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If you build it they will come. That's the theory anyway. And in Siem Reap that theory is in abundance where guesthouses and hotels are concerned. Locals turn the family home into a family guesthouse while more moneyed and well connected military and government officials toss up cookie-cutter style hotels along the airport road, and do so in such profusion one has to wonder if they were built with the purpose of making money or simply moving money? Foreigners come along and with international imaginations create international guesthouses that may not do a lot for offering an authentic Khmer experience, but they do manage to produce some pretty popular places. Which in itself creates an ironic, albeit humorous situation when a backpacker inevitably sits in a bar complaining about the lack of authenticity and neo-colonialist tendencies of all these western-owned businesses... and then orders another beer from the British owner standing behind the bar.
As I've alluded to in recent columns, I too, jumped on the construction bandwagon, and like most projects here, construction was late and over-budget. I honestly believed that come October 1 I'd be writing this column from the corner bar of my completed restaurant, with 16 furnished, comfortable, ready to rent rooms, and enough cash left over to ride through the first couple of months regardless of what comes or should I say who does not. I can hear the snickers already. I'd be snickering too but I'm the one still stepping over construction materials each day and writing this column to the sounds of drilling and hammering and putting it up a day late because on the day I was supposed to be finishing this column the electrics went kaput.
Actually, I haven't done that bad. Nearly a month late and bit over budget, but both the completion delays and budget overruns came in far less than most other area projects. But when you're looking at an unfinished restaurant, an empty kitchen, and a number of empty and unfurnished rooms, knowing that others have endured worse is not entirely the consolation you're after.
Curiously, the past three months have not produced the string of interesting anecdotes I thought a project here might have. This speaks either for the fact that I've been around here long enough that I see strange things as normal or maybe things here aren't as weird as we'd like to think. As with most ambiguous situations, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
When I decided it was time to get a brick and mortar business, my demands were pretty basic. I wanted to be near the Old Market, I didn't want to pay much more than a grand in rent, I wanted good frontage for a restaurant, at least a dozen rooms, and I wanted a ten-year lease. Yeah, right. Old Market properties of that nature are tough to find for under $1500 and a lot of landlords aren't too eager to commit to a ten-year lease when the possibility of skyrocketing land values could see their plot of land worth many times that five years down the road. I did almost get my hands on a property that came close to fulfilling my parameters, the one exception being the rent higher than I wanted in relation to the number of rooms, but regardless, the present tenant decided not to vacate and the deal fell through.
I came upon another property a few doors down that sat in pretty good condition. 28 rooms it had and the landlord asked $2500 for a five-year lease. Okay, I'll play with this one. Oh, you want a ten year lease? Well maybe years six through ten will be for around $3000 a month. But then she wants 18 months deposit of which she would apply only six months to the final rent, essentially holding a year's ($30,000) worth of money until the expiry of the contract. Well, good luck getting that back. The usual procedure here is that the deposit is reimbursed by providing the equivalent number of months in free rent at the end of the contract. Anyway, it was all a moot point as I wasn't taking on $2500 in rent and I then found out that a few days after I visited this property that a Khmer walked in and was quoted $1700 a month from the very beginning of discussion. Hmm, $1700 for the Khmer, $2500 for the barang.
I then abandoned the property hunt for a couple of months as I had some other pressing issues to attend to, a wedding being foremost among them. But come late June, having decided that word of mouth and looking for "For Rent" signs wasn't going to produce the property I wanted, a wandered into a local real estate agency. I want a guesthouse, cheap, ten-year lease. If they won't rent for ten years don't waste my time showing it to me. So they drove us around for a day showing us places, most of which had silly barang prices, and then only three really had any potential. One place was in excellent condition, but a little far out as it was near Psah Leau. And a day later I found out from a third party that the real reason the owners wanted to unload it was that they were next to a very loud karaoke place apparently owned by someone more important than they. So much for that hotel. As a side note, they also told me that they rented rooms to Khmers for about half what they charged foreigners. When I stopped laughing, I commented that under my ownership such a policy would last about as long as it takes the water to replace the space your finger creates when you remove it from a glass of water.
The next property was also in pretty good condition, had the frontage I wanted, but the house was a little small, though expansion possibilities existed. Rent was $700, which was fairly reasonable and I probably could have got it for $600. However the location, though along the river, was a bit too far to the north and not likely to generate many, if any, walk-ins. But then again, walk-in business remains best in the Old Market area and the rents reflect this.
