Cambodia Travel Guide

Nov 29, 2008

Even the FAKE smiles have faded now...

Thailand made it to number 7 on the list of Most Dangerous Places on Earth by the Daily Telegraph newspaper in London:

Major political demonstrations and a temporary state of emergency have affected both of Bangkok’s airports. The area around Government House and nearby Ratchadamnoen “Nok” Road, including the area around Metropolitan Police headquarters and Parliament should be avoided.

Civil unrest and frequent attacks continue in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla – the Foreign Office advises against all but essential travel to these areas.

Right on PAD, right on!

And read this as well, from The Nation:

Hotels in Nakhon Ratchasima witnessed a 90-per-cent cancellation of hotel bookings from foreign travellers, mainly those from Europe who could not reach Thailand after Suvarnabhumi Airport was shut down.

Sawat Mangkornwat, chairman of the tourism business council in Nakhon Ratchasima, said travellers have lost confidence in safety following the shutdown of the airport.

They have switched to neighbouring countries like Cambodia and Malaysia.

That says it all.


Nov 27, 2008

When Bangkok is having a cold,
Phnom Penh sneezes

So these PAD protesters in Thailand refuse to leave the airports of Bangkok. Well done, guys, bring your country to its knees, hurt people (tourists) who have nothing to do with whatever political motives are behind your actions, and also hurt the tourism industry of a neighbouring country just getting back on its feet...

Wait a minute..., could there be some remote link?

Read what a Bangkok resident has to say about that (remember these protests are against the current government which the protesters claim are only puppets of ousted Thai premier Thaksin):

"Thaksin's Govt gave hope to the poor that they could get their way out of this without the oldest daughter becoming a prostitute and paying for her family to have a life above a bamboo hut.
Bangkok Thais don't like this, just watch Thai TV, the short darkie is always a cleaner or driver with no lines, the tall light skinned Chinese Thai are all the stars - can't let the darkie's get out of their places now can we...
The dark skinned population have a large % that speak Khmer too, some as their main language within the village - so that helps explain another reason."

Anyway, just go on PAD, clever tourists will avoid your screwed up country and choose other destinations in South East Asia. Soon, Suvarnabhumi Airport will be way too big for the few passengers still travelling to/from/through Bangkok.

I repeat the advice given yesterday: fly to South East Asia via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipeh, Hongkong, or even Saigon (direct link to Paris), but AVOID BANGKOK!


Nov 26, 2008

Avoid the land of FAKE SMILES (Thailand), visit Cambodia, the "Land of REAL SMILES".

When I arrived in Thailand 10 years ago and then went on to Cambodia, I already knew it: the 'land of smiles' is Cambodia, NOT Thailand. Few people believed me back then, but I did and that's one of the main reasons I choose Cambodia as my new homeland.

With recent poltical turmoil in Thailand, and developments over the last few months and especially days, visitors might think twice about going to the land of 'Fake Smiles': Thailand.

First, have a look at what these political protesters really want. See this excerpt from American news magazine Time:

"It's taken for granted in the West that democracy is the best system," says Sondhi, a media mogul by day. "But all we are getting in Thailand is the same vicious circle of corrupt, power-hungry leaders. This system is not working."
"If democracy brings Samak, then I don't want it," says Wijeau Noinoo."

Right, these protesters, almost invariably from the elite class in Thailand, are opposed to the 'one man, one vote' system, which in the West is the basis of democracy. Although I sympathize with the idea that a Western-style democracy isn't necessarily the best option for every country in the world, I strongly oppose the thought of these PAD protesters. To put it simply: according to them the rural population is not 'smart enough' to have the same vote as the elite living in a city like Bangkok.



Yes, really.

Basically, it goes back to feudal days where 'peasants' did not have a vote, or more recently where women did have no vote.

In the process, these PAD protesters are causing huge damage to the country they claim they are fighting for. Let's look at the damage to tourism (from the Bangkok Post):

Airline and tourism executives warned that the political tensions would deal another heavy blow to the ailing industry and the country's international image. PAD rallies in late-August that forced the shutdowns of Krabi, Phuket and Hat Yai airports had already put the country's "Land of Smiles" image in jeopardy.

