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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

.Cambodia Update

November 2005

1.) Hysteria - part one
2.) Hysteria - part two
3.) Hysteria - part three
4.) Press freedoms
5.) Air Asia arrives
6.) Road rumors
7.) Visa deals
8.) Visa scams
9.) The changing face of Siem Reap
10.) The guesthouse saga
11.) New on toa for October


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).

Want to help stop the illegal trade of Khmer artifacts? Sign the petition to encourage the Thai and Singapore governments to sign the 1970 UNESCO convention on heritage protection. Link is here: http://www.heritagewatch.org/petition.php

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Hysteria - part one

Few would disagree that Cambodia attracts some oddball expats, drifters and dreamers, flakes and flukes, we're all here in one big happy pizza of a country. But one Kampot expat has come under particular focus as of late for promoting Kampot as a suicide destination and by all accounts successfully recruiting one customer.

His name is Roger Graham and he operates the Blue Mountain Cafe (which was for three months earlier this year an advertiser on this website) and promotes his views on two websites: euthanasiaincambodia.com and asian-hearts.com (at least one of these is temporarily unavailable - done so under Graham's own volition) which advocate Cambodia as an ideal place to end it all. He wasn't attracting all that much attention until September when a woman, apparently having some family problems and suffering from a touch of depression, arrived in Kampot and promptly dispatched herself.

She was not ill with cancer, AIDS, or any other terminal disease, but was suffering from depression, a treatable condition and hence not one generally promoted in the pro-euthanasia circles as valid cause to seek an assisted suicide.

No denials, the whole field of euthanasia / assisted suicide is quite touchy territory and I won't claim to represent any opinion other than my own, but I think I share a fair degree of common ground with a quantifiable segment of the population in saying that exercising one's right to the ultimate in self-determination in cases of incurable illness where any semblance of quality of life long ago vanished is within the realm of societal acceptability. On the other hand, advocating, or worse, offering assistance to one heading to life's express check-out line because they're having some emotional problems falls well outside that realm.

And there lies the complications of Kampot. Robert Graham has promoted Kampot as the ultimate location to check out, regardless of whether you're well and truly knockin' on heaven's door or only dreaming about it because you done got the blues and never mind whether you shot a man in Memphis, your clothes don't fit you right, or you just can't be satisfied.

The Kampot expat community has been quite understandably trying to get this guy out of town and in recent days the issue has gained a lot of momentum as it was brought to the attention of the Cambodia government as well as the Cambodia Daily newspaper. And this is where the whole thing has gone completely silly.

There are calls to shut down his websites. Sorry folks, freedom of speech wins. You can't remove a site because you don't like its content. But particularly silly is the claim made by the Ministry of Posts and Telecomunications to investigate means to have the websites removed from the internet, which tells me the MPTC doesn't have a clue as to how the internet works. It took me all of a few seconds to find that the website is hosted in the United States of America and well out of reach of any MPTC official. I've always wondered for myself if someday somebody in a fit of self-importance might seek to shut down talesofasia. Fine, I'd say, first you need to fly down to Australia and locate a company based in Aspendale, Victoria, Australia and file suit against them to suspend my hosting services. Then you need to fly to Denver, Colorado, USA and find the data storage facility where toa lives and file suit against them to remove the website from their server. And if you are successful I'll simply find another hosting service and another server and you can file two more lawsuits in two different countries and we can do this dance until you grow weary and go away. The best the MPTC can hope to do is block the sites from being seen in Cambodia. Once they learn how. A little more realistic would be to sue Graham for the content of his site under laws of defamation and liable and slander and all that. And it seems that the government is doing just that.

But if the Cambodia Daily report can be believed, Kampot Deputy Prosecutor Neak Vuthana plans to sue Graham for defamation not because he's causing irreparable damage to Cambodia (a dubious claim in its own right) but because Graham says that in Cambodia valium is easily available over the counter without a prescription. I got a big bruise on my hip when I fell off my bar stool laughing (wanna see it?). But never mind the bruise, I'll go to the pharmacy and get some codeine for the pain. So anyway, apparently Mr. Neak Vuthana has never visited a pharmacy in Cambodia because valium is indeed readily available without a presecription from almost every pharmacy in the country, as is Xanax, codeine, domadol, and with a little effort, you might still be able to get ketamine and morphine. Really guys, tell me you can do better than this.

