Michael Batson

Travel Writer

Vietnam

Cambodia

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News and Tips


11 June 2019


I have seen some gratuitous displays of overt wealth over the years. In Southeast Asia, if you have money you show it off, it sadly highlights the gross disparities in socio-economic wealth distribution and fair societal participation. Today, I saw something in Cambodia to cap them all; the bling, the dress, the mansions, and the automobiles whatever they are and where ever they originate. It was a so-called ‘super yacht’. A vessel moored mid-river on the Tonle Sap between the Chroy Changvar Peninsula and the main riverside boulevard of Phnom Penh. It was so large it appeared unable to pass beneath the Japanese Bridge, and its newer Chinese-built neighbour; structures tall enough for people to suicide off. An item on the Khmer 440 blog site gave the details as 47th on the list of the largest yachts in the world, at 98m with eight guest cabins (and another 12 cabins for up to 35 crew) with an art collection likely worth more than most buildings in Phnom Penh. Last week it was in Can Tho, Vietnam, in the Mekong Delta. Even if they could make it under the city bridges the vessel draws about 4m so there’d likely be insufficient draft in the river to go any further this time of year.

 

5 June 2019

 

Seven days ago, according to the immigration official I asked behind the visa on arrival counter at Phnom Penh international airport, Cambodia changed its visa on arrival and immigration forms. The only problem was they forgot to tell the airlines, or maybe they did, and the airlines are determined to get rid of the old stock, and hand them out by the plane load regardless. These two forms are now merged into one, small yellow form and a passport photo is no longer required. In theory this should make the process of obtaining a visa to Cambodia and entering and leaving the country a little easier. Only there appears to be an adjustment period underway not helped by the lack of communication. With an entrepreneurial eye, airport officials now offer a ‘visa assistance’ service at USD2 a head.


1 June 2019


We were all primed and ready to the watch the Champions’ League final in a bar in Nana, Bangkok. That is until someone reported the internet coverage in the area was down. It was speculated that someone hadn’t paid the police and that coverage was being withdrawn as a penalty. It the end it was back up and running, though apparently every TV in the bar was being run off of a guy’s mobile. Talk turned to the last major football tournament, the World Cup, and how it had been spoiled by the antics of Neymar, who had spent all up, 16 minutes of match time rolling around in feigned agony. It was suggested such antics should result in a yellow card and 10 minutes playing rugby, so he would know what real impact is about. The bar was packed in a sea of the red of Liverpool. Someone commented that though many Thais wore Liverpool shirts and supported the team, none of them knew where Liverpool was. It was a great night just a pity about the game itself as a spectacle.

 

26 May 2019

 

Cambodia must be one of the few countries where the presence of a VIP on or about the tarmac can delay all commercial flights in and out of the country’s only major international airport. The flight I was on went into a holding pattern about 60kms southeast of Phnom Penh circling over the Mekong River and surrounding countryside. After about 15 minutes the plane shifted to another holding pattern for a similar length of time northeast of the city around Silk Island, the usual marker for planes lining up their approach to the airport at Pochentong. It must’ve cost the airline a pretty penny in fuel burned unnecessarily, delays to hundreds of passengers, and the concertina effect of delays to all flights throughout the day. What underlies all this is the rich and powerful are more important than everybody and everything and are not accountable for anything to anyone.

 

Five Best Travel Items
21 November 2018

 

Sunglasses
I never go anywhere without them. I’ve been known to go looking for them only to find I’m actually wearing mine. Getting a good pair to fit properly can be tricky but is worth it for all kinds of reasons. Consumer advocates tell you there’s no need to spend a fortune on name brands but you do need ones that actually prevent the harmful rays. Opponents will say the eyes have their own mechanism for this, they’re called eyelids. I feel comfortable when I’m wearing my ‘sunnies’ but usually take them off when I’m talking to people. They also prevent crow’s feet much prevalent in folk of certain age or in some places where people are a fairer shade and the sun strong, those of a younger age.
Shorts
I notice no matter how much gear I take I usually only wear certain items. The knock-off brand items found in markets across Asia for a few dollars do the trick and the pockets are great. If they drop to around knee length they can usually pass as discreet enough for most holy sites. Multiple pockets give you options for splitting money and other items for security against pickpockets. They’re comfortable in the heat, get the lighter-weight material, and cheap. Spare a thought for the sweat shop conditions they may have been made in and environmental factors. It’s estimated every cotton item uses 140 litres of water by the time it gets to manufacture, and that’s not including when you start washing them. But then it’s the same for anything else so if you drew a line at that you’d never buy anything or be wearing most things, so up to you. Fortunately, some brands are more discerning about who makes their product, how they make it and what they get paid.
Daypack
Yep, I use one. I bought it to carry my laptop, so it’s got this special internal, detachable sleeve. The idea being no one would know if you’ve carrying a computer or not. I bought mine full price, though it’s hard to say if the knock-off versions aren’t made in the same factory or not. Whichever factory it was made in mine has lasted 12 years and counting. I’m amazed what’s been carried in it over that time and the miles covered. It’s small enough for carry-on and somehow big enough to take enough gear for travelling on its own or with another small bag, also carry-on. Only now is the part where the top of the hips make contact starting to wear.
Hat
I started wearing one years ago for fashion, now they’re seemingly back in fashion. In hot climes where the sun beats down like a hammer they come into their own. If you’ve got fairer skin, and even if you haven’t, every message about sun protection never fails to mention the value of these wonderful items. I’ve had all kinds of styles and brands, and some with no brands. The latest style is straw and Western; lightweight, stylish, and practical. It even fits under the motorcycle seat without getting squashed, so you’re ready to step out in the sun after getting off the bike. Carrying them on a plane can be a bit tricky though.
Camera
Some people think you should keep those images in your head, and that taking photos will ruin the memory. But if you’re a travel writer and you want to add images to back up those words then taking photos is a must. I bought a ‘shoot and point’ years ago in Phnom Penh. Cambodia is pretty cheap for cameras compared to say, where I come from, and cheaper than many other places such as neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. I go for something small and inconspicuous. Walking around with a SLR with a great lens just stands out too much. I still have that pocket camera and it works fine but has its limitations so I’m looking to upgrade.

 

Anniversary of Lon Nol Coup
22 March 2018

The Cambodian government is talking up the anniversary of the Lon Nol coup in Cambodia’s recent history (18 March, 48 years ago) as a significant moment, and using the event to ramp up their anti-American rhetoric, much in vogue of late. The era of Lon Nol ushered in the Khmer Republic which lasted from 1970-75, when it was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge. Pro-government spokes people today are talking up the role of the US in the ‘coup’ that toppled Prince Norodom Sihanouk and led to violent civil war and US carpet bombing of Cambodia that killed and displaced hundreds of thousands. Sihanouk’s overthrow was actually taken after a vote by the National Assembly, was largely bloodless, and arguably one of his relations Prince Matak, was the main instigator. Publicly, the US remained silent on the event, with one official remarking the only thing they knew about Lon Nol was his name was spelled the same backwards as forwards. A rather mediocre figure, Lon Nol’s rule was characterised by widespread corruption and repression. He made decisions usually following advice from a soothsayer, his military were incompetent, and his brother much hated and later killed by a mob that cut out his liver. Matak was killed by the Khmer Rouge soon after they came to power and Lon Nol died in exile in California. Today corruption is still widespread in Cambodia with many rights organisations reporting that repression is as bad as at any time since before the Khmer Rouge. The more things change as they say, the more they stay the same.

 

US Airstrikes in Cambodia
30 November 2017

The US National Archives has released an extraordinary time-lapse animated graphic of US airstrikes in Southeast Asia from 1965-73, and how their bombing spread from South Vietnam, their ally, to North Vietnam, neutral Laos and then, Cambodia - see link below. In all, US warplanes dropped some 2.7M tonnes of ordnance on Cambodia alone. The US recently suspended aid to Cambodia to help clean up the remnants of unexploded ordnance left in the country. It is estimated by some reports that US bombing in Cambodia killed as many as 700,000 people, and resulted in the population of Phnom Penh being inundated with about one million refugees and many recruits, usually the young from rural areas affected by the bombing, swelling the ranks of the Khmer Rouge.

US airstrikes in Southeast Asia 1965-73

 

Shopping in Cambodia is Like Forrest Gump
10 November 2017

I went out determined to buy a football shirt yesterday in one of Phnom Penh’s main markets, but came back with a DVD and CD. There is nothing unusual in not being able to buy what you want when you want it in Cambodia.  It’s been happening to me for years, and shopping can be a haphazard affair. “Do you have my size in this colour?” The answer will be yes and if you asked for blue it will probably be green. XL may not be available in your preferred style, rather only comes in something you’re not interested in. Larger sizes are even harder to come by, and sometimes the size on the label can be misleading in any case. Shopping is a bit like the line from Forrest Gump, you know “Life is like a box of …” I guess it just adds to the flavour of the place.

