Sihanoukville a hot travel destination

Sophie at Sihanoukville Airport prior to flight to Siem Reap

When I came here in 2007, it was a big deal when a cruise ship came to town. Now we get 30 every year. A couple of weeks ago, Sophie got a nice job taking a family from one of them for a tour around Sihanoukville. They had a great time because she hand picked the sights. Others aren’t so lucky. They hop on a tour bus after trudging off the docks, take a spin around town and that’s about it.

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sihanoukville port entrance

Sihanoukville port entrance

If the Ministry of Tourism gets its way, all that is going to change. In an effort to make Sihanoukville a more attractive travel destination, they’re contemplating some major changes:

  • Reducing or eliminating visa charges for tourists arriving by sea or the airport
  • Building a shopping and dining area at the port
  • Allowing foreigners to own holiday properties in selected areas

I was stunned when I read this in an article in the ASEAN news site, TTR, Cambodia considers sea shore incentives. I knew cruise ships were not a big deal any more. There were three in port when Sophie picked up her customers. I didn’t know we got 30 a year with up to 1,800 passengers in each, though.

I knew the port was becoming more active. Awhile back, we decided to take an afternoon motorbike ride on the road that skirts the port. We hadn’t gone that route in years. The road was so clogged with trucks carrying containers, it took us about half an hour to negotiate what used to be an almost empty three or four minute stretch of road. I hadn’t thought about it from the tourist angle, though.

It’s semi-official: Sihanoukville is a hot travel destination

Tourists are coming here from all directions. Some expats are grumbling because international flights aren’t finding their way here, but I think it’s a good thing. As fast as it’s growing, Sihanoukville is having trouble keeping up with the influx of tourists. Three times in the past two weeks, we’ve had to look for a restaurant that had a table or a beach cafe that had spare lounges. We found them on the second try, but it was just one more sign that our little town is becoming a hot travel destination.

Don’t take my word for it, though. A recent article in the Nesara News Network, The new hot travel destinations you’ve never heard of! listed Trip Advisor’s Destinations on the Rise awards. I thought I might see Sihanoukville somewhere towards the bottom of the list, but it was Number 2 after Da Nang.

What’s the attraction? Come and see for yourself. There are plenty of beaches and islands to explore, but don’t leave Ream National Park off you list, either. And try some out of the way places that Trip Advisor doesn’t know about. No sense just following the crowd when you’re in the Kingdom of Wonder.



Is it time to stop criticising Cambodia?

Criticising Cambodia seems to be the national pastime amongst expats in this country. They get plenty of fuel for their criticisms from the Western media, which can’t seem to find anything good to say about the country. Even when the news is good, they put a negative spin on it. When the news is justifiably bad, you can find parallels or even more egregious activities going on in the country the media is reporting from.

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The idea for this post came to me the other day when I read that the government had agreed to a 28% pay hike for garment workers. That’s pretty huge, but I was sure the Western media would find a way to make the Cambodian government look bad. As I wrote on Facebook:


Sure enough, not long afterwards, I got a Google news alert. The Wall Street Journal reported that “Cambodia Sets Minimum Wage Below Union Demands.” Who is the WSJ to criticise? The minimum wage has been virtually frozen in the United States for years. In real terms, it’s declined. Unions have virtually no power in the U.S. any more, but that doesn’t stop them from taking the moral high ground. 28% is a big jump and a good start. $128 a month may not sound like much to you, but when you pay $20 a month for rent, the extra $28 comes in handy. Okay, it’s $12 short of the union demands, but these things are always negotiated. And no, WSJ, they decided not to strike over it.

