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Previous updates...

Profiling, guesthouse 7, news run down

Hospitals, taxing fun, staff issues, moto bans

Accidents, one million, Koh Ker, tax department, McDonald's

Year in review, tsunami, tourist buses, Sam Doeun, staffing issues

Angkor tickets, tourist buses, full moon, guesthouse

KSR to Siem Reap bus scams, new MOT, air, traffic lesson, bars

Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

.Cambodia Update

May 2005

1.) So who's watching the police?
2.) Preserving culture through lettering
3.) Double or nothing departure tax bingo
4.) While the French were sleeping
5.) Killing Fields follow-up
6.) Tourism numbers
7.) Celebrity visits
8.) Hey! Cow! Where's your ticket?!
9.) The guesthouse saga part 8
10.) New on toa for April


HEY YOU! Why just read? Talk, too. Head over to the talesofasia Discussion Forum and toss in your 500 riels worth. Some stories from this column are also cross-posted to the forum for further discussion (or not).

So who's watching the police?

This month's first bit comes from (as usual) the Cambodia Daily, where it was reported April 6, that Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema issued police and firefighters warnings against continued bad conduct. Aside from the expected issues such as slow response times for fire alarms (the city is building two new stations this year so this should help) and the seemingly eternal problem of illegal checkpoints used to extort money, the governor stated that police should not use their firearms to settle minor conflicts adding that this is especially problematic when the police have been consuming alcohol and dancing (hmm... note to self: find image of drinking dancing police officer at the corner of Monivong and Sihanouk waving his service revolver at a motodop...).

In response to the checkpoint problem, the governor suggested, and we've heard this before, that the police should use these stops not to extort money but to educate errant drivers. To assist the police at the checkpoints, and I swear I am not making this up, the city is hiring 100 high school students, for as the governor said, "We should use young people to educate older people who abuse traffic orders." No word on how the police will educate the high school students in the art of shaking down motorists for 2000 riels. I do know from motodrivers that when they have had an unfortunate encounter with Cambodia's men in blue that the degree of education they receive would appear to be inversely proportional to the amount of money they have to pay.

In any event, in a country where drivers find ways of getting from here to there that violate most long-standing and universally accepted laws of physics, I suppose a hundred high schools students can only help. If anything it'll be educational. For somebody.

Unfortunately, the report failed to mention whether or not the government has addressed the issue of the fire police demanding payment before they turn the fire hoses on.

The following day, a second Cambodia Daily report stated that Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng (who is also Co-Minister of the Interior) had jumped on the bash the police bandwagon while speaking at a national seminar on tourist security, suggesting that it was time the police did more for tourist security and less for relieving visitors of their money. He was quoted as saying that, "if police and military police are poor in providing security services, tourists and investors won't be spending their money or their time to have fun in such an unsafe area," and "You must regard good tourists as your boss and bad tourists as the enemy." Just how they define bad tourists was not made clear but several possibilities come to mind which I doubt they considered.

Anyway, Sar Kheng's comments were prompted by reports brought to his attention that a drunk officer insulted tourists down in Koh Kong. For anyone who's ever used this crossing, that an officer insulted a tourist is hardly news, that someone with clout in the government is speaking out against it however, is news. Sar Kheng went further adding that, "Tourists stand in line, wet with sweat, waiting while officials pass by with handfuls of passports to be stamped."

Sar Kheng also scolded officers for overcharging on the cost of visas obtained at the land border crossings and urged tourists to report officers who do so - which would potentially be just about every tourist who enters by land. This means the next time you enter at Poipet or Koh Kong or wherever and they demand anything more than $20, Sar Kheng wants to know about it. And for that matter, so does the Minister of Tourism, Lay Prohas. And while your at, if you were daft enough to take the Khao San Road Scam Bus, then why not report them, too? You guys end up paying more than everybody.

