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Transport fun, Apsara Authority, pornography, border beggars

Dumb criminals, Apsara Authority, Hun Sen, Siem Reap image, lakeside

Angkor tickets, more dark Hearts, Preah Vihear, canals

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Every Cambodia Update: August 2001 to the present

.Cambodia Update

September 2005

1.) Darkest Heart
2.) The national airline merry-go-round
3.) Angkor story #1: Sokimex lands five more years
4.) Angkor story #2: trucks and buses
5.) Pornography revisited
6.) Apsara Authority pays $3 to take over Koh Ker
7.) New Lonely Planet
8.) Things we thought we'd never see: Cambodia requires driving tests
9.) More border crossings
10.) One visa does it all
11.) Land mine casualties
12.) The crashing riel
13.) Carlsberg coming
14.) The guesthouse saga
15.) New on toa for August


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).

Darkest Heart

If you follow events in Cambodia with any kind of regularity then you probably know by now that the inevitable finally occurred - someone was shot to death in the Heart of Darkness. I use the word inevitable quite literally. We (anyone that pays the slightest attention to these sort of things) knew that given the sorry excuse for security, the alarming frequency of violent incidents, and the sort of punks that were frequenting the place, that this was bound to happen. Perhaps the only matters open to conjecture were not if but when this tragedy would occur, would the victim be a Cambodian or a foreigner, and if a foreigner would it be a tourist or an expat. That it would be an expat seemed least likely as hardly any set foot in the place anymore. The victim was Cambodian.

The warnings that the Heart of Darkness might be best avoided have been going on for over two years. I first alerted readers to this problem back in August 2003 and to many Phnom Penh expats, even then it was old news. Tourists of course continued to pop in, some had no idea there was anything to be concerned with for no guidebook suggested there was any danger, at least not until this past month when the new Lonely Planet followed up a not particularly stellar review of the club with "...but large gangs of rich, young Khmers, children of the elite, aren't averse to picking fights with foreigners on a busy night. Back off or you'll meet the bodyguards...". Close enough. Still some tourists perhaps relished the idea of rubbing elbows with the rich and well-connected despite the fact the brats carried guns (are there people who actually think this is fun? Hey man, I rapped with the Coconut Gang...). And others didn't care. The club was famous so let's go and then well, we went and it was fine so it must be okay... or so the logic goes. Probably not as dramatic as saying I walked through a minefield and didn't get blown up, but it's not the strongest support for the safety of a place. If memory serves correctly I last set foot in the place sometime early in 2002 and didn't like then what it had become.

The Heart of Darkness is one of Cambodia's longest running establishments, once a bar, now more of a nightclub, and there was a time in the 1990s that this really was the place to visit. A small hole in the wall with a single pool table and cheap beer in a city that was still living on the edge. It was a dive in all the right ways. Success took over and the place expanded and expanded again such that by the end of 2001 it took up several shophouses, had a full dance floor, back rooms, side rooms, all sorts of rooms. Then the loosely dubbed Coconut Gang took a liking to the place and that was the end of that. The Coconut Gang is a name a few of us ascribed loosely to any of the young spoiled brats that includes PM Hun Sen's infamous nephew Nhim Sophea and Cambodia's international man of mystery, Sam Doeun (who will probably be found guilty of this shooting as well) who were connected, or not, with the shooting death of some coconut vendors following a traffic accident back in October 2003.

The Heart of Darkness had security or so everyone thought as they put on a good show of patting down all the foreigners, none of whom were armed anyway, but defeated their purpose by letting the local punks walk in with whatever arsenal they chose. Some said, well of course, the security is powerless to prevent such rich well-connected fatheads from surrendering their firearms and that may be true to a point, but conversely it's just as symptomatic of spineless security intimidated by power and influence and left impotent to do their jobs through their own lack of fortitude. One of these punks once tried to get into Sharky Bar with a piece and never got past the front door, but then again at Sharky Bar, the security is the real deal and they laid down the law and that was the end of that. The Heart however, saw their security as nothing more than a sideshow that perhaps helped perpetuate the life on the edge experience that some tourists still venture to find in the nightlife of Phnom Penh.

As time wore on it seemed the number of violent incidents at the Heart only increased becoming at the very least a weekly event. Most of the time it was the spoiled brats fighting amongst themselves leaving the rest of us to wonder when natural selection would finally sort these idiots out, but sometimes no matter how hard they tried they couldn't find something to squabble about and chose instead to harass foreigners. I know a couple of guys who had pistols waved in their faces, one westerner was shot in the leg, pistol whippings were not unheard of, and who knows how many cases of verbal intimidation went down.

