricity and water function less often than not.
Of course, there are a lot of differences between Afghanistan and Cambodia as well. In Afghanistan the land is barren, the air is dry. A long standing drought has left the rivers devoid of any water and only this past month did a trickle of water (much celebrated) begin flowing through Kabul in a wide depression that once bore the name of the Kabul River. Women are covered, men wear beards and turbans, yet in the countryside they move with the same relaxed gait that says "I really don't have much to do or anywhere to go and I'm in no hurry to finish these tasks or reach that destination."
With no tourists one need not be concerned with touts, souvenir sellers, aggresive moto or taxi drivers as the first two don't yet exist except on a single block known as Chicken Street and taxi drivers haven't ferried enough foreigners yet to consider them viable quarry. There are no motorcycle taxis in Afghanistan.
And one final set of differences that for many would stand as preeminent dividing factors between life in Afghanistan and life in Cambodia: No bars, no booze, no girls. No fun.
With Thailand and Cambodia getting their relationship back on track again in the wake of the inane January 29 Phnom Penh riots, the next step has been the May 31 reopening of the Preah Vihear temple on the Thailand side which had been closed for a couple of years now. Until January 15th of this year wehn the temple opened on the Cambodia side, access from Cambodia was an arduous undertaking left only for the most dedicated of temple explorers (read this for an account of the opening on the Cambodia side).
The Thai opening was part of a joint meeting between the cabinets of Thailand and Cambodia held May 31 in Siem Reap and Ubon Ratchathani in northeast Thailand. Four memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed to combat human trafficking and for Thailand to provide assistance in agriculture, sanitation, and the ever important road network.
Although Preah Vihear is open to tourists from both sides, it is my understanding that this is not a full international checkpoint and you cannot use this to legally cross from one country to another. I imagine somewhere somebody will check passports, and this is one area I do not recommend bushwhacking through the jungle. There are still a lot of land mines up there.
It is also my understanding that admission fees will be charged on both sides with foreigners being hit for something outrageous like 20 times the Thai/Cambodian fee. I'll wait for confirmation of this before I commence my rant.
Apparently Cambodia may have recorded a SARS case. A 16-year-old returning from studies in Guangdong province, China was hospitalized in Phnom Penh with SARS symptoms. Meanwhile, in the previous month thousands of cases of dengue fever have been reported throughout the region with several hundred dead (bet you didn't hear that on CNN!, but a little tiny teeny weeny paragraph buried in a recent Bangkok Post mentioned over a thousand new cases of dengue in Laos alone!). Also, tens of thousands of people have been injured or killed in motor vehicular accidents around the world this past month. Some maybe in your own neighborhood!
Still afraid to travel bacause of SARS? F**k off, then. I'm tired of trying to talk sense into idiots.
Am I hyping the hysteria? Tourism in some areas of Thailand is off 45%. Cambodia, which had been experiencing 30% annual tourism growth is 40% off of last year. Certain sections of this website, most notably those that appeal strictly to tourists (i.e. Cambodia Overland sections) are seeing their lowest readership numbers in fourteen months. My Phnom Penh postcard distributor has not made a sale in over two months. On top of this we even have embassy warnings advising people to avoid Southeast Asia because of SARS.
Does anyone have any suggestions on how to stop the hysteria surrounding this illness before half of Asia files for bankruptcy? Seriously, send me your ideas. Make them funny. I don't care. I'll print them. Give me something to read. It's not like anyone in the tourism business has much work to do these days.
This month's humor item offers insight on the difficulties of making a special order in a restaurant employing Khmer staff who all too often lack the mental capacity to manage an order for anything not explicitly listed on the menu. Okay, I know that last sentence sounds insulting, but just try a special order with a Khmer waitress and see if your results are any different from what I'm about to relate:
An expat is sitting at one of the many riverside restaurants along Phnom Penh's riverfront and places an order for some lunch. Enjoying the taste of bacon, the expat puts in a request for a side order of the stuff. Now, bacon as a side order is not listed on the menu but seeing as the restaurant serves breakfasts as well as a number of sandwiches containing the ingredient, the expat figured they out to be able to manage this order.
