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Every Cambodia Update August 2001 to the present

.Cambodia Update

May 2004

1.) The weapon of nationalism
2.) Coconut Gang revisited
3.) Kbal Spean and a bridge too far
4.) Defending Cambodia
5.) City of Ghosts
6.) Transport update
7.) Heat
8.) Pub Street
9.) Government
10.) 2004 Magic of Cambodia

11.) Perspective
12.) Business opportunities
Shameless self-promotion section


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The weapon of nationalism

Nationalism, sometimes called patriotism and sometimes called racism depending upon your point of view and what you think about whoever it is you're talking about, is at one time used by governments both as a tool and as a weapon, though it's arguably negative in its manifestation regardless of whether it's patriotic or racist in tone. It's patriotic in the "we are number one in the world" mentality (very evident in the USA, but hardly unique to that nation), and racist when directed as hatred to a particular foreign nation or race of people which is all too often how we are seeing it in Cambodia.

In whatever form nationalism rears itself, it is unique to nowhere and to various extents quite exaggerated forms are well in evidence in the USA, France, China, Thailand, among, I don't know, how many independent nations do we have on this planet now? Well anyway, these four nations spring immediately to mind if for no other than my exposure to these countries and/or their people causes them to do so.

In the past year or so we've been seeing a rise in nationalist fervor in Cambodia as well. We've always had a high level of anti-Vietnamese rhetoric here and more recently anti-Thai rhetoric has also raised its equally ugly head.

The anti-Vietnamese and anti-Thai rhetoric that goes on here, annoying on a good day, nauseating on a bad day, is used as a tool of the government (and those who would aspire to lead the government), for little other reason than to hand something to the people in the absence of having anything more tangible and certainly more useful to give. The nationalist card is of course, used entirely for domestic consumption and there it would stay except inevitably the property and even personal safety of innocent foreigners are involved. We know about the targeting of Thai property in the January 2003 riots and the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric has seen mobs turn violent against people whose only crime was the nation of their birth. And Cambodia, like many nations has government legislation drawn to limit the rights of foreigners, however here such legislation has historically not been so much targeted on westerners, but rather the Vietnamese.

Aside from the usual border integrity complaints the latest spate of complaining is over Cambodia's trade balance. The irony of it all is that the markets are full of Vietnamese and Thai-made products and the whinging about trade imbalances is kind of silly seeing as I don't see too many factories in Cambodia producing toothpaste, soap, laundry detergent, telephones, motorbike parts, televisions, or just about any other consumer good you might think of.

But while it's one thing to hate your neighbors, is there growing anti-Western sentiment? Thailand, on the part of the government anyway, is certainly becoming much less foreigner-friendly, but Cambodia? Cambodia, at least in the small business sector where niche markets can be found, remains as easy as ever for owning and operating a business, but on the street level, we are for the first time, seeing a small, but noticeable level of nationalist arrogance that comes across as, "You are a stupid foreigner and we are Khmer and this is Cambodia and we can do whatever we want."

It's usually little things, like parking a motorbike in front of a bar and having some motodop tell you that you have to give him 1000 riel to park there because the street is Cambodia and he is Cambodian, and no, you don't pay under these circumstances and yes, this and similar "this is my country" events have happened recently to myself and several other Siem Reap based-expats as well. But there are larger issues. There has been an increase in labor walk-outs against foreign-owned businesses - several major hotels have been facing month-long strikes this past month, never mind foreign-owned businesses generally pay better and treat their staff better than many of the locally owned operations. And mass staff exoduses to locally owned businesses have also occurred. Interestingly, one business owner told me recently that not long after a large percentage of his staff ran off to work in a Khmer-owned hotel they all came back wanting their jobs again... 'hmm,' they said, 'maybe working for a foreigner isn't so bad after all.'

At this juncture I should point out that actions such as described remain few and far between and by and large I still consider Cambodia to be a western-friendly country and I expect it's going to stay that way for awhile. But we are seeing a change and my crystal ball is no more effective than anyone else's.

I've asked a couple of Khmers about how they feel about the growing presence of foreigners in Siem Reap and specifically the Psah Chas area and they tell me it's not a problem for them. So long as we open businesses, offer jobs, be a good neighbor, take care of our staff paying them well and showing them decent respect, we are welcome. But just as it only takes one nut to set off a bomb, what will it take for a couple of drunken ya-ba'd motodops to manifest violently some latent resentment they have against the foreign presence in their town?