 

Cambodia's Mysterioius Television Viewing
28 October 2017

It is often said Cambodia is a dysfunctional country which sometimes can work for you and sometimes it can work against you. All this is one of the loveable mysteries of the place; though it often has a darker side too. One thing that is difficult to explain is the fare offered on television in Cambodia. I have stayed in hotels where the channels vary from room to room, though the whole building is serviced by the same provider. Phnom Penh has two television companies; CCTV and PPCTV, and both are crap. There is little in the way of a guide so you never know what is on – other than much of it is repeated over and again. Channels come from a range of nations around the globe. If you jump across the border into Thailand you do not get a single Khmer channel but in Cambodia you get plenty of Thai television shows; some dubbed in Khmer and avidly followed by Cambodian soap opera lovers. The movie channels are a complete mystery. In Phnom Penh they have on CCTV a movie channel called Channel 61, though it appears on channel 60. If you search for the schedule online you can only find programmes for the year 2007! Movies are played straight from DVD, seemingly the pirated ones, and can come with a range of subtitles; Indonesian, Serbo-Croat, and a random selection of others. Sometimes two languages appear at once with one displayed over the other, meaning you can’t read either. If a disk gets stuck, it can be reset with a different set of subtitles half-way through the film. Sometimes the television staff can be heard laughing in the background, or making conversation! Channels can disappear. Once there was ESPN, then suddenly, no more. There for months, but gone one day. Star Sport came and went without explanation. Now there’s Astro from Malaysia, and Bein Sports routed via Thailand. The most curious thing about television coverage in Cambodia is that it is far better in the provinces than in the country’s biggest city. Battambang, Kampot and Sihanoukville all offer much better options for your viewing pleasure. Perhaps this is something to do with them being closer to the country’s larger neighbours, but who really knows. Then there’s the mystery of the numbers appearing on Asia’s sport channels, but that’s another story!

 

Cambodia's Legendary Vann Molyvann Dies
4 October 2017

Cambodia’s legendary architect Vann Molyvann died on 28 September in Siem Reap aged 96. Molyvann, was credited as the man who started an architectural renaissance in Cambodia and designed some of the Kingdom’s most iconic structures. Born in the small coastal town of Kampot in 1926, Molyvann studied in Phnom Penh and was awarded a scholarship to study in Paris in 1946. After briefly dabbling in law, he found his true calling in architecture and studied at L’ecole des Beaux Arts, where he was heavily influenced by the modernism of French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier. When he returned to Cambodia in 1956, it was almost impossible to get a job, “nobody knew what an architect was” he said in a recent interview. That changed however, after he was recruited by the late King Norodom Sihanouk to spearhead a modern Khmer urban planning movement, and was later appointed state architect. Molyvann was a crucial part of the wave of creativity and reinvention of Khmer culture that swept the nation following independence from France in 1953, often referred to as Cambodia's “Golden Age” or “Sihanouk time” before the country descended into war and genocide. Molyvann designed a number of public works that still stand today including: the Independence Monument, Chaktomuk Conference Hall, Olympic Stadium, the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and the National Theatre damaged by fire in 1994 and demolished in 2007; and later projects for public housing. Molyvann fled Cambodia in 1970 and remained abroad for 20 years. When he returned he was briefly Minister of Culture and in charge of the Apsara Authority with responsibility for the restoration of Angkor, a position from which he was later dismissed without explanation. Molyvann later dabbled in opposition politics, and was critical of much of the recent rampant, haphazard building boom development in Cambodia. Vann Molyvann was regarded as a national hero. He is survived by his wife, Trudy, five of his six children, and 12 grandchildren.

 

13 September 2017
You Know You’re In Cambodia When

You know you’re in Cambodia when you’ve got the shits and you’re standing in the middle of Luckys at Sorya Mall and suddenly you just have to go. So you manage to pay the bill without crapping yourself and get to the dunny. You walk in and there’s a lady cleaning the floor. The toilet is clean. You find out afterwards there’s soap and paper towels to dry your hands. You’re sitting on the dunny after a mild explosion and turn around – no toilet paper. Nothing to help you, not even a hose, they’ve got rid of them. There’s not even a holder for toilet paper. There is a sign saying don’t put the paper down the toilet but they don’t give you any. So where’s the logic? They’ve got a fulltime attendant who cleans the floor but doesn’t give you any paper.

It’s a sad state of affairs that after 6 months in Cambodia I’m reduced to wiping my arse with my own hand.

 

28 August  2017
Streetside Number One

Getting something as simple as a haircut can be an interesting insight into life in Cambodia, or indeed, Southeast Asia. Near Kandal Market in Phnom Penh are several barbers with stalls on the roadside. Being a Sunday most were at home but three were operating. Mine was on the opposite side to Wat Unnalom, Phnom Penh’s oldest temple and home of the Buddhist patriarch. I sat on a crate waiting for the barber to finish his customer, a thin barang covered in scribble. There was a chair, one that lent back so far I was fearful of toppling backwards onto the road, a mirror, and a small stand with the usual tools of the trade “Lei Moi” I said (number one) indicating above my ears but not I said, at the front, on top, or at the back. “Don’t worry” he said“ I do for you” and promptly took the whole lot off. He stood back admiring his handiwork and charged me $2. I was reminded of a trip television chef and ju-jitsu exponent Anthony Bourdain had made to Vietnam I think it was, when he met then president Obama in a side street café. He’d carefully explained to the roadside barber there what it was he wanted with the help of his translator. The finished article was well done but er, “A little shorter than I’m used to” he said.

 

23 June  2017
Phnom Penh Drivers See Red - And Some Do Not

Over one hundred sets of new traffic lights have been installed and activated across Phnom Penh, along with accompanying sets of road markings bringing confusion to the capital’s streets. For years Phnom Penh drivers made an art form out of traffic merging at intersections. Now with the introduction of computer science and the modern age of traffic control paradoxically, chaos reigns. In the post-Khmer rouge era as vehicles returned in ever increasing numbers locals adapted their own style to negotiating intersections. I found traffic in Phnom Penh fascinating to watch, an intricate gentle ballet a kind of vehicular Barnes Dance, where all vehicles merged and gracefully disentangled themselves and went on their way. It was better than television. Now modern town planners have introduced something that Cambodians had thus far managed to largely avoid in the modern era, the traffic jam. Pre-existing traffic lights were at best loosely observed and policed. Cambodians don’t really do stop signs. They don’t really always drive the right way down one-way streets. They can enter intersections from all sides. All this is with a casual indifference brought on by just wanting to get somewhere anyway you can. There are also the rich and powerful for who accountability in all aspects of life, including road-usage, is entirely absent. As they say ‘Knowledge is realising that the street is one-way, wisdom is looking both directions anyway.’

 

15 June  2017
"Blood Money"

It’s not often Cambodia observers would agree with comments made by the country’s prime minister, but when he urged the US to cancel Cambodia’s wartime debt from pre-Khmer Rouge days, he’s pretty much on the money. During the Lon Nol regime the US lent US$250M to the Cambodia government, a debt that with compound interest has since almost doubled to nearly half-a-billion dollars. The prime minister called it “blood money”. Amidst increasing tensions between the two countries the US now wants the debt repaid in full, with US Ambassador William Heidt likening Cambodia to Sudan, Somalia and Zimbabwe for failing to pay back the debt. The loan, mainly in the form of maize past use-by-date, was intended to help feed the population of Phnom Penh, which had doubled with refugees fleeing the country’s civil war and US carpet bombing of huge areas of rural Cambodia. From 1969 to 1973, the US dropped about 500,000 tons of explosives on Cambodia, much of which remains as unexploded ordnance leaving an ongoing daily legacy of limbless victims. It is claimed that without the sustained and illegal US bombing the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t have grown to the force they were and ultimately taken power. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan, professors and historians who have studied the US bombing campaign in Cambodia, said in 2015: “During the four years of United States B-52 bombardment of Cambodia from 1969 to 1973, the Khmer Rouge forces grew from possibly one thousand guerrillas to over 200,000 troops and militia.” Ironically, the maize intended for Cambodia's starving population would up being fed to livestock.

 

8 May 2017
ADHOC 5
In Cambodia a group of human rights workers have been imprisoned for over one year without trial. The group, the so-called ADHOC 5, belong to the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, Cambodia’s oldest human rights group. Known by the acronym ADHOC, it was founded in 1991 after the end of the bitter civil war by a group of former political prisoners, and operates as an NGO. Among other things, they provide free legal advice to Cambodians, investigate alleged human rights abuses, and seek to empower communities across the country. Four of their current staff and one former member, were each arrested in May 2016 on charges of “bribery of a witness”. Cambodia’s prime minister interjected in the legal proceedings to say the five should go to jail. Cambodia’s Supreme Court recently rejected bail applications for all five on 27 April 2017. Human Rights Watch (HRW) believes the court showed political bias in refusing bail for five human rights defenders criminally charged for doing their jobs in a way the government didn’t like. HRW says that the prolonged pretrial detention of the ADHOC 5 violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party. The Cambodian judiciary is widely believed by many to be politically influenced, non-independent, and corrupt. Meanwhile the five, including one who is a Khmer rouge survivor and single mother,  continue to linger in Prey Sar prison near Phnom Penh in crowded and unsanitary conditions and reliant on family for their upkeep, which amounts to several hundred dollars each per month as reported in the Cambodia Daily.


