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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update.

October 2001

1.) Dual-pricing - my thoughts
2.) The Siem Reap to Poipet highway - the latest
    A.) New land speed record!
    B.) Prices plummet!
    C.) Subsidizing the cost - a traveler's report
    D.) The Cambodian version of the ten-baht tuk-tuk ride
    E.) Death highway?
3.) Use a motodop or walk : an old Siem Reap law is revitalized
4.) Getting tourists to stay longer in Siem Reap - here's an idea...
5.) Eating in Siem Reap  - an insider's tip
6.) The last word - a disclaimer and reminder


Dual-pricing - my thoughts

Dual-pricing is the act of charging two different prices for the same good or service. This practice is quite prevalent in Asia and the deciding factor is, though in theory based on nationality, really determined by the color of your skin. In some countries this is official policy for tourist attractions and transportation and unofficial policy for whatever the local merchants think they can get away with.

In Thailand it is official policy at the national parks where foreigners pay 200 baht to enter, while a Thai, whether a poor rice farmer or multimillionaire business executive, pays 20 baht. In Cambodia it is official policy on some forms of transportation and nearly all tourist attractions. At the Angkor Archaeological Park foreigners pay $20 to 60 depending on the number of days purchased while Cambodians pay nothing. The privately-run Phnom Kulen charges foreigners $20 for the privilege of encountering further scams along the way and also to admire the sacred garbage lying about the place. Khmers get hit up for 5,000 riels ($1.25) to endure the same hassles. Dual pricing also exists on the speedboat service. China used to have this policy but rightly woke up one day realizing that the practice was discriminatory and in the long run counterproductive to the development of their tourist industry. With infinite wisdom they abolished two-tiered pricing at tourist attractions and on all forms of government-run transportation.

One counter argument used to defend dual-pricing is that such pricing also exists in the west. A common example is the ability to purchase annual or multi-visit tickets for some tourist attractions in the USA that effectively results in a lower price for the local. Bullocks! Anybody, regardless of nationality, race, etc. can purchase such a ticket. In Thailand, where I lived for three and a half years, worked and paid taxes, spoke the language (albeit poorly) and could read well enough to make out the sign written in Thai script that informs of the cheaper local price, I still had to pay the foreigner price.

But what's worse than official dual-pricing policies is the rampant overcharging of foreigners by local merchants. In some countries this is promoted by the government. In Vietnam, public address systems in every town churn nationalist spirit with pro-Vietnam rhetoric peppering their propaganda with pleas to do your patriotic duty and overcharge foreigners. No doubt, Vietnam learned this from China who once broadcast the same announcements until logic and reason got the better of them.

When locals are encouraged to overcharge foreigners this only perpetuates this dangerous us vs. them mentality. Promoting nationalism is a dangerous game. Nationalism is nothing more than a fancy word for racism.

The mentality to overcharge foreigners sometimes backfires. In a country as poor as Cambodia it behooves us to do our best to support local enterprises. Ideally then, the best place for us foreigners (expats and tourists) to do our shopping is in the markets. But in the markets there are no fixed prices and everything is up to the whims of sellers who think nothing of doubling or tripling or even quadrupling the price when a white face turns up. So guess where a lot of expats do their shopping? In Siem Reap we either patronize a convenience store owned by a wealthy and well-connected foreigner, a convenience store owned by a multinational corporation, or a small supermarket owned by a wealthy Khmer. Why? Because all these stores are fixed price. Our other alternative is to send a Khmer into the market to do our shopping for us but this carries a few risks as well.

Example #1:
Expat: Sok, I need you to go price a desk for me, okay? But don't tell them it's for a foreigner. Okay?
Sok: Okay, I no tell them you foreign, okay, I say you no foreign!
Expat: Okay.
      An hour later Sok returns.
Sok: I get price your desk. $150.
Expat: $150????!!!!!! Why so expensive?
Sok: (pausing) Umm, I don't know.
Expat: You told them it's for a foreigner, right?
Sok: Umm, well, no, I say it's for my friend and they ask me my friend's name. I tell them you name is John. But I no tell them you foreigner.