So if you want to complain, do it here:

HE Sar Kheng, Co-Minister of Interior
Ministry of Interior
#275 Norodom Blvd., Phnom Penh
Tel: 855-23-212-707, 726-148, 726-052.
e-mail: info@interior.gov.kh
website: http://www.interior.gov.kh/

Or here:

HE Lay Prohas, Minister of Tourism
Ministry of Tourism
#3 Monivong Blvd., Phnom Penh
Tel: 855-23-212-837
e-mail: info@mot.gov.kh
website: http://www.mot.gov.kh/

Better yet, send the same letter to both of them. Dates, times, details. And remember, ministers of ministries carry the title "Your excellency" in the second person, "His excellency" in the third. "Hi mate, I got a problem" won't fly.

Not to be outdone, Thong Khon, secretary of state for the Ministry of Tourism (and also an excellency) also had ideas about the police. Conceding that the country doesn't have enough money to hire the needed tourist police officers, he wants to recruit "volunteer youth guards" to help the tourist police protect sites and offer assistance to tourists.

Depending on how such volunteers are selected, this actually sounds like a program with a bit of potential. For students interested in tourism, cultural preservation, etc, it gets them out of the classroom and into the real world while the government gets some free labor. No word on how much the pay-out would be to obtain a "volunteer" position. Let's hope in this case, it's nothing.

Finally, Thong Khon suggested there was a problem with tour guides pushing tourists into overpriced high-pressure souvenir shops. Hmm... stop a practice where 30% to 40% commissions are paid out? Good luck.

The tourist police are part of the Ministry of Interior and as such, the following webpage is devoted to them:


Which says in its entirety:

The Main Priciple of Tourist Police

1-Lifting up the planning goal to lead command the Tourist Police to perform the security protection, safety obligation and providing the information tourist guide for the national and international tourism according the law decision.

2-Completing the skill measure follow the conduct leading principle of the Commissioner General of National Police and Ministry of Interior.

3-Measurring the other necessary measures preventing and vanquishing on time all the other activities caused to abuse to the body, life, health, and honor of the tourism with respect by the basic of the human rights.

4-Providing the truly and clearly information for the tourism.

5-Post Stationing defending and patrolling around the gathering places of the tourism easy in providing-receiving the information and inventing on time in the purpose to secure the safe of the tourism.

6-Facilitating the travel of the tourism on the administrative procedure making easily, safety and confidence of the tourism in the period staying in Cambodia avoid the difference cooperation and discriminating the race.

That is exactly what it says. Number 4 I find to be particularly interesting.

Discuss this story here:

Preserving culture through lettering

Apparently the increase in the use of computers has caused concern that traditional Khmer script will disappear in favor of a less formal and simple font, which brings up one of the complexities of culture that many societies grapple with.

No one would deny that language is an enormous factor in defining any culture, but as societies change, regardless of whether it's from internal or external factors, so too, does language.

As the world grows smaller and contact across societies and cultures increases, the world has seen many languages disappear from the planet in the past century and thousands more will be lost by the year 2100. Yes, people lament the loss of these key elements of cultural identity, but what happens when a language ceases to be of use to anyone? Given the effort it takes to maintain a local language does it become worthwhile to keep a language alive if it's spoken by only five hundred people or less? That's up to the speakers of the language, but in most cases if the functionality of the language made it worth keeping it would still be here, otherwise the language dies. Regrettably, so too, does a key element of a culture. But culture, like language is the responsibility of its owners.

A few numbers for perspective: http://www.ethnologue.com identifies 6,912 languages still extant in the world. Of that total, only 264 have more than one million native speakers comprising 93.9 percent of the world's population. Drop the figure to one hundred thousand native speakers and the numbers increase to 892 languages and 98.8 percent. Go the other direction to ten million native speakers and the distribution is 75 languages and 79.5 percent. At the other extreme, half (3586) of the world's languages have less than 10,000 native speakers comprising a total of just over 0.14% of the world's population. Some of the languages have as few as one known speaker! That's a lot of tribal languages on the brink of extinction.

The same organization (click here for their Cambodia page) identifies 24 languages in Cambodia of which 21 are indigenous and 3 are immigrant (how English and French are included as indigenous and Vietnamese, Lao, and Mandarin Chinese are classified as immigrant languages is beyond me. I'm sure the answer is probably in the small print somewhere but I couldn't find it). Anyway, Khmer is identified as having 12,110,065 native speakers in Cambodia and 13,276,630 worldwide, which given those figures, it's probably quite a safe bet that the Khmer language is not in danger of extinction.