27 April 2017

Keeping Cool
I never spent much time thinking about air-conditioning, which is surprising given how much time in the tropics is spent with this wonderful invention. It has its disadvantages like everything else but when it gets really hot, it beats using a fan hands down. In all my years in rooms with aircon, I’ve never actually owned one. This is because I always rented a room with one. So buying an aircon unit recently to relieve the heat in our airless apartment in the hot season was a bit of an education. Aircon invariably comes in different brands like TVs, usually with the same manufacturers. So there’s LG and Samsung form Korea, Panasonic from Japan, and now Haier from China, among many others. Units are measured in horsepower so you need to make sure you’re buying one with sufficient grunt for your needs. There are then various options available with every unit, sort of a sliding scale depending on your needs and budget. Then there’s fitting the unit, an additional cost. In Asia this can usually be organised the same day to coincide with the delivery. All up the same afternoon you can be comfortably sitting in your pad rather than sweating in a box with three fans doing their best to imitate hairdryers.

 

15 April 2017
Happy New Year
Choul Chnam Thmey or the Khmer New Year is one of the biggest events on the Cambodian calendar. The New Year celebrations last for three days; 14, 15 and 16 April with most businesses closed and thousands of Cambodians returning to their homes in the provinces. Phnom Penh is usually very quiet and the traffic much reduced leaving the roads clear for boy racers on superbikes. Cambodians celebrate three New Years; the international, the Chinese, and their own. The celebration coincides with New Year celebrations across a number of Asian countries including the Songkran Festival in Thailand where Thais get to throw water at each other for two days. Let’s face it you’ve got to have some fun living under a dictatorship. The Khmer New Year traditionally celebrates the end of the harvesting season and is intertwined with the Chinese whereby angels descend at an appointed time, this year at 3:12am to be precise, to mark the passing of the Year of the Monkey with that of the Rooster. Tables of food, bowls of water with jasmine, incense and drink and hung with twinkling lights are placed outside homes and in hotels for those three days. Celebrations usually involve fireworks, lots of music, preferably played loud, and other events like televised dances and tug-of-war. Food prices, especially those of fruit go up before the festival and the bus companies usually like to exploit a good business opportunity. The New Year is usually accompanied by prophecies for the year ahead compiled each year by the Cults and Religion Ministry in the annual Moha Songkran almanac. According to the Ministry, Cambodia is either set for war, flooding and famine—or bumper banana yields and political harmony; take your pick.

 

7 April 2017
Airing Your Dirty Laundry
One of the things about hitting the road is the issue of getting your dirty clothes washed. In Southeast Asia this is pretty easy as laundry is a cottage industry. If you have 2-3 days to spare you can get your clothes cleaned and pressed for little charge, either by the item or by weight (by item is best in my experience) and they come back like new. Most hotels and guesthouses will organise this for you, though usually charge a little extra on top. In the meantime when carrying around you smelly socks and smalls I’d suggest a laundry bag to keep them separate together with a cake of dry soap. If you’re in Thailand pop into the local family-owned shop or, if you must, one of the horrible 7/11s and get the block with the parrot on the label. They come in packets of yellow and of green. The perfume of this brand is so strong no sweaty socks will ever bother you again, no matter how long they’ve been in your bag. It’s the brand that manual labourers in Thailand use to wash off the sweat from a hard day’s toil in tropical heat, so that’s got to be a recommendation.

 

27 March 2017
Cambodia’s Bloated Generals
There are so many generals in Cambodia’s army they could have a regiment all their own. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, Cambodia’s military ranks number just over 100,000 personnel. The country however, has an incredibly large number of generals on its payroll, thought to be over 3,000 according to the Phnom Penh Post. Just recently, the government approved yet another round of mass military promotions, elevating 84 officers to brigadier general, 43 to major general and five to lieutenant general. In the last year alone, 500 officers have been promoted to general in Cambodia, including three officers convicted of assaulting politicians. When questioned by reporters about the number of promotions, the defence minister responded “What’s wrong with it?” Quietly, some in the military have expressed embarrassment over the inflation in RCAF’s upper ranks. Others under cover of anonymity, criticised the generous handing out of stars, which they associated with money and connections. Cambodia now has one general for every 33 personnel. If that’s so, it means that on an officer-to-personnel ratio, Cambodia’s generals have the same level of command as a lieutenant in any other army, which must be pretty galling for those officers that actually have the requisite skills and experience for the job, but not the connections required for promotion.

 

23 March 2017
Easy Living

One of the things I especially like about living in Asia is the ease at which different things can be done without lifting a finger, things that aren’t necessarily that easy or allowed back home. I’m talking about perfectly legal things here. For example, you can sit in one restaurant but if you want your food from another, it’s allowed. You can order your food from next door or across the street and nobody really minds. Try doing that at home. While you’re waiting for your meal and drinks you can top up your phone – you don’t have to move the staff will fix you up. Even if you can’t pay in the right currency it can be sorted as well, you can change money without moving. You can also organise travel tickets, get visas or have them renewed. The latter can occur in a variety of establishments often not associated with such tasks elsewhere. Try getting a visa in a motorcycle shop in others parts of the world and people will probably laugh or shrug their shoulders. People cross borders here without documentation; you just have to be in a certain place at a certain time with the right amount of money and away you go. I’ve known foreigners who’ve crossed borders with their visa written on a post-it! Immigration officials in my country defend their prescriptive time consuming form filling processes claiming you have to do these in other countries, er, no you don’t.

 

21 March 2017
Sok An’s Funeral

Sok An was cremated yesterday in a public ceremony on an elaborate stage hastily created overnight in Phnom Penh. Sothearos Boulevard was closed to traffic, it’s usually busy lanes converted into car parks for ranks of black SUVs of Cambodia’s elite and a few members of the diplomatic corps putting in the obligatory presence for a local political bigwig. Royal Gendarmes were stationed at every corner. Even Phnom Penh’s fire service turned up, not in case the funeral pyre got out of control but to disperse any likely protests though there were none reported. His government colleagues passed condolences and bestowed best wishes. To his critics, however, Sok An was part of a tight-knit elite that has consolidated its control of a corrupt and kleptocratic government with the help of deeply rooted patronage networks and sometimes brutal force, all while securing their personal fortunes by installing their children into the same political power grid. One of his sons is married to the PM’s youngest daughter as well as head of a conglomerate, chair of the Cambodian Rice Federation and an MP; another works at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; while a third is high up in the Apsara Authority, responsible for the Angkor Archaeological Park with all that ticket revenue. Interestingly, as a kind of thermometer of public opinion, the number of mourners for his cortege paled in comparison to the mass of mourners that thronged the capital’s streets for the funeral procession of Kem Ley, the political analyst and outspoken government critic who was gunned down inside a Phnom Penh convenience store in July, in what many believe was a politically motivated hit.

 

19 March 2017
Tips for preventing your house burning down in Phnom Penh

There’s never a good time to have your house go up in flames but fire prevention tips take on a whole new meaning in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh. Firstly, don't have a fire between 11am and 1pm or 5pm and 7pm because, according to Phnom Penh's fire chief, the firefighters are not available during meal breaks. The second, have substantial amounts of cash to hand out because the firefighters don't put out fires unless paid, say past victims. Finally, try to live near Wat Phnom or the Ministry of Interior because they are the only two places where fire engines have 24-hour access to water. And you thought your house catching fire back home was hazardous.

 

17 March 2017
Sok An Dies

Dr. Samdech (a title which means “Lord”) Vibol Panha Sok An, known as Sok An, Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for the Office of the Council of Ministers since 2004, and Cabinet Minister from 1993, has died in Beijing after reportedly a long illness aged 66. A long time stalwart of Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen, among his nicknames was the Minister of Many Arms, given he had such a say in almost everything the government does, and the supposed fabulous wealth his family had accumulated during his tenure. Government critics have been less than flattering and have criticised the lavish funeral arrangements and cost ($750,000) to be paid for out of the government’s budget. On the ‘Seiha’ Facebook page, an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party parliamentarian questioned the expense – which is more than 400 times the amount a minimum-wage garment worker makes in a year. In a leaked phone conversation audio with another opposition figure from the Sam Rainsy Party Senator and reported in the Phnom Penh Post – Sok An was referred to as the “boss of the cockfight” and somethng about strangling people in order to be rich. International watchdog, Human Rights Watch, a longtime critic of Cambodia' gevernment also criticised the funeral costs. The prime minister is quite a fan now of social media, and used it to honour Sok An’s ‘sacrifice’ and saying it was ‘a huge loss of the outstanding hero for the nation’. Former Cambodian ambassador to France, Uch Kim An, cited Sok An’s achievements in negotiating the Paris Peace Agreement aimed at ending conflict in Cambodia, and putting the Preah Vihear temple on the UNESCO World Heritage list, among others. King Norodom Sihamoni and the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath released statements offering their condolences to Sok An’s family.