Example #2:
Expat: Sok, I need some clear plastic bags, 200 of them, just big enough to fit these postcards inside, okay?
Sok: Okay, clear plastic bags, this size, okay!
Expat: Well, here, take this one as an example, now come back with 200 just like it.
    An hour later Sok returns.
Sok: I get your bags, only 1000 riels. Good price for you, yes?
Expat: Yes, good price, may I have them.
Sok: Okay, but one small problem.
Expat: Just let me see the bags.
Sok: Okay, but I tell you problem.
    Sok hands the expat ten black garbage can size bags.
Expat: Sok! This isn't what I asked for!
Sok: I try to tell you already. One small problem. Market finish with small clear bags. Only have big black bags, is still okay?

One of the problems in dealing with dual-pricing is understanding some of the causes and paradoxes behind it. In many respects, Cambodia has two economies. The local economy and the foreigner (tourist and expat) economy. I have often complained at the Khmers' willingness to conduct business at profit margins a fraction of what we consider acceptable in the west. But that is the local economy. When your customers only make 3000 riels a day (75 cents) a 100 riel here and a 100 riel there makes a difference. As foreigners, we scoff at the notion of haggling over a hundred riel and on another part of this website I actually encourage throwing a little extra money at the Angkor souvenir sellers.

The problems are when the two economies mix. Souvenirs are not local economy but are tourist economy and as such the goods should be priced accordingly. On the other hand, a seat on a boat, a jar of coffee in the market, a bowl of noodles on the street. There should be no differential in price based upon the nationality or perceived income of the customer.

When China eliminated dual-pricing they didn't reduce the foreigner prices but raised the Chinese prices instead. The logic was that the growing prosperity of the Chinese population meant more Chinese could afford to pay these prices. Cambodia is not at this point yet. Many Cambodians can barely afford to pay the few hundred riel profit the seller is making in the first place. On the other hand, in a relatively prosperous country like Thailand there is absolutely no excuse for two-tiered pricing.

For the time being, I can forgive the Angkor pricing and to a point can do my best to ignore the price differential on the speedboats, but I refuse to accept being overcharged in the markets based solely on my ethnicity. I have no problem with price fluidity per se. I believe in the free market and I believe a seller has the right to consider any number of factors when determining a price. However, nationality or race should have no part in these decisions. Ever.

The Siem Reap to Poipet highway - the latest

New land speed record!!!!!!!!!

On the afternoon of September 9, 2001 in pouring rain, I was able to cover the entire 160-kilometer stretch from Poipet to Siem Reap in two and a half hours. Yes, you read that correctly:

Poipet to Siem Reap

2.5 Hours!!!*

*This trip was not made using the slower moving tourist buses, but in a pick-up truck from Poipet to Sisophon and a private car from Sisophon to Siem Reap. But who cares? It's still two and a half freaking hours!!

Here's a look at the road about 25 kilometers west of Siem Reap. This photograph was taken on September 2, 2001.

Prices plummet!!!!!!!!!

If you read my August column, which you should have as it carries all the details on making the overland trip - including immigration and visa procurement procedures at the Cambodian border, you'll recall that I advocated bypassing the Khao San Road travel agencies and making the trip yourself. I now have to change my mind on that one. On September 5, I popped into one of the travel agencies there and was quoted 200 baht (about $4.50 US) for the entire trip. It is absolutely impossible to do this on your own for anywhere near that price. Naturally, this had my curiosity going so I asked the agent how anybody could possibly make money at that price? After suggesting I could pay 300 baht if I wanted, her answer was that it was the low season and the competition on the Cambodia side was getting very tight. It seems that since the improvement of the highway everybody in Northwest Cambodia with a van or mini-bus is jumping into the tourist transport business. Furthermore, given the Cambodians' propensity to conduct business at pathetically low profit margins it's fairly obvious to see why the prices have dropped as far as they have. She did add, however, that when the tourist high season begins in November the prices will climb back upward somewhat. Still, it may never again be cheaper to do this trip on your own. The other thing to keep in mind is that on the Cambodia side, the buses usually make a lunch stop in Sisophon which results in a commission for the transport company, likewise the guesthouses in Siem Reap kick in some cash, too. Given these subsidies, this is one of those rare cases where the kick-back practice actually results in a cheaper price for the tourist. From Siem Reap to Bangkok, however, prices are still in the $12 to $18 range, but that probably won't last, either.

