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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

Cambodia Update.

September 2001

1.) Motodops in Siem Reap
2.) Full Moon at Angkor Wat - Not!
3.) Moto scrums and moto fun
4.) Hiding the treasures of Banteay Srei
5.) Domestic violence
6.) Tourist safety gets a boost in Siem Reap
7.) Angkor ticket scams not quite dead yet
8.) Dengue easing
9.) Siem Reap to Poipet highway update


Motodops in Siem Reap

I remember before I lived in Siem Reap, or even before I was visiting regularly from Bangkok, back when I really was an Angkor Wat tourist, I noticed that in each subsequent visit the motodops (motorbike taxi drivers) seemed more mercenary in their dealings with foreign tourists.

Now as a resident with his own transportation and knowledge of how to deal with Siem Reap and its environs I have little cause to use these guys and it’s easy to forget what a nuisance they can be sometimes.

A few days ago, sitting in my regular watering hole, talking with the regular people, one – who runs a guesthouse, related a story of two British visitors who had hired a pair of motodops for a day’s touring of the temples.

Shortly after the tourists’ return from a day at the temples, the motodops showed up at the guesthouse with two more motodops and a police officer demanding that the girls cough up more money. Apparently two of the drivers drove them around in the morning and the other two worked in the afternoon.

These motodops were trying to pull a scam whereby each driver works a half-day and then tries to get the tourist to pay for a full day’s work. Showing up with a police officer just goes to show how far these guys would go to get their extra four dollars each. Too bad for the drivers, the guesthouse manager spoke Khmer and even the police officer quickly realized these motodops were nothing but a group of useless two-bit con artists.

Although the matter was settled to everyone’s satisfaction (except maybe the motodops), for a pair of tourists who know nothing of Cambodia this was expectedly an intimidating experience and not one that’s likely to lead to favorable reviews of Cambodia as a tourist destination. Theirs is not an isolated case.

Siem Reap is ground zero for Cambodia’s tourist industry. This is where the easy tourist bucks come flying in. And everyone wants a piece of it and not everyone’s getting a fair slice. The prevailing mindset of the locals is to get as much money off the tourists as quickly as possible with complete disregard for how this plays out with the visitor.

I remember once observing a tourist negotiate a motodop ride to the Old Market from a hotel near Psah Leu for about triple what the rate should have been. As they pulled away I turned to a taxi driver and commented negatively about this.
“He should pay more,” was the response. “He is rich man.”
I replied, “And when he finds out he paid triple what he should have, then what happens?”
No answer. Then I asked the driver, “Would you rather I give you two dollars today only, or that I give you five dollars at the end of the week?”
His answer, “I take two dollars today.”

What more is there to say? NGOs, everybody, go home. With this mentality pervasive in Cambodia, it’s no wonder this country is still suffering in the throes of penury.

In Siem Reap there’s something called the Tourist Transport Association. That’s a nice name for Siem Reap Taxi Mafia. Actually, these guys are okay, a little organization and regulation is exactly what Siem Reap needs. Imagine if motodops wishing to ferry tourists around the temples all had to wear ID badges? There’s something for the image conscious Siem Reap powers to address. They straightened out the tour guides and they straightened out the taxis at the airport, now it’s time to deal with the motodops around town.

Now, about the Siem Reap Airport Taxi Mafia, I mean Tourist Transport Association. When you come through the terminal and arrange a taxi (car or moto) it’s done at a taxi desk. This is the Mafia. You pay them the money - $1 for a moto, $5 for a car, and they give you a driver. This is actually a good system, as before it was pandemonium here, when no sooner would you step outside the terminal than thirty would-be drivers would besiege you begging to be your transport.

But the present system has a drawback. The driver doesn’t get any of the money. The Mafia keeps the money. The driver takes you for free on the hopes that you will agree to use him for your daily transport around the temples. Secondly, he’ll hopefully get a commission from whatever hotel or guesthouse he delivers you to.