Another tourism expert said: "Do you know when the country's image is destroyed, it's very difficult to revive it in a short period? What does Thai hospitality look like now, when there are clashes and violence inside the country?"

There is a country that KNOWS THIS, a neighbouring country: Cambodia. Decades after the Khmer Rouge was ousted from Cambodia, the country still had to fight an uphill battle to restore it's image.

Finally, travellers around the world realize that Cambodia is a country well worth visiting.

How many times have I heard patrons in my restaurant pleasantly surprised about the friendly Cambodians? How many times have I heard patrons regretting their 4 weeks in Vietnam and 3 days in Cambodia, rather having it reversed? I can tell you: hundreds of times!

So, to sum it up:
Avoid the land of FAKE SMILES (Thailand), visit Cambodia, the "Land of REAL SMILES".
(and fly via Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or Taipeh, AVOID BANGKOK!!!)


Nov 23, 2008

Do good, Feel good, but... IS it Good?

It's a trend most visible in a country like Cambodia: doing voluntary work while on vacation. Tourists spend a few days of their vacation helping at orphanages by learning kids English, playing with them or building or repairing a school. A survey by Tourism and Marketing Research found that the number of 'voluntourists' has grown to to a total of 1.6 million a year!

While intentions may be sincere, there are ethical concerns about the benefits of volunteer travel, with some groups suggesting that it can do more harm than good. This especially concerns the way in which the volunteer work can be misdirected and organised more for the benefit of the untrained traveller than the recipients of their efforts.

I agree with that. Tourists spending 3,4 or 5 days 'working' in say an orphanage are not really contributing to the cause. They are doing that for themselves, to feel good, to be able to show pictures at home: "Look what good I've done during my holiday!" I'm only referring here to people directly working with the orphanage kids. If you are there to, say, paint a class room or donate much needed supplies, that's a whole different story. Although, even that could be counterproductive. E.g., couldn't a local paint that class room and thus earn some income?

Take e.g. the American Peace Corps. The majority of volunteers at this organization are just graduated college students. They are coming to Cambodia to 'teach' English in rural villages. Pardon me? Teaching English while you've just graduated? I always thought teaching is a job, a skill that takes some years of studying.

Another example, from Ethiopia: If the Peace Corps wishes to help in the fight against HIV/AIDS, it needs to send expertise, not just youthful zeal. That was what Ethiopian officials politely told Peace Corps country director Peter Parr when he approached them last summer with a proposal to send a batch of volunteers to work on the pandemic. However, about half of the volunteers are straight out of college and still need to be told not to arrive at the office in flip-flops.

Oh, I'm sure these volunteers have experiences they will never forget and maybe it'll change their world view. Which is good..., but what does it contribute to the projects involved?

Nov 18, 2008

Storm in a tea-cup

Well, this really was a storm in a tea-cup: as soon as tropical storm Noul made landfall in Vietnam it lost strength. Also, Noul is following a more northern direction than predicted. So, here in Cambodia we only see some light rain today. Well, in Phnom Penh at least, maybe it's a bit different more to the north.

In other news: tourist arrivals in Thailand are plummeting. 33 percent down in August, 21 percent down in September, compared to the same months last year. Officials blame the credit crisis, high fuel costs (back then at least), bloody anti-government street protests in Bangkok, and the dispute with Cambodia over a border temple. Less tourists in Thailand will also have affect Cambodia, as many people first travel through Thailand before arriving in this country. The tourism industry in Thailand is expecting a bad 'high season'. So far, I don't see tourism numbers in Phnom Penh considerably lower than last year. But of course I'm only judging by the number of people walking along the riverside, the number of patrons in my restaurant and tourists taking a course at the Cambodia Cooking Class. Maybe official figures will show a drop in arrivals.

Or, will this also be a 'storm in a tea-cup'?
Cambodia Kingdom of Wonder

Could Joran van der Sloot be in Cambodia?