You’ve probably read about the 91 year old man who was arrested in Florida for the terrible crime of feeding the homeless. Florida has also made off-the-grid living illegal and in general tries to make life as miserable as possible for anyone below a certain income threshold or who prefers to live as they see fit. The off-the-grid story prompted me to write this on Facebook:

off the gridI wasn’t being facetious. “Freedom” in the United States is determined by laws, some of which grant freedoms, others of which deny them, but since when do laws of any kind constitute freedom? Cambodia has plenty of laws, too, but they are usually only enforced when they need to be enforced and villages are largely self-organised. Even here in our little village in Sihanoukville, the locals do as they see fit. For example, one neighbour installed a speed bump outside his house to force the school kids at the new school to slow down and not endanger his children. Imagine the hoops you would have to jump through to get that done in a “developed” country.

One thing that concerns me deeply is deforestation. Legal and illegal logging in Cambodia is destroying the country’s magnificent jungles at an alarming rate, but Cambodia can’t be singled out for this crime against nature. Just today, I read in Project Censored (“The News That Didn’t Make The News”) that:

In September 2014, the Intact Forest Landscapes initiative, made up of organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute, reported that since 2001 Canada has led the world in deforestation, despite being overshadowed by reports of the forests in Brazil and Indonesia.

Finally, I have to touch on the subject of police corruption in Cambodia. There’s nothing “seasoned” expats like to do more than pick on the Sihanoukville police. Some are convinced the traffic police are out there to collect fines for minor traffic violations from we barang only. They are also convinced the police divvy up the money between them at the end of the day. It’s a complete fabrication, but you can’t convince them otherwise.

Yes, I’m sure police corruption exists here, but unfortunately, Cambodia is not alone in this regard. Just the other day, I read about an American policeman who got his son pardoned for a marijuana offence. Meanwhile, thousands if not millions of Americans languish in jails for minor offences like that because they can’t afford lawyers or are not well-connected. Did you know that America has the highest per capita prison population in the world? Now you do.

Then there’s institutionalised corruption. Have you ever heard of civil forfeiture? An article in Forbes defines it like this: “Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property (including cash and cars) without having to prove the owners are guilty.” I’ve embedded a hilarious John Oliver video below to save you further reading and me further writing.

I could go on with other examples, but hopefully you get the idea. Cambodia may not be a shining example for the rest of the world to follow, but it’s come a long way. The countries that criticise it, though, have been going morally backwards for a long time. Some expats and citizens of those countries don’t seem to see it because they rely on the mainstream media for their news. I hate to break it to you, but it’s not news — it’s propaganda. Pointing the finger at other countries and hiding your own sins is a perfect way to take the moral high ground while you get away with rape, pillage and murder.

As expats, we’re guests in Cambodia. Sitting around in bars and cafes picking on Cambodia doesn’t do anyone any good and isn’t going to help you enjoy all this country has to offer. If you really care, make an effort to fix what’s wrong in the country where you have citizenship and let Cambodians fix their country. Judging from the big jump in the minimum wage, they seem to be better at it than we are.

Cambodia’s CNRP Gets Seriously Weird

I didn’t want to write about this, but it’s just too weird to let slide. Recently a group of CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) supporters asked the United States if they could join the fight against the Islamic State.

Image from Phnom Penh Post article cited in this blog

According to one supporter quoted in the Cambodia Daily, “We are Cambodian youth and we want to show our will and concern on international issues.” Another, more melodramatic CNRP supporter was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post. “We cannot avoid death, so we agree to die for our nation and for the world. I am already prepared – send me at any time, I will go”, said 32 year old “activist” Hang Sisovath.

It’s weird enough that some CNRP supporters have decided they want to fight ISIS, a group that poses no threat to Cambodia, but the conditions they ask the United States to comply with in their generous offer to be the boots on the ground the U.S. administration is not willing to be American boots is even weirder. “After eliminating ISIS rebels, I will ask the United States of America to eliminate Vietnamese rebels on Koh Tral too,” said 27 year old Soung Sophorn, a CNRP candidate in last July’s election (quoted in the PPP article cited in the previous paragraph).