Then we have the claims from government officials as well as Kampot-based expats that Graham is causing damage to both Kampot's and Cambodia's reputation and specifically to its tourism industry. Okay, I'll concede that having Kampot promoted as a suicide resort is probably neither in the best interests of Cambodia nor Kampot (well, it does raise issues of lack of repeat business), but please, claiming it will cause all sorts of damage to Cambodia's tourist industry? Give me a break. Graham will never in a thousand years do as much damage to Cambodia tourism as all the border scams, KSR bus scams, airline monopolies, unrepaired roads, political in-fighting, riots, etc have done to suppress and inhibit growth of this industry, and which the government has chosen largely to ignore and if anything has chosen to participate and promote these very scams that keep people away. If people want to petition over concerns for the tourism industry, then petition against the problems I've been writing about here for years. If the government really is worried about what people think of Cambodia then stop the flagrant tourism scams and not waste all your energies chasing down one nutcase in Kampot. There are plenty more nutcases causing far greater damage to Cambodia by ripping off hundreds of tourists every day five different ways five minutes after they cross the border.

The last tactic put forth by the government is in fact less humorous if seen from the western pespective of legal precedent. They have said they would consider revoking his business license because he only has permission to run a cafe and not a website! Think about that one for awhile. That one is actually scary. What do they propose? That every mention of Cambodia in any way, shape, or form, anywhere on the internet requires a license?

It seems to me that given the fact that the Cambodian government has often found rather easy ways to remove people they don't like (go ahead, criticize Hun Sen's border pact with Vietnam, I dare ya'), I really wonder why if they really want him out they don't just DEPORT him, or refuse to renew his visa... There, done. Ministry of Interior, hello? Do we agree Graham's presence in Cambodia is not in the best interests of Cambodia? I think we do. Okay, footprint on the rear end and see if Thailand will take him.

Meanwhile, please folks, give up on these silly ideas of shutting down a website because you don't like it, or suing somebody for making an absolutely accurate statement about Cambodia pharmacies (whether you like the truth or not), or making outrageous claims that one nutcase is going to bring Cambodia tourism to its knees, or trying somehow to associate a website and a business license. If you really want him out, just deport him. Or better yet, as the Bayon Pearnik suggested, convince him to practice what he preaches.

And as for the negative attention Graham has brought onto Cambodia... How much attention had Graham brought before all this fuss started? And how much now? And I wonder how many of the thousands of people reading this report are hearing about it for the first time? As some would say, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Discuss this story here:

Hysteria - part two

It's bird flu time. And this time Chicken Little is really on the move. And why not? Chicken Little is a bird!!!!!

Time for more perspective and sanity. Bird flu (H5N1) has killed less than 100 people worldwide, all of whom had some form of contact with live poultry. That's not very many, is it? Now on the other hand, bird flu could potentially kill millions if the virus mutates to one easily transmissable from human to human. That's a lot, isn't it?

Thing is, it hasn't mutated yet. Yes, it could mutate into a real killer worse than the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918. Or it could mutate into a mild killer. Or it could mutate into nothing serious at all. Or maybe it never even mutates.

And if it does mutate, given the age we live in - air travel as well as the pervasiveness of news outlets, the virus as well as news of its movements will travel so rapidly it won't matter whether you are on ground zero as we are over here, or in an igloo in the Arctic (though that's probably not a bad place to be, especially as penguins are Antarctic), you'll be in danger. Whether the danger is directly from avian flu or simply from the potential massive breakdown of social order that could occur should the flu mutate into one of the more virulent forms with deaths in the millions and not hardly enough vaccines to go around.

But these are all hypotheticals. The previous paragraph was entirely grounded in the premise of if and could.

Nothing has happened.

Nothing may happen.

The CDC, the WHO, concerned governments and pharmaceutical companies can and should be doing everything they can to prevent any spread of the disease, head off a human to human mutation, as well as formulate a solid plan not only to vaccinate the public should the dreaded mutation occur, but also prevent a massive breakdown of social order should this thing get out of hand. The worst case scenario is dire indeed, but it's just that, a scenario. It's not inevitable.

Cancelling trips to Southeast Asia, posting hysterical warnings on internet discussion forums, making inane comments like "I'm afraid to travel to Vietnam right now", sending me e-mails asking me if I'm concerned at this time about bird flu and whether it's safe to travel are all components of silly hysteria. Please stop.

This morning I was flipping through the channels and CNN and BBC are of course all over this thing just as they were with SARS, qualifying their reports with a plentiful supply of words the general public seems unable to hear, such as "if", "maybe", "may", "possible", and "potential" and not using words people seem to ignore anyway such as: "is'", "are", "will", "have", and "sure".

Folks, isn't it ironic that people closest to the source (us in Southeast Asia) don't give a mutt's butt about bird flu right now, while folks halfway around the world are squawking at the falling sky?

Ah well, look at the bright side, should Chicken Little prove right I guess that will put the Blue Mountain Cafe out of business.