Now it’s your turn to give your taxi driver a break. If you have no intention of using the driver for your transport around the temples and/or you have a hotel reservation or are perhaps planning to stay at a hotel or guesthouse that doesn’t pay commissions (How do you know? The driver will tell you that such and such a place is full, closed, dirty, no good, etc.), then do not pay inside the airport. Go outside and grab any driver and tell them why you aren’t paying inside. It’s what the residents do and this does in fact, sit well with the drivers. My landlord certainly isn't paying commissions to taxi drivers that bring me home (actually, my landlord is one of the higher ranking officials of the Taxi Mafia).

With a few exceptions, the Mafia drivers are a reasonably reliable lot compared to many of the clowns running around Siem Reap on motorbikes.

A motodop around the temples for a day should cost between $6-8, no more unless you really like the guy and he does a good job. A trip to Banteay Srei shouldn’t cost much extra, either. It’s an excellent road and will probably cost your driver an extra fifty cents in gas. They used to demand $15 and up when the road was a disaster, but not now. Another dollar or two for Kbal Spean is fair. If some guy starts demanding $15 or more for a trip to Banteay Srei tell him to get lost. As a matter of fact, tell any driver to get lost who doesn’t meet your expectations. There are far more of them than there are of you. And don’t be intimidated by these guys. A few are scammers and thieves, but that’s all they are, scammers. And not even very good ones at that.

Full Moon at Angkor Wat - Not!

In the past, a handful of expats from time to time had small get-togethers, perhaps in the Bayon or maybe Angkor Wat, under the full moon. These gatherings never resembled even remotely the nonsense at Thailand's Koh Phangan where every full moon thousands of backpackers rave on the beach doing exactly what they could have done back home without spending all that money to come half way around the world.

Not having full moon parties within the Angkor Archaeological Park is a good thing. But wandering alone or with a friend or two among the ancient ruins with the light of a full moon hanging directly overhead, drifting clouds casting shadows in a dance with the apsaras (come out around midnight for this) is also a good thing. If you can get away with it.

The Angkor Archaeological Park is technically closed from sunset to sunrise. Protecting the monuments is a concern and the looters would come out at night if it weren't for the police protection. But another concern is robbery. Not to burst anyone's idyllic vision of Cambodian villages, but the harsh reality is those peaceful collections of huts aren't always the nicest places after dark when excess rice wine and the realities of rural poverty create a less than cordial atmosphere. As a foreigner you really don't want to be hanging around these hamlets once the sun sets.

You might think that if you were lucky enough to time your Angkor visit with a full moon all that money you spent on your admission ticket ought to entitle you to a midnight visit. It doesn't. In the beginning of August, on what was actually the night before the full moon (good timing - on the night of the full moon we were hit with about 200 millimeters of rain), it being a clear cool evening, I decided to head out to the temples around midnight. I first went to Angkor Wat, parked my bike and walked down the outer causeway, stopping just inside the gate to admire Angkor Wat silhouetted in the moonlight. Nobody bothered me, but I didn't actually walk to the temple itself remaining instead on the outside looking in.

Next, I thought to wander the Bayon. Approaching the South Gate of Angkor Thom the moon and the shadows of the clouds were doing an interesting dance across the face of the bodhisattva. I cut the light on my motorbike, backed-up and stopped about twenty meters away to have a look.

Out of the shadows a green-uniformed officer with a flashlight approached and was soon joined by a second officer in a beige uniform. Neither spoke any English but I spoke just enough Khmer to tell them what I was doing and understood just enough Khmer to know that I was being told to leave and go back to Siem Reap or wherever it was I came from. They were reasonably polite about it but it was obvious that my presence wasn't welcome.

Granted, I didn't have an admission ticket, but it wouldn't have mattered if I did. I understand the need to protect the monuments and protect me from drunken thieves, but given the spectacular shadow and light show the temples and the full moon provide I think a little latitude is called for here. How about it Apsara Authority?