The third property had reasonable rent for the number of rooms and had some good potential for renovation. The landlord, a man in his fifties, seemed more interested in dumping the property, collecting his rent each month, and returning to the countryside to spend his days in a hammock. Ten-year lease? Well, that's ten years in the hammock. Renovate? Build in extension? Well, after ten years he gets all that back. With a few reasonable exceptions, the contract was pretty much mine to write. And with the transfer of a sizable deposit, Saron's Guesthouse was signed over to me and soon renamed Two Dragons Guesthouse and Restaurant. And the real fun began.
We were looking at two projects in one. In the back sat an old wooden shack which someone was actually living in (sentenced in?) and a kitchen area only by the loosest of definitions. That had to go. In its place would rise a building that on the ground floor would house two nice rooms equipped with every modern convenience and upstairs would be a two-room manager's apartment, which for the foreseeable future would be for me and the missus.
The front area, well that needed renovation. A lot of it. The rooms were, to put it kindly, dreary. Dark wood paneling for the lower half and blue paint above. One or two dim lights, smelly beds. You'd need a miner's light to see across the room. A sharp eye noticed that the front of the guesthouse was about a foot lower than evidence showed the road was going to be raised to, so we were going to have to raise the floor or risk being the Tonle Sap North Guesthouse. And to make a real restaurant, the front needed a major overhaul. Put in a proper kitchen, a small bar area, brighten up the place, make some furniture, and so on.
And so on... and so on... and so on. The new construction in the back went off well, on schedule, and under budget. To expedite things we had to pay a bit for the construction permit as we preferred to wait two hours opposed to two weeks. Hence, a fee that's usually something like $50 became $200 and the receipt came back from the commune chief notated "chief under table". As the budget got tight we cut a few corners on the upstairs apartment but ultimately came in about 15% under budget for this part of the project. But the renovations... ouch. Here today we're still not finished nor are we within budget. And people tell me I got off lucky.
The less said the better as I am in a continual state of frustration, not dissimilar from the same frustration that millions of renovation projects have wrought on their owners before me. If you've done a refurb, then you know I feel today. If you haven't, then count your blessings until you start one of your own.
Hiring staff has not been a difficult process as they tend to find you before you find them. Getting a proper chef however, a project which begins Monday, may prove more challenging. People you know will inevitably offer that some relative is in need of a job and is most assuredly reliable and hardworking. You then consider whether or not the person offering said relative will consider it a loss of face should their sister be revealed as an utter nincompoop. So you meet the sister, hand her a broom and she sets off to work and you remind yourself later to remind her that proper room cleaning requires that one lift their head and look at and clean things more than two feet off the ground. And then the electrician offers that his sister-in-law needs a job. Come back next week you tell him. And then a motodriver suggests you hire his cousin. And so on. Our manager is a Phnom Penh import, generally intelligent and reliable, though prone at times to perform her tasks without any great expedience, energy, or enthusiasm, but then again given the state of refurbishment, that we really aren't open yet, and the manager is more often than not subjected to cleaning and scraping and moving things about, I can't say I entirely blame her. There's a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from many sides as this project drags on.
Motodrivers come out of the woodwork, hoping not so much for a job, but simply preferred access to your customers. Fortunately, I've known a few reliable drivers for a number of years and have given one the responsibility of screening drivers under my terms. He's eager for it, as he'll probably hit some of the guys up for a commissions (something I wisely refuse to get involved in) and I don't have to deal with so much nonsense.
There are a number of licenses to obtain. A business license, a tax license, a tourism license, a fire license, and of course there is the sign tax - the bigger your sign and the more letters you have the more you pay. I have two signs. Hmm. Not surprisingly, the tax and license people are pretty quick to find you and get you in compliance, though I did find it curious that the first one to my door was from the Ministry of Tourism (tourism license) and their license is the last one you obtain as it's contingent on having all the other documents and licenses already in order.
We've had a few customers trickle in (pre-booked via the internet), who seemed to enjoy their stay, despite the construction going on and that in two cases, every day they came back from the temples they found their rooms had something new in them - a piece of furniture, a curtain, a functioning ceiling fan. And it's still all a work-in-progress and hopefully this first busy season will do us well enough to fix the place up next low season to the level I had envisioned when I first hatched this project. Still, we have a restaurant - even if it will open without having been fully decorated. And we're getting sixteen rooms together, even if they won't all have air-cons and TVs. And we have some nice lounge areas, free reading material, free coffee and tea, and probably a few construction bits lying around that hopefully we will find before the customer. I've had worse headaches.