Do you remember Joran van der Sloot? The man who — in all likelihood — killed Natalee Holloway? His father was a big shot on the islands, and arranged matters. Joran appeared to get away scot-free. Not quite, though. Investigative reporter Peter R. de Vries was able to get a full confession out of Joran. This was major news in both the Netherlands and America. Peter de Vries got an Emmy award out of it.

Sadly enough, Joran disappeared and escaped Dutch justice. Having a daddy who was going to be a judge and knows the ins and outs of the legal system does help. Joran fled to Thailand. Where he is right now. One might think Joran at least learned to keep a low profile until the whole affair quietly went away. Not at all. Joran found a new hobby: he is in business now. Smuggling women for prostitution, that is. Once again Peter de Vries was the man who uncovered his new activities.

Normally the Thai authorities take a very dim view of foreigners who blacken the name of the country, and most certainly when these people are into trafficking women. Daddy can pull some strings in the Netherlands, but I very much doubt if Daddy can save his darling son this time. At best and for a gigantic bribe, he might be able to enable his lovable son to flee to another country.

Only where can he hide now? Cambodia?

Nov 17, 2008

Tropical storm Noul: severe weather upcoming

Cambodia usually is not hit by tropical storms and typhoons are really very rare. Neighbouring Vietnam is another story. That country gets a fair share of typhoons originating in the Pacific. Especially northern and central Vietnam are vulnerable to severe weather. Usually, these tropical storms or typhoons, after making landfall, move further north into China or Japan.

This time it seems to be a bit different. Tropical storm Noul is on its way to Ho Chi Minh City and is predicted to move to the west, to Phnom Penh and further west to the beach town of Sihanoukville.

So, some severe weather coming up in Cambodia in the next 24-36 hours.
Will the rainy season then finally be over?

See current Phnom Penh weather conditions in the Cambodia Travel Guide.
Current location of tropical storm Noul at Weather Underground.

Vietnam issues alert for tropical storm
Vietnam issued an alert Monday for a tropical storm that was expected to pound the maritime region where its small offshore oil industry is concentrated.

The government warned fishing vessels in the South China Sea to seek shelter as tropical storm Noul barrelled toward the coast, where it was due to make landfall later Monday.

In an urgent message, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Sinh Hung ordered police, the coast guard and health services to stay on alert and be ready to evacuate residents. The Mekong Delta expected to get the direct hit has "many small boats, housing with weak structure, it could cause huge damages to lives and property", Nguyen Sinh Hung said.

Nov 15, 2008

Cambodian Cooking

There is a growing interest in Cambodian cuisine. Some people even have labelled Khmer food as "the new Thai", which by the way is a bit of a contradiction because actually Thai is the 'new' Cambodian. Not many people know that many Thai dishes originally are... Khmer! Yes, and it's easy to see why. Long before the Thai came to the area where they are now (they came from southern China), the Khmer occupied that land and even established a powerful kingdom. Back then, the Khmers already had lots of the recipes they still use today. But without any chillie peppers which only arrived in the 16th century when the Portuguese were exploring the shores of Southeast Asia.

And, ask any Thai where in his country the best cuisine can be found. Undoubtedly he will point you to 'Isaan' which is the northeastern part of the country. A part that had been under Khmer influence for centuries and where ethnic Khmers still live. Same in Cambodia: ask a Khmer where in his country the best cooking is done, and he will say 'Siem Reap', the very heart of that old Khmer Kingdom. And bordering the aforementioned Isaan region!

In the 1990's a Thai journalist came to Cambodia to report on the peace process in the country. Although she knew all the ingredients the Khmer were using, she was surprised by the more subtle flavours, and the beautiful balances. So, she decided to write a cookbook: "The Cuisine of Cambodia". In my opinion, it's the standard for any other cookbook. Unfortunately, this book is not in print anymore, but can still be found on Amazon.

With the growing popularity of Cambodian cuisine, more and more Khmer cookbooks are being published. An overview of these cookery books can be found on Cambodian Cookbooks.

And if you are going to Cambodia, why not first learn the basics at the one and only Phnom Penh Cooking School?

Enjoy Khmer culture, enjoy Cambodian cuisine!


