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Every Cambodia Update August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update.

November 2001

1.) Photo Exhibition
2.) We're not in Kansas anymore
3.) Is there a doctor in the house?
4.) Siem Reap hassles - getting there and staying there
5.) Flying anyone?
6.) New war museum opens in Siem Reap
7.) Siem Reap - Poipet road update
8.) Motorbike rentals
9.) Where are we?
10.) Sex or no sex


Photo Exhibition

First order of business this month is a little shameless self-promotion. If you're in Phnom Penh anytime during the month of November please stop by the FCC (Foreign Correspondent's Club of Cambodia) along the riverfront and check out my latest photo exhibition. I have 34 works on display that show Cambodia from all sides. There are beautiful shots of Angkor Wat in a heavy monsoon rain, the Bayon at sunrise and other temple scenes, intimate portraits of folks I've met over the years and alternatively there are not so beautiful shots from the Stung Meanchey garbage dump, a shot of S'kun with her head in a bag of glue (actually S'kun appears in several photos), and other less than ideal images of Cambodia. Just as Cambodia is a juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness, so too, is this photo exhibition.

We're not in Kansas anymore

Many of you remember the line from that 1939 film classic "The Wizard of Oz" where, upon arriving in Munchkinland (did I get that name right?) Dorothy turns to her dog Toto saying something to the effect of, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore". Cambodia feels that way sometimes.

As stimulating as Cambodia may be, for me, one thing that makes living in what is still a hard core third world country possible is my more or less monthly five to seven-day excursions to Bangkok. October was no exception, as I was there from the 11th to the 18th of the month. One of my first orders of business upon arriving in Bangkok is usually to hit up a McDonalds for a Big Mac and fries. And during my stay I'll take in a movie or two in a modern air-conditioned theatre with state-of-the-art digital sound. And I'll wander about modern shopping malls, department stores, and supermarkets. I'll even stock up on basic consumer items like soap, shampoo, coffee, Oreo cookies, etc. Not that these things aren't available in Cambodia, they are, and Phnom Penh even offers several modern supermarkets, but as all these goods must be imported from Thailand the prices run 50-100% higher here. On every trip I leave Siem Reap with a bag half-full, returning with it stuffed so chock-a-block I can barely carry it.

While some would condemn the influx of so-called western-style development - what is western development anyway? High-rise office buildings? What should they do in Asia? Build them 100 stories under the ground? - development means a better standard of living - health care, education, a stable government, a functioning and impartial judicial system, just to name a few. It's not about McDonald's. But personally, if McDonald's or any other western company can successfully do business in Asia, why not? Most of the customers are locals anyway, if they want a Big Mac, who are you to spout off about westernization? Let them eat their Big Macs. It's about choice. Anyway, I digress.

So what about the pace of development in Cambodia? Really, I try to be an optimist, but what does Cambodia offer the world now? Ancient temples and cheap unskilled labor that isn't all that hard-working. Natural resources? Some timber, some rubber, some gems - much of it sold off illegally. Phnom Penh is home to numerous garment factories, but semi-conductor plants? Forget it. This country is at least a generation away from that.

We're getting roads finally. Highways are getting long-awaited upgrades and both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap are seeing their local roads receive a fresh layer of asphalt as well. Of course, Cambodia isn't paying for any of these highway improvements, it's all built with international aid or by Thailand, who certainly have their own self-interests in easy access to Cambodia. The internet is here and works pretty well, but it's out of the reach of probably 99% of the population. Telephones, Cambodia has arguably the highest mobile phone to landline phone ratio in the world - on account that there are hardly any landlines. Education, well, here's a problem.

There are two universities in Cambodia, both located in Phnom Penh - the Royal University of Phnom Penh and the University of Fine Arts. Beyond that are numerous private institutions offering a variety of courses concentrated along the lines of providing business, computer, foreign language, and engineering degrees. Most of these schools are proprietary and quality varies tremendously. In the provinces choices are virtually non-existent. Siem Reap has a couple of private schools of dubious quality and one can manage a language or computer class in most provincial capitals. But more of an immediate concern is at the secondary level. Siem Reap has a high school. That's marvelous but what if someone lives even fifteen kilometers out in the countryside? Well, they can come into Siem Reap everyday assuming they have transportation and the time to make the trip. Most do not. With large impoverished families, few can afford the money or the loss of labor to send a kid to school. At 12 or 13 most children are working the rice fields. Outside the main towns there are few educational opportunities beyond the primary level. And most of Cambodia lives outside the main towns.