Moto scrums and moto fun

In Phnom Penh the end of July, I'm walking to Sharky Bar one evening (my hotel is but two blocks away), I approached the entryway where the usual assortment of motodops were hanging around. Turning towards the stairs one steps in front of me, "moto?" This was too good of an opportunity. I'm walking into a bar and this guy wants to drive me somewhere. "Okay," and I got on the back of his moto. "Where?" he asks. I pointed up the stairs. He gives me a puzzled look. I pointed up the stairs again. He shuts off his bike. "You go up?" he asks with more than a hint of confusion. "Yes, I go up, you couldn't see I was going IN to Sharky's?" I hop off and bound up the stairs to the sound of riotous laughter from the moto driver's colleagues.

Hiding the treasures of Banteay Srei

The 10th century temple of Banteay Srei is without a doubt one of the most beautiful of the Angkor temples. Located some 30 kilometers northeast of Siem Reap, it was until recently, a difficult ride to reach. The huge increase of tourists to Angkor and the improved road put a lot of pressure on this little temple as hordes of tourists encircled the three towers admiring the small, intricate carvings and delicate divinities. Many have said, and I concur, that in terms of intricacy and subtle beauty there is no better than Banteay Srei. Best of all are the twenty-four divinities. Eight on each of the three towers these small and intimate young men and women stand guard gazing upon the visitor perhaps with a shy grin, a face cocked to the side, or perhaps in a display of self-confident poise, daring you to look closer.

But look closer you cannot. Earlier this year the three towers that are home to these figures were blocked off with ropes. I accept the need to protect these figures as the hundreds of tourists touching and breathing upon those statues each day can't do them much good, but the Apsara Authority has gone way overboard. You cannot get anywhere near close enough to appreciate these figures. Please, Apsara, find some common ground here. What is the point of hauling yourself thirty kilometers just to be denied the opportunity to truly appreciate that which makes the temple famous in the first place?

Banteay Srei up close and personal - but not anymore.

Domestic violence

I'm continually amazed at the tolerance, not just in Cambodia, but in many Asian countries (okay, the world), for domestic violence. The August 5 issue of the Cambodia Daily had a story about a Stung Meanchey district (outskirts of Phnom Penh) woman who one day had had enough of her husband's abuse and stabbed him to death. At the time of publication it was still undecided whether or not she'd be tried for the murder. While interviews with neighbors did undercover some sympathy for her, there was very little sympathy from the men. One man was quoted as saying in so many words that a wife who doesn't obey her husband should be beaten. There was more than a shred of agreement to this sentiment - not surprising really, in a male-dominated society where (mostly) uneducated men think they own everything - including the women.

I suppose it's another cultural thing but I'm often equally surprised at the approach many Asian women take to this issue. I remember when I was still living in Bangkok one of the women in my office was beaten periodically by her husband. Maybe because she was just a lowly janitor, I don't know, but several of the women in the office found it something to laugh about it, making Muay Thai boxing jokes should she turn up for work one morning bearing a bruise or two upon her face. Now, anyone in Southeast Asia long enough knows that serious unpleasant matters are often handled with laughter anyway, but making jokes about a woman getting smacked around by her husband is something I'm not comfortable with and don't intend to become so.

Anyway, I digress. The above referenced article was accompanied by a drawing that has been used throughout Cambodia as an educational tool to discourage domestic violence. It shows a man standing over his wife holding a raised stick and grabbing her hair. The wife is on the floor holding a baby and effectively shown to be less than pleased with her present circumstance. Clinging to the man's leg is a daughter of maybe six who appears to be crying. It's a graphic drawing that makes it's point quite clearly and I wish I thought to bring it home and scan it for this page. My apologies.

As I was reading this article in a local Siem Reap watering hole one of the girls who works there pointed to the picture and, laughing, said the man was me.

This didn't go over too well with me. Firmly and directly I gave her quite an earful about associating me or anybody else (foreign men) around here with such an image, what on earth possessed her to even consider such a joke, and that there was absolutely nothing funny about the picture, the story, or making a joke that in any way, shape, or form connects someone with domestic violence.

Meanwhile, I guess it's just another one of those cultural differences that make expat living such a continual challenge.

