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Tales from the Southside

by Will Capel

June 2004

The Raffles Hotel Dilemma
Book Suggestion
Sihanoukville Market Machinations
Southern Cambodia Road Conditions

Hi there. My name is Will, and I’m the southern coast correspondent for talesofasia.com, and I had the misfortune of being in the same bar as Gordon one night when he cajoled me into writing a monthly column for this site. Please direct any and all comments to will@capel.com since Gordon isn’t responsible for my rambling.

{Note from Gordon: Look for Will's column to appear on this website on the eighth day of each month.]

The Raffles Hotel Dilemma

I was fortunate to be brought up in a non-union household that still would not cross a picket line. When I was eight, the local grocery store was holding an informational picket about a minor grievance with the employers and I thought it was the greatest thing because instead of my mom sending me on foot around the corner, we got in the car and went to a different supermarket about a mile away, and I’ll always remember my mom telling me that it was because of the strike, which really wasn’t a strike. This probably explains why my heart jumps when I see people holding up protest signs; a permanent association with the pleasures of heading off to parts unknown in a 1978 Buick Skylark instead of carrying home bags of toilet paper with the other neighbor kids laughing at me.

When I first arrived in Cambodia, I was clutching a Lonely Planet which told me to go and check out the happy hour deal at Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh, a recommendation which was bolstered by several new acquaintances in Sihanoukville telling me that it was all that and a tray of homemade tortilla chips. I’ve been back countless times since, actually, every time I’ve been up in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap I’ve made it habit to visit for happy hour, since the cocktails are first rate, and the atmosphere in Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh can’t be beat ... the Grand Hotel d’Angkor loses out to the new FCC Angkor, but it is still a top location.

And, frankly, there is something magical about the first time you show up in a five star cocktail lounge wearing a dirty Heart of Darkness t-shirt and receiving the same dignified treatment that the U.S. ambassador does. This was one of the things that made me realize that the Kingdom of Cambodia isn’t like anywhere else, and the tradition of hospitality here is nothing to sneeze at. Over the course of three years I’ve probably sunk about $2500 on cocktails and food and rooms with Raffles in Cambodia, and I always assumed that the 10% service charge was going to the staff, a staff that was easily the most professional in the Kingdom’s service and tourist industry, a staff that remembered my first name and favorite first drink (whiskey sour, which switched to Singapore Slings after a year or so) and asked how my Vespa was running, whether I had been in yesterday or three months previous.

I think I can speak for a large percentage of expats here that the Elephant Bar has marked the pleasant beginning to many a forgotten night.

But now, no more. At least for me, and out of respect to my mom, but most importantly out of respect for the staff of the Elephant Bar, who after one particularly rowdy night there placed me and about 13 friends on the honor system because they had lost track of our drinks. And when one of the scabbier of my buddies tried to shortchange the bill, he was quickly brought up to speed by the rest of us. You treat people as they deserve to be treated, and the rewards are immeasurable.

Raffles fired approximately 300 workers after a legal weeklong strike regarding the distribution of the aforementioned 10% service charge, a service charge that I, as I imagine most of Raffles customers, expected to be used as an extra tip to the staff, a staff that works incredibly long hours providing incredibly efficient and courteous service, a staff that had worked in good faith for years with Raffles management to reach a negotiated settlement before finally beginning to stage walkouts to draw attention to their cause. Raffles proceeded to form a company union of non-strikers and reach a resolution. Where I’m from, this is the lowest form of dirty dealing that an employer can engage in, and it doesn’t change whether it is central Illinois or the Kingdom of Cambodia.

To the management of Raffles : go to Hell. Sacking the best crew in this country because they ask for what is rightfully theirs?

To the customers of Raffles : spend your money elsewhere. The Phnom Penh Hotel on Monivong has excellent cocktails, as does Talkin’ to a Stranger on St. 278. Both treat their employees with the humanity and compensation that you expect when you plop down $4 for a drink in a country where the average daily wage is $1. I’ve already shared the recipe for a proper Raffles Singapore Sling with the owners of Talkin’, and if you write in to me, I’ll share it with you, too.

To the employers of Cambodia : what are you waiting for? Give these striking and fired workers jobs. They have received the best hospitality training courses this Kingdom can offer. Don’t you want them on your payroll?