The only drawback to the KSR agencies is it requires you to drag yourself up to Khao San Road before 7:00 a.m. if you're not already staying there. As I stay down on Sukhumvit Road and I'm not known for having much capacity for early morning action, I opted to do the trip on my own when I returned to Siem Reap on September 9.

Unconfirmed report: a traveler e-mailed me on September 28 reporting that he got passage from Bangkok to Siem Reap for 80 baht! That's less than two dollars.

Subsidizing the cost - a traveler's report

I spoke recently with a traveler who purchased a 200 baht ticket from a Khao San Road agency and made the Bangkok to Siem Reap trip on the 15th of September. Despite no problems with the road or the vehicles the trip still took fourteen hours. With a one-hour lunch break and an hour at the border this trip should still not take more than nine, ten hours at the most. So what gives?

Stop #1. A food stop in Thailand was stretched to two hours. During this time, guesthouse touts for Siem Reap establishments were already approaching the travelers and worse, the scumbags that try to scare you into letting them help you fill out your visa and immigration forms were also sniffing around for prey. Consider also the possibility that if you're made to sit around for two hours you might order some more food and drink - the more you spend the bigger the commission the transport company gets.

Border crossing. Apparently the "help you with your visa and immigration forms" touts are more plentiful than ever. Personally, when I last did this trip solo on September 9th, I was approached by only one of these guys. While most touts, though at times annoying in their persistence and sheer numbers, are at least usually offering a legitimate good or service (i.e. transport, guesthouse, etc.). I must reiterate what I said in my August column - these guys offering to help you with the visa and immigration forms are nothing but scam artists seeking to prey on your naivety and fear of Cambodian officialdom - YOU DO NOT NEED THEIR HELP! The visa form is almost laughable in its simplicity and the guys in the visa office don't even bother reading half of what you write down, anyway. I responded to my particular tout by shoving my passport with its multiple entry business visa in his face telling him where he could put his assistance. I will not be sensitive and polite to somebody who is doing nothing more than looking for a way to STEAL my money.

Stop #2. The Cambodians weren't going to miss out on their chance for a commission either, so now in Cambodia the vehicle made a food stop in Sisophon that also stretched out to two hours. I asked why nobody complained. Her response was that people were a bit afraid. I suppose this is a concern - a minivan full of tourists who have never been in Cambodia before and whose minds have been filled with stories of guns and kidnappings and murders and so forth. I remember one time last March I tried out one of these transport companies. We stopped for lunch in Sisophon, and it too was turning into a two-hour affair. Having better things to do than sit all day in a Sisophon restaurant, I decided to do something about this but got no support from any of my fellow travelers. Not to be deterred, using my Cambodia Ministry of Information journalist ID card (this is not some Khao San Road fake, but very much the real thing), I grabbed some tourist's guidebook, walked up to the tour company representative, showed him my ID, told him I wrote this guide book and that I would absolutely scorn and belittle, malign and defame his company in the next edition if they didn't move and move NOW! Within five minutes we were on the road. My question to all tourists - what is it you are afraid of? If you're getting bad service you have every right to complain about it. None of these people is going to beat you, shoot you, or rob you.

Arrival. There's another purpose to the afore-mentioned delays. If they waste enough time getting you to Siem Reap, they can get you in after dark. Many naive tourists still think there's some great danger to being on Cambodia's highways after dark. Other than hitting something the driver can't see, there is no danger. Nobody's been robbed on any Cambodia road in ages. Anyway, the mini-van, bus, truck, what-have-you arrives in Siem Reap and stops in front of a guesthouse. It's dark, it's late, and you the tourist are in a strange place. You will be pressured to stay at whatever guesthouse it is - pressured by the transport company, pressured by the guesthouse owner. Somebody might even suggest that Siem Reap is dangerous after dark. Bullocks on everything! You are under no obligation to stay at any guesthouse and nobody, I repeat nobody, is going to hurt you or your possessions for refusing to stay where they drop you off. And Siem Reap is safe, safe, safe, safe!