Like the effects of Katrina in New Orleans, what happened at the Heart was predicted and preventable. And now the club is closed for a few months and were supposed to believe that when the place reopens, the security will be sorted out and the Nuthead Gang won't be allowed back in. Let's wait and see. Like the supposed resurrection of President Airlines (and all the other airlines that have met their demise) or the overhaul of FEMA and Homeland Security that Americans surely will be promised is coming, we'll believe this one after we've seen it... and have let others take the test drive. Let's only hope the next test drive through the Heart of Darkness doesn't involve bullets.

Reputations are hard to overcome. This is precisely why the Heart remained so popular despite all the warnings and why it will probably recover from this nonsense just fine. Though expats may be slow to return, the tourist trade has been the heart and soul of their business and they will be back. Too many still see the Heart of Darkness as THE place to go ...just as people still use speedboats between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap even though every expat in Cambodia knows they are an over-priced tourist rip-off and there are better ways to see the lake and better ways to travel...and people still take the Scam Bus from Khao San Road to Siem Reap even though the warnings are everywhere not to ... Old habits die hard.

An ongoing discussion on the problems at the Heart can be found here:

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

The national airline merry-go-round

Given the chances of failure, these days probably better than 80%, perhaps I should be surprised that once again a group of investors is taking a shot at bringing Cambodia a new airline and a national one at that - another stab at filling the void left vacant since Royal Air Cambodge's demise in October 2001. Yes, we've heard this so many times before ... a new airline for Cambodia! ...so many times that you might wonder why I bother writing about it. While filling space would be the logical answer, let's wait and look at who's behind this new venture. The two guys at the forefront are none other than Sok Kong (Mr. Sokimex himself) and Kith Meng (CTN and MobiTel and the head of the Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce). According to reports the pair leads a group putting up $25 million to create this new airline with a plan of getting it off the ground in 2006.

Obviously any attempt at getting Cambodia a decent airline is welcome no matter how much the odds are against success. A carrier with national airline status is surely needed as under the present set-up the only alternative to the stranglehold on tourists enjoyed by Bangkok Airways on the lucrative Bangkok to Siem Reap route is a Cambodia national airline. Sok Kong did suggest that if this airline is to succeed, some concessions may have to be made. I can think of two right off the top of my head - reduce the departure tax to something more reasonable - yes, the $25 tax does play into people's decisions whether to fly or not (someday somebody in the government might just learn this) and subsidize the Bangkok - Siem Reap route so the fares can drop to reasonable and competitive levels or better yet, honor the spirit of the Open Skies Policy and cancel Bangkok Airways "royalty payments" and bring in an end to this ridiculous monopoly and an end to any more excuses not to build the road to Thailand.

In the meantime, Sok Kong and Kith Meng ride the Cambodia airline merry-go-round hopefully not failing to notice the broken horses littering the carousel bearing the logos of Royal Air Cambodge, Mekong Airways, Royal Phnom Penh Airways, President Airlines (not quite dead yet, but almost dead), First Cambodia Airlines, Royal Khmer Airlines, Angkor Air...

Discuss this story here:

Angkor story #1: Sokimex lands five more years

This came as no surprise but a behind-closed-doors deal set Sokimex up for another five years of selling and inspecting Angkor tickets, and hassling cows. 10% for Apsara, 15% for Sokimex, and 75% to the Finance Ministry (who are most definitely not involved in temple preservation or temple restoration).

So the controversy continues. Private company sells tickets and gets 15%, Apsara (which these days appear to do far less for the temples other than look for ways to get $3 off tourists, but then again if they were properly funded...) gets 10% to invest in more $3 schemes, and the government takes the lion's share and does who knows what with it. The care and restoration of the temples continues pretty much as the domain of international donors.

But whatever one thinks of a private company, and a well-placed one at that, getting 15% of the take just for selling and inspecting tickets it should be at least pointed out that they do not own one blade of grass, one stone of a temple, nor have any control over the operation of the temples other than insuring that everyone has a ticket, including cows. The problem is not Sokimex, the problem is within the government.

Discuss this story here:

Angkor story #2: trucks and buses

The Apsara Authority has taken a break from hatching more $3 schemes and finally come to their senses and banned anything over 20 tons from entering the Angkor Archaeological Park. Additionally, no bus with more than 24 seats will be permitted inside the walled confines of Angkor Thom as well as trucks not meeting certain restrictions in respect to size and load. Certain exemptions will be made for trucks conducting park business and buses carrying "delegates". No word whether a $3 toll will be applied as well.