 

Sok An’s body will be carried in a procession from his mansion on Rue Yugoslavie to Wat Botum Park and cremated on Sunday, 19 March.

 

Read Sebastian Strangio’s ‘Hun Sen’s Cambodia’ for more on the role of Sok An in Cambodia’s politics.

 

13 March 2017
Driving in Cambodia

Driving in Cambodia can be hazardous at the best of times. Accidents often result in the payment of compensation, usually sorted out by cash on the spot, and sometimes brokered by the police – for a percentage. At one intersection in Phnom Penh recently, an expat found his vehicle rear-ended by a local driver. He quickly exited the vehicle to inspect the damage and demanded $500 compensation. He soon changed tack when confronted by the driver of the offending vehicle, which bore the light green plates of a State vehicle. Fearing the local driver would have powerful government connections he decided to drop the matter only to have the offender demand compensation from him. To avoid the matter escalating and therefore incurring heavier penalty, he quickly paid $100 and drove off. If behind the wheel it can pay you to be careful who you run into, or, as this expat found out, who runs into you.

 

1 September 2016
Work permits in Cambodia

Once upon a time you’d rock up to Cambodia, get a job and away you went. No documentation required. Now bureaucracy has intervened. Or should that be been reinvigorated. Under labour laws from 1993, foreigners have always apparently required work permits, the authorities have just never enforced it. Now a private entity, E-Solutions (Cambodia) Co., has been tasked by the Ministry of Labour with all responsibility for foreign work permits from 1 September 2016. However, the decision has left a multitude of unanswered questions about the private company that will process, produce and distribute the permits online. Foreigners working in the Cambodia are now required to apply for permits and employment cards through fwcms.mlvt.gov.kh—a website run by E-Solutions—at a cost of $30 per permit.

 

However, the new website appears to have had teething problems. Companies have until November 30 to request a foreign staff quota and pay a $30 fee. Once a company’s application is approved, workers can apply for their permits and employment cards directly through the new website. Be warned, the government maintains the authority to intervene in the process.

 

Transparency International Cambodia has asked that said the government should more information about E-Solutions, its shareholders and to ensure its accountability.

30 August 2016
Cambodia Bus Crashes

I’ve written previously about the dangers of travelling by road in Southeast Asia, and in Cambodia in particular. Driver fatigue, bad driving practices, speed, poorly maintained vehicles, the sheer variety of vehiclessome left-hand drive and others right-handall competing for road space together with the clutter of Third World roadside furniture, are all contributing factors.

 

In recent months there has been a spate of crashes.There are about 30 bus companies in Cambodia. To date, one of the best has been Mekong Express. In fact, they were for awhile there, the only bus company in Cambodia that had not had a fatal crash. Well, that’s no longer true.

 

In this last week seven tourists and two drivers were killed in Battambang province when a truck slammed head-on into a Mekong Express minibus. Back in July, 37 passengers—including 29 foreigners—were injured when a Mekong Express bus overturned on National Route One to Vietnam after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. Last October, two people were killed when another Mekong Express van drove into a parked truck in Battambang while on its way from Phnom Penh to Poipet City on the border with Thailand.

 

National Route Five to Battambang seems especially treacherous. In April, eight people were killed and 25 critically injured when a P.S Transportation bus swung into the oncoming lane and hit a tow truck—again, police said, because the bus driver had nodded off.

 

My advice would be to avoid travelling at night by bus especially in Cambodia, and not to sit in the front seats where foreigners are often placed. They aren’t called the suicide seats for nothing.

 

27 July 2016
Cambodia Redeploys Its Tank Forces

One of the first developments since the murder of Cambodian political analyst Kem Ley, is that all government tanks deployed to the disputed border regions with Thailand, principally Preah Vihear in the north, have been ordered to return to bases around the capital Phnom Penh “for maintenance”.  Tank transporters were seen moving through the capital late at night causing a stir amongst local residents.

 

The government denied the movements were in response to recent political developments. Rather a Defence Ministry spokesman said “People should be happy that they’re leaving the battlefield; it shows our country is in harmony,” adding “Don’t worry about it.” Some troops were also being recalled from the border, among them members of the prime minister’s elite Bodyguard Unit.

 

The sudden transfer of heavy weaponry at the same time that the political situation Cambodia is getting tense is hardly surprising given previous government responses to increased political tensions. Regional analyst Carl Thayer said when interviewed that there was a precedent for the recalling of troops and hardware to the capital in times of tension.  “There were roughly similar displays of military force following the outbreak of civil unrest after the 2013 Cambodian national elections,” Thayer wrote, and that “such military displays were common among military dictatorships [similar to those] in Thailand that either threatened to conduct a coup or put on a show of force to prevent a coup.”

 

The Cambodia human rights group Licadho, yesterday called on the government to explain why “a significant number of military tanks, soldiers and weaponry are being brought to Phnom Penh since last Monday”.


As an aside, the UNESCO heritage site at Preah Vihear on the Thai-Cambodia border has long been a source of tension between the two Southeast Asia neighbours. Armed forces from both countries are often stationed just metres apart at the battle ready. At times open hostilities have broken out since the International Court of Justice in The Hague awarded the Angkor-era temple to Cambodia in 1962. However, the most direct way to access the temple is from Thailand. The site, on a 500m vantage point was the last place captured by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and was still held by remnants of Cambodia’s former rules until well into the 1990s. The site was awarded World Heritage status in 2008, but has only occasionally been open to tourists.


25 July 2016
China Gives Cambodia A Half-Billion Dollar 'Thank You'

No sooner had ASEAN nations failed to reach a consensus on a joint statement on the South China Sea dispute, blocked mainly by Cambodia’s refusal to agree, the Chinese stepped in with US$530M in aid pledges over the next three years for the impoverished Southeast Asian nation. To add further frustration to any joint statement, Cambodia has even suggested that the wording of previous agreed statements on the disputed region be watered down to remove words such as ‘demilitarised’ much to the annoyance of other member states; Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines which all dispute territorial rights in the region with China.



Regional analyst, Nate Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, was quoted as saying that Cambodia’s prime minister ‘bandwagons with China by showing his support on an issue of little relevance to Cambodia in order to ingratiate himself with the leadership in Beijing.’



Cambodia has been widely criticised for stonewalling any attempts to insert strong language referencing the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which has invalidated China’s claim to the lion’s share of the disputed waters, the world’s busiest shipping lanes and rich in potential mineral wealth and natural resources.

 


24 July 2016
Cambodia's Police Forces - Off and On Duty

Recent articles in the Cambodia English-papers, principally the Phnom Penh Post and Cambodia Daily, have highlighted the activities of Cambodia’s police forces. The traffic police largely remain innocuous; blue uniformed, poorly equipped, they spend much of their time during daylight – they don’t venture out at night – fleecing the country’s poorer motorists of petty fines. The country’s civil police in khaki uniforms have little actual criminal investigative capacity, and rather spend their time engaged in a range of freelance commercial activities for personal profit. The military police, the Royal Gendarmerie of Kampuchea, known by their French acronym, GRK, by comparison are a well-equipped and paid paramilitary force numbering some 8,000 strong, and for all intents and purposes, the personal guard of Cambodia’s prime minister. Rumour has it the average grunt earns US$300 per month, good money by Cambodian standards. Senior officers do very well thank you. In a country full of smiles, I’ve still yet to see any of these crack so much as anything remotely approaching  any form of human pleasantry.



Recent activities by various police, largely civil forces, include the shooting to death of two Vietnamese fishermen allegedly caught fishing illegally off Cambodia’s southern coast. An off-duty civil policeman in the Corner Bar on Street 136 near riverside in Phnom Penh, by all accounts a regular and often troublesome customer who often molested female and took umbrage to being asked by the bar manager if he wanted another drink, isn’t that what bar staff do? I wa barely 20m away at the time. His solution was to head outside and return shortly afterwards with two uniformed cops complete with AK-47 assault rifles to threaten the bar manager that no ‘disrespect would be tolerated’.



Later last weekend an off duty cop crossed from southern Takeo province into Vietnam o his “second wife” where he shot dead a Vietnam national over an alleged assault meted out to the Cambodian officer three month earlier. Another Vietnam national was wounded in the crossfire. Subsequent requests by Cambodia officials for the return of the alleged assailant have not been answered by Vietnamese officials.



Who said the Wild West was dead.

 


23 July 2016
Vietnam Immigration Forms - Or The Lack Thereof

Once upon a time entering Vietnam, at least by road, entailed being intercepted by touts who monopolised immigration entry forms, grabbed passports of unwitting tourists, filled in the forms and then demanded payment for their ‘services’. Arriving by air there are no forms to fill in at all; no customs of immigration forms. All visitors require a visa to enter Vietnam, which must be purchased prior to departure. That is except the informal entry by Cambodia and Vietnamese at the Bavet-Moc Bai border crossing where a bribe entitles the payee entry to either country. Quite refreshing then to do without paperwork, unlike entry to most other countries some of which require a minor essay in duplicate, and questions regarding income, parentage and religion.