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In the previous two columns I cited growing concerns for increased crime in Cambodia yet acknowledged the lack of hard data to support or disprove such an allegation. So what runs in the September 10 - 23, 2004 edition of the Phnom Penh Post? A story about the perception of rising crime in Siem Reap.
I've always believed that where there's smoke there's usually fire. And if the smoke says there is more crime in Siem Reap, then it's probably true. This can't come as a surprise. Siem Reap has always been remarkably crime free given its position as a tourist center in a third world country, where hundreds, thousands of people arrive each day, most carrying more money than an average Cambodian makes in a year. With such a situation how can there not be robberies? It was only a matter of time before criminals would take advantage of this.
The feeling among many here is that the problems are not in fact caused by locals but by so-called "gangs" (I would use the term loosely as I suppose to the authorities here, a gang could be defined as any small group of punks up to no good) coming up from Phnom Penh to cause a week or two of trouble and then returning home with their booty.
The Phnom Penh Post story quoted an anonymous source who cited a number of recent incidents of robberies against expats and tourists. An increase in petty crime in Siem Reap was also supported by Christian Berger, head of MPA Security Services (of which my guesthouse is a customer). On the counterpoint, Siem Reap governor and provincial police commander, Chep Nhalyvuth disagreed. He's gone so far as to suggest that any tourist who has a problem should call him personally to sort out the situation. His number is 012-842-728 and I certainly suggest taking him up on the offer.
So where does that leave us? I had already suggested that there may be a rise in crime here, the Phnom Penh Post is now suggesting it, and MPA Security Services is suggesting it, however, joining the governor, the other security company, Protek, does not think crime is on the increase.
So is there or is there not an increase in crime? Honestly, I don't know. As I've mentioned before, crime statistics are hard to come by, accurate ones even harder. And if there is in fact an increase in crime is this a blip on the radar screen or is this the start of a continuing trend? Time will tell. Tourists, particularly those using private bus services from Bangkok's Khao San Road, have been frequent targets of robbery and all the publicity in the world seems not to have quenched budget tourists' thirst for KSR-based transport, but then again violence, or even confrontation, are not part of the equation as these are entirely cases of surreptitious bag rifling. But should Siem Reap have a few violent and tragic incidents how the authorities react may have some knock-off effect.
While improving, there's still no denying that Cambodia, and particularly Phnom Penh, has an image problem where safety is concerned, and a few well publicized Siem Reap cases won't help. Funny thing is, a lot of people believe that the police here do have a lot of control over criminal activity for the simple reason that they are involved in it and therefore could fairly easily crush a crime wave if so ordered.
But is this the case? There are in fact a lot of police officers, or should I say former police officers, doing time in the Siem Reap pen. Good news - they put away dodgy cops. Bad news - there are a lot of dodgy cops to put away.
Meanwhile, if you're reading these pages for the first time, don't be put off. By all accounts Siem Reap remains a very safe destination. Just realize that with half a million annual visitors to Angkor Wat in a country where a dollar a day wage is all too common, there are going to be robberies. As I cautioned expats in a previous column to see to it that your neighbor is a more attractive target than you, the same goes for tourists, see to it that someone else is an easier victim than you and you should be fine.
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Two stories to update. First, on the robbery and stabbing of a couple of tourists at Oceanview Guesthouse in Sihanoukville, an arrest was made earlier this month. But as the original report stated that their were two assailants, one then, is apparently still at large.
The second bit has to do with the conviction of a soldier in the rape of a Canadian tourist this past April, also in Sihanoukville. Khun Thorn, 24, was hit with a 15-year sentence and ordered to pay the victim 30 million riel (about $7,500 USD), half of what the victim seeked in compensation.
Two high profile cases, one sorted and one on its way. That's a start.
Some news came out this month concerning new airports for Siem Reap and Poipet. A new international airport for Siem Reap is old news. The government has been talking about it for as long as I've paid attention to these things, but Poipet? That's an idea worth analyzing.
They say it's to serve the casino traffic from Thailand and apparently Bangkok Airways has their hand in it, just as they have made noise about building an airport in Koh Kong.