So, apparently these clued-in-on-international-issues members of the CNRP put ISIS and Vietnam on the same level. Even a cursory look at current events shows how absurd this is. Dig a little deeper and it gets worse. It’s no secret that the CNRP blames everything on Vietnam, but their slavish idolatry of right wing America is hidden a little below the surface. I first discovered it when I started following Samathida Kem on Facebook.

Samathida Kem is one of CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha’s daughters. I started following her because I reckoned she would be naive enough to say things her father would avoid saying. I was right. When things were heating up after Sam Rainsy’s royal pardon, some CNRP lobbyists went to the U.S. to garner support. She proudly boasted that Senator John McCain said, “Hun Sen must go” on her page. Is she completely unaware that McCain is a Vietnam War vet who supports every American invasion? Does she even know about the extensive bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War?

"Isn't he the coolest president?" Uh. No.

“Isn’t he the coolest president?” Uh. No.

More recently, she posted a video on her Facebook page. “Isn’t he the coolest president? The world is changing,” she wrote above a video of President George Bush dancing to the music of Jason Deluro. That’s just a minor example of her naivety, though. When Sam Rainsy was drawing large crowds in Phnom Penh, she gushed about how it looked like the beginning of a “Cambodia Spring.” Yeah, like the wonderful Arab Spring that happened in Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Syria? Just what Cambodia needs after 30 odd years of real progress.

map showing locations of bombing raids in Cambodia

Here’s what you need to know, youth of Cambodia. America acts in America’s interests. The “bringing peace and democracy to the world” line is just rhetoric. Nobody can defend human rights violations, but the United States repeatedly commits them and turns a blind eye to the human rights violations of its allies like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel, to name just a few. The U.S. did nothing to remove the Khmer Rouge from power. In fact, as journalist John Pilger wrote recently in an article titled From Pol Pot to ISIS: “Anything that flies on everything that moves”:

The Americans dropped the equivalent of five Hiroshimas on rural Cambodia during 1969-73. They levelled village after village, returning to bomb the rubble and corpses. The craters left monstrous necklaces of carnage, still visible from the air. The terror was unimaginable. A former Khmer Rouge official described how the survivors “froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told … That was what made it so easy for the Khmer Rouge to win the people over.”

Like it or not, it was Vietnam that finally rid Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge. While I agree that Vietnam, like Thailand, puts its own interests ahead of Cambodia’s, comparing it with ISIS is beyond absurd. And volunteering to be America’s cannon fodder in the fight against ISIS is just plain weird.

Some encouraging news about political tension in Cambodia

I’m happy to report some encouraging news about the political tension in Cambodia for a change. Although other news has justifiably dominated and been distorted by the world headlines, Cambodia had a minor crisis recently when some demonstrators attacked guards in Phnom Penh.

guard injured in Phnom Penh

Photos from Phnom Penh Post article, Tables violently turned

The government arrested CNRP leaders in response. The CNRP focused on this “transgression” rather than condemning the violence by its supporters, but that’s to be expected from any opposition group. Some CNRP members and supporters tried to claim security forces attacked first, but a video published on Vice News clearly shows security personnel using restraint and protesters violently overcoming them.

To my surprise and his credit, Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia in the wake of this incident and instead of going on the warpath, announced on his Facebook page that the CNRP accepted a February 2018 election “in exchange for a new electoral commission”, according to an article in the Cambodia Daily, Parties to Meet for ‘Final Talks’ on the Basis of 2018 Election.  The article goes on to quote Sam Rainsy as saying:

Our Khmer people have to unite and reconcile with each other and between all of the political tendencies in search of a united nation that will guarantee that the country is peaceful, and has stability with freedom and justice

This is the first time since his pardon I’ve seen Sam Rainsy show the kind of leadership Cambodia needs from the opposition party. Let’s go back to that pardon and see what has transpired since:

  • King Sihamoni pardoned Sam Rainsy based on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s advice (source)
  • Elections held and CNRP makes significant gains, gaining 55 seats in Parliament, but refuses to take them, alleging “widespread fraud.”
  • Sam Rainsy continues to speak out at rallies around Cambodia.