Competition for tourist transport on this overland route is so heavy now there is simply no excuse for tolerating bad service. Sure, they think, you're a tourist who will never be seen again, so why should they offer you good service? Because the companies want to stay in business and folks like me, who through a combination of several magazines and this website, can reach tens of thousands of potential customers a month will think nothing of publicly slagging any company that fails to deliver quality service. If you have a problem with a transport company, a guesthouse, whatever, in Siem Reap or anywhere in Cambodia, please, e-mail me about it. But I need details - I need names, I need numbers.


The Cambodian version of the ten-baht tuk-tuk ride?

Perhaps you've heard the scam. In Bangkok a tuk-tuk driver approaches you offering to take you on a one-hour tour for all of ten baht (just under 25 cents). But there is no tour, instead you're taken to some gem dealer or tailor and forced to put up with a high pressure sale while the tuk-tuk driver collects some gas money from the merchant.

Unfortunately it now seems with the plummeting Bangkok to Siem Reap prices the journey is starting to resemble a ten-baht tuk-tuk ride.

Just yesterday I heard two separate but disturbing tales of journeys to Siem Reap that was much like above but ended with the mini-bus pulling into a guesthouse around nine in the evening. The gates were locked behind them and very high pressure, bordering on belligerence, was put upon the tourists to stay. This is kidnapping, plain and simple.

Due to time constraints, I'm writing this on the morning of October 2 and I need to get this month's column posted, further details and commentary will have to wait a month. But in the meantime, if you find yourself in this position do not allow yourself to be bullied. Get out, go to the tourist police, whatever - but do not be intimidated. And get the name of the transport company - when you were picked up in Poipet the representative would have been wearing an ID badge. Take down the name. 

To be continued...

Death highway?

Did you see the picture on the front page of my website? Well, here it is again:

This is the highway seven kilometers east of Siem Reap as of September 2, 2001. Within two years the entire road from Poipet at the Thai border to Bavet at the Vietnam border will look like this. When I rode out to take this shot I was cruising along on my motorcycle at about 70 km/h or that's what I thought I was doing. But as I'm one of the few people in Cambodia with a functioning speedometer, I looked down and saw I was doing 100 km/h. Trucks with twenty Cambodians shoved in the back were passing me doing about 120 km/h. It's that smooth of a road. By Cambodia standards, it's simply beautiful. Most Khmers have never had a road they could do more than 80 or 90 on. Now they're doing 120. There are tethered water buffalo standing around on this road, whole herds of cows being pushed along its sides and across the pavement, there are kids on bicycles, there are kids playing on this wonderful new surface - and open pick-up trucks with two dozen passengers doing 120 km/h. Call me a pessimist, call me Chicken Little, call me a doomsayer, but there is going to be some serious serious carnage on this highway when it's completed. You have been warned.

Use a motodop or walk : an old Siem Reap law is revitalized

Way back in 1996 when the Khmer Rouge were still a threat, at times holding territory not far from the Angkor temples, the governor of Siem Reap decreed a provincial law forbidding tourists from operating their own transportation - motorbikes, cars, bicycles, and probably roller blades if he thought of it. Foreigners who could prove they were bona fide residents were exempt from the regulation. At the time it was a sensible law as in theory it eliminated the likelihood that some luckless tourist would grab a motorbike and venture off into KR territory never to be seen again. But in 1998 the Khmer Rouge were eliminated as a threat and in short time the law prohibiting tourists from operating motorbikes and other forms of transportation was forgotten.

In September of this year the tourist police resumed enforcement of this law. The decision came in the wake of an accident involving a foreigner on a 250cc bike and a local. The police ordered all rental shops to cease leasing bikes to foreigners immediately. A week later the police began stopping foreigners near the temples and around town warning them of the new law if they could not prove residency and some kind of purpose other than hanging out as a tourist for an unspecified period of time.

A copy of the 1996 law. Dug from the bottom of a desk drawer, dusted off and ready to enforce once again.