So the language is safe. But what about the script? As we're talking about a language that's obviously set to be around for quite some time and therefore subject to the dynamics of change that affect all living languages, what do we make of the issue of preserving a traditional writing style?

Modern society dominated by computers, speed and efficiency, is not conducive to the preservation of such tradition. China, not known for preserving anything other than the bodies of former party bosses, did away with their traditional character form in favor of a simplified version. Will Cambodia follow suit?

Ultimately, that answer is up to the owners of the language and as concern has already been expressed it's not a topic that's being ignored. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any Khmer not in favor of preserving the traditional writing style, but will they make the effort as more and more young Khmers turn to computers, text messaging, and other modern forms of communication?

While it might not be apparent to a visitor, there are sensitivities to the presentation of the Khmer language and any foreigner who's put up a sign in front of his or her business knows this. By law, signs must have the traditional Khmer script at the top of the sign above and in letters larger than any other language used.

Compliance with this law is spotty and it's not just foreigners who violate it, there are plenty of Khmer-owned businesses who have non-compliant signs as well, and the reasons should be obvious. Businesses targeting foreigners are a lot more interested in making themselves known to their target than in displaying a large script which none of their customers can read. A clash of culture and commerce.

Apparently the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, is well on top of the issue and intends to make all signboards in Cambodia fully compliant by the end of 2005.

Discuss this story here:

Double or nothing departure tax bingo?

I just missed this one in last month's column, but it was well discussed on my forum just the same. Ailing President Air has launched flights between Siem Reap and Poipet. Most people weren't even aware that Poipet had an airport. Well, technically it didn't and still doesn't, seeing as check-in is not at the "terminal" (a shack on stilts in a rice paddy, maybe?) but at the Holiday Palace Casino. The airport, or what passes for one, is about ten kilometers from Poipet town and passengers are taken from the casino in some sort of shuttle bus. Perhaps poorer - double or nothing departure tax bingo, anyone? Security is handled before the passengers board the bus for the ride to the air port... now there's security for you! Oh, excuse me says the driver along the way, just a moment while I pick up a bag from my friend.

Whatever, President, which is dying anyway, will fly from time to time between Poipet and Siem Reap. No idea what the fare is as their website doesn't offer fare information and submitted requests are eventually handled by a human being and not a computerized system such as most airlines have.

If the fares are really low, like in the $20 - $30 range, I can see some advantage to avoiding the infamous overland road, though the departure time from Siem Reap (16:25) is not very conducive to moving on to Bangkok as the flight arrives supposedly at 17:00 and the last bus to Bangkok leaves at 18:00. Coming the other way might be a little more convenient, with departures at 13:00. But here's another oddity.. according to the schedule, the flights are on alternating days.. so you have a plane that arrives in Poipet at 17:00 and then sits there until the following day when it departs at 13:00? I guess when you're canceling half your flights you can afford to let one of your AN24s sit idle in Poipet. Maybe someone will steal it and they can collect on the insurance.

I think it was best summarized by KG who stated on my forum:

Fly to Cambodia's scummiest city on Cambodia's scariest airline. Ticketing and check in at the casino. Wonderful.

Discuss this story here:
This is an on-going discussion that originated on April 9.

While the French were sleeping

At a recent press conference held by Renaud Muselier, secretary of state for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it was revealed among other things that Hun Sen would make an official state visit to France later this year (looking for Sam the Candle Man?), September to be exact. Unlike certain other Cambodian political leaders, Samdech, will actually have to use a Cambodian passport to visit France. Imagine that, a major Cambodian political figure using a Cambodian passport. Who'd have thought of such a thing? Anyway, Hun Sen's going to France.

During this press conference it was also revealed, according to the Cambodia Daily report, that France would help Cambodia, "incorporate the beaches of Sihanoukville, along with Angkor's temples and the sights of Phnom Penh, into the country's tourism strategy."