Cambodia won't be Kansas for a long, long time.

Is there a doctor in the house?

Okay then, education in Cambodia is problematic to say the least. How about medical care? Focusing my attention on Siem Reap as most readers are likely tourists, and as tourists, Siem Reap is most likely where you'll be - my advice is - don't get sick. Siem Reap does in fact have two hospitals founded by NGOs. However, both of these are children's hospitals. The first one is Hospital Jayavarman VII, one of the three Kanta Bopha hospitals founded by Swiss doctor Beat Richner (the other two are in Phnom Penh), which will not treat adults under any circumstances. The second is the Angkor Hospital for Children. AHC will treat adults but for a donation of $50 for routine visits, $100 for more serious matters. There is also a private clinic, Naga, run by a French doctor but he went on vacation back around June and last I checked, he was still on vacation. There are also a handful of local clinics and the Siem Reap Provincial Hospital. Stay away from the Provincial Hospital, even the doctors employed there avoid the place as much as possible.

Siem Reap hassles - getting there and staying there

Last month I briefly made reference to the fact that some Khao San Road travel agencies were selling overland transport to Siem Reap for as little as 80 baht and I promised to provide details on this ridiculously low price next month. Well, next month is this month so here are a few details in the form of a slightly altered version of an article I wrote for the November issue of the Bayon Pearnik. Granted, a lot of this does repeat information I reported in last month's column, but as I put this article together anyway, I figured I might as well include it here, too.

Perhaps youíve heard the stories of the ten-baht Bangkok tuk-tuk ride? A tuk-tuk driver approaches some unsuspecting tourist and offers to take them on a tour of Bangkok for one hour at the bargain cost of ten baht. They often pepper their pitch with some come-on about how itís a special Buddhist holiday and the government is subsidizing the tours. The naÔve tourist agrees and is then literally taken for a ride - not a tour of Bangkok, but instead a tour of tailors, gem dealers, and souvenir shops - basically anywhere that gives the driver gas money. But then again, what did you expect for ten baht?

Alas, in the past two months overland package trips from Bangkok to Siem Reap, purchased from Khao San Road travel agencies, are beginning to resemble the ten-baht tuk-tuk ride. A few months ago prices began to plummet. What once cost 600 baht dropped to 300, then to 200, and now as low as 80 baht. Yeah, that's right, 80 baht from Bangers to Angkor - that's about $1.80.

How the #$%& does anyone make money on 80 baht? Well, letís back up a bit. The prices began to plummet after the road between Poipet and Siem Reap received long-awaited reconstruction cutting travel times down to as little as 2.5 hours in a suicidal pick-up truck. With these road improvements, everybody with a van or mini-bus in Banteay Meanchey Province (Poipet/Sisophon) jumped into the tourist transport business. Given the propensity for Khmers to conduct business at pathetically low profit margins the first-wave of price crashes began.

A further boost to the tourist transport business came when the Governor of Banteay Meanchey province decided that tourists should be in special tourist vehicles and not in the pick-up trucks. There had been a lot of instances where tourists did get ripped-off by these trucks due to the travelers' unfamiliarity with how to deal with them. Though not a rigorously enforced law, if itís a valid law at all, it did help the transport agencies fill their vehicles up a little quicker.

But the real impetus to what has now reached the ridiculously low-price of 80 baht, is... you guessed it! Kickbacks!

Somebody has to subsidize that 80-baht fare, right? Well, hereís whatís going on. The tourist finds an agency offering this fare, pays up and dutifully rises at the crack of dawn to board a bus from Khao San Road to the Aranyaprathet, Thailand/Poipet, Cambodia border. So far so good except along the way the bus may pull over at some roadside eatery where you all pile off and innocently grab a bite. Meanwhile, the first kickback is paid. The eatery paid the tour company to stop here.

Now you reach the border and fifty of you disembark the bus together. Guess how long itís going to take all of you to clear immigration? Try an hour or two. Donít think for a moment the immigration guys are going to speed anything up for you. This delay is exactly what the folks on the Cambodia side want. The last thing they want is to get you into Siem Reap in the afternoon.