 


21 July 2016
Another Cambodia Government Critic Murdered

Kem Ley, perhaps Cambodia’s most prominent political analyst and a frequent critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was shot dead on the morning of 10 July at the gas station convenience store at the intersection of Monivong and Mao Tse Toung boulevards where he drank coffee and met with friends most days. The 46-year-old was attacked execution-style by a single assailant and shot three times. The assailant then fled on foot pursued by a crowd and several dozen people on motorbikes before being cornered near the Aeon Mall, one-and-a-half kilometres away. When arrested he gave his name as ‘Chuob Samlab’ which translates as “meet kill”.



Many supporters believe his death was ordered at the behest of the government. Political assassination has been an often used tactic in Cambodia to both threaten and silence critics over the years. It follows increasing politicisation of country’s police and military, whose upper echelons have close ties with the politburo. Prime Minister Hun Sen called for calm and sought to deflect public suspicion that the assassination was politically motivated and has promised a thorough investigation into the murder, though Cambodia has had a poor record in preventing such killings or of bringing to justice the perpetrators, who in any case are usually acting on orders or the ruling elite.

 

Kem Ley was critical of both the government and opposition parties, advocating for a new era of clean politics in a notoriously corrupt nation which is expected to hold a general election in 2018. He is the third notable activist to be killed after union leader Chea Vichea in 2004 and environmental activist Chut Wutty in 2012. Scores of other government critics and rights workers have been arrested in recent months while others have been tied up in ongoing legal cases.

 

His frustration with the political status quo led the analyst to last year direct the creation of the Grassroots Democracy party an effort to put control of a party in the hands of its members—before leaving it and returning to commentating on politics and traveling around the country for meetings and lectures.

 

Kem Ley trained as a medical doctor, though he never practised, instead became a political analyst and vocal supporter of human rights in Cambodia, which often brought him into conflict with Cambodia’s ruling party. Charismatic, articulate, and with a beaming smile, he leaves behind his wife, who is five months pregnant, as well as four sons. He had in recent weeks proudly gathered them together clad in black for photographs in support of the “Black Monday” campaign to free imprisoned human rights activists. His supporters have vowed to continue on with his work.

 

18 July 2016
Doing Hard Labour in Thailand

Doing heavy manual labour in countries with a climate like that found in Thailand must be exhausting. Increasingly, it’s work Thais are reluctant to undertake, and instead import unskilled workers from neighbouring countries like Lao, Cambodia, but mainly from Myanmar. Reportedly, there are some three million workers from Myanmar in Thailand, legally and illegally, mainly working in agriculture, fishing, and construction. I see them coming off of building sites after putting in 10-12 hour shifts looking completely drained. Some are trucked to and from work, others live on site in rudimentary conditions; a lean-to made of corrugated iron with cardboard for a bed.  If they’re lucky they make minimum wage. There’s little in the way of safety equipment, most are shod in sandals. If they suffer the misfortune to be injured at work there is no health insurance or compensation. Those that lose digits or limbs are simply replaced by the next migrant, some trafficked across borders with the complicity of officials on both sides.


17 July 2016
Chinese Tourists in Thailand

There’s an acronym used in the tourist industry FIT, or free independent traveller. This isn’t a term that can be applied to the vast majority of Chinese tourists visiting Thailand. They’re certainly tourists but far from independent. Rather they travel in groups everywhere they go following a leader with an extended selfie stick to the end of which is tied some flag or child’s toy. Where the leader with the stick goes, so does the group. Chinese make up the largest single national group of tourists to Thailand in 2015, some 7.9M out of a total of almost 30M visitors. Everything is prearranged and prepaid in China.

 

Every morning busloads arrive on Thai beaches for trips to the offshore islands. Each busload disgorges its load dutifully following their leader. Every five minutes another busload arrives. At night they stay in their hotels. Chinese tourists can be seen in convenience stores buying up instant noodles to eat in their rooms. They’re shopping, such as it is, is largely confined to selected businesses only. They actually spend little in the economy to benefit ordinary Thais.

 

When they do move about town, it’s in large groups where they look, but don’t buy, often blocking other people on footpaths. Chinese tour companies have driven down prices in Thai hotels to the point where for many it is no longer economic to operate. Rather than run at a loss, some are choosing to close, and laying off staff. Chinese tourists would be a classic example of more meaning less, and never a silver bullet for any country seeking to increase revenue.


14 July 2016
Air Asia

Budget carrier Air Asia has come on strong in recent years. Originally based in Malaysia the carrier now has country-owned and based planes across Southeast Asia including Thailand and Indonesia. It's slogan is 'now everyone can fly.' I’m pleased to report that booking online with the company’s website has improved greatly from the frustrating to the mere elementary. It still takes an age to book a ticket compared with other more established airlines (Air NZ by comparison is a cracker), but things have vastly improved. By comparison Asia’s ‘boutique airline’ Bangkok Airways is pretty hopeless.



Air Asia founder Tony Fernandez’s business model however still reflects a philosophy common across the region that it’s a privilege to be a customer, and that the operator knows best. You find this a lot with banks and other service providers. For example, any form of consumer guarantee legislation is pretty sparse in these parts. I knew someone who bought a wide-screen Samsung smart television in Cambodia only to find when they got it home and out of the box, that the screen was cracked. Would the shop replace it, would they heck. You bought it, you’re stuck with it.


Air Asia often likes to board early. This doesn’t mean the plane is leaving early. It just means you get to sit cramped in hopelessly small seats for much longer until the scheduled departure time.  But hey, you have the “privilege” of being their customer all that much longer. So, if you'd like to experience the process of boarding, and for that matter disembarking, a plane being made as complicated, difficult and as protracted as possible, use Air Asia.


12 July 2016
Tipping in Thailand hotels

There’s an old adage in the service industry that tipping is not a city in China. This time worn gem is usually found roughly written on a jar near the cash register, a sort of last minute reminder if you weren’t already thinking of offering money over and above the bill, to do so. While not all countries engage in tipping as a matter of course, most people are familiar with the concept. I come from a country where tipping is not widely accepted, the rationale being people are already being paid, and that doing the job is part of any job description, and customers aren’t there to make-up the short fall in low wages paid by some employers.

 

The plight of many workers around the world is pretty poor. There’s the huge cruise ship industry relying on tips from the mainly elderly guests from developed nations to” make-up” wages multinational ship owners refuse to pay. Then there are chamber maids the world over. Take Thailand for example. A recent article exposed the plight of these largely invisible staffers in plush Phuket, arguably the premium holiday destination in the Kingdom of Smiles. Most live in third world conditions away from the white sand beaches, cocktail bars and the five-star establishments where they work long hours for poor pay. Some larger hotel chains have admitted they do not pay these staff even the minimum wage for Thailand, 300-baht per day or about US$9. Their work regime is also demanding, performing repetitive thankless tasks and given, in some establishments, a mere seven minutes to clean a room. Given the atrocious condition some guests leave a room in completing this job within time must constitute some minor miracle. So if you do see some of these staff, you may want to consider the above and put your hand in your pocket. Even 20 baht will provide a Thai worker with a meal. It doesn’t solve the wider issue of labour exploitation by companies but it may help out on a personal level.

9 July 2016
Bangkok to Nong Kai - Booking tickets online

Booking online is supposed to be easier and often cheaper than other options. This is not necessarily the case with 12Go Asia, anonline service that offers train, bus and air tickets across Southeast Asia. For example, I recently booked a sleeper from Bangkok to Nong Kai on the Mekong opposite Vientiane. The price on my ticket was 688 baht, standard price for second class. However, 12Go Asia charged me 978 baht, plus 70 baht for insurance I didn’t want. This is a mark-up for booking online of close to 50 percent. Moreover, they email you receipt of your purchase, which is not a ticket. This you still have to collect from the ground floor of the DOB building opposite Hua Lamphong train station. To be fair they did refund me the fee for the unwanted insurance.

6 July 2016
Doing the Zombie Walk

As a visitor to Asia one of the things you notice is the way the locals walk. This is especially true in Thailand, where the locals tend to move at an extreme leisurely pace. This is sometimes referred to by expats as the “Zombie Walk” where as much effort seems to be expended moving sideways as in any forward direction. Europeans tend to want to move faster but given the local walking style is often practised two and sometimes three abreast it can mean that not only are you walking slower than preferred you can’t get past them to do anything about it. You’re then left with two choices, move at the same pace or, push on through. The latter option does little for expat-local relations, so best be patient and when the opportunity presents itself, overtake with caution watching for zombie walkers coming the other way.