If I could find a silver lining perhaps a little down-played nationalism that isn't directed against another nationality but rather takes on a bit of 'we are number one' attitude might give the folks a little motivation to assert more independence and self-determination and take less reliance on foreign aid and the need to stock their markets with the products of their neighborly enemies. But I don't see that happening. Rather I see a continuation of the nauseating rhetoric of "we hate the Thais and we hate the Vietnamese," mixed in with a little bit of "you're a stupid barang and we are Khmer and this is Cambodia and we will do what we want." Well, let's face it, it's an unfortunate fact that from time to time anti-foreign sentiment will run through most any nation in the world, so why then should Cambodia be any different? Thing is, until 2003, it wasn't something we thought much about or that thought we'd ever have to deal with. Times change. Might as well get used to it. But that doesn't mean we have to like it.

Coconut Gang revisited

With the hospitalization, err, wasn't it supposed to be jailing(?) of Nhim Sophea, I thought the Heart of Darkness might be safe to go back to but one American expat had a gun pulled on him recently for no other reason than the gun-toting punk didn't like the looks of the guy and wanted him to leave. A second European expat was in there another night and though no gun was pulled on him, one of the resident punks took a dislike to the expat for whatever reason and told the guy to leave or else. Do what you will with this information.

Kbal Spean and a bridge too far

The following item and accompanying photo come courtesy of Dave Perkes of Peace of Angkor Villa fame. Yes, I will post the writings of others here!

Several were killed and injured when overloaded lorry caused new Bridge to collapse.

We had a long detour on our photo tour to Kbal Spean as a seriously overloaded lorry destroyed a new metal bridge which collapsed into the river in the early hours of the morning. Several people riding on the roof of the truck were killed or injured as the overloaded lorry plunged off the bridge into the river.

Apparently the lorry was taking a load of 30 tons of illegal timber at night to avoid discovery. The bridge had a weight limit of 8 tonnes. We saw a number of badly damaged bridges in the forest on the way to Anlong Veng a few days earlier which suggests that the lorry may have been active well to the north.

The bridge, around 1 Km from Banteay Srei is on the main route to this historic sight. A temporary plank bridge has been made for access over the busy Khmer New Year period.

Defending Cambodia

From time to time Cambodia articles appear in the Readers' Submissions section of the famous Thailand-based website, stickmanbangkok.com. In April one particularly wretched piece appeared that was so factually inaccurate that I had to respond. The writer, aside from numerous factual errors, painted a very dim picture of the safety situation in Cambodia that has little basis in reality in 2004. I'm not going to appropriate the text from Stick's website, but if you connect to this page, you'll find the story I'm referring to - Cambodia: The Wild West of Asia, another reader's response, and finally my own response - Cambodia: The Mild West of Cambodia. I know the writer meant well with his piece and obviously enjoyed his time here but... well, you'll just have to read it for yourself.

By unfortunate coincidence though, a few days later there was a shoot-out in front of the popular Sharky Bar involving motorbike thieves and a bar security guard (who is also a police officer). Needless to say the incident caused a bit of excitement around Sharkyland and it was by tragedy that the owner of the motorbike was killed in the robbery.

That said, I should point out that these incidents are exceptions and not the norm in Cambodia. In six years I have never seen the business end of a gun. Shootings occur in all cities and there's no reason Phnom Penh would be an exception or could be called any more or less dangerous. Heart of Darkness has had its problems but they are the exception and by all accounts the shooting in front of Sharky Bar was a one-off event.

City of Ghosts

"City of Ghosts", the film made independently by Matt Dillon, starring himself and James Caan and filmed in Cambodia a couple of years ago recently had a very limited run in Bangkok while I was in town and for better or for worse I watched it.

I've seen worse movies, but I have to say that with the knowledge I have of Cambodia, watching this film is at times, for want of a better word, annoying. Not only for the reason that it's not going to inspire many people to visit Cambodia and it might even put a few people off, but that too many things in the screenplay just don't make sense.

I realize when one makes a movie they have creative license and it isn't Matt Dillon's intent to make Cambodia look pretty, he is simply using the setting and the reputation I suppose of what Cambodia once was, to tell a story. Regrettably, the Cambodia he chooses to create is much like the one fantasized in the piece I refer to in the previous item.