Am I missing something? When did Cambodia's tourism strategy not include Angkor? Or was he trying to say in a helpful way that Cambodia has no tourism strategy and France is here to help? Seeing as he qualified his comments with a reminder that it's the French company SCA that runs the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports and is looking to take over the not really functional Sihanoukville airport, he assumes I suppose that this somehow stands as an endorsement of the French ability to promote Cambodia tourism? As a regular user of Cambodia's airports, I, like many expats, have come to the conclusion that this is one operation no one should be proud of.

Perhaps Monsieur Muselier would like to arrive at the domestic terminal of Siem Reap with 80 kilos of cargo and try to find a luggage trolley to get the stuff outside? Or try to locate his bags on the Siem Reap international terminal carousel when three planes landed at the same time? Or see how long he has to stand to pay the extortionate $25 departure tax as well as get through the security line when there are three international departures in the space of half an hour? Or how long he has to wait to pay the parking fee in Phnom Penh even though he only pulled up for thirty seconds to drop somebody off?

Discuss this story here:

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Killing Fields follow-up

Last month one big story was the proposed privatization of the Killing Fields memorial at Choeung Ek. Opposition was wide and loud and the whole operation subsequently disappeared from the headlines.. until yesterday. In a nutshell the sequence of events went like this:

1.) Announcement of privatization to Japanese firm.
2.) Outrage.
3.) Discovery that contract was awarded by government official who also happens to be chairman of the board of directors of the Japanese firm.
4.) Enormous outrage.
5.) Certain factions in the government say, err, no, we're not so sure about this.
6.) Plan is announced as going through anyway.
7.) Plan is announced as not going through.
8.) Story disappears from the headlines... leaving one to believe that
one of two things is happening: One, the plan is dead and a few folks are a bit embarrassed and want the whole thing to go away. Or two, the plan is going ahead, but given the public outrage nobody is saying anything to anyone and one day, surprise, the company will be there running the operation and it will be too late for anyone to do anything about it.

We found out yesterday it was the second scenario. See this: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002260874_bones03.html

Discuss this story here:
This is the discussion begun with last month's piece published on April 5.

Tourism numbers

Here's my annual bore the readers with the Ministry of Tourism figures for the previous year.

2004 visitors: 1,055,202 (in a previous column I discussed the flaws in this figure, so let's for the sake of argument and consistency accept these figures at face value).
2003 visitors: 701,014

Country of origin (top fifteen)

2004   2003  
South Korea 128423 Japan 88401
Japan 118157 USA 66123
USA 94951 South Korea 62271
UK 64129 UK 50266
France 58076 France 45396
Thailand 55086 China (PRC) 38664
Taiwan 53041 Taiwan 37345
China (PRC) 46325 Thailand 35718
Australia 38211 Vietnam 28610
Vietnam 36511 Australia 26638
Philippines 32910 Malaysia 26285
Malaysia 32864 Germany 25671
Germany 29112 Philippines 23953
Canada 20680 Canada 14872
Singapore 17830 Singapore 14407

So far 2005 is off to a flying start with 402,762 in the first two months alone, with over 69,000 coming from South Korea, nearly double each of the next two runners-up, which continue to be Japan and the USA.

This item has not been posted to the discussion forum as I didn't feel like reformatting the tables...

Celebrity visits

Jackie Chan is the latest celebrity to affix his name to a cause in Cambodia, following in the footsteps of, among others, Angelina Jolie, Minnie Driver, Ashley Judd, Emmylou Harris, Roger Moore, Gary Glitter, well maybe not Gary Glitter. Perhaps we could do one of those intelligence quizzes where you put four things in a row and ask which one doesn't belong - Jolie, Driver, Judd, and Glitter... though some might choose Angelina Jolie on account of the fact she's been given Cambodian citizenship and the others haven't.