After taking up entirely too much of your time, the tourists are sorted out and put into mini-buses. These may even be comfortable. Youíll drive a bit more than an hour to Sisophon (the pick-up trucks do this in 45 minutes now) and take another food break. Here another commission for the transport company is paid. And donít be the least bit surprised if this food break drags on for two hours. Hmm, itís going to get dark soon isnít it?

Yes it is. Sometime around nine or ten at night, fourteen hours from Bangkok your mini-bus reaches Siem Reap. It pulls into the driveway of some guesthouse on some dark side street and before you can get out of the vehicle the gates have been shut behind you. Good luck getting away. You have just been kidnapped by a guesthouse that paid a tidy sum to have all of you delivered to his front door. And this is how the 80-baht trip is paid for.

Worse, there have been cases of tourists being physically threatened if they tried to leave or have had their bags grabbed by the guesthouse operators and several dollars are then demanded for their return.

Not a happy ending, is it? But then again, what did you expect for eighty baht?

Specifically, a couple of months ago a Siem Reap expat purchased a direct Bangkok to Siem Reap ticket. The expat also happens to own a guesthouse. On the way to Siem Reap he picked up a pair of customers from his fellow passengers. On arrival in Siem Reap the bus pulled into the lot of the Friendly Guesthouse, who were anything but friendly. After shutting the gate the owner became very belligerent with the expat accusing him of stealing his customers. Bollocks! There is no Cambodia law that gives any business the legal right to purchase and retain customers. If a guesthouse owner chooses to subsidize a BKK to Siem Reap bus ticket, thatís fine, but he does so at his own risk.

Recently I was having a drink in one of Siem Reapís watering holes when the bar owner told me of another tale of a pair of her customers having been dropped off at the Sunshine Guesthouse. The two did not wish to stay there but as it was late they decided to stay there the one night and move out the next day. When they tried to leave the following morning, the guesthouse operator took possession of their bags and demanded that they pay for three nights claiming thatís what the two tourists had intended to stay for. After a lot of threats and posturing the tourists eventually got out. So while they got their way, it was at the expense of wasted time and a lot of unnecessary aggravation. I doubt these two are likely to be recommending Siem Reap as a tourist destination anytime soon.

Guesthouse kidnapping, what to do? Well, let's start with a little tourist cooperation - go complain to the tourist police, will yaí? Sitting at one of the Siem Reap pubs with a cold beer whining to your mates and the bartender isnít going to stop this practice. But this nonsense might stop if you complain to the proper authorities. Thatís what the tourist police are there for. And no, kidnapping and threatening are not legal in Cambodia and believe it or not the authorities in Siem Reap do give a shit sometimes about what happens to tourists especially if itís something that makes Cambodia look bad.

But as the saying goes, you get what you pay for - and for 80 baht thatís what you get - an eight to nine-hour trip is turned into a 14-hour ordeal that ends with a belligerent guesthouse owner demanding that you stay in his building. Oh, did I mention, theyíll also tell you about how dangerous Siem Reap is at night and driving around on the back of a moto at ten p.m. is sure to end in robbery? Just read the Lonely Planet Thorntree and see how many people are under the false impression that Siem Reap is dangerous. Whereíd they get that idea? Guesthouses and motodops, thatís where. Really now, when was the last time anybody was held up in Siem Reap? And do the Siem Reap authorities really want guesthouse owners spreading such rumors? No, they most certainly donít. So go to the authorities and complain.

The tourist police are located in the main police station which is a large building on the corner of Sivatha Street and Highway 6. They really do need more serious work besides hassling tourists for riding motorcycles and dreaming up bizarre licensing requirements for establishments doing business with tourists (legally define that one, huh?). So give them something to do. Complain.

Conversely, if the Siem Reap authorities are serious about making the tourist police actually useful to tourists, it would be rather helpful if they would publish and post around town a telephone number for the department that will be answered by somebody reasonably fluent in English regardless of the time of day or night. And they could staff their office round the clock as well. We help you - you help us. Can do?

Flying anyone?