What doesn't make sense? First, Matt Dillon's character finds himself in hotel that is beyond bad. Really, for eight bucks a night, there are plenty of far better accommodation options. Why doesn't he look at a Lonely Planet or walk along the river or something? Surely a cyclo driver or moto driver (if there were any in the film) could steer him to a better place, they're certainly quick to do so with just about any other foreigner that arrives fresh. In its worst days, the Capitol would still be a far better option. Nobody in Cambodia stays in a dive like this. And where are all the motodops? And where are all the Toyota Camrys and Land cruisers? Everyone in this film drives around in an old Mercedes and uses cyclos. And how does the kid get the buffalo up Bokor Mountain so quick?

On the positive side, the movie did hold my attention, if for any reason to listen to the music soundtrack which includes a wonderful closing song over the credits which I was watching in search of familiar names (I think there were six or seven folks I recognized). The song is a particularly nice Khmer-language version of "Both Sides Now" sang by a band called Dengue Fever. Throughout the film the musical score is a treat. And of course I had an interest to see what places (filmed mostly in Phnom Penh, Bokor, and Kep, with two short scenes from New York and Bangkok) I'd recognize and what people, though in the case of one cast extra, it was his beard I recognized first. And the story, yeah okay, I've sat through a lot worse and if I wasn't being annoyed by the Cambodia I saw, I might have liked it better, and really, with the kind of budgets big Hollywood productions need to feed the masses, Dillon didn't do all that bad with the cash he had to work with. And the cyclo driver is a gem of a character.

Transport update

We have a new airline or three or something. Without anyone I can think of noticing, some new outfit called First Cambodia Airways (or Air-something, maybe Airheads?) got their hands on a jet and have begun flying between Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur. If and where else they are flying remains a mystery, for as I said, not one single person I know knows a thing about them except that two mates of mine had tickets to fly to Kuala Lumpur from Phnom Penh on the 30th of April and seeing as they are not presently in Siem Reap we can only assume that this First Cambodia Air (-line, -way, -head, -passage) does have an airplane and is at the very least, flying two of my mates to Malaysia. I always thought that when a new airline launched they made a point of telling people about it. To date the only notice in print I've come across that this company exists was an advert in yesterday's (April 30) Cambodia Daily seeking English and Chinese-speaking staff. Please guys, purchase a little advertising and tell people you exist. Some of us really do want to know!

Sihanoukville has an airport again and it's apparently open, but nobody is flying there. We've had this charter company thingy called Progress Multitrade that has on occasion advertised flights to Sihanoukville from Siem Reap which was a rather interesting promotion seeing as that until this month it was apparently impossible to land a plane in Sihanoukville. Even now the runway is too short to handle anything but a small prop along the lines of a sleek modern Antonov 24. Progress Multitrade did indeed finally land an aircraft there this April, an Antonov 24, that is however, owned by President Air. But that said, there are no scheduled flights to Sihanoukville anytime soon from anywhere. As it is, the only local flights you can get in Cambodia now are between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap and Phnom Penh and Banlung - regardless of what some local airline's advertisement might say to the contrary. Curiously, Sihanoukville's small airport with it's minimalist runway and designation as a domestic airport has customs and immigrations facilities. Hmm. In any event, Sihanoukville has an airport even if nobody is flying there.

Speaking of Sihanoukville, though this has nothing to do with transportation, except maybe as a catalyst to promote the existence of the airport, the "five-star" Sokha Resort has now opened. Lots of clean vendor-free and beggar-free beachfront (better than a kilometer I'm told - yay!!!) and racist dual-pricing for rooms (boo!!!).

Now please, don't give me any of this, "Oh, Cambodia is a poor country foreigners should pay more" crap, we're talking about a so-called five-star posh resort, not a boat ride up the Mekong to see aunty back in the provinces. Apparently Sokha, and yes this is part of Sokimex, are also opening a Sokha Angkor Resort that I'm sure in the spirit of so many other Khmer-inspired commercial ventures will see fit to charge foreigners more money as well. Perhaps foreign-owned businesses should start charging Khmers double? Just a thought. Might help get the service charge problem that's caused the month-long strike at, among others, the Grand Hotel d'Angkor (Raffles group) sorted out.