For up to date info that's in fact not hysterical (though scary if you do consider the worst case scenarios offered), do see the CDC and WHO websites:

The homepage for Avian flu from the CDC is here:


Updated facts here:


From the WHO head here:


and here:


Discuss this story here:

Hysteria - part three

PM Hun Sen strikes a border deal with Vietnam. Critics are sued and jailed. The monarchy is threatened with dissolution if they don't back the agreement. The retired king vows never to return to Cambodia again.

Something's afoot. There is more than meets the eye.

Is the continued crush of opposition, now seemingly stronger than ever, a sign of increased strength and stability in the power structure of the CPP or is it in fact a mask to cover widening internal divisions?

As usual we'll never know until it's too late, but this latest clampdown on dissent strikes me as a bit more aggressive than we've seen in awhile and I see that as a bit troubling.

Somebody is nervous. I don't like that.

Existing discussions on this can be found here:

and here:

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Press freedoms

In the wake of the government's latest crackdown on dissent, particularly on the Vietnam border issue, it's ironic that Reporters without Borders released their annual World Press Freedom Index, ranking relative press freedom in 167 nations, where Cambodia received the highest rank for all ASEAN nations.

Rankings for ASEAN nations:
90. Cambodia
102. Indonesia
107. Thailand
113. Malaysia
139. Philippines
140. Singapore
155. Laos
158. Vietnam
163. Myanmar
Brunei was not ranked.

The worldwide winner was a seven-way tie between Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland and the loser - no surprise, North Korea. The USA came in at 44th.

As five ASEAN nations ranked in the bottom 25% of the rankings and none ranked in the top 50%, if anything can be gleaned from all of this it's that when it comes to a free press, you won't find one in Southeast Asia.

Air Asia arrives

Air Asia, the region's largest budget air carrier, began service between Phnom Penh and Bangkok and also between Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur. Advertised introductory fares were $25 for the Bangkok flight and $29 for Kuala Lumpur. Factoring in additional taxes the actual Bangkok fare came out to a still very cheap $44.50. I don't, however, know what the KL fare comes out to because I didn't buy a ticket to KL I bought one to Bangkok and will be on a flight the morning of the 10th.

Aside from bringing much needed reasonable airfares to Cambodia, even if it still doesn't break Bangkok Airways' monopoly on Siem Reap, I think more telling has been the responses on internet discussions forums to the announced fares. It wasn't just the usual and expected "woo-hoo, a cheap airfare!" but just as many comments were directed at Bangkok Airways and of the nature "serves you right you bastards". Personally, if Bangkok Airways were my company I wouldn't be too thrilled to know my business was held in such esteem. I wonder sometimes if company President and CEO Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth is aware of how many of his customers are using his airline not because they want to but because they have to? And when he went to university, do we assume he missed the seminar on the benefits of competition? In any event, Air Asia is at least offering cheap flights from Phnom Penh to Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. It's, if anything, a start.

Road rumors

From several independent sources I heard that starting this month, the infamous Highway 6 / Highway 5 between Siem Reap and Poipet is finally getting the construction we were promised back in 2002 with Thailand kicking in the remaining money needed on top of what the Asian Development Bank offered three years ago. And that Hun Sen would be in for a ground-breaking ceremony (or would that be a ground-rebreaking ceremony?).

You'd think then I'd make this a major story seeing as it's been a crusade of mine for so many years, but nowhere did I see this report myself. Nowhere on the internet could I find any reference from any source that this was happening - not any of the news agencies, not the ADB site, not from any blog or journal, and not even from the Ministry of Public Works website (probably because it doesn't work...). So as far as I'm concerned it remains a rumor. However, on or around the 25th of the month I will be traveling overland back to Siem Reap and I'll let you know what I see... or not see as the case may be.

But if someone out there can point me in the direction of a viable news source that this is really going to happen, please let me know.

Discuss this story here:

Visa deals

Thailand and Cambodia have joined together to take the first step to create a single-tourist visa for the two nations that is seen as an experiment to creating a five-nation ASEAN tourist visa. The respective PMs signed the deal a few days ago though no promises were made as to when exactly it would take effect though others further down in the governments swear it will happen before the end of the year.

I've been rather pessimistic about this deal, but then again the practicalities were never made clear, as initial reports hinted at what seemed like a logistically impossible plan. However, the visa program is structured so that the cost will be the same as if one purchased two separate tourist visas, so that neither country forfeits any income. And more importantly it's not a required visa and is not designed to replace any pre-exisiting visas, but rather is simply one more of several visa options available to regional visitors. Therefore there would be no effect on the status quo of visa-free entry for certain nations, longer-term tourist visas, visa runs, business visas, etc. All it's meant to be is an additional tourist convenience to save someone the trouble of applying for two seperate visas should they find themselves in the position of either needing or wanting tourist visas to both countries. Well, fair enough then.