Bangkok Airways, though not a bad company to fly with in respect to service, is nonetheless not a particularly popular airline in these parts. For years they have operated under a business plan of build your own airport, don't let anybody else fly in, and then charge as much money as the market will bear and a little bit more. And when you can't build your own airport, then you make a "deal" to monopolize an existing route, such as the Bangkok to Siem Reap route.
Great plan for the carrier, not much of a plan for the consumer.
About a year ago, over in Thailand, in one of the few moves of the Thaksin government which I supported (but let's be clear, he does have a share in an outfit called AirAsia), they told Bangkok Airways that either you start letting other carriers land at your airport on Koh Samui - the popular resort island to which they were operating over twenty flights a day - or we the Thai government will build our own.
I bring this up because building an airport in Poipet essentially to serve Thai gamblers, assumedly from Bangkok, seems silly to me. I see very little benefit to Cambodia from it, but plenty of benefit to Bangkok Airways. Obviously as an international flight it's going to cost a good bit more than a domestic flight, and by locating the airport in Cambodia and not across the border in neighboring Aranyaprathet, Thailand, Bangkok Airways need not concern itself with the whims of the Thai government nor worry about other competition as they've for years been able to maintain a monopoly on the Bangkok - Siem Reap route and in building an airport in Poipet, I'm sure the Cambodian government would be very cooperative in ensuring that Bangkok Airways won't have to worry about anyone else flying in.
So... if one were to build an airport not in Poipet but in Aranyaprathet, Thailand it would open the door to competition, cheaper fares, more passengers, and until that time the Bangkok Airways monopoly to Siem Reap is broken, it could stand as at least a partial solution for getting from Bangkok to Siem Reap in a more reasonable time frame and at a more reasonable cost.
But... if one were to build an airport in Poipet, Cambodia there would be no competition, higher fares, and no reasonable alternative to the stranglehold of Bangkok Airways to Siem Reap.
For the consumer, an airport in Aranyaprathet makes all the sense in the world, and as a result, would ultimately be more beneficial to both sides of the border. For Bangkok Airways, an airport in Poipet makes all the sense in the world. Once again, the consumer loses and the airline wins. Bummer all the way around.
And this has me wondering... We all talk about strongman Hun Sen and what control he has over this country, so why is it then that one, his daughter takes a 51% share in an airline which collapses under a seven-digit loss in a matter of months, and two, Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra has been unable to get his AirAsia into Cambodia and I think we can assume he's made some effort to do so, perpetuating Bangkok Airways' chokehold on flights from Thailand to Siem Reap? And consider that as a result of the January 29, 2003 riots, Cambodia does indeed owe the Thai government a few favors.
So just exactly who is in control of the aviation industry here?
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So much for flying, let's talk about cars. The Angkor Car to be specific. Last year, Nhean Phalet and his daughter Leakhena built a car from scratch using recycled parts and named it the Angkor. This year, spending more effort and more money ($2700) they have produced, again from scratch, the Angkor II, a two-door, rather sporty looking convertible, powered by a 3-cylinder, 12-valve, 660cc Suzuki engine, capable of reaching 100 km/h and boasting a 50-liter gas tank with a range of about 800 kilometers. A third car is in the planning stages.
The Angkor II is made almost entirely by hand using scrap metal and old parts, for example, the lights came from a 1998 Toyota Corolla and Nhean Phalet thinks the floor pan came from a Camry. But his convertible is much more than just an engine and wheels. It has a cranking sound system, hand made upholstery, air-conditioning, automatic massage seats, and more.
And for a production cost of $2,700 there is obviously enormous potential here and Nhean Phalet knows it. According to the Phnom Penh Post report (September 24 - October 7, 2004), Phalet says "I am very interested to meet any investors who want to be my partners to establish the factory to produce the car. I don't care about the location or their nationality. Wherever or whoever makes my business operate, I am very pleased to join with them."
I know not much about automobile production, whether it's a robot-assembly line or a small factory building a few cars by hand, so I don't know what the practical considerations are in turning the Angkor into an actual production car, but the originality and ingenuity shown here certainly deserves a bit of recognition.
And who knows, maybe Bangkok Airways will offer a partnership but with the stipulation that the company builds its own roads and doesn't let anyone else drive on them...
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How do you make a left turn in Cambodia? Easy question you'd think, right? You pull up to the intersection, wait for a break in traffic, and make your turn. Err, no.