Book Suggestion

Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge by Evan Gottesman has hit the photocopy circuit here and I have to say that it is a knockout piece of scholarship (and to think I’ve still got 100 pages to go ...)

Rather than go for the usual suspects – Hun Sen clever but bad, Vietnam manipulative and bad, etc – Gottesman really hits the middle ground dead on with honest appraisals of everyone’s actions during the 1979-1991 period which has received minimal decent coverage in the other histories of Cambodia, all while reserving judgment. It reads like a long Sunday Times feature at points, you know, one of those articles you complete even though your coffee cup is empty and you can smell the toast burning because it is that compelling, and with even a minimal familiarity to the main figures in power, it becomes quite an absorbing read, almost soap opera-esque, which I suppose is one of the beautiful things about following politics here.

Available now at Casablanca Books in Sihanoukville (hint, hint) or most stands in the Russian and Central markets.

Sihanoukville Market Machinations

The Post and Daily have been reporting recently about protests at the Psah Leu market in Sihanoukville, but nothing prepares you fully for the moment you climb on your bike in drizzle to go and grab a bowl of noodles and you see 300 vendors camped out in the middle of 7 Makara Street with banners. Needless to say, I didn’t go to my favorite stall that day.

If Cambodia is the gossip capital of the world, Sihanoukville is certainly the White House, 10 Downing Street, and Kremlin all rolled into one. Who got which kickbacks from what multinational firm for the new market changes every day, and while the papers say one thing about the rents, the vendors say another, and the government says a third.

All the while during the 3 day protest, the wet market near the Star Paris Hotel and Klang Leu market on route 4 did a roaring trade and happily gouged the city by raising prices.

The problem? Psah Leu is a dump. During the rainy season it becomes a cesspool, and you half expect the rats crawling around to drag you down and strap a bikini on you for the next round of mud wrestling as a moto driver loses traction and drops 10 kg of some poor woman’s groceries. Current vendors, understandably, want to keep their prime locations and pay as little as possible for them, which is a fundamental tenet of any retail business. The new market, Psah Leu Thom, or Psah Thom, or whatever people are calling it these days, will vastly improve the municipality of Sihanoukville – it is a nice, proper, modern space with enough stalls to go around and no low-lying tin roofing to clip taller barangs as they stroll through for the days’ shopping. Let’s just hope that the government, merchants, and market owners can stop their grandstanding and crying long enough to do something that will actually improve the quality of life for the vast majority of residents here. Although given recent histories here, maybe I’m being naive.

Southern Cambodia Road Conditions

Route 48 between Koh Kong (Thai border) and Sre Ambel (route 4, the artery between Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh) continues to deteriorate, and there is little hope for much revival during a rainy season when the government still isn’t formed. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. Take the boat between Koh Kong and Sihanoukville.

Route 3, between Veal Renh (45km outside of Sihanoukville on route 4) and Kampot, is being improved still. The muddy bit outside of Veal Renh is being gradually tarmacked over, although there is still about 3 km of work to be completed and the rains have started. They have almost completed work on the first major bridge about 7 km outside of Veal Renh, which is a good thing since the old one is certainly on its last legs. Thankfully, there are no logging trucks using it, although I do wonder about the big trucks going to Vietnam eventually. Slow down on the last 25k to Kampot where the road narrows and the kids seem to lose track of their cattle among the high scrub on either side.

Route 4 is still, and probably always will be, in good nick, although the number of fatal accidents continues to rise. The road is currently carrying about the maximum load of trucks and cars that you can expect on an improperly graded two lane highway; throw right hand drive vehicles, motorcycles, oxcarts, and remorques into the equation and you end up like my friend Siphoun yesterday, who was driving to Kampot and was hit by a taxi outside of Ream. He was wearing a helmet and therefore only shattered his right elbow, and is going to be ok, but can’t work for at least two months and is going to need physical therapy.

Opinions expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the owner, publisher, editor, marketing manager, or coffee girl of the talesofasia website. So there.




The text appearing on this page is 2003 - 2004 estate of Will Capel. For the rest of the website, unless otherwise noted, all text and photographs 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder(s) is prohibited.