Discuss this story here:

Visa scams

Heard another visa scam recently. Yes, another one. We had some Filipinos at our guesthouse last week. Filipinos are supposed to have visa-free entry to Cambodia, receiving instead a simple 21-day entry stamp. So guess what happened at the airport? Eagle-eyed officials figured out right quick they had a group of FIlipinos and quickly took them off to the side away from the visa line and away from the immigration queues. The official offered that there was special service for Philippine passport holders and promptly relieved them of their passports and $20 each. $20 is the standard tourist visa fee. The passports were in fact taken over to the visa on arrival desk where they appeared to be processed. They were then returned to their owners with a $20 receipt inserted in the passports as is standard practice for all visa on arrivals at the airport - but there were, of course, no visas inside. The four were then quickly escorted over to the immigration desks whereupon the receipts were removed from the passports and the 21-day stamps landed in their place. And off the four went, with a 21-day entry stamp, no visa, and $20 less than each one started with. Pretty slick, huh? Shameful, too.

But a surprising follow-up:

Today I received an e-mail from the Filipino group. Surprise of surprises on their way out at Siem Reap Airport they complained to immigration about being charged for visas and amazingly... they got their $80 returned to them!!!!

Discuss this story here:

The changing face of Siem Reap

The high season is starting up and there seems to be more new eating and drinking and accommodation options than ever before. Our informally named "Bar" or "Pub Street" has almost filled up, culminating with the superfluous Nimith Snooker Club being replaced with a row of new shophouses with $1000+ monthly rents. For better or for worse several of the five spots were gobbled up by people already with bars on the street who have opened new bars with almost the same name as the old bars and all with temple motifs. Please guys, we've seen temples all day, can't we just get some suds and grub?

Actually, the places were done up quite nicely and in between them you can get yourself a proper massage, but these temple-motifed entrances are getting out of hand. What next, waiters dressed as monks?

"Pub Street" remains ground zero for eating and drinking with fifteen different establishments just on the main block. Food options include Indian, Italian, Thai, Khmer, and Western and within a block you can add several more of the same as well as Vietnamese, Irish, and eclectic western. A pub crawl would be very difficult as the number of drinking holes within the Old Market triangle are by now in the neighborhood of thirty to forty or so. Who remembers when there was only the Angkor What? Bar, Zanzibar, and the old Ivy? Or when the focus was the strip along the river with the Continental Cafe, Liquid, and Tooi Tooi Bar (all of which no longer exist)?

Accommodation choices have exploded with everything from small guesthouses, to an enormous new supply of 15 to 40-room mid-range hotels, to five-star establishments - which now number somewhere in the neighborhood of ten... hmm, Amansara, Grand Hotel, Sofitel, Le Meridien, Victoria Angkor, Hotel De La Paix, Angkor Village Resort, Residence d'Angkor, Sokha... and ... and ... and... In 1998 there was only the Grand.

Anyone else think maybe it's time that Siem Reap drew up a master plan?

Discuss this story here:

The guesthouse saga

Not much to report - we're doing fine without a manager and we're not so sure we want or need one now. The other staff have collectively risen to the challenge, though we still need one or two more girls in as we're not staffed up enough for the approaching high season. The cat still doesn't have a name, and it's not a he but a she and she appears to be in the early stages of pregnancy. She has also tamed up completely to the point of almost being a nuisance she's so friendly (and hungry) sometimes. Siem Reap has been experiencing nightly power outages but apparently someone important must be on our power grid because we've yet to be put in the dark. Rainy season is supposed to be over but it's not, as we've had a couple more days of heavy downpours. I could almost swear the roof was going to cave in the other night... Life goes on... Please, name our cat.

Check us out here.

New on toa for October

The following appeared on the pages of toa in October:

October 29: The most recent of several updates to the Overland Bangkok to Siem Reap Travelers' Reports.
October 23: Updated the Overland O'Smach Travelers' Reports section.
October 21: Readers' Submissions, Cambodia: Antonio Graceffo offers two stories: Praying for a Cure and Bokator Angkor and Lay Vicheka brings us Making Your Entertainment More Rational and Less Selfish.
October 18: Bronwyn Sloan and Phnom Penh Perspective returns with Supper with Pol Pot.
October 17: Updated the Talesofasia Guide to Siem Reap and Angkor.
October 17: FAQ Cambodia: Updated two sections: Money and Tourist Attractions.
October 9: Readers' Submissions, Cambodia / Thailand: Chris Simons brings us Chiang Mai to O'Smach and through to Koh Kong Sept 1-18 2005
October 8: Readers' Submissions, Cambodia: Antonio Graceffo offers two stories: Angkor Wat by Bicycle and The Road to Siem Reap.
October 2: Readers' Submissions, China/Taiwan. Antonio Graceffo contributes Everyday Buddhism and for Cambodia: he offers Adventure Khmer: Prelude to a Journey of Discovery.


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