The CNRP argued that since its members refused to take their seats, the government was “illegitimate” because the constitution states that there have to be at least 120 seated members in the National Assembly. Hun Sen responded by saying they were welcome to take their seats if they wanted to, but he wasn’t going to wait for them.

In my opinion, had the CNRP taken advantage of their gains, they could have capitalised on them. Instead, the party took a confrontational stance, in effect trying to “peacefully” overthrow the government, while still inciting hatred and division. The logical outcome to this was a violent response at a garment workers’ strike in Phnom Penh and an equally violent reaction from opposition party supporters in Phnom Penh. These kinds of things snowball, as we have seen countless other times around the world and nobody wins.

No, Hun Sen is not perfect, but Cambodia has made great progress under his leadership. It can do better and will, as long as the country doesn’t descend into violence. This latest development is a positive sign that neither side wants to see a return to the violence that plagued Cambodia’s past.

A balanced article about Cambodian politics at last

hun sen

Hun Sen

Update 26 June 2014: Please read insightful comment by CA below.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’m not a big fan of mainstream media. That includes publications like the Phnom Penh Post, whose journalists don’t know how to write balanced articles about Cambodian politics. I only quote them when something appears that is too annoying or misleading to ignore. I’m usually dubious about articles I read on human rights websites, too, unless they are the kind of sites that aren’t afraid to point out U.S. human rights abuses along with those that occur elsewhere, so I was a little surprised today when I found myself agreeing with much of what I read in an article on the Asian Human Rights Commission website.

Written by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth, a political science professor who hasn’t lived in Cambodia for a long, long time, I was expecting CAMBODIA: Hun Sen’s days are limited; can CNRP improve? to be another diatribe against “strong man” Hun Sen and for the White Knights of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The author definitely wasn’t a fan, but refreshingly presented his arguments without resorting to clichés. He also presented the case against the CNRP: a case you never see presented in the Phnom Penh Post or Cambodia Daily.

sam rainsy

Sam Rainsy

I follow Sam Rainsy on Facebook just to keep up with his social media strategy; a strategy that helped bolster his support, but, in my opinion, is inflammatory and misleading. On the one hand, he’ll say publicly that he is not anti-Vietnamese. On the other hand, he and his colleagues regularly publish their anti-Vietnam sentiments on social media in the Khmer language, which isn’t as likely to be picked up by Western media. CNRP Vice President, Kem Sokha, recently stretched even ardent followers’ abilities to believe every rumour about Vietnam’s evil intentions when he suggested that the 2010 Water Festival bridge stampede in Phnom Penh that killed 353 people was a Vietnamese plot to destroy Khmer culture. Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth pointed this out in his article, as well as the recent rumour spread by Sam Rainsy that Hun Sen had suffered a “massive stroke” and had been rushed to Singapore for treatment.

I’ve always suspected that Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha and other high-ranking leaders of the opposition were out of touch with today’s Cambodia. They come across as populist leaders, but in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, treat Cambodians like ignorant peasants who can be easily manipulated. Dr. Peang-Meth didn’t put it as harshly as this and may not agree with my assessment, but he did quote a young, educated Cambodian who wrote in an email he was “privileged” to receive. “In today’s Cambodia,” he wrote, “young people dare to exercise their rights everywhere, to change from the old self-egoism and selfishness behaviors to cooperation and compromise in order to reach the Khmer nation’s higher goals.”

The author also comments on a blog by another Cambodian:

Recently, I was impressed by a posted discourse, “The dumbing down of Cambodia.” It discusses how “uneducated people attempt to lead groups of lesser educated people.” The essay encourages “Khmer nation lovers” to look into the mirror: “You will know that you are an extremist if you boycott existing rules; protest anything that doesn’t support your beliefs and values; refuse to compromise with different values; hold meetings in private places; spread rumors about others; you make deliberate (and calculated) attempts to divide people; or you lie to others in order to defame or de-characterize another so to make your ideology/opinion superior.” The writer advises, “We don’t need unity from extremists.”