Tourist safety gets a boost in Siem Reap

Recently, the Siem Reap police sent a letter to many of the hotels, guesthouses, and other establishments doing business with foreign visitors providing a stern warning that any act of violence, theft, harassment, etc. directed at foreigners will be met with the harshest of punishments. Given that Siem Reap is Cambodia's window to the world it is no surprise that the image conscious authorities would circulate such a letter and by all past indications intend to make good on this promise. While I applaud the continued efforts to keep Siem Reap safe - and safe it is - I only hope that crimes committed by Khmers against Khmers are treated with the same level of seriousness.

Angkor ticket scams not quite dead yet

Back in the pre-Sokimex days (before May 1999) ticket fraud was a major problem at the Angkor temples but tighter controls in the procedure of issuing and checking tickets seemingly eliminated the problem well over a year ago. Still, apparently a few optimistic clowns are trying to get away with passing off bogus tickets.

A somewhat bemused tourist related the following tale:

Traveling alone, he arrived by air and took a Tourist Transport Association taxi from the airport to his hotel and then agreed to let the driver shuttle him around the temples. Nearing the main ticket gate the driver told the tourist that he had already taken care of the ticket, procuring a one-day pass for him and that he could pay him the $20 later.

At the main gate all tourists are required to stop and show their tickets. Nonetheless, the driver tried to drive through, holding the ticket up to the window. The Sokimex guys stopped the car just the same and demanded to see the ticket which they instantly recognized as fake. Fortunately, they didn't blame the tourist but rightly held the driver accountable. They confiscated the ticket and fined the driver $30. Our friend the tourist then purchased a proper one-day pass for $20.

I told the tourist that if he uses the driver again to please get his number as my landlord is one of the officers of the Airport Taxi Mafia. When I told Savuth (my landlord) this story, he too, wanted the driver's number and said he'd have him tossed out of the Association.

This seems to be an isolated case as it's the first I've heard in a long time and given my landlord's response, it's not a practice that the Transport Association condones in the least, but still - be sure that you buy your tickets at the gate. No taxi or moto driver can legally purchase a ticket for you. You must do it yourself. And it's no big deal.

For more information on Sokimex, their arrangement to operate the Angkor Archaeological Park, and details on prior ticket scams, go here.

Dengue easing

Though I have no hard statistics, based on the diminishing number of space allotted to the matter by the English-language publications and the decreasing number of cases I'm hearing about (yes, extremely anecdotal, I know) it would seem the dengue epidemic is relaxing a bit. For the record, self-included, I know of six Siem Reap expats contracting the illness this year. Of that number only one needed hospitalization and was evacuated to Singapore for his treatment.

Siem Reap to Poipet highway update

According to an expat who made the trip on August 21, the road continues to hold up fine. He made a roundtrip from Siem Reap to Poipet and back in one day and didn't even bother leaving Siem Reap until ten in the morning. Enjoy the fast ride.

Images of the past - travel along the Siem Reap to Poipet highway before the 2001 reconstruction 

The latest reports in the local news say that upon the completion of the highway (meaning paved - work contracted to be done by the Thai Army) the Cambodian government plans to make the highway a toll road. Fair enough, I've never found cause to complain with a user pays system but... and this is a big BUT, the toll will be applied only to tourists. No word whether expats will pay up as well, but as in the eyes of the Cambodian government white skin equals green money, I expect we'll all be paying. Then consider that these infrastructure projects are largely funded with foreign aid. Need I say more? Thought not.

Alert! I met two Aussie travelers in Siem Reap last week who told me they bought overland tickets from Bangkok to Siem Reap from a Khao San Road travel agency for $6! Yes, $6! They traveled on August 27 and their transportation was an air-con van to Aranyaprathet and an air-con mini-bus from Poipet to Siem Reap. As for road conditions, they found the Poipet to Sisophon stretch a "little rough" and said it took them five hours to get from Poipet to Siem Reap which seems a tad long these days.

In any event, after enjoying a luxurious flight to Bangkok on the 3rd of September, I will be making the return trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap by land around the 7th or 8th and I'll post the latest road conditions in my October column and perhaps add a picture or two of the new road.

Gordon Sharpless
Siem Reap, Cambodia
August 31, 2001.




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