Air news #1 - Royal Air Cambodge ceases operations - but has anyone noticed?
Mid-month, down to one jet on loan from Malaysia, the aircraft's owners decided to take the Boeing 737 back leaving Royal Air Cambodge, Cambodia's national carrier, without an airplane to fly. But is anybody paying attention? For the past year we've been predicting the imminent demise of "VJ" as in the past year the carrier has all but disappeared from the skies. A year ago they cut the bulk of their domestic routes, leaving privately-owned Royal Phnom Penh Airways to take over most of the business. Royal Air Cambodge still flew between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh when they could manage to find a few tourists to put in the airplane. There was also the odd flight to Bangkok from Siem Reap and a few other international routes to and from Phnom Penh, but by and large the national carrier did honor to its flag by canceling half its flights each week and parking its plane on the tarmac of Pochentong International Airport for everyone to, well, look at.

Though already fledgling, the beginning of the end started back on August 1, 2000 when 40 liters of gasoline overflowed from the aircraft moments before the king and queen, showing their national loyalty, had dared plan to fly the national carrier to Beijing. Not surprisingly, PM Hun Sen demanded the resignation of then chairman Pan Chanta. Getting right down to serious business and perhaps cementing the future of the airline, Sok An, the new acting chairman, first order of business was to change the offerings of complimentary newspapers given to passengers. And the rest is, as they say history. And here today, Royal Air Cambodge is, for the time being, history. Dry your eyes.

Certainly, Royal Air Cambodge will find a new partner to provide them with an aircraft. The latest reports say there are negotiations between the airline and the Chinese carrier, Hainan Airlines. With any luck they'll come to an agreement and at least then they'll be an airplane to fly. Whether anybody gets on board is up to the efforts of the airline's management team. And let's hope they do a better job this time.

Amazing. Only in Cambodia does the national carrier have no aircraft.

Air news #2 - Off-roading, not just for motorbikes and 4-wheel drives.
Also, in the middle of October a Siem Reap Airways flight - that's a branch of Bangkok Airways that runs flights between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh (and for awhile Saigon but they could hardly get any passengers) - ran off the runway at the Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport while taxiing. Nobody was injured but the aircraft sat partially on, partially off the tarmac for a few days until the proper removal equipment could be brought in from Thailand to pull the plane off and get the airport open again. No word yet on the financial cost in lost revenues for the other carriers, but whatever it is, Bangkok Air/Siem Reap Air will be paying for it. This is one airline I wouldn't be looking for any discounts from anytime soon.

Air news #3 - Here's an idea I'm simply amazed that no one has thought of...
Would it be asking to much to have baggage trolleys at the domestic terminal of the Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport? To be fair usually one or two are parked by the taxi booth, which is fine if you know to look there - now expect a tourist to know that - but normally one would expect to find baggage trolleys where? Where you pick up your bags, that's where! What a novel idea! Anyway, on the 26th of October I flew from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap with 57 kilograms of stuff. That's about 125 pounds for my fellow metrically challenged Americans. Seeing as one piece alone weighed 75 pounds I wasn't about to walk this stuff out to a taxi. I looked high. I looked low. No baggage trolleys anywhere. I asked a security guard. "No have," he smiled and shrugged his shoulders. I asked a baggage attendant, "no have" with another laugh. Then I asked one of the women checking baggage tags, "no have" again. "Well, what am I supposed to do, carry this stuff out on my head?!?" Finally, somebody went down to the international terminal and a baggage trolley was brought up for me. Still, what kind of airport doesn't put baggage trolleys in all of its terminals? Sure, there are plenty of trolleys in the international terminal, but for a country that pisses, whines, and moans that nobody visits Phnom Penh anymore - well, why should anybody visit Phnom Penh if they're going to have to carry 57 kilograms of baggage on their head when they get to Siem Reap? Cambodia touts Siem Reap - Angkor as a world-class tourist destination, so how about a little world-class service and do something as simple as provide baggage trolleys in the domestic terminal? CAMS (Cambodia Airport Management Services), show you actually deserve the contract to run these airports and give visitors a little common courtesy.

New war museum opens in Siem Reap

In late 1998 a Siem Reap man going by the name of Aki Ra opened on his home premises a war museum, more familiarly known as the land mine museum. It was an instant success garnering worldwide publicity. It was a small display of hundreds of land mines Aki Ra had collected over the years, a rack of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, and even a mock mine field. But perhaps having the greatest impact on travelers were seeing the paintings that Aki Ra made on his war experiences and reading his own biography detailing the horrors of mines and his life during wartime.