Anyway, Jackie Chan, a goodwill ambassador for the UN Children's Fund, turned up in Cambodia last year and returned again this month touring land mine sites and visiting victims around Battambang and Pailin. To promote awareness of Cambodia's land mine problem, he intends to make a movie using Cambodia as the setting and incorporating the land mine problem into the story. Hmm, Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Nights,... Shanghai Bar? The Cambodia Daily report stated the setting would likely be 1980s Cambodia.

US Olympic gold medallist Edwin Moses also accompanied Chan planning to use his organization, Laureus World Sports Academy, to promote athletic activities for Cambodian children.

There were 891 mine and UXO casualties in Cambodia in 2004, an increase from 840 in 2003. There's not been much improvement over the past five years as the number of casualties stood at about 1000 in 1999. However, the number was significantly higher at around 3000 in 1996. One main reason why there is a lack of improvement in mine casualties is that while they are getting more mines out of the ground, we are now seeing more people settling near or onto mined territory, increasing their exposure to dangerous ground.

Discuss this story here:

Hey! Cow! Where's your ticket?!

The heritage police assigned to protect the Angkor temples have been given a new job - evict the cows. The Apsara Authority has decided that cows shouldn't be wandering around the temples (funny, no one seemed concerned about them for the previous eight hundred years) claiming that they are a nuisance and leave a mess. However, insiders have suggested that the real reason is that the cows didn't buy tickets and insulted the Sokimex guys. Consider that Japanese and Korean tour groups are also a nuisance and leave a mess but have not been evicted from the temples. Therefore, it must be about tickets.

In any event, while I suppose no one wants to step in a pile of cow dung in the middle of Ta Prohm, it does make you wonder where is the commitment to allowing the people who live among the temples the right to continue their lives as they have been living them since their ancestors built these monuments? Ang Choulean, director of monuments and culture at the Apsara Authority once told me that they see the villages as a living heritage and as such for their cultural value should be incorporated into the temple experience.

Given a choice between a few cows wandering about or twelve-year old kids pestering me to buy a flute, I'll take the cows. They're quieter.

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The guesthouse saga part 8

I don't really have much to say this month as I left on the 11th of April and since I last posted my experiences, about the only thing of note is that we had our slowest week since October. Welcome to low season.

Low season comes in two waves. April to June marks the longer low season, then things pick up for July and August as they mark the heart of the western summer holidays, September everything falls through the floor (it's statistically the slowest month of the year for western travelers), things start jumping in October and come November the tourists return in droves. If you're targeting Asians then the pattern is a little different.

Since my departure on the 11th, I get regular reports from the guesthouse. It's been very erratic - from nearly full to nearly empty. So far the only problem anyone has alerted me to is a continuing plumbing/drainage problem that may ultimately require a bit of cash to sort out, but one I'm sure I will put off for as long as possible. Of course this came from the expat watching the place and not from my staff. The fact that I haven't been alerted to any problems from the staff can be attributed to any of the following: 1.) There have been no problems I need to know about. 2.) The staff sorted the problems out themselves 3.) The staff hasn't figured out how to break the news to me and it will just have to wait until I pop in next week and I can see the disaster for myself. Any or all will be the case.

I was pleased to receive several recent e-mails from guests offering favorable review on their experience at my guesthouse in my absence, most notably in favor of my staff. I'll be sure to let them know.

Selling rooms means dealing with bookings, in theory the more the better. But like most small guesthouses, bookings aren't secured with credit cards, forms aren't processed, it's an e-mail, a personal response, a confirmation, and we take them at their word and hope they show up. Most of the time they do. Those that arrive by air are almost 100%, ground arrivals less so. We've been burned a couple of times by people booking pick-up in Poipet and others simply never showed up at the guesthouse. I know of at least one guesthouse in Siem Reap that does not accept bookings from people coming overland from Thailand due to too many going AWOL.

One of the problems with unsecured bookings is there are people who will make multiple bookings just to guarantee themselves a room somewhere and then when they arrive decide which place to go to leaving the others twiddling their thumbs with an empty room.

Another issue with unsecured bookings is length of stay. We have a policy not to evict guests who decide to stay longer than intended. More often than not, guests have no idea how long they want to stay anyway. "No problem," I always tell them, "once you're in, you're in."