 

22 April 2016
The Walkabout Hotel – End of an Era

Love it or loathe it (or never heard of it) the Walkabout Hotel in Phnom Penh is no longer. One of the city’s 24-hour drinking and entertainment venues has closed after years of service on Street 51. Or rather as some reports have it, they left the doors "open" (the bar has no actual doors) as there were no customers and no staff. I first went to the Walkabout over 10 years ago. It was my local. True, I lived but a block away. Back then it was buzzing. As someone said it was on the circuit. There was Sharkeys, Martini Bar, and the Walkabout, quite the trifecta. The Walkabout was renowned for the Joker Draw, a highlight for some of any Friday evening in Phnom Penh. It also had to offer; a solid gold music selection, sport on television, pool competitions, food, accommodation, and a never ending stream of expats of varying qualities, and some of Phnom Penh’s more desperate bargirls.  It had a balcony upstairs to while away a weekend afternoon hour or two. They even had the daily papers. I enjoyed meeting writers, journalists, photographers, travelers, even ex-mercenaries amongst its clientele. Then there were the regular expats, some of whom eek out an existence living in Phnom Penh, and others merely just existing. Aside from providing steady employment the locals probably wondered what the attraction was. Most I knew, if they gave it a thought at all, had little good to say about the Walkabout. For some it probably confirmed a poor impression of many expats. Some people I know have celebrated its passing. Comments have ranged from “It is now closed. Good, it was a shit hole” to others I know who said “A place like the Walkabout can never be replicated or replaced. A piece of history has now been destroyed.” Whatever your view it’s the end of an era.


14 April 2016
Train Travel Returns to Cambodia

Passenger train travel has returned to Cambodia after an absence of 14 years. An inaugural passenger train service is to run from Phnom Penh’s iconic art deco railway station on Russian Federation Boulevard to the port of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand, albeit for a brief period only over Khmer New Year. Two trains will run between the coast and Phnom Penh taking nine hours to complete the journey of just over 200kms, much slower than road travel, which can be done in less than five hours by some minibus services. The big advantage for travel is it takes barely 20 minutes to clear the outskirts of Phnom Penh, whereas road travel can take an hour on the city’s increasingly chaotic roads. The rail route differs from that taken by road. Stops are at Takeo and Kampot before reaching Sihanoukville’s revamped train station. Carriages come with air-con or fans, but not on the same train, you get one or the other depending on which train you get. Cambodia, so long the missing rail link may be on the path, or should that be track, to completing the route from Singapore all the way to China.

 

8 April 2016
Juntaland

Since Thailand’s junta seized power two years ago, people have been arrested for reading George Orwell, raising three fingers in the air popularized by “The Hunger Games” Hollywood film series,and even eating sandwiches in public. Now there’s a new target for their paranoia: red plastic bowls, largely because they are the colour of deposed prime minister, Thaksin Sinawatra.


But things are more sinister than that. Since the military staged a coup in May 2014, hundreds of people have been arrested for ‘attitude adjustment’ by the military junta. The junta has been accused of putting dissidents on trial in Bangkok’s Military Court instead of civilian courts, and of jailing or exiling opposition leaders. One blogger says they’ve been held against their will on several occasions and has now been banned from travelling abroad.


According to iLaw, a Bangkok-based human rights documentation centre, since the coup in May 2014, 900 people have been summoned by the junta for the “attitude adjustment” programme, which in some cases include detention without charge for up to seven days. Over 150 civilians are facing military tribunal, 62 are being charged with lese-majesty offences, 38 charged with sedition and 85 prosecuted for violating the junta’s ban on political gathering of five or more persons.


Before being released the last time the blogger said they had to sign, under duress, a “memorandum of understanding” saying that they would have to seek the junta’s permission before leaving the country. Other conditions they claimed included agreeing not to participate, aid or lead an anti-junta movement. If he did not maintain these conditions, the junta reserved the right to freeze all their bank accounts and to prosecute them. Thailand they said is in danger of turning into "Juntaland".


It is disconcerting that the West is not taking a harder line apart from mouthing platitudes urging Thailand to return to democracy. The Pentagon exercising with the Thai military, in annual Cobra Gold exercises. The Thai prime minster General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, head of the military junta has recently attended two events in the US. President Obama included him in the invitation to the meeting in February summit for Southeast Asian leaders in California.


This gives him legitimacy he does not deserve. The US should ban him from the country as Australia did right after the coup. Western nations should also introduce trade sanctions. Meanwhile the Thai people continue to have a government that nobody voted for.

30 March 2016
The Siamese Foxes Lead the Pack

The Siamese Foxes are leading the English Premier League. Leicester City FC, the Foxes, as they are known is a comparatively small budget team of no names who have taken on the big boys and are winning. They’re Thai-owned, by King Power, the largest duty-free retail company in Thailand. They’re top of the EPL ahead of some much more fancied rivals with seven games to go. Last year they pulled off a relegation-surviving Houdini act, before sacking their manager in the off-season and bringing in an Italian with EPL experience. Claudio Ranieri had just been sacked as the Greece national coach after a humiliating loss to a European minnow. Everyone expected a disaster, but instead to date have witnessed a miracle.

 

Reasons to explain this success are thin on the ground. There’s nothing about player stocks, football coaching, ownership or economics. Two theories are rather less scientific. One surmises that the discovery of the remains of King Richard III under a Leicester car park and his proper reburial are one reason. Another explains that clackers, the traditional hand-held supporter devices, and placed on the seats of all Leicester supporters at home matches are the real reason.Either way Leicester have hardly put a foot wrong since either event.

 

This season’s unprecedented wave of success has been spearheaded by some unlikely characters. Jamie Vardy, a former factory worker from the third tier of English football, equalled the EPL record for scoring in consecutive matches, and has been called up by England, scoring on his debut. N’Golo Kante of Malian descent bought from lowly Caen has been a revelation, and has been picked by the full French squad. Riyad Mahraz, a flying Algerian winger has chipped in with plenty of goals, and Danny Drinkwater, a Man United reject has also had a stellar season which has seen him picked for international duty. The rest of the squad, most from similar modest football backgrounds, have all played a part.

 

Football mad Thais, familiar with the EPL are more used to supporting the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool, but now the Foxes are everyone’s second best team. A sign of the Leicester success, is that last year when the team was struggling, the souvenir shop selling team replica shirts in Bangkok closed down due to lack of business. This year, they’ve sold out. You can’t buy a Leicester City shirt in Thailand for love nor money. Whether they go on to win the EPL or not, it’s been an unforgettable year for the Siamese Foxes.

 

6 January 2016
No More Six People on a Motorbike

Cambodia is becoming more regulated and losing some of its Wild West image. With regard to road safety and the appalling number of fatalities - over 2,000 people were killed on the Kingdom’s roads in 2015 and thousands more injured - this is no bad thing. To this end Cambodia’s National Assembly approved new traffic laws in December 2014. Road users were given one year’s grace to comply. Now the nation’s over 1,700-strong traffic police can start fining non-compliance.

The new laws require helmets for both of two adults allowed per motorbike, and require that all vehicles have proper licence plates and registration. Drivers are also required to have a driver’s licence, a Cambodian one. This goes for expats too. The move has been hailed by road safety groups but doubts remain about implementation. Awareness of the new laws is acknowledged as particularly low in many rural areas where up to 85 percent of Cambodians still live. Others think that fines are not the appropriate mechanism but rather that education would be more effective.

It’s too early to say what impact the laws will have on reducing traffic deaths and injuries. One impact is that for most people in Cambodia the laws will almost certainly result in much reduced mobility for the majority of road users. This is a country with poor transport infrastructure and public transport networks. Limited to two adults per motorbike how will people move around? Entire families on one motorcycle are a common sight in the country. I’ve regularly seen five people on a single machine, even six but this is far less common. A mate once claimed to have seen nine people on one motorcycle! When I doubted this he explained that two infants were on the handle bars. While these make for amusing sights for tourists they contribute to the vulnerability of many road users.

The price of adhering to the new laws isn’t cheap. For a Cambodian to get a motorcycle licence, they must apply at a local driving school and pay up to US$35. This in a country where per capita income is less than US$100 per month. Many claim the real problem with road safety in Cambodia aren’t the motorcycles at all, it’s the ever increasing number of cars, but that lawmakers don’t go after car owners as they’re more likely to have money and with it influence and connections, whereas motorcyclists – the vast majority of road users, are more vulnerable.

 

2 January 2016
Boozed up Brit and a Bullet in the Head

A boozed up Brit attacked an ATM in Kampot after it ate his card. Apparently he’d run out of cash and when the offending machine refused to return his card he took umbrage. Presumably he hasn’t seen Kampot’s prison not far from the town centre, which looks like something from mediaeval times. Now that he card has been swallowed he’ll have trouble paying his “fine” to stay out of jail. One helluva hangover.


Quote of the year goes to the official from the town of Sen Monorom in Mondulkiri, in the country’s northeast after he was accidentally shot in the head with an air rifle. After the incident he drove himself to hospital passing the young perpetrator en route. “At that time, I did not stop the car to catch the boy since I was concerned about the bullet sticking in my head,” the victim said.