The above image is a traffic schematic from a Cambodian Drivers' Instruction Manual showing how to properly execute a left turn from a side street to a main road. Now ask yourself, what do you do if you're on the main road and want to turn right on to the side street? Normally, you go around to the left side of the person on the verge of running into you while making their left turn. Never mind they drive on the right in Cambodia.
This reminds of the time a couple of years ago I was executing a proper Cambodia left turn of my own and nearly ran over three western female tourists who had stepped into the road having only looked to their left, for I assume, being under the impression that in a country where they drive on the right, traffic should only come from the left. Well, as I swerved around them, close enough to smell their dreadlocks and patouli, one gave me an earful. So I stopped and turned around admonishing them that one, didn't their mothers teach them to look both ways before crossing the street, and two, had I been a Khmer and had actually hit them or in any way came to harm - it would be them paying for the damage. I then drove off ignoring whatever it was they were calling me, "stupid Yank," I think.
Next month's lesson: How to pass through a full intersection without stopping regardless of cross traffic.
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It's that time of year again. As September is historically the slowest month for tourism in these parts a number of area businesses take the opportunity to shut down for renovation before the high season begins.
The Red Piano recently expanded their restaurant by converting the upstairs from rooms to food and moving the rooms to a building a few blocks away. The restaurant area is well done, and the new rooms are apparently quite nice, but the building is a hideous color red. However, you can't miss it and I think that was the idea. Never mind I nearly crashed my motorbike the first time I saw it.
Last year the Ivy moved and went more upscale, this year it's the Ivy 2 that's getting the makeover: more rooms, expanded eating and drinking area - there will be a real bar there, and a few other touches yet to be seen.
The Angkor What? Bar, Siem Reap's long running dive that's hardly seen a touch of paint let alone anything else in the past two years is up for some changes. Seeing as the place is now almost exclusively a young tourist bar (it had for awhile been pulling in a lot of expats but many of them have since moved across the street to Brodie's - including the Angkor What? Bar owners!) the place will be setting itself up as a dance club with new sound system, lighting, and a live DJ - which to most will be an improvement, as often the resident DJ has been whatever drunk happened to be closest to the CD player (err, sometimes that drunk was me).
The Blue Pumpkin, famous for pastries and good breakfasts and lunches have moved two blocks closer to the Old Market to a larger and nicer location. They're now next to Kokoon near the northern end of "Pub Street".
New on the scene (aside from some outfit called Two Dragons) is Molly Malone's, as authentic of an Irish Pub as you'll find in these parts. Tastefully decorated rooms upstairs and a bar and restaurant downstairs, also very well done, are the results of an extensive rehab of the building that once housed the Hotel Golden Apsara, located one block to the south of "Pub Street".
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Siem Reap is getting another entry into the five-star hotel market, joining Amansara, the Raffles Grand, and the Sofitel (and apologies to anyone who I missed and who feels slighted for my omission), we can all breathlessly await the grand opening of the new Le Meridien. I'm well aware of this because they think I'm worthy enough to be the recipient of several e-mail announcements (spam) of this upcoming event accompanied by various offers which I could sell to "my clients". Okay, anyone want a room at the Le Meridien? Apparently they think I book rooms or something so I guess I can get a commission or a free night or maybe a chocolate mint. In any event, it's a 223-room resort located on the road to the Angkor Archaeological Park, where I can't imagine who or what else, other than Beat Richner, but a five-star resort, could afford the land prices there.
Grand opening is any day now - maybe I should read my spam more carefully. Room prices start at something like half a million.
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With the Chinese building dams in the Mekong and that this past year saw the Tonle Sap lake reach lows not seen in many people's lifetimes many folks are sounding the alarm that the Chinese dams are going to have a disastrous effect on life downstream.
Last weekend I ran into our resident lake expert, the head of the UN-FAO Tonle Sap project, and got the report that the lake was at normal levels for late September, that there have been no adverse effects from the Chinese dams, and that it would take a whole lot more than a couple of dams to ruin the Tonle Sap.
I guess this means we can redirect our Chinese dam attention to the Three Gorges and our Tonle Sap attention to pollution.
There has been an ongoing discussion about this topic here:
Due to the aggravation of trying to get the guesthouse finished I wasn't as attentive to the site as I'd like to be, but the following appeared on talesofasia during September:
September 24: Readers' Submissions:
On Thailand: A Day Late and a Dollar Short
back to Cambodia
back to Home
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