I spoke with the Siem Reap Chief of the Tourist Police, Sam Siyan, on the 19th of September. He said there was no one specific reason for revitalizing the law. While the afore-mentioned accident was some motivation, he cited a number of factors. First, was the admission that a lot of Khmers drive like idiots and tourists may not be accustomed to their rather unusual driving habits. I suggested that perhaps there could be better enforcement of existing traffic laws and driver education campaigns. The response from the Tourist Police is that that responsibility lies with the Traffic Police. Second, was the problem of keeping tourists around to resolve disputes in the case of accidents. With many tourists in town for only a couple of days, the risk of flight in the event of a tourist having liability was too great. Third, was to protect the tourist from potential rip-offs. Though not common, there have been incidents of unscrupulous rental agencies stealing bikes back from the tourist they rented the bike to and more commonly charging for bike damage that never occurred. Again, this is a legal matter, why not prosecute the businesses engaged in these fraudulent acts? More frequent have been the incidents of vandalism inflicted on rental bikes by motodops angry at the loss of business. Again, get the police involved.

My own spin on all this is that the Tourist Police are taking the easy approach to eliminating a few of their headaches. Why not have a little better communication between the various police agencies? It seems to me the majority of the problems are not created by the tourists but by the Khmers. Personally, it makes no difference to me if tourists are put on the back of a motodop (motorbike taxi). I have always recommended that tourists do this anyway as it's cheaper and there are actually a few decent motodops out there. Unfortunately, there have been a steadily growing number of bad apples in the motodop ranks.

I brought this point up with Sam Siyan, noting that if tourists are forced into using motodops will there be any move from his department to regulate the moto drivers? Yes! Although they expect it to take a few months to fully implement, the department intends to license all motodops who wish to transport tourists in Siem Reap. The motodops will be required to register with the tourist police, wear a uniform and have ID badges on their shirts.

The one question that nags me is who benefits from this new policy? Hardly anything is done here for noble causes. Tourist safety for the sake of tourist safety? Well, let's consider two things. First, getting the tourists off motorcycles potentially eliminates headaches for the police - and everyone likes to eliminate headaches from their job. Then consider that if the tourists are forced into using taxis then the taxi industry gets a boost. And there is that organization called the Tourist Transport Association which collects $5 for every taxi and $1 for every motodop procured at the airport. I suggested to a high-ranking official in the Transport Association that perhaps his organization somehow encouraged the police to enforce this old law. Indignantly he denied any involvement of his Association.

I also learned that entry into the Tourist Transport Association requires an enrolment fee of $10. Reasonable and cheap, but the number of spaces are fixed and full. According to my man in the Association, a spot in the organization presently sells for about $600.

My only other concern is the potential damage to a couple of honest motorbike rental businesses. For example, the Siem Reap Moto Club makes the bulk of its profit off rentals, but as an added service, they repair big bikes. And for the time being seem to be the only shop in Siem Reap that takes care of them. The proprietor, Samath, is seriously worried for the future of his business.

While I believe this law is antiquated, I anticipate that enforcement will be short-lived and in time tourists will again be renting their own bikes. But, in the meantime we will have received the long overdue benefit of motodop regulation. That alone is worth a little tourist inconvenience.

I imagine a few tourists will grumble and complain about the enforcement of this law. Yeah, a few of you might feel a pang of envy when someone like me flies by on his 250cc Honda and you're stuck on the back of a Honda Dream, but it looks like you'll have to deal with it for awhile. Look on the bright side - you can save a few bucks and enjoy the sensual aroma of your motodop's body odor.

Bear this in mind - in Cambodia law enforcement is capricious. Today you may not be able to rent a bike, but tomorrow no problem. And the next day? Forget it, you’re back riding with Mr. Aromatic. But already a couple of bike shops are flouting the law and renting on days when they think they can get away with it.

And before I forget, Sam Siyan also requested that I pass along the information that the police are also enforcing the law that limits only one passenger to a motorbike. If you're traveling with a friend you will have to get two bikes and two drivers. Have fun!

Getting tourists to stay longer in Siem Reap - here's an idea...

Tourism is about money and the longer a tourist stays the more money they spend. But discouraging this is the Angkor policy that multi-day tickets must be used on consecutive days. Simple really, why not allow a three-day ticket to be used on any three days in, for example, a one week period? It would be easy to check, instead of hole-punching the tickets as they do now, they could either be date stamped, or punched using different patterns that correspond to different days. The tickets can then be verified by the ticket checkers at the temples that the user has in fact been punched in for that particular day. So how about Apsara? Surely, the Ministry of Tourism and just about any other government agency that reaps profit in tourism would back such an idea.