Not surprisingly, some tour operators complained about how they would move their groups in and out of Angkor Thom as apparently the bottleneck of large buses that develops at the South Gate to Angkor Thom each morning, particularly in high season, is of no consequence to them. Here's an idea: Use two buses.

Discuss this story here:

Pornography revisited

"Today an arrest is made for pornography sales, tomorrow they produce more. It looks like cows and buffaloes. It is worse than animals," is the Hun Sen quote of the month. Amid rising concerns about pornography in Cambodia (or at least the press reports would give one that impression, ...hey, sex sells), PM Hun Sen has blasted "sexy movies and racy clothing" in movies as he ordered the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts not to issue licenses to films that have such scandalous features in them. He expressed further concern for women wearing short skirts and shirts in films suggesting that such women should be educated. Apparently though, while the crusade against short skirts and amorous scenes continues with full fervor, the depiction of graphic and wanton acts of violence continue to be a staple of film and television. Methinks something is lacking in the education here.

Apsara Authority pays $3 to take over Koh Ker

Well, not exactly. But the Apsara Authority has been given unofficial control of the Koh Ker temple complex some 125 kms northeast of Siem Reap which is presently under joint control of the Ministry of Culture and the Kham Someth Company - which banged in the new road and charges $10 for admittance to the temples. For Koh Ker, the Finance Ministry gets 45% so we can assume someone is ripping them off because they get 75% of the Angkor revenue... Anyway, Kheng Someth, company president, is clearly not impressed with the Apsara Authority's involvement, "Six months ago, some Apsara people put guard booths over there, but we have never seen them again," he said. Probably something about needing $3.

New Lonely Planet

The new Lonely Planet Cambodia hit the bookshelves the past month, and no it won't cost $3 unless you buy a fake one, and yes the fake ones are already out, too. I've not had the time to really pick it apart, nor compare the changes to the previous volume, but a cursory glance reveals a book of similar size to the 2002 version. The listings have not really expanded, hence the inclusion of a lot of the new eating and drinking establishments in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap comes largely at the expense of some worn out old standbys. This is the first of at least four guidebook publishers putting out new Cambodia books this year. We still await Rough Guide, Footprint, and Frommer's.

Things we thought we'd never see: Cambodia requires driving tests

The Ministry of Public Works and Transportation have decided that simply attaching $25 to the written driver's test is no longer evidence of satisfactory knowledge of the rules of the road and applicants for licenses must now pass a few tests: a computerized test for rules and regulations followed by a practical driving test.

I can imagine a few of the more difficult questions:

1.) How do you properly execute a left turn?
A.) Come to a full stop at the intersection, carefully look both ways and wait for a gap large enough to allow a safe crossing over the lane of traffic to complete your turn.
B.) Look straight ahead, fly into the intersection, lean on your horn, stop for no one.
C.) Drive directly into oncoming traffic, stay to the side of the road, moving forward against the flow of traffic crossing over once you get a sufficient break in traffic. Always maintain a silly grin on your face.
D.) Drive around the block.

2.) You’re on a major two-way street approaching an intersection with a minor, one-way street. Do you…
A). Continue to move forward, only casually looking in the direction of cross traffic because anyone coming from a smaller one-way street will surely yield the right of way to traffic on a larger two-way street.
B.) Come to a complete stop and look in the direction of the expected cross traffic flow to see if it’s safe to cross.
C.) What’s a one-way street and why would I stop at an intersection?
D.) Drive around the block again.

3.) In an un-controlled intersection (are there any other kinds?) which of the following has the right of way?
A.) Landcruiser with military tags.
B.) Police vehicle.
C.) The vehicle with the loudest horn.
D.) The one with the most money.

No word whether the practical test requires vehicles to drive from one end of Monivong to the other... without stopping, killing anyone, or landing on a lane divider.

Seriously though, one reasonable bit of criticism levied on this new scheme is that the computer test would be unfair to many drivers as they've never used a computer before. And while I'm all for the driving tests, I do wonder just how many failures, particularly the driving portion, will be settled with a crisp $20 bill. Business as usual.

Discuss this story here:

More border crossings

Two new border crossings with Vietnam are set to open "soon", one each in Kratie (T'rapeang Sre) and in Kompong Cham (T'rapeang Phlong Pir) provinces which comes as some surprise as one would think the Ha Tien crossing in the far south, long since open for locals, would be the most obvious one to elevate to the status as a full international border post open to all. Likewise the crossing in Ratanakiri province in the far northeast, also long since open to locals and commerce, would be another logical one to open. Nevertheless, there will soon be two new ways between Vietnam and Cambodia even if neither one sees much traffic.