Dr. Peang-Meth writes: “As Khmer is a culture of face, he [Hun Sen] cannot allow himself to be hauled out of office by an opposition that has many flaws. Yet he is likely to be defeated in 2018 if the CNRP can present itself as a credible alternative to the CPP.” Then he goes on to write that the “CNRP, however, particularly in the person of Vice President Kem Sokha, diminishes the party’s credibility and foments national discord”, citing his ridiculous bridge stampede “conspiracy theory” as an example.

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, Hun Sen has done a lot of good for Cambodia. He brought peace to the country when no one else was able to.  Under his leadership, the economy has grown by leaps and bounds. According to the World Bank, poverty in Cambodia has been reduced from 50% to 20% under Hun Sen’s “regime.” If an opposition party came on to the scene that was able to give credit where credit is due, Hun Sen might step down gracefully.  That’s a big maybe, but one thing is for sure: the Cambodian politics of hatred and scaremongering as practised by the CNRP aren’t going to do the country any good at all.

For more information about who Sam Rainsy really is, read Sam Rainsy: Aristocrat or man of the people?

My new blog and a little Sihanoukville news

Wow! This is the longest stretch between blogs since I started this Sihanoukville Journal. It’s not that I’ve lost interest — far from it. It seems like something new to write about pops up every day, but I’ve been busy with other things and just haven’t been able to find the time.

Aside from a welcome influx of paid writing work, I’ve been trying to write a chapter a week of a full-length book about life in Cambodia. Originally, it was going to be a short eBook about my wife’s amazing life, but as it progressed, I realised it wouldn’t work without including myself. The book languished for a couple of years until I joined a little writers’ group a couple of months ago. That gave me the opportunity to write a few chapters I was afraid to write before and get some feedback from others. So far, the feedback has been positive and I’ve been encouraged to continue.

My other project is a new blog to replace a couple of other blogs I’ve lost interest in. Google slapped my Writing Resources blog with a manual penalty for “unnatural outbound links” and to my surprise, I rejoiced when I saw my traffic plummet. The unnatural links were only there because I had become bored with writing about writing and let guest posters do it for me. Although they stuck with Google’s old rules, Google recently changed the rules again and the new algorithm looks for links that don’t fit into the blog topic and marks them as spam.

That was just the excuse I needed to scrap that blog and start a new one. My new Expat Journal gives me the opportunity to write about anything I feel like writing about that doesn’t quite fit here. I think the name helps identify the site as a complement to this one, too.

expat-journal-bw-02-1100wWhile I was writing my first entry this morning, I went downstairs for a cup of coffee and was taken outside to see a dog that was hit by a car this morning. The dog’s owner is one of the workers on a nearby building site. I knew they weren’t going to just leave it there, but was a little surprised to see them roasting it about an hour later. That prompted me to scrap my original entry and write a new one. When I first came here, I would have been shocked to see them do that, but I see things differently now. As I wrote in my first post:

Seven years ago, I would have been shocked, but now I’m more shocked by the distance we Westerners put between ourselves and the real world. When our dog dies, we give it a funeral. After the funeral, we eat meat that has been killed in a slaughterhouse by workers who do our dirty work for us.

dog2-smI guess I should add that I hesitated to write about the workers eating a dog because I know some of my readers will jump to the conclusion that it’s a common practice in Cambodia. No, it’s not and there are plenty of dogs who live to a ripe old age here. And before you vegans and vegetarians start feeling self-righteous, please read  Welcome to My Expat Journal.

What’s with the retro header image? It’s partly nostalgia for an era of journalism I missed out on altogether and partly a statement about my belief that the best journalism is that which is done in the field. Half the reason why journalism today is so watered down is because 99 out of a 100 journalists pick up their stories from pre-packaged content on Reuters or AP. The other half of the reason is because they work for corporate media that dictates what can or can’t be written about and what angle they’re meant to take.