Eating in Siem Reap  - an insider's tip

The Ivy Guesthouse and Bar

53, 51, 73
What do these numbers mean?
A.) the ages of the last three women I dated
B.) last week's winning numbers in the Cambodia lottery
C.) the number of people who complained to the police on successive days about the new motorbike law
D.) the menu numbers of the "specials" at the Ivy Guesthouse and Bar for the past three months

The correct answer is, of course, D. But one of Siem Reap's best menus is getting a long overdue revision. Al the Chef is back in town and they'll be some changes and additions to the regular menu and best of all, daily specials that change, well, daily. This is great news to the expats, some of us who had threatened to change the title of the special board from "Ivy Specials" to "Ivy Fossils".

Change comes slowly to the Ivy, but change does come, the photos on the wall are new, the menu is new, and next we'll get Karl to change the music! Well, two out of three isn't bad. Seriously though, the Ivy provides the best western food for your money in Siem Reap. The menu is an eclectic mixture of Italian, Mexican, American, and Continental cuisines. Most entrees cost about $3.50. The Ivy is located across form Psah Chas (Old Market) on the south/west side, the kitchen is open from early in the morning to ten at night. Call 012-800860 for more information.

The Taj Mahal

As the name implies, Indian food is the staple here, and it’s the best in Siem Reap. A generous menu provides buriyani, nine types of vegetable curry, and numerous varieties of paneer, chicken, beef, tandoori, mutton (imported from Australia), and seafood. Some of my personal favorites are the buriyani (mutton or beef), chicken korma, saag ghosht, chicken tikka, and mutton masala. The menu rounds out with a good selection of rice or naan, and the ever-important beer - Tiger on draft, Beer Lao in cans, others. Prices are reasonable - most entrees are between $1.50 and $3.50. The Taj Mahal is located across from Psah Chas (the Old Market) on the west/north side. For more information call 012-859866 or 016-948225.

The Soup Dragon

Here’s the place to come for Vietnamese food. Pho noodles for breakfast or any kind of entrée for lunch or dinner including an open-air barbecue. I often go for the sweet and sour pork which comes with a healthy supply of vegetables accompanied with the best spring rolls in town. Plenty of drinks and Bob Marley on the stereo. Most entrees shouldn’t set you back more than about three bucks. The Soup Dragon is a block and a half north of Psah Chas on the road that runs along the north/east side of the market. Call 063-964933 for more information.

The last word - a disclaimer and reminder

If you've been reading these columns you might detect a bit of negativity about Cambodia as I rail on about scams and greed and dishonesty and so on. Hey, they don't call it Scambodia for nothing! But seriously, perhaps it's time I reminded you (and myself!) that most Cambodians are kind, gentle, honest, warm, generous people who don't like the scams and hassles of their country any more than we do.

I want Cambodia to succeed and I absolutely positively promote Cambodia as a tourist destination. While lacking the infrastructure of some neighboring countries, Cambodia is an interesting and in many respects still unspoiled destination.

There are bad apples in every country. By living in Siem Reap and reporting on the tourist industry I encounter this minority all too often. I report on these people and their games because I want them to go away and I will not sit quietly when I am in a position to advise tourists of the problems, especially the preventable ones, that exist in Cambodia.

When talking about living in Cambodia, I'm often asked "You must really like it, yes?" My answer is to shake my head, laugh, and reply, "let's just say it's never boring - new adventures and challenges present themselves every day." But of course I like it here, I wouldn't live here if I didn't.

Cambodia is changing rapidly and a largely uneducated population with no context for handling these changes must deal with it. I have to remind myself from time to time why Cambodians are the way they are about money, about satisfying their immediate needs without regard to the long-term, about their sometimes frustrating and unusual approaches to business, and that forever indefinable term "Cambodian logic". Then I can forgive the frustrations I encounter. Still, there is no excuse in any society for dishonesty or racism and I will complain loud and long about them as these are situations that transcend anyone's nationality. It is still one world.

Gordon Sharpless
Siem Reap, Cambodia
October 1, 2001.

And don't forget, when in Siem Reap stop by the Ivy Guesthouse and Bar or the Angkor What? Pub and check out some of my photos.




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