Discuss this story here:

One visa does it all

In a plan that I doubt will see the light of day anytime soon, regional tourism officials have discussed the possibility of issuing a single tourist visa valid for Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The plan calls for a single Cambodia/Thailand visa to be the guinea pig. Thong Khon (Sec of State Ministry of Tourism, CPP) is all for it, but I see resistance to this idea as it means the countries will have to share the lucrative visa fee pie. I doubt the Immigration Department will go for this, nor do I expect that the higher-ups in the other countries will feel much differently. It's one thing for tourism officials to propose such ideas, but tourism officials don't tend to carry much clout in the larger scheme of things.

It's all part of the larger ASEAN stuff, which in a nutshell, says that the ten ASEAN nations are supposed to agree on all sorts of things which they can't seem to do ... like the agreement that says all ASEAN registered vehicles can travel freely through any ASEAN country, which works fine until you get to Vietnam. I do wonder then if you can't even get your motorbike into Vietnam, how are they ever going to sort out a five-country visa?

Land mine casualties

A bit of bad news, the number of land mine and UXO accidents increased 16 percent from 2003 to 2004. There were 772 accidents in 2003, but 898 in 2004 with Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces reporting the most accidents. Since 1979 there have been 61,328 recorded accidents.

This isn't supposed to be how it works, the numbers you'd think would go down each year as more mines are removed and mine awareness increases. Unfortunately, what is happening is that as land once of little value becomes valuable, the one-time squatters are pushed off and often with nowhere to go but to some remote border settlement - where the mines are. The head of the HALO Trust in Cambodia had told me a few years back that this sort of thing was bound to happen. Regrettably, he was right.

The crashing riel

In a trend threatening to send the world currency markets into turmoil, the Cambodian riel continues its slide, officially reaching 4228 to the dollar and complicating attempts to keep the riel at its unofficial but widely used exchange rate of 4000 to the dollar. The National Bank of Cambodia is doing their bit - selling dollars, tightening controls on moneychangers, and requiring utility and tax payments to be made in riel. This has already been the case with utilities for as long as anyone remembers, and with taxes we pay with dollars but are issued receipts in riel, but the NBC seems to think their doing something positive telling us to start doing something we've already been doing for ages.

A sliding riel is for most, nothing more than an inconvenience as the 4000 to the dollar unofficial peg makes conversions all the more easier, but on the other hand the 4200 rate will once again offer the opportunity to make 100 riel on every transaction by setting the conversion at 4200 but issuing change as if it were 4000... for convenience of course. This was long the case when the riel hovered around the 3900 mark and fifty cents change for a dollar came back as 1900.

Carlsberg coming

Carlsberg has determined that while Cambodians don't drink very much beer they will soon learn the error of their ways and are so sure of this that they've taken a 50% share in Cambrew Ltd, makers of Angkor, Bayon, and Black Panther Stout beers. According to their figures Cambodians drink on average just 6 liters of beer in a year (I know a few people who do that in one sitting) while the Vietnamese and Thais each average 15 liters a year, hence the growth potential. They say don't expect Carlsberg to appear anytime soon, but we can expect a new push to get Cambodians to drink more beer, right up there with the cigarette commercials.

The guesthouse saga

The guesthouse saga takes a break this month as I'm more concerned with dealing with the guesthouse then writing about it. We've had another decent month and knowing better where we stand, we've been in the process of making the place even better for the upcoming high season.

And the ghosts are behaving themselves...

New on toa for August

The following appeared on the pages of toa in August:

August 29: Cambodia FAQ: Updated the Legalities section and the Transportation section.
August 27: Updated the Overland Bangkok to Siem Reap Travelers' Reports section and the Overland Bangkok to Phnom Penh Travelers' Reports section.
August 27: Readers' Submissions: Lay Vicheka offers30 Quotes and Knowledge Dissemination: A Never Immortal Path.
August 27: Phnom Penh Perspective: In Accountability Bronwyn Sloan takes a look at Cambodia's young generation and their comprehension or lack thereof of actions and consequences.
August 27: The California 2 Corner returns with two stories: Around the Lake and More! and Rainy Season Ride, But No Rain.
August 23: Matt Kemp expands the Talesofasia Guide to Sydney.
August 20: Updated the Business and Employment Opportunities section
August 8: Readers' Submissions, Taiwan: Antonio Graceffo offers A Glance at the Amei and Lay Vicheka brings us The Role of Cambodian Law; My Perspectives.
August 3: Updated the Bangkok to Siem Reap Overland section.


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