In my imagination, at least, foreign correspondents in the past were willing to risk life and limb to see things first-hand and report on them as they saw them “without fear or favour.” Cambodia Daily still uses that line on their masthead, but it’s really just words. They are less biased than the rival Phnom Penh Post, but they do favour the opposition, as this article about yesterday’s rally demonstrates. Of course, I’m biased, too, but this is a personal blog, not a Sihanoukville news outlet.

Okay, duty calls. I have a stack of work to do. The weather’s been beautiful, so I hope to be able to work at the beach tomorrow. If I do, I’ll take some pics and share them with you next week.

Time to Rethink Sam Rainsy as Cambodia Leader?

The support given Sam Rainsy in the lead-up to the election is understandable. The backlash against the election results is also understandable, but are his promises of hope and change any more realistic or genuine than Obama’s were? I always questioned this and recent events have made me question it even more.

CNRP rally in Sihanoukville, 21 July 2013

CNRP rally in Sihanoukville, 21 July 2013

Cambodia Daily journalists Aun Pheap and Colin Meyn covered the story of Sam Rainsy’s latest rally in Opposition Lays Out Reform Demands at Opening of ‘People’s Congress’. According to the article, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha began by saying they were holding the rally in order to get “the opinion of the people, which we will implement.” That was a red flag for me, since the “people” he was getting an opinion from were all CNRP supporters. It was a big crowd, but even a crowd of 10,000 doesn’t represent the opinion of all Cambodians, so it wasn’t exactly a demonstration of democracy in action.

Worryingly, Sam Rainsy announced that he was going to Washington, Brussels, Italy and France to try to convince those countries not to recognise Hun Sen’s government. Hopefully I’m just paranoid, but I’ve often wondered where Rainsy got the funding for his campaign for leadership. Somebody had to pay for all those hats and shirts he has been handing out at his rallies. If it was from U.S. sources, that can only mean one thing: that the United States has an interest in “regime change” in Cambodia. I think any objective observer would have to agree that little good has come from American style regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya.

Not mentioned in the article, but frequently mentioned on Facebook pages is a promise by Sam Rainsy to double garment workers’ wages. That sounds good in theory, but how does he propose to achieve it? The hard, cold fact is that foreign companies set up shop in Cambodia because of the cheap labour. If they were motivated by altruism, they would have offered Cambodian workers more money in the first place, but no multi-national company is motivated by altruism. They are motivated by profit.

Like his promise for better wages and conditions for Cambodian workers, most of what Sam Rainsy promises sounds great, but little of it can be practically achieved, at least in the short term. If the CNRP had not taken such a hardline stance, they could be in Parliament working towards reform today. Instead, Kem Sokha called on ““all civil servants and garment workers to stop working and businesspeople should close markets” should the party’s demands not be met by their next scheduled rally on October 23. He went on to say that if they did that, “I believe the government will fall down.” How on earth is that going to help the people of Cambodia? Does he believe the CNRP will simply fill the void and start making life better for all Cambodians?

The Western press would have us believe that Hun Sen is nothing but an “autocratic strongman” who has done little or nothing to improve conditions in Cambodia since he came to power. The facts say otherwise, though. Cambodia’s economy has been growing steadily for over a decade and some of the wealth has been trickling down to the average person in the form of jobs, improved infrastructure, education and even health care.

There’s a long way to go and the trend towards displacing small farmers in favour of agribusiness is troubling to say the least. Ongoing deforestation, both legal and illegal, sickens me and I’d love to see someone put a stop to it. Workers do deserve better pay and conditions. The problem is that these are global problems and the Western allies Rainsy is calling on for help are directly and indirectly largely responsible for them.

In  my opinion, if they really wanted to see reform, Sam Rainsy and the CNRP would take advantage of the strides forward they made in this election and work from within for change and from without to keep the Cambodian people informed and politically active. What’s happening now looks like a power grab, with little thought for the real consequences to the people they claim to represent.