While the museum was an instant success with travelers it was not a success with local authorities who harassed him from almost day one. They complained the rifles were operational so the rifles were removed. Then they claimed licensing and permit irregularities. Then they claimed he was giving Cambodia a bad image and scaring away tourists. But the one thing the authorities never said, but Aki Ra cited frequently, was that the real reason behind the harassment was that the government wanted to open its own museum. For all intents and purposes Aki Ra was shut down almost a year ago, but one can still pop in and see a few remnants of what was once a rather interesting attraction.

Earlier in October the Ministry of Defense, true to Aki Ra's word, opened its own museum on the local military base near the Siem Reap - Angkor International Airport. Open daily from eight until five and charging three dollars a head it's best reached by heading out west on Highway 6 and turning right at the huge billboard. You can't miss it.

But is it worth visiting? I'll tell you about it and let you decide. Laid out on some nicely landscaped grounds a motley assortment of tanks, armored vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, and artillery cannons are flanked by a few sheds housing an even more decrepit collection of automatic weapons, artillery shells, mines, grenades, grenade and rocket launchers, uniforms, Khmer Rouge flags, and basically any other military junk the generals had lying around in.

That's what the museum is - a collection of useless military junk in deplorable condition. Unlike Aki Ra's museum there is no attempt here to tell a story - except maybe to show just how ancient the equipment used in the wars of the 70s, 80s, and even 90s were. For example lying about our several DCA37 anti-aircraft guns that were manufactured in 1935.

The items on display do have labels indicating what they are, where they came from, when they were made, and where the piece was found. To the military's credit there really is no attempt to conceal that this stuff is junk "found/unearthed in 1998 at such and such a location" is a common sign tag. According to the tags most of the material came from Osmach, Anlong Veng, and outlying parts of Siem Reap province.

Speaking of sign tags, I saw three (there may be more) Soviet-made T54 tanks that all bore the same sign reading "destroyed on 20 February 1994 by a local mine of Khmer Rouge at Anlong Veng battlefield". Only one tank actually looked like it hit a mine as it bore a hole in its floor you could fit a fat cow through.

I wish the military would try to educate, place into context, or somehow expand this museum to something more than just a collection of rusted military hardware. If you visit the War Crimes Museum in Saigon, while granted it's the Vietnamese version of things - as it should be - at least one is given that nation's view of a war and the high toll it took on its people. Aki Ra's museum told his story of living with the Khmer Rouge, fighting for three different armies, and the horrors he saw. I should add that the veracity of some of Aki Ra's stories have been called into question by people having no affiliation with the new museum, but nonetheless, his stories are not all fiction and people need to be educated on these matters.

Ministry of Defense, throw up some stories - let it be propaganda even. Most of us are wise enough to see through it and at least we'd know what your version of history is. But until some kind of attempt at public education, an historical perspective, or some kind of personalization is brought in, this museum will exist as nothing more than a neatly arranged military junk yard.

And on that note, the hardware would be a lot more interesting if they at least appeared to be operational bearing some resemblance to what they looked like when they were in service.

To read a story I did based on an interview with Aki Ra in October 2000, look here.

Siem Reap - Poipet road update

Assuming that piece a few stories up hasn't put you off overland travel, I thought I'd let you know I did the trip twice in October. From Siem Reap to Thailand on October 11th and a return on October 18th. The ride out was slowed by the recent collapse of a bridge about 35 kilometers west of Siem Reap. A few hundred baht extra and a dozen guys floated the pick-up truck on a makeshift raft. Still, it was an hour and a half delay. I noticed recent rains had put a few more bumps in the road, especially nearer to Poipet,  but while not as smooth as a few months ago, the road is just as fast.