Nov 14, 2008

Millions of People

Right, the Water Festival is over. It's really an exciting event, but having had my restaurant on the riverside for more than four years and thus having been in the middle of all the action during previous Water Festivals, I this year decided to just stay clear of all festivities. Well, as much as possible anyway, because even Street 240, the new location of the restaurant, was crowded.

A Cambodian walking for a longer distance than, say, 100 meters is a very rare sight. Except..., except during the Water Festival. Hundreds of thousands of people are walking for miles and miles. Not that there's any other possibility, but knowing the mentality of the Khmers I would expect them to just walk the shortest distance to the water front, sit there for hours and then walk the shortest distance back. Not so, they are walking up and down to no particular destination. Maybe there's a secret agreement among the Khmers: "OK, we know we are usually too lazy to walk for more than 100 meters, so let's have a huge excercise, once a year. Collectively. So that the rest of the year we can say: Hold on, I've done my bit already, I've walked for miles, back in November!"

Did I say hundreds of thousands of people? Estimates are the Water Festival this year was visited by no less than 4 million people!

Now, is this a colourful sight or not? Don't let you be put off by my remarks above. You should definitely see it, at least once in your lifetime.


Nov 5, 2008

Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder

I have mentioned them briefly earlier: the adverts on CNN to promote Cambodia as a holiday destination. The country did the same thing about three years ago. The difference is, this time the commercials are much more professional and - finally - the Ministry of Tourism has come up with a slogan: Cambodia - Kingdom of Wonder.

What I still don't get - and that's the same as three years ago - why they are promoting the Water Festival, which takes place next week. As if, say, Joe the Plumber, will say to his Cathy or whatever her name is: "Hey see that Cathy? There's a Water Festival in Phnom Penh next week, let's go there!"
(Not that Joe the Plumber would ever go to a country that far away from home, but you get the picture).

Anyway, in general it's a good thing Cambodia promotes itself and especially now, as millions of people around the world will have watched the presidential campaign on CNN. And yes, these Cambodia commercials also ran during election night.

The ever getting better daily The Phnom Penh Post wrote that tourism officials expect the number of visitors to Cambodia to reach 2.2 million by the end of the year. Wow, when I came here, in 2003, Cambodia attracted not even 1 million. So, a 120% increase in just 5 years time. Not a bad achievement.

Now, Cambodia is discussing an advert deal with the pan-Asian news broadcaster Channel News Asia. Ahum, well, all I can say is that my Khmer restaurant in Phnom Penh and the Cambodia Cooking Class were already featured on CNA. Twice, and for free...


Nov 4, 2008

Crackdown on street vendors

Recently, Phnom Penh municipality announced it would no longer tolerate blocking of pavements by vendors, and parked cars, moto's or other objects. Right..., was anyone taking notice of this? Of course not. Like many other announcements by municipality or police, the new policy would probably never be carried out.

Oooppps, wrong thinking this time: police ARE implementing the new rule by removing vendors from around the Russian Market (Psah Toul Tom Poung) and some other streets. But the vendors are very angry, because not only used police force, they also damaged their merchandise and equipment.

While in general I welcome more object free pavements in Phnom Penh, it's quite obvious the actions are only against people trying to make a living. And, add colour to the streets of Phnom Penh.

What e.g. happens to these big SUV's, of which there are (too) many in Phnom Penh, and which are invariably parked on pavements?

Well, guess...

Nov 1, 2008

Women wearing pyjama's

When travelling in Cambodia, you will come across many things new to you, or strange, or bewildering, or shocking.

Guests at my restaurant regularly ask me about one of the strange things they see all over Cambodia: women wearing pyjama's outdoors in broad daylight.

Yes, that's a normal thing in this country. Back in your home country probably police would stop you and ask whether you have accidentally forgotten to put on your 'normal' clothes.

Not so here. It's perfectly acceptable to wear your pyjama's when walking down the street, do some shopping or just wandering along Phnom Penh's river front.

So, why are Cambodian women wearing pyjama's out on the street? Well, first of all it's airy in this tropical climate. And then I suppose the women like the prints on their pyjama's.

But... you also have airy gowns with a nice print, so why are they not wearing those? Well, I really don't know, it's one of the mysteries in this Kingdom of Wonder!