The waitress, confused at this request, flips through the
menu and not finding bacon as a side order tells the customer that bacon
is not available. The expat points out that bacon is obviously available
as it's a common ingredient in a number of the restaurant's dishes.
The May 19 issue of Time magazine (Asia) had several stories on Cambodia. Written by Jason Gagliardi, there was a main story focusing on how improved road conditions would turn far flung temples into major tourist draws, and two smaller items, one mentioning the FCC Angkor and how it had no correspondents, and a second bit on the Siem Reap man who makes miniature (relatively) sculptures of famous Angkor monuments.
Then in a nice little box the author had the brilliance to plug three websites. Richner's website got mentioned (for the uninitiated, Dr. Beat Richner runs three charity children's hospitals in Cambodia), a site with a map of the Bayon was mentioned, and finally: Screen Savior (talesofasia.com) Know your rites: A fun, fast-growing website of tips and cautionary stories compiled by an old Cambodia hand. Thanks for the plug, Jason. Really.
It was successful last year, so they're doing it again this year. If you plan to be in England on June 21, 2003 read on:
Magic of Cambodia 2003
The Magic of Cambodia 2003 day will be held in Banbury on Saturday 21 June 2003 at the Terence Mortimer Postgraduate Centre of the Horton General Hospital. The event will be along similar lines to the successful day in Oxford last August though with a fresh set of guest speakers and a purpose-built location to give it a new impetus. The organizers hope you can join them and make it another special event to celebrate and promote the positive aspects of Cambodia.
Admission to the event will cost £10 per person and all profits will go to two charities, The Cambodia Trust and The Cambodian Arts & Scholarship Foundation.
The organizers are currently finalizing their timetable of events and will update their webpage (http://cambodia.e-files.dk/magic2003.html) as soon as they know the lineup for the day. The aim is to have up to eight guest speakers on topics as diverse as the Temples of Angkor, Khmer dance, culture, religion and the environment, and lots more besides.
The Terence Mortimer Centre is a large Edwardian house with its own car park, adjacent to the Horton General Hospital. It has a large lecture hall with tiered seating, seminar rooms and catering facilities.
If you wish to book your ticket now, or ask any questions, e-mail:
Letters from the virtual mailbag.
World Vision, the other side:
More on the war in Iraq, US foreign policy and my opinions (commentary follows):
I responded thusly:
Of course, recent events have brought Cambodia into the fold and I have commented on this. And readers can rest assured that when I do get the Afghanistan and Pakistan bits on the site I will be commenting further on US foreign policy as it most certainly had an effect on my travels.
Next, SARS hysteria:
Siem Reap nightlife:
Siem Reap is not known for its nightlife, but if Martini doesn't do it for you, you might try Sok San Palace or Zanzy Bar. Sok San would be my first recommendation. It's a Khmer nightclub that attracts a diverse audience of Asians, western backpackers, and folks looking for some company from the two dozen or so girls who turn up each night. Zanzy Bar is a hole in the wall with a thoroughly motley assortment of women that will more likely put you off companionship than anything else. Both are on Sivatha and a short walk from each other.
I'm continuing to receive a few travelers' reports every month, 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.
I've also begun a Reader's Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country in the appropriate place on the website. You can link to them from the main Cambodia page.
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, recently expanded to 127 questions and answers on a variety of Cambodia subjects that should answer a majority and then some of the questions tourists and would-be expats might have. While I welcome e-mail questions from readers and I try to answer them all promptly and properly, the answers you are looking for might be found in the FAQ file. Have a look. The entire section was updated April 27, 2003.
And don't forget to check out the new Guide to the Provinces - quick summaries of the tourist highlights found in each of the Cambodia provinces and municipalities.
restaurants, tours and more
I made it. I spent 24 days in May evenly divided between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Very interesting trip. Photos and stories will begin to appear on the website in about two weeks in their own sections. Do come back for a look.
Again, apologies for being two days late this month but I didn't get home until the wee hours of the morning of May 31. As I mentioned last month, all future Cambodia Update columns will be published on the first of each month now.
Future talesofasia plans? How about a Thailand monthly published on the 15th of each month? Debut will appear July 15. By that time I will also be expanding the Thailand section considerably offering first a comprehensive guide to Thailand that addresses issues that first-time visitors to the country might face.
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