I returned on the 18th, leaving my Sukhumvit Road hotel shortly after 7:00 a.m. A taxi to Morchit and I was on the bus to Aranyaprathet at 7:30. I arrived in Aranyaprathet at 11:30 and hooked up with a couple of Italian tourists who seemed happy to have met somebody who knew the way. A few "help with visa, immigration form" touts were properly told in no uncertain terms to f#%k off. Once in Cambodia, I ignored my own advice and we took a truck at the circle instead of further up the road, but the driver agreed to get us straight to Siem Reap without a lengthy delay in Sisophon. In exchange for 900 baht the three of us got the entire front of the truck. We left straight away from Poipet. We did switch trucks in Sisophon but true to the first driver's word, the delay was kept to only fifteen minutes - very reasonable. The new driver let us off at Psah Chas right in front of the Ivy Bar. Total time from Poipet: two hours and fifty minutes. Cost: 300 baht per person - double seats for all of us. The previous week's downed bridge was temporarily repaired and there was no delay. Overall, we got a good deal on what's still a fast road.

Total time Bangkok to Siem Reap, door-to-door this trip: eight hours and fifteen minutes.

So it is with great pleasure that I announce the successful rainy season survival of the latest incarnation of the Siem Reap to Poipet highway! Happy trails!

Motorbike rentals

Last month I talked about the resumption of enforcement of an old law that barred tourists from renting and operating their own motorbikes in Siem Reap. As expected, the level of enforcement began to slack off in October. Still, it had been hit or miss whether you could get your hands on a bike or not. Some shops would rent you one, but at your own risk - if the police sent you back the shop wouldn't refund your money.

Whatever hopes there had been of a complete easing of enforcement of this law may have been dashed on October 30th when two Aussie tourists who had obtained a motorbike were subsequently involved in a serious accident causing one of the tourists to be evacuated to Bangkok with a number of injuries, some apparently quite severe.

As this only occurred yesterday, the repercussions are still unknown. Stay tuned.

Where are we?

Have a look at these four photographs. Each one is from somewhere in Cambodia. E-mail me your best guess at gordon@talesofasia.com There's nothing to win and I won't even publish your name if you do win (unless you want me to), but it seems like a fun idea. So... where are we?

For #1, I want to know in what temple this figure can be found. For #2 the answer should be self-explanatory. If the sign on #3 is difficult to read, the name of the shop is "Bill Gate Center" and it is indeed a computer training school. Where is it? And for #4 (apologies for the scan quality), the building in the background is what should give away the answer - if you know it - tell me, where was I standing when I took the photo? One last hint - none of these photographs is anywhere near Phnom Penh.

    Photo #1 - figure / Photo #2 - statue by the water / Photo #3 - Bill Gate Center

Photo #4 - "Main Street"... somewhere...

Sex or no sex

When I began this website in August 2000 it was, as I say on my front page, "to show the people and places of Asia in a different perspective from that of the usual travel pages." Although this website is really about Cambodia and not Asia, I think I've otherwise stayed true to my initial goal in providing detailed, timely, and hopefully useful travel information and stories that transcend anything published in a travel guide as well as commentary on some of the social problems in Cambodia that could be of interest to the tourist, the expat, or anyone with a desire to know more about the country.

But the one topic I've not touched upon is the sex industry in Cambodia.

I've been grappling with this for some time and have made the decision that sometime soon - two weeks, two months, I don't know, in its own section, I will address the sex industry honestly and as objectively as possible without unilaterally demonizing or glamorizing it - not that there's much to glamorize, anyway.

For reasons which will hopefully be clearer once I've produced the piece, writing on this topic is not as easy of a task as one might think. I have no desire to turn this website into a clearing house of information on where to get the cheapest/youngest/best lay in Cambodia, but I'm not going to come out and condemn the entire industry either - writing off all the customers as a bunch of socially inept, fat, bald, middle-aged men - because nothing, and I do mean nothing could be further from the truth.

The fact is, I support the legalization of prostitution. But I do not support the trafficking of underage Vietnamese girls who are sold into the business by parents who, yes believe it, know exactly what they are selling their daughters into. And this is all too often the reality here. But the reality is there are also women making the personal choice to freelance from time to time that they need a little cash.

So with much consideration, I'm going to take the plunge and throw something up here on the naughty side of Cambodia. It may not appear all at once. Just as my other lengthy pieces - garbage scavenging, street kids - get updates and personality profiles, so too, I expect will this section.

As of today I have two Vietnamese girls lined up to talk. One is a brothel worker in her early 20s with two children, the other is a teenager, younger than she looks, put to work by her mother, that would on first appearance seem to be a freelancer, however she is anything but.