31 December 2015

Cambodian Driver Licences

If you’re ever pulled over by the Cambodian traffic police – those boys in blue – they’ll usually hit you up for a fine for not having a local driver’s licence. My usual response is that I have an international licence, which suffices in many countries but not all, the level of acceptability varies. An international licence won’t satisfy many insurance policies either by the way. Local cops usual riposte is that I do not have a Cambodian licence. “Who does?” I say. Probably not even the police looking for some extra income. Driver’s licences are issued by the Ministry of Public Works and Transport. But apparently they do so in an arbitrary way, the costs also being prohibitive for many Cambodians – up to US$35 in some cases - that complaints are being posted on social media. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who’s taken to Facebook in a big way after almost being upstaged in the last general election, has ordered the Ministry to temporarily stop issuing or renewing licences completely. Once the fuss has died down normal service will likely be resumed.

 

13 December 2015

Russians and Thai Immigration

Beware Russians in immigration queues at airports in Southeast Asia. Russians abroad are increasing in numbers especially in tropical Asia even despite the recession at home. Their Cyrillic alphabet is now a common sight on sandwich boards across the region, especially Thailand but even in Cambodia where the Russian mob has investments, Vietnam too.  So notorious have they become Thai immigration now have staff roaming through incoming passengers looking for Russians.


Why is this? Russians are woeful at filling in arrival forms, a process they generally only start once they get in the queue, rather than having them completed before they leave the aircraft. Okay, so what you say, so do other people. Well true, for some individuals yes, but for most it’s not seemingly part of some national trait.


Thai immigration forms are in Thai and English, Russians generally speak neither. They don’t seem to carry pens either. So in immigration queues at Don Muang or Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok, you can witness a kind of Barnes dance where incoming Russians wander about looking for writing implements, and seeking advice from each other on what to fill-in where on official forms.


Here’s how it goes. On a flight from Phnom Penh to Don Muang on Air Asia, a flight lasting barely more than one hour, the cabin crew hand out Thai immigration forms. The majority of passengers fill out the forms inflight. Russians hold them in their hands and do nothing. This is the time to fill in the forms. If you don’t have a pen, you can borrow one or get one from the cabin crew. If you don’t speak English or Thai, the only two languages on the form, you can ask people who speak both, the cabin crew.


But no, having landed Russians start this process barely a few steps away from immigration booths. I know people, aware of this problem, who, when deciding which queue to stand in, now look for ones without Russians ahead of them. Mum and dad will be there, with the kids. Then granddad wanders down because he can’t understand what goes where. Between them they confuse each other. They spot their countrymen in another queue and wander over there, but they don’t know either. So by the time they get to the booth they’ve filled in hardly anything at all. Often they push in ahead of other people who have filled in their forms, adding to the growing levels of indignation amongst other incoming passengers.


Once checking in at Saigon I found myself behind an elderly Russian couple. The woman from Vietnamese Airlines, resplendent in her national costume of white trousers with ankle-length dress split to the waist, was struggling.  “Do you speak English?”  They spoke none and no Vietnamese either, not a word, so communication was reduced to sign language.  This conversation must’ve taken almost 15 minutes, the time spent on just two passengers. Of the Russians, the man wore dark glasses throughout the entire exchange.  The woman had bright orange hair.  Together their skin was so white it gave new meaning to the term “White Russian”.


For today’s Russians perhaps this is some form of hangover from Soviet times, when queuing was a way of life. Personally I hate a queue, so anyone who makes it longer than it has to be will annoy me. Queues have been known to put me off shopping and eating, even when hungry, because I hate waiting.


All this is a reminder then of the privilege which comes from being a native English speaker, where communication in such far-off places can be of relative minimum effort.  Russian is not a language of international travel, at least outside a certain sphere of influence, not in the way say English is. As for the filling in of forms, some common sense would be useful and so would adaptability, more so from them than others. Beware, the Russians are coming.


5 December 2015

Bribery and Vietnam Immigration

Vietnamese immigration at Moc Bai is something to behold. To come into contact with them is to witness brazen corruption and gross inefficiency. Bribery, a way of life here, is supposedly the means to expedite a process, not to slow it down. But this they do with all the mannerisms of indifferent officialdom.


Anyone entering Vietnam on a foreign passport is required to have a visa issued outside the country. There are no visas on arrival. A Vietnam visa issued in Cambodia costs about US$65, twice what it used to be a few years ago. Despite having a visa to legally enter Vietnam, no tourist sets foot in the country until immigration officials stamp your passport. For this they require a fee. To be clear they’re already paid a salary, this fee is a bribe.


In stifling heat busloads of tourists complete with their baggage, cram into the immigration hall. There’s no air-conditioning and the fans are inadequate. The elderly, the frail, parents with children, and backpackers shoulder-to-shoulder, and they wait. Last time I was there for over two hours.


If you stand near the front of the crowd and bother to pay attention you can see what’s transpiring. One booth and a single apathetic official provided for all foreign passports. Vietnamese nationals use another booth, while despite the crowds another remained empty. Tourist passports are stacked up per busload on the counter open, face down but spine up, like open books. There they are all colours, many nationalities. Another busload, another pile. The Cambodian bus driver assistants, who handle these matters, wait by the side as if for some invisible signal.


Meanwhile Vietnamese interlopers offer their travel documents up for processing, queue jumping. Each document has money inserted, clearly visible. Some have US$5 others Vietnamese dong. The official’s eyes flicker momentarily from their task to peruse the colour of the cash. Foreign passports remain unattended while the inserted document is quickly withdrawn below the counter, sight unseen.


The stamping of foreign passports kicks off a farce. As each passport is stamped it’s held up by the bus assistants for collection. They call out each name, only they can’t be heard down the back of the hall, so some passport holders remain unaware. Given the delay, people have given up paying attention. Some of the names are quite hard to pronounce, so even if the passport holder can hear they’re not sure it’s them. At one point I’ve seen people relaying the names. So first the assistant calls them out. Then someone else calls them out, which works for a while until their passport comes up for collection and they disappear through customs. If it wasn’t so annoying it’d be pretty funny.


You’re not allowed to take photos in Vietnamese immigration facilities. If I could, I’d take a movie and post it online just to show them up. The process is highly inefficient, exceedingly ineffective and bloody rude. Conversely, may be they’re highly efficient – at driving the price up. Perhaps it’s all part of a carefully considered strategy displaying careful business acumen. Or perhaps it’s traditional antipathy, highlighting the often testy relationship between cross-border rivals. Geopolitics in a microcosm. Either way it’s an exceedingly poor introduction for anyone visiting Vietnam for the first time. It’s also not that impressive if you’ve been before. Immigration officials are never usually hired for their humour and personable nature; customs neither. Though like everything there are exceptions and I have come across some pearlers. But on a hot day in Moc Bai, it gets beyond a joke.


I’ve had health certificates issued there without an examination, also for a fee, though I did get a receipt. Once through immigration your bag is x-rayed albeit by a machine that’s not switched on. There’s a final perfunctory check of the passport by another official before you can exit the building to find your bus. Here you spend more time waiting as you have to wait for everyone to drift in. The crew of my bus told me we only got out passports processed after they’d all had a whip around to pay immigration.


From Moc Bai to Bavet on the Cambodian side, and Bavet to Moc Bai in Vietnam. I’ve been there, done it, and seen it. These days I just want to get there. I’m still amazed it takes up to 12 hours to travel barely 200kms between Saigon and Phnom Penh. Next time it’s probably worth flying.

15 October 2015

Phnom Penh's Expat Hierarchy Explained - Or Not

A recent article by a Phnom Penh-based writer in Khmer440 described the hierarchy of expats living in Cambodia. It got me thinking whether there is one, so I’ve expanded on their views and added some thoughts of my own.


At the top there are the expat long-timers been there for years. Some of these go back to the days of UNTAC, then the biggest UN operation to date. They came and never left, or left and came back. Some still work, own businesses or are retired. Generally they have money, either income from businesses or pensions of various descriptions. Some have both. Some have married Khmers and have families in Cambodia. Others have families in Cambodia and another elsewhere. Though to be fair they’ve usually divorced wife back home first. All up a fairly genteel lot.


Next come the professional expats living on Western salaries. These are the diplomats, the technocrats with aid organisations or intra-governmental agencies like the World Bank or the UN, The kinds of people that the prime minister Hun Sen refers to scornfully as ‘overpaid tourists.’ They have it pretty sweet. I know some who refused to leave when told they were to be posted elsewhere, and in one or two instances have resigned rather than be transferred. Added to this now are probably those working for the increasing number of multinationals setting up shop in Cambodia.