So what is a guesthouse to do? Do you take every possible booking and hope you never overbook? Hope that not too many people overstay leaving you in a conundrum as what to do with the six rooms coming tomorrow when you only have four?

You play the odds. You take a guess, based on your correspondence, as to the likelihood each reservation will arrive and what might be their response if you don't have just exactly what they want. Most of the time we get it right. And when we can't accommodate someone we bend over backwards to get them the same kind of room at the same price at a place we know they'll like. And we send them with our drivers (and our expense) who stay until the guest is checked in and satisfied with the alternative.

So far we've only had one customer who really took exception with us because we didn't have the room she wanted when she arrived. I thought it ironic that she could not accept having to wait one night to get the room she wanted (we had someone overstay) when she couldn't even give us a clear idea of how long she was going to stay... she had told us from two to fourteen nights. What did she think I was going to do? Block a room for two weeks on the chance she might stay that long?

Speaking of length of stays, another issue a guesthouse owner has to deal with is people asking for discounts, inevitably using the "I will stay a long time" ploy to get a discount. Curiously this doesn't always work. Consider the following scenario: I have a half-full guesthouse and no bookings for the next two nights, but I'm full-on thereafter, maybe even overbooked if someone doesn't leave. So who stands a better chance at a room discount? The person who tells me they'll stay a week or the one only in for a night or two?

And people lie. They'll tell you they'll stay a week, get a discount and then leave after two nights, which was their intention all along. I remember once a customer arrived, a single male traveler, who announced he would stay two weeks and asked for a discount. Okay, I said, for two weeks I'll offer you X but the discount will only be in effect if you stay at least eight nights. Oh, he says, we'll maybe I'll only stay a week, then how much? I said Y but again you only get it if you stay the full week. He left after one night. And was probably in Phnom Penh a day or two later.

So my advice of the week to would-be guesthouse owners is that if someone looks for a discount based on an extended stay make sure it's conditional to them staying a specified number of nights. I base potential discounts as a function of a room's occupancy rate against the number of nights stayed. Hence, it's a good idea to track the occupancy rates for each of your rooms, especially when they have differing prices and amenities.

Check us out here.

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New on toa for April

A busy month on the site. The following graced the pages of toa in March:

April 29: Thailand: I posted a piece on some of the scams and problems with the private bus services sold predominantly on Khao San Road and also one of the popular scams surrounding the purchase of train tickets at Bangkok's main rail terminal. The piece is entitled appropriately enough Bus and Train Scams from Bangkok / Khao San Road.
April 28: Cambodia Overland: The most recent of several additions to the Bangkok to Siem Reap Travelers' Reports section.
April 27: Cambodia FAQ. Updated the Safety section.
April 27: Readers' Submissions: Lawrence Sheed visits from Shanghai and writes about it with: Sex, drugs, guns and temples: A tour of Cambodia
April 22: Readers' Submissions: Lay Vicheka offers:The four basic obligations of the government.
April 21: Cambodia FAQ. Updated the Tourism section.
April 21 : Sydney resident Matt Kemp's View from Oz returns with:Snow in Sydney, dare to be a detainee, justice and luggage.
April 19: Cambodia FAQ. Updated the Legalities and Money sections.
April 18: Readers' Submissions: Four offerings: Ronnie Yimsut gives us Choeung Ek sale is simply and plainly an insult to all Khmer and The Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which are two opinion pieces well worth reading. And Hernan Corizzo offers two of his own, on Thailand we get: Don't trust anyone on your birthday and on Asia in general, Meet the real Asia, a missive about perceptions of "travellers".
April 17: Thailand: I put together an opinion piece on the annual Songkran celebration.
April 12: Australia: The first version of Matt Kemp's talesofasia guide to Sydney.
April 12: Readers' Submissions: A reader brings us Tibula Fibula Cambodian Style:a firsthand experience with local medical services and Lay Vicheka offers: Cambodian Resort: "Virtuous Woman's Breast" Mountain
April 2: Cambodia Overland: Added a submission to the Koh Kong Crossing Travelers' Reports section.


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