Comments welcome.

An oversight

As I purport to provide up-to-date information on Siem Reap, the least I could do is provide a link to the Angkor Portal website, a clearinghouse of travel news relevant to visiting Angkor. So, here's the link.


I get e-mails. Some are simple travel related questions which I do my best to answer in a timely fashion - apologies to anyone whose mail fell through the cybercracks of my brain - I get comments, mostly favorable, on the stories I write - "Life on the Streets" still continues to generate the most mail (and the most readers) - and people sometimes e-mail me with their reflections on the people and culture they encountered on their Cambodia visit.

As an expat, life in a foreign country seems like an endless series of ups and downs. On one day a kind gesture, a light moment, help where no help was asked for, a just a simple sincere smile puts the locals in a positive light and you feel privileged to live in this foreign land, appreciative of your generous hosts, their easygoing way of life and positive outlook, especially in contrast to their poverty and recent history. On another day, an errant driver, a rip-off in the market, an obnoxious motodop and you head to the nearest expat watering hole wondering why can't all these Cambodians just go away and stop annoying us and let us live as we want, never mind it's their country and why should I care that it is?

I'd been having a few of those latter days when I received this:

I think about it [Siem Reap] almost every day: my God ...it was such an experience. I will never forget the people, and most of all the kids. I became (sort of) friends with one of the kids that sold postcards in front of the 3 restaurants at Angkor Wat. Her name is "Tang" ...and I am sure I will recognize her ...when I come back to Cambodia one day. It was just so very different. My life here in the city is so stressful, everything is about money ...and you just don't get the "daily smile".

Cambodia had certainly an impact on me: There is almost everyday that something makes me think about it.

But I also get mail like this, echoing sentiments in both paragraphs which I agree all too well with:

I spent three days there [Siem Reap/Angkor] last month and was enchanted by the temples but not by the Siem Reap environment. It is a beautiful, friendly and charming city. I make it a practice to walk around in the cities that I visit but the very aggressive beggars and moto drivers made this impossible. A moto driver put putted along side of me repeatedly asking me if I wanted a ride [Gordon here: I see this all too often]. My polite negative responses seemed to be taken as a "maybe". When I gave an emphatic (rude) "NO!" he took off and the moto that had been a bikes length behind him started the same line of dialogue. The beggars seemed to have a policy of 'I will harass until you pay me to go away'. I make it a practice to donate to beggars in Thailand and in Phnom Penh but I gave nothing to any of these people because of their aggressiveness. The result was that I was not able to explore Siem Reap.

I found the children that were selling odds and ends and the children that were offering guide services to be delightful and charming. I have never before called any group of children delightful and charming.

And this (note: the writer of this e-mail is not a native speaker of English):

I just read your September and October Chronicles. Very interesting. Your 2 stories about the khmer guy who go to the market are exactly how I see khmer people and their way to deal with the economy. I had a couple of friends who had a bad experience in Siem Reap last year. They were bring by a motodop to SMILEY's guesthouse and they didn't like the place so they wanted to check an other place but the manager had kept their baggage and ask for 4$ to give the luggage back. It's a shame but I think it's not surprising. Me I had a great time in Siem Reap some years ago but I don't want to go back there to keep a good image of this town in my head. I travelled last month in Indonesia and the way the tourists are treated there is worse although the place is fantastic.

I like very much to read your thoughts about the tourism industry and the khmer society. I have a lot of things to say about this and I could write a book about the subject but my written english is poor. I am now a bit cynic: For me as a white guy you will always be considered as the rich tourist so I live with it. When I was in Indonesia one guy offered me to take me with is car and wanted to charge me 350 000 Rp. I declined his offer and instead take the public bus (which was 10 000 Rp). I just asked why he wanted such a high price. He told me that I was a tourist and all tourists have a lot of money. Then I had a long discussion with him and I realized that there is no way to convince the people because they have the image of rich western people on television and then they see the tourists on package tours who pay very high prices. They can't figure that they are people travelling cheap with money hardly saved by doing shitty jobs in Europe.

A final note

As I'll be spending most of November in Phnom Penh, next month's column will be oriented towards discussing Cambodia's capital city. Check back around the 1st of December for the scoop.


Siem Reap, Cambodia
October 31, 2001.




All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.