Finally, Mekong Express, the company that runs the more upscale speedboat service between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (when the water levels are high) has now bumped up the quality of bus transport in this country by launching a Phnom Penh - Siem Reap service that offers something no bus in this country has ever offered before - an onboard toilet.


April is always going to be hot. We expect this. On average the month of April, especially from the Khmer New Year to the beginning of May, brings temperatures in the upper 30s C to occasionally 40 C (about 97 F to 104 F for the metrically challenged Yanks). This year has been an exception. Our resident thermometer possessing British bar owner has been offering daily reports of temperatures between 40 C and 42 C (104 F to 108 F fahrenheit) that only broke on the 28th of April when an odd storm kept the day down to a wintry 30 C (86 F). Though it's warm and muggy again the heat may finally have broken as the rains have begun with a brief though heavy shower each day. Phew... it was one hot summer this year.

Pub Street

After reaching the lofty total of nine establishments on one block of Siem Reap where one could order a drink, we've dropped back to eight. The owner of the Paris Sete has thrown in the towel and converted his shop into a souvenir, bric-a-brac, what-have-you shop. We'll get over it.


We still don't have one. We almost thought we had one, but we don't. The latest deal on the table is a two and a half party coalition where some of the positions that would be given to Funcinpec in a two-party coalition are given over to the Sam Rainsy Party. But it hasn't happened yet. Life goes on. Sort of.

Didn't I say this last month? Think I'll be running this same paragraph next month?

2004 Magic of Cambodia

The 2004 Magic of Cambodia Day has been scheduled for Saturday 18 September at The Horton General Hospital, Banbury, Oxfordshire, England.

Visit the Magic of Cambodia webpage for more details:

If you wish to book your ticket now, please send an e-mail to: andy.brouwer@btinternet.com

All profits from the event will go to charity. Details of the charities supported will be on the webpage in due course.


Well, this is only about the second time it's happened since I started publishing e-mails in this column but the month of April saw no e-mails worthy of inclusion in this space. Perhaps people are taking their views to my discussion forum now? In any event, I'm sure someone will come up with something printable next month.

I continue to receive a few travelers' reports every month - but not so many as in the past which I think means people are finding the journeys less and less dramatic. Most of the stories detail experiences on the Poipet to Siem Reap road, but there are small sections for other roads and border crossings. They may be read at the Overland page. See the various Travelers' Reports pages. There are now seven of them.

There is also a Readers' Submissions section which is open to just about anything you want to say. Reader's Submissions will be published on any country and on most any topic. Visit the section for more information.


Business opportunities

The offerings have changed and I've created a new page devoted exclusively to business and employment opportunities. Here it is.

Shameless self-promotion section


Some say I'll live to regret it and at times I already do, but talesofasia offers a discussion forum now. Do register and join the discussion. Intelligence is a highly sought after commodity right now.

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 newly redesigned Photography section for more details.


I have published on this website a considerable-sized FAQ file, recently expanded to 138 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. Four sections were updated this past week.

Siem Reap Guide

The latest version of my comprehensive guide to Siem Reap and Angkor went up on March 26. The section will be updated more or less on a monthly basis as it's proven quite popular even if Google still hasn't quite found it. Have a look.

Guesthouses, restaurants, tours and more: Cambodia businesses to serve your every need.


In closing

I was out of Cambodia for the first three weeks of April as we spent the New Year holiday down in Malaysia spending a few days on Penang and Langkawi. You can read about it on the Malaysia pages. We traveled overland bringing us through the tense regions of southern Thailand where separatists continue their rebellion against the government. Things are looking serious down there and judging by the amount of bandwidth eaten up on travel discussion forums it would seem that personal safety is of major concern to a lot of would-be travelers to the region. Two things are worth noting: One, a group of separatists (some group from Pattani province called the Pattani United Liberation Organisation) said on the 29th of April via their website, that they could not guarantee the safety of any foreigner in the area. Two, to date no westerner has been targeted in any of these attacks - this an uprising against the Thai government and not against westerners. Do what you will with this knowledge, but I would suggest that anyone planning to travel through the extreme south of Thailand to at least be aware of the latest events and plan accordingly, and those who know me also know I'm not easily impressed by travel dangers of this sort, but this situation, at the very least, has my attention.

Siem Reap, Cambodia
May 1, 2004

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