Then in descending order come the TEFLers, those teaching English as a foreign language. Increasingly, there are also those teaching Chinese, Korean and French. But teaching English is still by far the most widespread. This group covers a range of people from the partly qualified to those working on the fly making stuff up to some others who are downright dodgy. To be fair there are professional teachers working in Cambodia, either with proper English language teaching qualifications or with degrees in education, actual teachers. They work at some of the better language schools like ACE, or may do voluntary work with some aid group, or work for very little remuneration because they can afford not to be paid.  The thing about TEFLers is that pretty much no matter where you work, you’re unlikely to be able to save anything. You’re only paid for actual teaching time, not preparation time, so you can take your hourly rate and half it. Pretty much you’re just working to live.


Then there are the “Voluntourists” working for the myriad of NGOs and community groups. Those falling into this category are the do-gooders, the bored, those on their ‘gap year’ or as they say in other parts, their “OE”. Some may be trying to earn some brownie points to get into courses back home, like development studies or the like, or simply out for some work experience to have on their CV which looks pretty cool. “Oh, you were in Cambodia, that sounds really interesting.”


Following these are the Backpackers. The usual crowd from those also on their gap year but not working to those cruising about for a few weeks. Some of them come with huge backpacks and front packs too, so they wind up looking like waddling turtles. They have their guide book in hand or more increasingly, smart phone, the world at the end of your thumb. Despite all that gear they are often half-dressed in shorts and beer singlet, uninterested in local cultural norms and just out for a good time.


Next come the Sexpats followed by the Deadpats. The latter are those wastrels who’ve pretty much given up on life and are waiting to die. Pity to come to a land of wonder and awe just to exist between dingy rooms and seedy bars. They have some income, seem utterly disinterested in doing anything constructive, look in bad shape and are pretty much drinking themselves into the grave. Some are addicted to other things, but with them all it’s just a matter of time. Like the Sexpats they’re a poor reflection on Westerners and probably confirms for many locals the negative image of foreigners.


Sexpats come for the cheap sex in a country where, as one Phnom Penh-based photographer said to me “$10 is a chat up line”. Some are visitors who stay awhile and fly back to where ever they’re from. Others are semi-permanent residents who may move between countries in the region, so have income but do not work. Sexpats tend to be older men, usually from middle-age onwards, though there are some women also. The men can usually be seen hanging around the girlie bars. When not drinking they can be seen in restaurants with some young farm girl in tow. This is not to say that any foreigner of that demographic seen with a local women fits this moniker, so best not to make assumptions. After all, they may be in a stable relationship or happily married, but you can pick the more obvious cases.


These categories are of course generalisations and can be an over-simplification. Things aren’t always so black and white. These groups do exist but sometimes the lines between them are a little blurred. One expat I knew who had lived in Phnom Penh for a number of years and had started his own training and recruitment business, said to me you’d be surprised who turns up in the girlie bars. It’s not unusual to find technocrats and diplomats in some bars; something they’d be unlikely to admit to colleagues or family. I knew one Khmer woman who was supported by a Swiss doctor working for the UN with a family back home. At times she was getting as much as $2,000 a month all of which she of course gave to her family. As the relationship ran its course the money decreased until he was posted to India, at which point it dried up. With him gone she went back to work as she needed the income. She had nothing at all to show for it.


Perhaps rather uncharitably the writer, not an Anglophile, places nationals of the former colonial power France, at the bottom of the pyramid. With their own French language papers and periodicals and the largest Alliance Francaise in the world, Francophones in Cambodia are deemed standoffish. Though that is one view. I’ve certainly observed in Cambodia much antipathy largely from the English towards the French, though I suspect the origins of that reside elsewhere.

8 August 2015

Justice Cambodian Style

Graham Cleghorn isn’t a name familiar to many. I saw a photo of him recently sitting in a puffer jacket with the South Pacific in winter as a backdrop. Graham is a Kiwi from Wellington and he had dreamed of such a moment for years. He had just been released from Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh after serving 11 years of a 20-year sentence. He had been convicted of having sex with under-age girls at his home in Siem Reap, charges that he vehemently denies. His trial lasted a matter of hours. There were no forensics, no cross-examination. The victims were paid to give evidence with sums worth the equivalent of several years’ salary to a Cambodian.

 

His real “crime” appeared to be that he owned land near Siem Reap which he wasn’t prepared to sell, to anyone. Only that anyone turned out to be some well-connected Khmer. Once Graham turned down the offer, the charges and witnesses appeared and he claims, the courts used their corrupt powers to seize his assets. He survived his jail time supported by help from his five daughters. He found work in the prison kitchen. There was little to do each day except drink coffee and smoke. The food is poor and conditions primitive. There’s no hygiene and gross overcrowding. The prison though is spared rape and violence he said, largely due to the scrutiny of the Red Cross.

 

Cleghorn, a former paramedic, moved to Thailand in 1986 to work in the refugee camps set up for people escaping from the Cambodia-Vietnam war. Later he became a Buddhist monk in Thailand. In the years leading up to his arrest in 2003, he worked as a security guard, tourist guide and owned a bar. He married a young local woman and settled on a now million-dollar two-hectare plot farming prawns in a village outside Siem Reap.

 

Cleghorn says "The Cambodian justice system is just a criminal gang of extortionists," interested only in money. He’s concerned that many people go to Cambodia unaware of the pitfalls of falling foul of the country’s judiciary. Personally, I find there is a certain assumption amongst tourists and expats when travelling abroad, to many places, that they are somewhat immune with a foreign passport. The reality can be much different. As a foreigner you can be exceedingly vulnerable in many instances. Cleghorn’s case bears this out. Whatever he may be guilty of, it’s unlikely to be what he was charged with. That didn’t stop him spending 11 years in a maximum security prison.

 

8 June  2015
Death of Chea Sim

Cambodia's number two politician Chea Sim, has died. He had been in poor health for some time. His face was familiar to residents and visitors to Cambodia alike, plastered across the blue billboards of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. That was him to the right of Hun Sen. He was the more elderly figure with the bespectacled moon face. The other figure was that of Heng Samrin, the CPP’s honorary chairman. His role will be taken by the prime minister, and all the billboards are coming down. Gone will be the familiar triumvirate, to be replaced by Hun Sen alone. The close positioning of the three of them on the billboards, seen across the country, belied a somewhat less than cosy relationship between Chea Sim and Hun Sen in recent times. Chea Sim had represented a faction of the CPP, in opposition to Hun Sen. Described as charismatic and ruthless, Chea Sim was another of the pro-Vietnamese Communist politicians that assumed power following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. His funeral cortege in Phnom Penh, some three kilometres long, was reportedly witnessed by only a fraction of the crowds that turned out for that of the late King Father, Norodom Sihanouk. Human rights groups, like the US-based Human Rights Watch, accused Chea Sim of atrocities during his time as head of the military during the bloody civil wars that plagued Cambodia after 1979. His role as Chairman of the CPP according to Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia Director, had helped shield him from prosecution, as have the high political positions of many other ex-Khmer Rouge. With Chea Sim gone, the position of Cambodia’ long-serving prime minister, Hun Sen, will likely strengthen even more.


10 May 2015
Cambodian visas explained (sort of)
Unlike the confused and ever-changing Thai visa situation, Cambodia's visas are rather more straightforward. I like Cambodia, as they still allow you to get lost! There are six categories of visa; and for tourists these are available on arrival. They are: T=Tourist; E=Ordinary (Business); B=Official; K=Special (Khmer origin); A=Diplomatic; C=Courtesy. Note that a Business (E) visa is not a work permit as such but can be renewed indefinitely (at least for the time being) whereas a Tourist visa is valid for one month and can only be renewed once.


Changes to work permits are apparently underway; or more to the point, the authorities are keen on enforcing the existing labour laws, in place since 1993. The impetus for this recent change has been largely brought about by impending ASEAN integration requirements.

 

This will mean that expats wishing to work in Cambodia will require a work permit. However, reports are that requirements for a work permit are causing confusion. The government in Cambodia has tried enforcing the requirements for a work permit previously without much success, but appear much more determined this time.


26 April  2015
Fall of Phnom Penh

Going back a few days, 12 April 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. I saw Roland Joffe’s Killing Fields on television the other day. This old standard of Phnom Penh guesthouses, and a history of Cambodia 101 for most backpackers, has been slated for its Hollywood version of events. Filmed entirely in Thailand, which later supported the Khmer Rouge, it’s also riddled with inaccuracies and factual errors. In one scene Al Rockoff, played by John Malkovich, tries to fake a passport photo for the main Khmer character in the film. Rockoff disputes this ever happened. Rockoff covered the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh and is a frequent visitor to Cambodia still, spending I’m told six months a year there. His photos from that day and time are routinely displayed on the walls of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Phnom Penh.

 

20 April  2015
Neak Leoung Bridge

The longest bridge in Cambodia opened today at Neak Leoung. The 170km journey from Phnom Penh to Bavet on the border with Vietnam just got a little shorter. The 2,200m long Tsubasa Bridge costing US$127 million will spell the end of the ferry service with the 140-tonne ferries moving to Phnom Penh. The ferry service at Neak Leoung has been in continuous operation since 1979. The end of the service will also mean the end of livelihood for dozens of vendors at the ferry port. End of an era.